History of Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake has a rich history, which includes grizzly bears, a gold rush, creating a lake, logging, Hollywood filming, becoming a summertime getaway, and blossoming into a premier winter resort destination.


In 1845 a group of renegade horse thieves and rustlers led by a fierce, young, Ute Indian Chief named Walkara stole a large herd of Lugo owned cattle, driving them off into the desert. Benjamin Wilson, leading a group of New Mexicans and Californios, set out in pursuit of Walkara. Wilson sent half of the men through the Cajon Pass and the other half he led into San Bernardino 's Santa Ana canyon. Climbing higher and higher over rough terrain and steep granite ridges, his party came across an alkali lake and a small Indian settlement surrounded by forests of tall Ponderosa, Jeffrey and Lodgepole pine. Although they did not find Walkara, what they did discover was an ancient and mysterious forest alive with Grizzly Bears. It is reported that Wilson and his men took 11 huge pelts with them that day. Word of their adventure spread and the area now known as Big Bear and Big Bear Lake was originally named Bear Valley.


About 15 years (1860) after Bear Valley was discovered by Wilson , prospector Bill Holcomb discovered gold in nearby Holcomb Valley . After abandoning his prospecting and mining efforts in Northern California and Oregon where he spent 10 years searching for gold, Holcomb and his partner Jack Martin came to Bear Valley in the winter of 1859. Although the partners worked hard they made only a modest strike. Martin returned to Los Angeles to get his family.
Meanwhile, towards the end of April, while Bill was hunting bear, he crossed the meadow in the center of Bear Valley and climbed up the west side of Bertha Peak and saw what he described as the most beautiful mountain valley I have ever seen. A few days later, he returned to that valley with companions, and while tracking a grizzly he had wounded, along what is now Caribou Creek; Bill noticed glittering specks of gold in a quartz ledge.

News of his find spread fast and soon prospectors began staking and working their claims. The population of Holcomb Valley swelled to over 2,000; buildings and businesses sprung up, including a General Store, Saloon, Grocery Store, Blacksmith Shop and the famous Octagon House where the glitter girls danced and otherwise entertained men in small dimly lit cubicles. As more and more prospectors came to Bear Valley in the hunt for gold and silver ore, the Bear Valley Mining District was founded.

Getting to Big Bear

One of the first routes into Bear Valley was a difficult trek via the Santa Ana Canyon . In June 1861 Jed Van Dusen opened a wagon trail down the back side through Hesperia and the Cajon Pass to San Bernardino.

The gold rush brought civilization to the area and from 1861 until 1912, the San Bernardino Mountain communities were served regularly by horse-drawn stages, which took two days to reach the Big Bear Valley from San Bernardino.This must have been an exciting trip, as these open stages, with their daredevil drivers and adventure seeking passengers wound along the rough dirt trails through pine forests and grizzly bear country. However, by the turn of the century, the mighty Grizzly Bear, so revered by the Indians, had been almost wiped out, and the last known grizzly in the San Bernardino Mountains was killed in 1906.

By May of 1892, the Bear Valley Wagon Road was opened from Hunsaker Flat (Running Springs) to Fawnskin (via Green Valley), and in 1899 Gus Knight and Hiram Clark (Clark Grade Road) built the Bear Valley and Redlands Toll Road via the Santa Ana Canyon past Bluff Lake.

By 1912, the coming of the iron horse was fast wiping out that colorful era. A young man by the name of Kirk Phillips, had seen a White truck with bench seats carrying passengers on 5 th Avenue in New York ; this was the world's first bus line. He thought this would work in the mountains and by the spring of 1912 he established the famous Mountain Auto Line and started bringing freight and passengers to the mountains by motor power. This was the world's second bus line.

By 1914 there were nine reliable White trucks (buses) making the trip and bringing tourists to and from the mountains. The buses had four cylinder engines; they were open top and sides, had four rows of seats behind the driver and carried thirteen passengers.They travelled to Big Bear Valley via the Mill Creek Road past the picturesque Bluff Lake and meadow area and came out through the control gate opposite the historic Oak Knoll Lodge which is still operating today.

This faster and cheaper motor transportation changed the mountain communities. The villages grew and resorts were opened. Southern California 's major mountain recreation land was established.

In 1924, a bridge was built across the Dam allowing motorists to drive around the lake. That same year the Deep Creek Cut-off was also completed, and this picturesque and cliff-hanging section of the road became known as the " Artic Circle ".

Creating a Lake

Frank E Brown and Edward G Judson developed a planned community that they called Redlands . Because they needed more water for their orange groves in the new community, Dr Benjamin Barton a state assemblyman and pioneering physician was influential in bringing Fred Perris, the assistant state engineer to Bear Valley to consider the site as a possible reservoir. Brown raised money and purchased the lake site, instituted the Bear Valley Land and Water Co and construction of the dam began in the summer of 1884. Brown, a Yale graduate, tested his engineering skill by designing a granite, single arch, ashlar (square-hewn stone) rock dam using cement from England . His design called for a dam, 53 feet high, 335 feet across with a 20 foot wide spillway, 4 feet lower than the top.

In June 1903, the Redlands-Highland area citrus growers formed the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company, which took over the dam, lake, and lands in Big Bear Lake in 1909.

The rock dam could not hold enough water to meet its obligations and in 1910 a new, larger multiple arch dam was designed by engineer John S. Eastwood. The new dam was built about 250 feet downstream from the old dam and measured 72 feet high. Eleven concrete buttresses were built across the gorge about 35 feet apart and about 50 yards downstream from the existing rock dam. By 1912, this new dam was finished at a cost of $138,000; it stood twenty feet higher than the old rock dam, but it increased the capacity of the lake by almost three times. At the time, this engineering feat created the world's largest man-made lake.

Eastwood didn’t design his Big Bear Lake dam with the intent of putting a bridge across the top. At the time, the Rim Of The World Highway into Big Bear entered the valley at Fawnskin via Holcomb Valley. It then continued east around the lake to the Big Bear Village. There were no roads to the dam, on either side of the lake in 1910.

In 1924, San Bernardino County decided to shut down the section of Rim Of The World Highway from Running Springs through Holcomb to Fawnskin, and they build a new route from Running Springs through Snow Valley to the dam at Big Bear Lake. This new highway would continue past the Big Bear dam along the North Shore to Fawnskin. At this time they also built a bridge over the dam and a new road along the south shore of the lake from the dam to Big Bear Village.

The Hollywood Connection

During the winter months, there was absolutely nothing going on in Big Bear. However, there was a local guy back then, by the name of Fred C. Skinner, who wanted to do something to try and change that. Fred was manager of the new Pine Knot Lodge, which was Big Bear’s largest resort.  He had organized Pine Knot’s first Chamber of Commerce, and in 1914, Fred informed Hollywood production companies that the Pine Knot Lodge would remain open during the winter if they wanted to film. He even brought in a generator, and Pine Knot Lodge had electrical power five years before electricity reached the valley.  The movie industry enthusiastically supported Skinner’s efforts and began filming right through the winters.  Few people in Big Bear today realize just how important Fred’s work was back then.  Until the  ski resorts came along, it was the film industry, not the tourists, that kept the Big Bear community alive through the long winter months each year.

During the 20's and 30's, the golden age for film companies, dozens of movies were made in and around Big Bear and the tall Pines and large boulders can be seen in many of the old movies. Cedar Lake which is a beautiful, small private lake was the backdrop for many of the movies, including the famous Elvis Presley movie "Kissin' Cousins".

A Resort Destination

Big Bear's first hotel was built in 1888 by 21 year- old, Gus Knight Jr. who realized that the new lake would bring tourists to the area. Knight, along with partner John Metcalf, purchased 80 acres south of the lake and in June opened the 30 guest, Bear Valley Hotel. Unfortunately the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1900. Automobiles started making the trip to Bear Valley as early as 1909, Charles Henry (the brother-in-law of Gus Knight) rebuilt the Bear Valley Hotel and in 1906 a group of wealthy investors from Redlands, purchased the hotel along with the surrounding 112 acres and changed the name to the Pine Knot Lodge. The Pine Knot Lodge was considered luxurious mountain living and was host to many movie companies while they were working in the area. The lodge closed in 1928.

After his Bear Valley Hotel burned in 1900, Gus Knight filed for bankruptcy. In 1906 he inherited 40 acres east of Pine Knot and built Knights Camp which he opened in 1915. Located on the south shore of the Lake , the resort featured separate cabins, central dining hall, dance hall, store, and a fleet of motor and row boats.

After 1915 the government began leasing summer home sites near the dam for $15 a year. These sites were along both the north and south side of the lake. Many of these picturesque cabins remain today, and some are owned by the same families that built them. Since there were no roads to this area at the time, all the lumber and supplies had to be brought over by boat.

In 1917, Albert Brush began construction of the Big Bear Lake Tavern. The resort consisted of a main building, four large guest quarters, thirty separate cabins, employee quarters, lighting plant, garage and a stable. A movie company used the tavern for a location soon after it was completed. The property still exists and is now known as the Presbyterian Conference Center.

In 1921 Carl and Mamie Stillwell opened the famous Stillwells Lodge and Ballroom, which became known throughout Southern California for good music, dancing, and a lakeside setting in the forest. The lodge had a beach, swimming pool, restaurant, tennis courts and boat landing and soon became the Mecca in the mountains for young and old. Top-name radio and recording bands played over the years. Motion picture companies often stayed there when on location, and the pavilion was used in several films. The original ballroom was destroyed by fire in 1928 and was replaced with a new structure.

In 1921 Emile Jesserun purchased 40 acres of Shay Ranch land which included a natural hot spring that had been used by the Serrano Indians. In 1924 Emile opened the Pan Hot Springs Inn, one of the largest hotels in the valley. The Inn had two large swimming pools, one indoor and one outdoor, and the pools were filled with hot, naturally flowing mineral water. The Inn also featured a lavish ballroom with a medieval decor.

The resort was frequented by celebrities and movie companies until it was destroyed by fire in 1933. Later, a new smaller pool was built and it continued to operate until it too was damaged by the 1992 Big Bear earthquake. The pool never re-opened.

By 1924, forty-four resorts were in full operation and all were supplied with electricity. On the 4 th of July that year 10,000 cars poured into Big Bear Lake.

In 1925 Harry Kiener, the creator of The Peter Pan Woodland Club formed a corporation to develop mountain property in the east valley area of Big Bear City (just east of the present day airport).

In 1930, Guy Maltby, owner of the Bear Valley Milling And Lumber Company designed and built the huge four-story clubhouse surrounded by a a golf course, beautiful landscaping, tennis courts, swimming pool, and gymnasium. The symbol of the club was a beautiful statue of Peter Pan sitting on a huge mushroom in the garden. The Peter Pan Woodland Clubhouse was a showplace and host to many gala parties, and was the center of social life in Big Bear City .
Several movies used the clubhouse for a backdrop and the club was a favorite with movie companies on location in the valley. The clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1948.

A Winter Destination

In 1925 Walter E. Kruckman, the General Traffic Agent for the Motor Transit Company which served, Crestline, Lake Arrowhead , Running Springs and the Big Bear Valley would be the first to stimulate winter sports in the area. The transit company had a franchise to the mountains which required them to operate a year-round bus service, even though they traveled empty in the winter months. Kruckman conceived the idea of developing public interest in snow sports to fill his empty buses during the winter season.

After approaching the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to no avail, he helped form the Southern California Winter Sports League, in which he took the position of publicity and public relations director. Kruckman promoted winter sports with 15 minute radio spots on KHJ, KFI, and KNX, and before long the publicity attracted Sacramento and the State Chamber of Commerce, who adopted winter sports as a state project.

Weather, road and snow conditions were telephoned to the radio stations for broadcasting; Department Stores in Los Angeles showed Ski clothes and skis in their display windows, and Norway 's ski champion, Sven Hansen, donated his time as a ski instructor at Big Bear, sponsored by the Southern California Winter Sports League.

In 1929 the first ski jump in the mountains was built in Big Pines near Wrightwood, where a world ski jumping record was set. Later, similar big jumps were built in Big Bear Lake . In the early 1930's, the Viking Ski Club of Los Angeles provided instruction and started holding competitive, winter sports events in Big Bear. Downhill skiing was gaining in popularity and in 1934 a sling lift was constructed at Fish Camp (the present Snow Valley). The historic Lynn Sling Lift opened in Big Bear in 1938; it was located in the Snow Forest Ski Resort. After World War 11, owner Clifford Lynn built a 3000 foot single chair lift. The Snow Forrest Ski Resort closed several years ago. During the 1940's and early 50's several small rope tows were constructed, including an Upper and Lower Moonridge Rope Tow, located where the base of Bear Mountain Ski Area is today. It was during the 50's that Big Bear changed from a summer resort into a four season resort, thanks to the blossoming ski industry.

In 1947 Tommy Tyndall, a young man with an impressive skiing background, arrived in Big Bear and started ski schools at several of the ski areas. He founded the Big Bear Winter Club, and held the first Snow Carnival competition in 1949. Tommy looked for a location, where he could open a ski resort that could be improved and expanded; he found the perfect area just east of the Village, in Big Bear Lake - this would become Snow Summit. In 1952 Tommy created the Snow Summit Ski Corporation with financial assistance from his many friends and local investors. He built a mile-long double chair lift which reached the top of the mountain. This was the largest ski development in the San Bernardino Mountains, and Snow Summit became Southern California's premier ski resort.

In 1955 the Upper Moonridge rope tow experimented with snowmaking on a 300 foot run, however it proved economically impractical and was abandoned after two winters. In 1958 the Rebel Ridge Ski Area near Big Bear City installed snow making on a 800 foot long rope tow. In the drought years that followed, this system proved practical and was noticed by the other ski areas. In 1963, Dave and Dan Platus purchased the Lynn Lift Area for $75,000 and changed the name to Sky Forest . They converted the old sling tow to rope tows and installed snow making at the resort which they opened in December of that year. Meanwhile, Tommy Tyndall realized that he would have to arrange for financing to install snow making at Snow Summit; and by January of 1964 he had completed installation of the first large snow making system in Southern California . Tragically Tommy was killed in a tractor accident while working on one of the slopes. The management fell to Tommy's wife Jo Tyndall, who was assisted by her son, Richard Kun.

After an excellent snow season in 1969, Snow Summit was able to add a second chair lift. The Moonridge area was purchased by several former Snow Summit ski instructors including Fred Goldsmith and Bill Strickland, they changed the name to Goldmine and installed a mile long chair lift to the top of the mountain. The next few years saw very little snow and at the end of 1972 Goldmine went into receivership. Snow Forest closed in 1973 and remained closed during the balance of the 1970's, and Rebel Ridge ended operations. The winter of 1972-73 was a good snow year and Snow Summit far exceeded any previous record and Goldmine was able to recover from receivership. The sport of skiing grew rapidly during the 1970's and the winter economy in the Big Bear Valley became more important that the summer season. Today Big Bear Lake is generally thought of as a "ski town", although it is actually a true four-season resort destination.

Many thanks to BigBearLake.net for the history information and historical photos.