Big Bear

The naming of this famous valley and lake in the San Bernardino Mountains has been ascribed by John Brown Jr., to Benjamin D. Wilson, a Tennessean by birth, who had spent a number of years hunting and trapping in New Mexico, and who came to San Bernardino Valley with a party of New Mexicans and bought a part of the Jurupa Rancho from Don Juan Bandini in 1843.

Image of Benjamin D. Wilson and Wife
Benjamin D. Wilson and Wife

In 1845, pursuing a band of marauding Indians, Wilson and party discovered a lake at which grizzlies were so numerous that twenty-two men lassoed eleven bears. On the return of the party, the feat was repeated, making twenty-two bears in all killed in that locality.

Prospecting for gold in Bear Valley began in 1858, and in 1860, gold was discovered in nearby Holcomb Valley.

The diggings were shallow and easily worked, and large quantities of gold were taken out by a number of fortunates. But suddenly the ore gave out, and for a time, Big Bear was practically deserted. A forty-stamp mill was erected at Gold Mountain in Bear Valley in 1870, but was destroyed by fire. "Lucky" Baldwin was one of the owners of a ten-stamp mill erected in Bear Valley in 1876, but it proved to be a non-paying investment.

In the 1880's a group of citrus growers in Redlands decided the only answer to their water problems would be the impounding of water in Bear Valley, after a survey by a state engineer indicated that the Valley would be a perfect storage reservoir.

The Bear Valley Reservoir and Bear Valley Irrigation Company was formed and incorporated, and a temporary dam was placed in the Valley in 1883. In 1884, the permanent dam was completed, at a cost of $75,000 with an additional cost of $30,000 for the land, purchased from Los Angeles parties, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the U. S. Government.1

Image of Masonry Dam, Bear Valley, 1884
Masonry Dam, Bear Valley, 1884

The dam was enlarged and improved in 1890. But because laws enacted to deal with irrigation problems were inadequate, a series of lawsuits followed, which tied up property and water rights for decades.

The term "Big" became attached to Bear Valley's name when people began to differentiate it from "Little Bear Lake", later known as Lake Arrowhead.

1 Brown, John Jr. and Boyd, James, History of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, Lewis Publishing Co., Chicago, Ill. 1922, pg. 83

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