In the many years I’ve enjoyed here in the Big Bear Mountain area, I’ve always been intrigued by the rich history that shapes the Big Bear region. It’s an aspect of the area guests don’t always get to enjoy when staying here. Though, one question I do hear often is, how did Big Bear get its name?
In 1845, Benjamin D. Wilson discovered and named the area we know as Bear Valley. Bear Valley consists of Big Bear Lake, Big Bear City, Fawnskin, Sugar Loaf, Baldwin Lake, Ervin Lake and Lake Williams.
As Wilson rode through the mountains following the San Bernardino River, he arrived in a high mountain valley where he is quoted as having written “the whole lake and swamp seemed alive with bear.” He later wrote: “Twenty-two Californians went out in pairs, and each pair lassoed one bear, and brought the result to camp, so that we had at one and the same time eleven bears. That prompted me to give the Lake the name it now bears.”
The natural body of water Wilson saw and named Bear Lake is now called Baldwin Lake, but only a stream and marshy meadows existed then. So how was Big Bear lake formed?
In the late 1800s, two land developers, Frank Brown and Edward Judson, realized they needed water for orange groves in a newly developed community. The assistant state engineer at the time determined that the site was suitable for a reservoir, and so Brown purchased the entire site and began construction of a dam in 1884, designing the dam himself! Twenty five years later area citrus growers took over the dam and the lake, forming the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company. The dam was upgraded a year later, and at the time created the world’s largest man-made lake! The lake you see now, more than a century later, is still a result of that same dam (bigbearlake.net). It is truly a beautiful, magical place.
Photos of Baldwin Lake, March 2011
We hope you visit soon to share in the beauty of Bear Valley, and perhaps you can add to the story. If you have stories or photos have been passed down to you from your ancestors of how Big Bear valley was founded and named please share them with us in our comments.