short drive north of Big Bear Lake is Holcomb Valley and what little
remains of the historic
town of Belleville. During the
1860s, Holcomb Valley was the richest gold mining area of southern
supporting some 10,000 residents. Belleville, the largest town
in Holcomb Valley almost overtook
San Bernardino as the county
Gold was first discovered here by William
F. Holcomb in 1860. After Holcomb filed five gold claims, word
spread fast and prospectors rushed to the area. Before long, a gold
camp sprang up east of where the gold was first discovered.
On a fourth of July
celebration, Mrs. Jed Van Dusen made a flag out of her petticoats. To honor her for her patriotism, the town was named after her daughter
Belle, the first child to be born in the camp.
1860 was also an election year, and the population of
Holcomb Valley was growing so fast that the voters soon outnumbered
the rest of the county. One of the matters that needed to be
decided was where the
San Bernardino county seat
would be located. The city of
San Bernardino barely won the
contest by only two votes.
In the beginning, the route to
Holcomb Valley was a difficult trek through the Santa Ana Canyon. In June, 1861, Jed Van Dusen, a blacksmith, built a wagon road down
the back side through Hesperia and the
Cajon Pass at a cost of
$1,500. Making it easier to access the camp, the settlement grew
quickly and soon supported a store, two butcher shops, two laundries,
a bakery, three carpenter shops, two blacksmiths, a stamp mill and a
sawmill. Of course, there were also the ever present
and a place called the Octagon House where "painted
ladies” danced and "entertained” men in small dimly lit cubicles.
Belleville brought travelers into
the camp by a regular stage, which took two days to reach from
San Bernardino. With the
influx of miners, also came the ever present violence of
mining camps. By 1862, there had been 50 murders in Holcomb Valley. Soon,
a large tree was designated as the hanging tree from which many a men
found their deaths at the end of a rope.
As more and more
prospectors came to the area in the hunt for gold and silver ore, the Bear
Valley Mining District was founded. Initial mining was for placer gold
and was primarily done by small groups or individuals with claims along
the stream beds. Soon afterward quartz mining began, and the major mines
were the Mammoth, Olio, Pine Tree, and the Metzgar. This hard rock mining
required stamp mills to crush the rock, and several mills were built at
Though the Holcomb Valley
gold rush was the largest in Southern
it only lasted about a year. While limited mining continues, even to
this day, the Mother Load vein has never found.
Today Belleville is a hiker’s paradise
with very little to show of its former glory days. There are a
couple of old graves, some mining shafts, a simple cabin, and a few pieces
of mining equipment lying about the area.