Dam! How Big Bear Lake was Created
BIG BEAR— Big Bear’s history began around 1845 after Benjamin Davis Wilson rode into the valley with an entourage of 20 men, who were searching for the suspects of a series of raids on ranches in Riverside, according to BigBear.com. When the men entered the valley, they discovered it was packed with big grizzly bears. The discovery led to Big Bear Lake’s present-day name to honor the big bears that called the valley home.
What was initially discovered by Wilson and named Big Bear Lake today refers to what is now Baldwin Lake. The Big Bear Lake we know today did not exist until the late 1800s and early 1900s, and neighbors Baldwin Lake. What you see on a map today as Big Bear Lake was created after a dam was constructed, and what you see on a map as Baldwin Lake was what was first discovered by Wilson and then later renamed once the dam created a larger body of water.
Initially, Big Bear Lake was not meant to be a tourist destination. It was created by a dam meant to irrigate water for farming. The first Rock Dam was designed and financed by Frank Elwood Brown, a citrus farmer who needed a reliable water source to irrigate his San Bernardino Valley farms; the dam was completed in 1884. At the time, Brown created the largest artificial lake in the world, modern-day Big Bear Lake, and for a while, it was considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, according to BigBear.com.
This original dam still exists today, about 50 yards upstream from a new dam built in 1910 by John Eastwood, an American engineer. Eastwood designed a replacement dam with a unique multi-arch wall that, at its completion in 1912, stood 20 feet higher than the original Rock Dam. It also doubled the size of what we know as Big Bear Lake. When lake levels are low enough, the top of the Rock Dam can still be seen right above the surface.
With the new dam came the development of Big Bear’s tourism industry. The installation of roads into the valley came around 1910 and was finished by 1915, allowing access to the first toll road that made Big Bear accessible to anyone with a car. Amenities like hotels, marinas, and The Village developed and snowballed. Finally, in 1916, the Bear Valley Land & Water Co made the lake accessible for boating and fishing.