Photos of Big Bear Country - Holcomb Valley
Holcomb Valley, a short drive north of Big Bear Lake, is located in the historic gold country of the San Bernardino National Forest. More gold was taken out of Holcomb Valley per square mile than anywhere else in Southern California!
To take this tour in person, visit the Big Bear Ranger Station and obtain your map and directions. They suggest that you plan on about 3 hours for the tour. To begin the tour, you will go to Highway 38 on the North side of the lake, then turn North onto Polique Canyon Rd (the Holcomb Valley turnoff). Be sure to pick up your Adventure Pass at the Ranger Station. The historical information presented on this page is taken from the Ranger Station Gold Fever Trail Hand-Out.
Let's start the tour!
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William F. Holcomb made the long trip from Indiana to the mining towns of Northern California in hopes that he would get lucky. However, things did not go as advertised, so he moved on to Los Angeles. When he heard about a gold discovery in the San Bernardino Mountains, he made his way to Starvation Flats, arriving in 1859.
Holcomb View Trail
With our self-guided tour map in hand, obtained at the Ranger Station, we turn dutifully on to Polique Canyon Road (2N09). When the odometer hits the magic number 3.6 miles, we'll be at our first stop. Hmmm. 3.7... 3.8... somehow we passed it. Turn around... and we find it. Hiking about 250 feet up the Pacific Crest Trail is the Holcomb View Trail. This is our first glimpse of Holcomb Valley.
Bill Holcomb was not having much luck that first winter. But his fortune was about to change! Needing food, the other prospectors in the area hired Bill, an excellent marksman, to hunt up some bear meat. He traveled up through Polique Canyon. At the top of a ridge, he looked to the North and got his first glimpse of a beautiful valley about 2 miles away. The next day he and his Indian companion wounded a "monster grizzly". As they were tracking the injured animal, they passed by a quartz ledge flecked generously with gold. The word got out and the rush was on. By summer, 1860, Holcomb Valley was thick with prospectors.
Last Chance Placer
Driving another few miles, we find the Last Chance Placer, about 200 feet off the main road. It looks like a big hole in the ground surrounded by a fence. The dictionary defines a placer as a superficial gravel deposit containing particles of gold.
Miners worked the ground at this site to within a few feet of bedrock. Dirt and gravel was moved by horse or burro to rockers, which were crude gravel washers. Rockers were built close to man-made snow ponds, which held the runoff from snow, providing water for washing the gravel. Holcomb and other miners removed an average of 3 pounds of gold daily from this area. When all of the gold from the Last Chance Placer was taken, they attempted to find the "Mother Lode" by building a shaft. However, this was abandoned when the shaft was flooded with large amounts of water. The Mother Lode or source of the gold in the area has never been found.
Jonathan Tibbetts' Grasshopper Quartz Mill
This bit of ground was known as Chinamen's Knoll. It was the home of Tibbetts' stamp mill, powered by a Pico Steam Engine. The steam engine moved heavy iron heads up and down, pulverizing the quartz from local hills. The winter of 1862 saw an exceptional amount of snowfall -- 16 feet! When it melted, Holcomb Valley flooded, forcing many to seek refuge with neighbors who lived on higher ground.
Along with the gold rush and those out for an honest fast buck, came the outlaws and thieves. There were 50 murders in Holcomb Valley in just two years time from when gold was discovered. This tree was where Holcomb Valley put an end to its convicted lawbreakers. The branch holding a hanged man was chopped off when his body was cut down. Look closely at the large number of truncated branches -- each one a silent marker of a man hanged.
Original Gold Diggings
Panning in the intermittent stream here produced some of the purest gold ever found in California. Thousands of claims were staked throughout the Holcomb Valley.
The town of Belleville sprung up east of the original discovery of gold. There was a store, two butcher shops, two laundries, a bakery, three carpenter shops, two blacksmiths, a stamp mill and a sawmill. To celebrate the Fourth of July, the blacksmith's wife made a flag out of her petticoats. To honor her for her patriotism, the town was named after her daughter Belle, the first child to be born in Belleville. In the election of 1861, Belleville missed taking the county seat from San Bernardino by only two votes.
Studying our map, we determine that the next stop is a short walk beyond the cabin. Even after locating the marker, it is not obvious what or where the arrastres is until we study the ground, then we can make out the remains of a large circle.
An arrastres was used to grind up gold-bearing quartz. Over 100 were built in the early days of the gold rush. The arrastres consisted of a low circular wall. The ore to be crushed was placed inside the wall. It was ground up by dragging a heavy "drag stone" around inside the circle. A bar chained to the drag stone was connected to a vertical post in the center of the circle. It was some mule's job description to walk in a circle around the outside of the wall, moving the bar like the spoke of a wheel, dragging the stone as he went. It took about 4 hours to crush the ore. Then the gold was separated from the crushed ore (now sand) usually with water and sluice boxes.
The grave is 3/10 of a mile down the road from Belleville. We stop at what we think is the grave. Nope. Back to the truck, only to find that if we drive a little farther down the road, it's well-marked. It's a short 460 foot walk from parking to the grave site.
Here is a man that we know nothing about, except that he was killed in an accident while operating a saw. He was buried on the spot. Someone even took the time to hand carve a picket fence and place it around his grave. The population of Holcomb Valley temporarily climbed to 1400 in 1861, during the peak of the gold rush.
It wasn't long before all of the placers had been claimed. Then gold was discovered in the hard rock in the hills, such as in the Metzger Mine. These claims could not be worked without heavy machinery. And machinery could not be easily brought in without roads. So $1500 was paid by miners for a road through Lower Holcomb to connect with the old toll road in Cajon pass. It took 27 days to move the first quartz mill's 8000 pound boiler from Los Angeles to Holcomb Valley.
The Holcomb Valley tour is a great way to spend an afternoon. You can experience a bit of the area's history while breathing in the pristine beauty of the mountains and forest! (And let's not forget to mention the feeling of accomplishment that comes when you successfully locate all landmarks on the tour map.)
Discovery Center Tour Information
For more information about Holcomb Valley tour and other guided tours, visit Big Bear Discovery Center or call (909) 382-2790.