Click here to see the progress of the dams in photographs.

Big Bear Gets a Lake

Remember that Big Bear Lake as we know it today was not there when Benjamin Wilson and Bill Holcomb visited and lived in the valley. There was a stream that ran down the center of the valley. This stream joined up with other streams in the San Bernardino Mountains and became the Santa Ana River. The Santa Ana River was the most important source of water to all of Southern California at that time.

Around 1880, the town of Redlands was being built. Water was needed for the many orchards and groves of trees. Frank E. Brown, an engineer, was asked to come to Big Bear Valley and see if it would be possible to build a dam at the west side of the valley. An engineer is someone who is trained to build structures like dams, bridges, and roads.

A dam is a wall of rock or concrete designed to hold back water. Brown made measurements and decided that a dam could be built. The area behind the dam would be a lake. The people who owned this land were paid for it. Trees were cut down. The dam was built of granite rock found in the valley. The cement to hold the rock came from England. It had to be brought by ship to Los Angeles, by train to Colton, by mule over Cajon Pass and up the back grade to the place where the dam was being built.

The dam was built in 1884. It was given a very difficult test that first winter; one heavy snowfall formed a lake five miles long and one mile wide. The dam held. At that time, people said that Big Bear Lake was the largest man-made lake ever created. Frank E. Brown was honored for his engineering skill.

Big Bear Lake beginning to fill up with water.


Check Your Facts

1. What river is important to all of Southern California?

2. Why was water needed in Redlands?

3. What does an engineer do for a living?

4. What materials were needed to build the dam?

5. What harsh test was the dam given in its first year?

6. Who designed the dam?

Think About It

Look up "dam" in the encyclopedia and fine out about other famous dams. What holds back the largest lake? Which is the largest dam, the highest dam?

Interview a local fisherman. Find out what the fisherman does to insure a catch. Have the fisherman use a map of Big Bear Lake and show you the best spots for the different kinds of fish. Best of all, go fishing with the new friend and write a description of your experience. Present your findings and writing to your class.


A New Dam is Built

A dam-keeper was hired to watch over the old dam. The Bear Valley Mutual Water Company, which owned the dam, built a house for the dam-keeper on the rocks overlooking the dam. A telephone line was run from Redlands to the dam-keeper's house. Soon after, the telephone line was run from the dam-keeper's house to the village of Pine Knot. Pine Knot was the first name of what we know as the town of Big Bear Lake.

A few years after the first dam was built, the growers in Redlands realized that in order to make sure they had enough water for their groves, a higher dam, holding back more water, was needed. This dam was to be made of concrete filled with rock. After it was finished, the lake level rose to 72 feet, 20 feet higher than the old dam. The new dam was completed in 1912. A road was built on top of the dam in 1923 so that cars could drive from one side of the lake to the other.

The New Dam with the Old Rock Dam behind

In the beginning, the lake was considered private and no one was even allowed to put a boat in the water. In 1887 the lake was made public property and was stocked with fish. Boats were then welcome.

In 1887, 10,000 trout were brought to the lake. The fishermen could hardly wait for the fish to bite. Except the fish didn't bite. The lake had many tree stumps underwater and the wood was rotting away. This was just perfect for insects of all kinds. The fish ate the insects and were never hungry, so the wouldn't bite the baited hooks of the fishermen. It was several years before the fishing was any good in Big Bear Lake.


Check Your Facts

1. What was the first name of Big Bear Lake Village?

2. Why was a new dam needed?

3. How much higher was the new dam than the old dam?

4. Why was the road across the dam built?

Try Something New

All property is either private or public. Make a chart with these words as headings. List as many things you can that are private property and as many as you can that are public property.

Explore which shape makes a stronger dam, single arch or multiple arch.



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