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.
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. He was a famous prospector of this period, and requested that he be buried in the rich earth of Holcomb Valley.
Here you can see where miners dug out ponds where winter snow would collect, then melt to provide water necessary for placer mining. “Pay Dirt” would be hauled by cart to the sluice boxes located near the ponds and washed for content. In 1860, Holcomb and other prospectors took and average of 3 pounds of gold per day from this area. In those days gold was valued at $20.67 per ounce. But they never found the mother lode which they believed enriched the area.
Back on the main road (3N16) heading east, turn left at the split rail fence before you get to the campground. This road loops around Holcomb Valley Campground. In two tenths of a mile you will come to another split rail fence and Two-Gun Bill’s Saloon. The log remains of this structure stand as silent testimony to the days when the saloon was a courthouse, City Hall and social center of the mining camp.
Continuing the loop about a half mile 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.
Continuing to follow the loop, you will come again to the main road (3N16). Turn Left. On your left your will see the intermittent stream in which Bill Holcomb first discovered gold in this valley Just beyond was the site of Belleville. This flat area drew the largest concentration of miners. There was one general store, two butcher shops, two laundries, one bakery, three carpenter shops, two blacksmiths, one stampmill, one sawmill, and numerous saloons. Surrounding the town proper were hastily built shacks which served as housing.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln won California by slightly more than a thousand votes. From San Bernardino County he received 307 votes. For the next year a general election was held to determine which would be the county seat…San Bernardino or Belleville. San Bernardino won by two votes. By the early 1880’s only a dozen permanent families remained in Holcomb Valley.