CityDig: The Wild and Wondrous Origins of Big Bear Lake

The resort has been a hotspot for miners, boxers, grizzlies, and movie stars
Big Bear Lake, Big Bear Land and Water, c. 1939. Click image to enlarge
Big Bear Lake, Big Bear Land and Water, c. 1939. Click image to see full map

Once upon a time, before the days of easy flights to Kauai or Cancun, Angelenos’ resort options were restricted to day-trip destinations like Palm Springs, Laguna Beach, and a little lake in the San Bernardino mountains called Big Bear. On-the-run outlaws, prospectors, Ursus arctos horribilis, mountain climbers, and big white buses have passed through the area’s rugged landscape, which has brushed with Hollywood glamour, too. The woodlands around Big Bear passed for Georgia in Gone With the Wind, Texas in Old Yeller, and the Ponderosa Ranch home of Hoss, Little Joe, Adam, and Pa in Bonanza.

It all began in 1841 when the irrepressible Benjamin Wilson pursued a band of Native American raiders into territory known as “Yuhaviat” by the Serrano people. Wilson, the grandfather of general George S. Patton, found the mountains to be filled with adventure and grizzly bears (big ones, apparently). When he brought a heap of pelts down from the mountains, it initiated an influx of hunters, trappers, loggers and miners. Then, in 1859, mountain man William “Grizzly Bill” Holcomb found gold, sparking a rush. Even the famed San Francisco businessman Lucky Baldwin was enticed to try his luck, building the Gold Mountain Mine in 1874. By the turn of the century the Gold Rush had slowed to a crawl; prospectors gave up and moved on. Eventually even the grizzlies became scarce—the last one was seen in 1908. As if to replace them, in came the tourists. Resorts began opening around the lake late in the 19th century, taking out ads in Los Angeles newspapers.

In 1908, hard-shelled John Heyser drove a steam-powered automobile 101 miles to Big Bear on a bet, and he completed the loop in a nifty 13 hours and 7 minutes. This lead to the founding of the Auto Stage Company by Kirk Phillips in 1912, which converted big white trucks into charter buses and made Big Bear the first SoCal mountain recreation center. About this time a new dam was completed, tripling the amount of water in the lake, and the Pan Hot Springs Hotel drew tourists by the busload. Moviemakers were among the droves of weekenders who travelled into clean air, and they loved it—stars like Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers and even Cecil B. DeMille took up residence there. The area popped up in films during the early teens. 1920s Big Bear stars in the silent film The Last of the Mohicans.

Eventually, winter sports became the area’s big draw—six feet of powder blanketed the Snow Summit ski resort some years. And in a return to its sporting roots, Big Bear has played host to boxing names like Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, and Sugar Shane Mosley, who came to train in the thin air.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.