Editor's Note: Tom Core's story on historical Holcomb Valley was originally published in the Nov. 9, 1989, issue of The Grizzly.
Holcomb Valley is usually considered the most important historical site in the Bear Valley area.
It was in Holcomb Valley that William F. Holcomb found paying quantities of placer gold in 1860. What followed was the largest gold rush in Southern California, when more than 1,500 people hurried into the remote mountains to live and work because of the mines.
It was also there that history was made when the first wagon road was built from the desert to this high country in 1861. With this improvement in transportation, a vast amount of heavy machinery and equipment arrived to work the mines during the following decades. Several stamp mills, scores of mine cars and many thousands of feet of pipe were hauled in by teams of oxen. In addition, unnumbered tons of smaller items and tools were shipped in on the heavily laden wagons.
As the years passed, the gold was worked out, and mine after mine gradually closed and abandoned. Most everyone left for new or more promising strikes-or looked for other employment. But they left behind a vast inventory of artifacts as a reminder that this was once a busy and active mining district.
It was during the 1930s that exploring the abandoned old mining area was a truly exciting adventure. Old equipment was everywhere, and crumbling buildings intrigued few visitors. The huge Mellus boiler and related machinery nestled at the foot of John Bull Falt. At the Vulture Mine, an old pump reached into a dry well, and further up in Bloody Gulch the black tunnel of the Lee Mine hid several empty ore cars standing on existing rails. In Van Dusen Canyon, the sagging timbers of the Garvey Stamp Mill crumbled under the weight of the massive machinery. At Saragossa Springs, several empty cabins stood near the ruins of the Metzgar Mine Stamp Mill. Further beyond the forlorn cabins at Belleville, the great bulk of the Valley Gold Company Ltd. railroad steam shovel rusted away. Near deserted Clapboard Town was the only sign of life. The old Hitchcock Ranch still ran cattle, and the ranch hands could be seen working around the house, barn or several sheds, while cattle and horses grazed in the meadow land beyond.
A half century ago, a trip to Holcomb Valley was a nostalgic journey back in time, a wistful look at a romantic era of adventure, courage and excitement irreplaceably gone forever. All of these remnants of the past beckoned the imagination. It was a very interesting time indeed to feel and sense the high drama of those turbulent mining days because of all the evidence those pioneers left behind.
It was a time when the empty cabins were still haunted by the spirits of hardy men and women who played the lead parts in this mountain melodrama. There were abundant remnants as positive proof that it had all really happened, and that the numerous legends and stories were not fairy tales but were the gospel truth.
More time passed and a terrible economic depression saw most of the major machinery scrapped for a few paltry dollars. A little later a worldwide war took the rest in patriotic drives. Even most of the few crumbling cabins remaining were demolished to prevent vandals from burning them down and starting a forest fire.
However, there were concerned people who wished to preserve for the benefit of future visitors at least the memory of what had been. This society dismantled an old log cabin at the IS Ranch in Bear Valley that was to be destroyed, and reassembled it at the site of Belleville. It still stands today, a single reminder that once a boisterous mining town existed there.
Nearby, another very dedicated group that had its beginning during the world famous California Mother Lode gold rush of 1849-the renowned fraternal organization of E Clampus Vitus-erected a stone monument with two fine bronze plaques commemorating Holcomb Valley and its discoverer William F. Holcomb. This monument has graced this important site for several years. It has brought knowledge and enjoyment to all who visited this historic area where civilization first came into these mountains.
Editor's Note: In 1989, vandals broke the monument and stole the bronze plate dedicated to Holcomb Valley.