January 31, 2020

Photo Essay: The World's Largest Manmade Lake, and Its Dam Keeper's Rock House Ruins

Adapted from my article "Five Most Fascinating L.A. Dams, Where Disasters Struck and Catastrophes Were Averted," via

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was one surefire way for man to conquer nature in Southern California: Build a dam.

With dams, water agencies could control the flow of raging rivers, stockpile emergency water supplies and even create giant lakes out of natural dry (or mildly soggy) basins.

For instance, the construction of a single-arch rock dam (one of the first in the U.S.) formed the world's largest manmade lake, Big Bear Lake, in 1884. Farmer Frank Brown created it in order to use its water to irrigate the citrus groves of the arid agricultural townsite of Redlands (at the time, known as "Red Lands Colony").

With increasing water demands, a new, multiple-arch dam replaced Frank Brown's old one in 1912—just 200 feet to the west and 20 feet higher. But that was enough for the replacement dam to triple the capacity of the lake.

Nowadays, when the lake’s water levels are high enough, The Old Bear Valley Dam is submerged underwater—but it’s there, marked by a historical plaque near the juncture of Big Bear Boulevard and North Shore Drive.

A little farther down Big Bear Boulevard (a.k.a. State Highway 18) are the granite ruins of the former dam keeper’s house (circa 1890), perched atop a hill, also built by Frank Brown.

He needed to build it out of stone (and the same hand-cut, locally quarried rocks that formed the dam)—because its log cabin predecessor burned up in a fire.

Because it was important for the water company office in Redlands to stay in touch with the dam keeper, the Bear Valley Land and Water Company built a telephone line in 1891 that stretched 24 miles.

For decades, it was the only mountain telephone connection in the area—and in 1905, the newly founded Forest Service also counted on it to reach its rangers in the mountains.

Over a dozen dam keepers and their families occupied this rock house until as recently as 1977.

That's the year that the Municipal Water District ceased to irrigate Redlands, relieved the dam keeper of his duties, and donated the stone house to the Forest Service.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service has allowed the dam keeper's house to languish.

Its roof has caved in, most of its timber gone.

It's accessible up an access road called Stone House Lane—marked as private, but the historic site itself is open to the public, per the Forest Service. Just don't enter the structure. And it's probably best to park off the main road and walk up.

Though the dam and lake began as part of the Bear Valley Irrigation Company, they're now managed by Big Bear Municipal Water District, which maintains Big Bear Lake for recreation and wildlife.

Reportedly, the dam keeper's house was used as a filming location for The Bride of Frankenstein—in which it served as the cottage home of the blind hermit whose violin-playing lured the monster inside.

Watch a clip here:

To read about more fascinating dams in Southern California on KCET's website, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: An Abandoned Silver Mining Castle Along The Loneliest Road
Photo Essay: San Marcos Mountain Lodge, a.k.a. Knapp's Castle
The Church Is Not The Building: Dispatches from Fire-Torn Paradise, CA

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