This sleepy mountain meadow was once the site of bustling, somewhat slapdash Belleville. The largest bunch of prospectors gathered right here, just east of Bill Holcomb’s original 1860 gold strike. Within two months, a “town” had come to life. Nothing remains now, but miners’ lore speaks of “saloons, gambling dens and bagnios of the lowest kind.”
The town got its name from the first baby born in the valley. She was the daughter of Jed Van Dusen, the blacksmith who was paid $1500 to carve a road down the mountain. On the valley’s first Fourth of July, Belle’ mama stitched together a sparkly Stars and Stripes from the shiny skirts of saloon girls, and the red and blue shirts of miners. In gratitude, the locals christened their new hometown after the baby girl.
This antique cabin is not the original Van Dusen log home, but it was brought to their Holcomb Valley plot to represent a family’s life at that time. Many miners lived in earthen dugouts and shanties on the outskirts.
A few other structures have been recreated for today’s history lovers. Little is known of “Ross.” He was accidentally killed when a tree he was chopping down fell on him. Buried on the same spot where he died, somebody thought enough of him to outline his grave with a white picket fence. Sadly, in recent years, most of the pickets were vandalized. The few remaining are now preserved in the Big Bear Museum. Volunteers built this log fence in 1995.
Nobody knows why this little place below, called Pygmy Cabin, had a doorway of only 4 feet high, and a roof peak only 6 feet, making the side walls very short. Was the owner an itty bitty miner? Or was he too eager to start panning the streams and digging into a quartz ledge to built full size? Or did the weather change so suddenly he had no choice but to hunker down mid-size? In 1983, a fire destroyed the cabin.
Along with the sand mounds called “mine tailings,” (discarded rocks and ground up ore), this water pump remains from Jonathan Tibbetts’ “Grasshopper” quartz mill. Operated by a steam engine, heavy iron heads rose and fell, 24/7, smashing quartz to extract gold. Sadly, these days vandals use it for target practice! (That’s me. I am not one of them.)
The hustle and bustle of Holcomb Valley’s mining days only lasted a few years. However, in 1875, Elias Baldwin, who had gotten “lucky” in the Comstock lode, decided to try again at what he dubbed “Gold Mountain.” In 1874, he built a large 40 stamp mill. A new mining town (Bairdstown) with two saloons, a butcher shop, two boardinghouses, and a population of 180 miners quickly sprouted. However, the mill was shut down after only seven months. The slim amount of gold processed just wasn’t profitable. Bairdstown became Ghost Town,
The stamp mill burned to the ground in a mysterious fire in August 1876. Remaining are the supports. (I outlined the remains in red.)
In 1899, a large mill and cyanide processing plant was built here. It operated until 1923.
Despite its dearth of living souls these days, our trek through Holcomb Valley–which has been preserved by the wise souls of the Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture—lets you really get a feel for days gone by. Happy trails to all you goldminers out there!