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Today I have decided to write about the history of how Big Bear Lake was formed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have reading, researching and writing about it.
The winter weather is what provides Big Bear Lake with water. The snow falls heaviest on the highest elevations which are the mountain tops and lightens as the elevation of the land lowers. After winter is over, the snow melts and it runs down all the surrounding slopes of our beautiful Big Bear Valley ending in the lake we now know, love and see. But the lake we have today is nothing like the original lake that once was.
Big Bear Lake was originally a natural but seasonal lake that was about 1/10 of what we have today. It was small and swampy as early accounts have written.
Back in 1878 a government survey was done on Big Bear Valley. This survey describes an “Upper” and “Lower Bear Lake”. The Upper Bear Lake is believed to be Baldwin Lake. The Lower Bear Lake is believed to be the bottom of Big Bear Lake, just north/ east of Gilner Point.
The story with how Big Bear Lake was formed begins with a man by the name of Frank Brown. Brown was the man who built Big Bear’s first dam across the narrow gorge at the east end of Big Bear Valley in 1885. However, Brown was not the first settler to discover the valley. A man by the name of Benjamin Wilson originally discovered this place back in 1845, long before Brown.
Brown built a dam completely out of local rock from Big Bear. Each rock that was cut and used in his dam, was a 3 foot block and weighed between 3 to 5 tons a piece! He used cement to bind these rocks together.
When Brown built his rock dam, he increased the size of the existing lake by about 10 times!
Frank Brown was a citrus farmer from Redlands and his mission was to find a reservoir that could supply nearby farms with water. He spent 2 years on horseback in the San Bernardino Mountains searching for the perfect reservoir.
When Brown got back after discovering “Lower Bear Lake” he got a 20 day option to buy the site for $500. During these 20 days, he made several trips back and forth from Redlands to Big Bear with several different investors. Brown also organized the Bear Valley Land & Water Company.
In the year 1883 Browns plans were well in action with a team of men cutting bedrock for the dam’s foundation. The dam was completed in 1885. The dam was an arch that stood 52 feet high, 20 feet wide at the bottom and 3 feet wide at the top.
The first winter after the dam was constructed was a heavy one. That spring when Brown and his workers came up to do some finishing touches, they found that the dam had survived and where there was a meadow and trees just the fall before, there was now a lake that was 5 miles long! It cost a total of $75,000 to build the dam and at the time it created the largest man made lake in the world.
The old rock dam held strong for 25 years until 1911 when the concrete multi arch Eastwood dam was built.
The old rock dam still stands, but it is now under about 20 feet of water.