Big Bear has a rich history of building beautiful and unique cabins. As Big Bear has grown, so has the idea of a “cabin” from a rustic one-room abode of hand hewn pine logs and kerosene lanterns to the log mansions that dot the shores of the lake today. So to did lodging grow, from informal tent camps and cabins for rent to modern hotels inspired by those original cabins with rustic décor but also offering every amenity desired.
In the mid 1800’s, a cabin in Big Bear meant walls of rough-hewn pine logs with chinking barely in between, a door opening and windows covered in oilskin, if there were windows at all. The fortune-seeking miners and early cattle ranchers built the cabins primarily for shelter from the elements. You can see an example of just such a cabin in Holcomb Valley or a larger example at the Big Bear Museum, located in Big Bear City. With the gold bust (although according to some there is still gold in them there hills), the cabins were used for shelter by Big Bear’s first tourists, hunters who heard of the abundant wildlife in the Valley and wanted to get a trophy.
When the Big Bear Valley Land and Water Company built the rock dam across the narrow gorge at the west end of the valley, the tourist industry in Big Bear Lake was born. The man-made alpine lake hosted a fat trout population, well fed on the insects left behind by all the drowned trees. Summer would find fishers and hunters camped all around the lake, some in the original miners cabins and others in tents. The original tourist’s journey to Big Bear, up Clark’s Grade, was an arduous two-day trip by stage and pack donkey from San Bernardino, bringing people into Big Bear on the Southwest end, near what is now Mill Creek Road. Big Bear Ranchers Gus Knight, Jr. and John Metcalf Jr. saw the opportunity in lodging these travelers.
Knight and Metcalf built the Bear Valley Hotel on 80 acres just south of what is now Big Bear Village and opened in June 1888 to capacity crowds. Built to accommodate 30 guests the hotel saw such demand they had to put up extra tents and cots. In 1892, the Bear Valley Wagon Road was completed, cutting the journey down to 1-2 days in the relative comfort of a stagecoach. The road ran from Hunsaker Flat (now called Running Springs) to Big Bear. A Stage Coach made the run to Big Bear three times a week, causing the Bear Valley Hotel to add 20 more rooms. Knight and Metcalf enjoyed a monopoly on Big Bear Lodging until 1900, when the Bear Valley Hotel burned under mysterious circumstances.
This new tourist attraction also served a practical purpose: water from the lake was released to irrigate the orange groves in Redlands. A Dam Keeper needed to be close by to operate the dam. Two homes were built for the Dam Keeper. The first, in 1888, was a large log cabin, meant as a temporary home. The second Dam Keeper’s home was started in 1890 and built from large granite rocks, hand cut by Italian stonemasons. The granite came from the same quarry as the granite that built the original dam. That remains of the second house still stand today – on Ice Box Lane. Another interesting tidbit about the dam: because of Big Bear’s granite based sand, earth from the area now called “Grout Bay” was used for mortar between the granite rocks.