After you have caught your limit of fish and taken advantage of the many recreational facilities in the immense area of Big Bear Valley, take a trip into the past and visit the nearby mining camps which reached their heyday more than 100 years ago.
There are good graded roads for passenger cars into these back country areas. From these graded toads dirt trails go to even more remote sites which can, however only be reached by four-wheel drive vehicles.
A spectacular view of Big Bear Lake and the surrounding area can be seen from the connection between the Delamar Mountain Road which leaves Fawnskin and the Holcomb Valley Road. This connection (usually called the Blue Quartz Road) is easily negotiated by passenger cars, but not recommended for large campers or trailers.
One of the most interesting passenger car junkets is through Holcomb Valley just north of Big Bear. The trip is 12 miles and takes approximately three hours. In their informative brochure, rangers of the San Bernardino National Forest call this self-guided tour the “Gold Fever Trail.”
And gold fever it was that changed this small, peaceful valley from a scheduled home fo bear and deer into one of the most boisterous and rip-roaring mining camp of the Old West. More than 50 murders were committed during its short span of 20 years.
It all started in 1860 when William ”Billy” Holcomb shot a grizzly in Bear Valley and then trailed the wounded animal over the mountain and into the valley which today bears his name. While resting he picked up a piece of quartz. It was laced with gold!
Within a few weeks there wasn’t a pack animal left in San Bernardino, the jumping-off place for the trail up the Santa Ana riverbed to Holcomb Valley. And within two years there were an estimated 1500 prospectors jammed into the small valley.
A town soon grew on a rich flat near Holcomb’s original discovery site. In addition to the many saloons, there was one store, two butcher shops, two laundries, one bakery, three carpenter shops, two blacksmiths, one stamp mill and one sawmill.
As in all early-day mining camps, the saloon was not just for drinking. It was the social hall, courthouse, town meeting hall and a place to get the latest information on the latest strike, murder or robbery.
Mrs. Jed Van Dusen, wife of the blacksmith, made a flag from her petticoats for the town’s first Fourth of July so the sentimental miners named the new town Belleville in honor of her pretty daughter, Belle.
In the presidential election of 1860, Belleville cast 307 votes for Abraham Lincoln and missed by only two votes taking the county seat away from San Bernardino.
Belleville’s sister city was Clapboard Town whose great claim to fame is the Tree of the Living Cross which commemorated the fatal duel of two miners named Charlie the Chink and Greek George.
When Charlie accused Greek George of jumping his claim there was no peaceful way of settling the dispute. A coin was flipped to see who would choose the type of weapons, Charlie won and picked the weapon of his ancestors- knives. When the duel was over both men lay dead at the foot of a tree. A cross was cut into the tree.
Unfortunately, the tree and the site of Clapboard Town are now within a restricted area and not open to the public.
Another notable tree, however, is still standing. Hangman’s Tree is a symbol of miner’s justice for it was from this stately juniper the citizens hanged many a murderer after a hasty trial. When a victim of a hanging was cut down the branch from which he hung was chopped off. So by counting the cuttings today you can tally the number of hangings.
These and many other stories and directions to the various historic sites are presented in the Forestry Services “Gold Fever Trail” brochure. Before taking the trip, stop by the Big Bear Ranger Station near Fawnskin and pick up the brochure and the free map of the San Bernardino National Forest Area (Trail Map).
Then head for Holcomb Valley and a trip into the past when men’s lives- although sometimes short -were packed with adventure in their search for gold.