Just north of Big Bear Lake lies a fascinating historical area called Holcomb Valley. It was here, in 1859, that Bill Holcomb discovered what was to become the richest gold field in southern California. There you will find many interesting glimpses of history, including Wilbur’s Grave.
Charles Wilbur was the first tax assessor in San Bernardino County. He was also a gold placer miner who lived in the area around the mid to late 1800s. He was well liked among his fellow miners who lived in the area and they voted for him to organize the miners in establishing boundary rock so they could more accurately establish their claims. Before he died he asked to be buried by his favorite pond, Wilbur’s Pond, and they did as he asked. The pond is directly across the dirt road from his grave.
News of Holcomb’s find spread quickly. By June over 300 men were at work in Holcomb’s Valley. By July, that number was up to about 500, and by September, there were over 1,000 men feverishly working gold claims hoping to strike it rich.
Within two months of Holcomb’s discovery, a town called Belleville sprang into existence at the entrance into Holcomb Valley, near the upper part of Van Dusen Canyon. It had a collection of stores, saloons, dance halls, and blacksmith shops. About that same time, two other towns also appeared in Holcomb Valley.
There was Clapboard Town, located about a mile west of Belleville, near Polique Canyon. About two miles northeast was Uniontown, which later became known as Union Flat. Holcomb Valley even had a brewery.
The population of Holcomb Valley grew so fast that it was reported in the Star on September 1, 1860 that it looked like Holcomb Valley would decide election matters in San Bernardino County that year. Belleville residents felt strongly that the location should be right there, in Holcomb Valley.
When the ballots were rounded up after the election, the returns from one entire Belleville precinct were missing. As it turned out, the city San Bernardino was picked as the new county seat by only two votes. Go figure.
Life in the mining boomtown of Belleville was no joke. Harsh weather, hard manual labor, accidents, and fights over claims combined to make life fast, tough, and short for Belleville’s population.
Wilbur’s grave is unique among the burial sites around Belleville, once slated to be the county seat: it’s marked. Its a mound of pine cones literally smack dab in the middle of the road. The grave has become a local landmark to off-road adventurers, hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners and geocachers alike.
Wilbur’s Grave wasn’t always in the middle of the road. But people being what they are over the years have driven on both sides of the grave making the current road(s). Years ago the grave was off to the side and somewhat protected.
One mile west of the Big Bear Ranger Station is the Lighthouse Trailer Resort. Across the highway, Forest Road 2N09 heads north towards Holcomb Valley. At the junction of 3N16 you will be in the area of shallow placer workings and on a narrow dirt road to the left you can visit Wilbur’s Grave.
Wilbur’s Pond was lowered some time ago so it wouldn’t flood the road, and the road was raised. That spot used to catch people quite often trying to drive past. No one knows exactly how long that pond has been used. There is a small stone dam in the area.
There were about five miners who had a placer operation north of Wilbur‘s Pond. They had a shop loaded with tools and equipment on the site which lasted clear into the late 1960s.
Also North of Wilbur’s Pond there were two women that had a cabin with a mine tunnel behind it. They always were together, and picked up their mail at the Big Bear City Post Office and bought groceries at Frank Jakobie’s Community Market. The original community market is now located at the Big Bear Museum.
About 1935, George Knudsen had the biggest mining operation in the valley. He used a bulldozer to push the surface gravel of Osborne Flat into a home built centrifugal machine that used an auto engine for power.
With the exception of Clapboard Town, the largest community in Holcomb was at Saragossa Springs where several old buildings made homes for a few families. These houses were all equipped with running water. They were the only ones in Holcomb Valley to have this luxury except the Hitchcock Ranch.
Surprisingly, in all of Holcomb Valley’s history, it never had an official Post Office. The Great Depression of the early 1930s found quite a few people back in Holcomb trying to make a living from the worked over ground.
One or two did better than just keep beans and coffee on the table, but for most of those people it was a meager existence at best. Gold had been raised from $18 to $35 an ounce. If you had enough water, if you could find gravel running $4 a yard and if your back held out, you might make $3 to $4 dollars in a long hard day panning gold.
About a half mile down the road, you will come to the Hangman’s Tree. The verdicts rendered at the saloon were grimly fulfilled at this site. Like all mining camps, Holcomb Valley had its share of outlaws, claim-jumpers and trouble makers.
In 1861 & 1862, Holcomb Valley recorded 40 to 50 murders and as many as four hangings at once on this tree. You can count the number of hangings from this tree because after the outlaw was cut down, the branch from which the rope hung was chopped off.
Want to learn more? There are two museums in Big Bear. One is the Big Bear Discovery Center located at 40971 North Shore Drive, off Highway 18, in Fawnskin. They are open M,Th, Fri 9 a.m.-4:00 p.m, Sat, Sun 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays.
The Big Bear Discovery Center is co-managed by the non-profit Southern California Mountains Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service. Entrance is free and the facility is pet friendly.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Due to the pandemic, Big Bear Historical Museum will NOT be open for the duration of the 2020 season.
Big Bear Historical Museum is located east of the airport at 800 Greenway Drive in Big Bear City, accessible via Highway 18, or Big Bear Boulevard. The museum is open Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., May thru October.
Directions to Wilbur’s Grave:
From Highway 18 in Fawnskin, take Polique Canyon Road to the main dirt road (3N16) and go east to Wilbur‘s Pond. There are other ways to get there, so check a map first to choose one. We have seen high clearance two-wheel vehicles using this road but we’ve also seen some in quite a jam. If you want to see other sights in the area such as the Holcomb Pinnacles to watch climbers, or take the scenic loop on the flyer offered by the museum, we recommend a 4X4 vehicle as some roads are more rugged than others.