Holcomb Valley Fever… ~Tanya Hanson

Holcomb Valley, the richest gold mining area in Southern California, is  a quiet, lonely place these days. Hard to imagine 2,000 folks lived here in the early 1860’s.

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.

Bill Holcomb, who started it all by finding gold while tracking a bear, came back to the valley for one last nostalgic peek in 1875.

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!

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26 thoughts on “Holcomb Valley Fever… ~Tanya Hanson”

  1. Fun post, Tanya! Wouldn’t you love to know the story behind the “pygmy” cabin? I thought I knew southern California inside and out, but Holcomb Valley is all new to me. Would love to visit sometime!

  2. Tanya, love the “pygmy” cabin. And can you imagine a man carving a road down a mountain for $1500? I shudder to think of the manpower, equipment and money it would take today. You won’t believe the millions of dollars it cost just to put a bike path in my town.

    Take care and keep traveling!


  3. I love places like this. I don’t mean to sound mystical but I almost get a vibe from them. I find story ideas sprouting when I’m around OLD stuff and preserved locations and sometimes, honestly the LESS there, the better, then my imagination can go wild.

  4. I’ll bet that pygmy cabin is so short because the guy just barely wanted a roof over his head. He wanted to crawl in the door and flop down on the floor and sleep, then get right back to his claim and hunt for gold!
    It’s almost like a historical RV. Except no wheels of course. 🙂

  5. Great photos and wonderful history, Tanya. Love it. Being a fairy tale lover, I’m going to vote for a dwarf living in the pygmy cabin. He could save on supplies by building to his small size and cut down on unwanted visitors who might want to steal his claim. 🙂

    Or maybe it was a play house for Belle. Her daddy seemed the handy type.

  6. Hi Vicki, I too grew up in Southern California and didn’t visit or even hear about Holcomb Valley until our kids were little and we took “the tour.” Our second journey this summer was inspired by a manuscript I’m setting there. I liked the idea of showcasing the gold rush of another part of the Golden State. HV is a lovely way to spend a few hours, very serene. Hard to imagine stamp mills thundering the ground day and night, or thousands of folks living there day to day. Thanks for the post!

  7. Hi Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by! I do think I am very lucky to get to the places I get to. And there are always story seeds somewhere. In fact, coming home from Hawaii the other day, I had to have my hands randomly tested for bomb residue at the airport. Sheesh. I’m so scary looking after all LOL. Vicki said that incident has GOT to get into one of my stories LOL.

  8. Hi Margaret, so glad to see you here. It’s still so rustic in the area that I can’t even imagine how primitive it would have been a century and a half ago! Hauling all that equipment up there…and in the summertimes after the rush, ranchers would drive their cattle up there for summer pasture!

    As for Pygmy Cabin, I just wish it hadn’t burned down. A Boy Scout rebuilt a facsimile of it years later for an Eagle Scout project, but it burned too. I’m suspecting somebody camping out in it who wasn’t careful. Boo. xoxox

  9. Hi Mary, I know what you mean and how you feel, because it’s that way with me, too. WHenever I get to a historical site, my imagination runs wild. Even though hubby and I were totally alone up there that day, I could imagine Belleville (sadly no pix remain of the town itself), donkeys grinding ore in the arrastras, people hustling and bustling. As for Pygmy Cabin, I just used it in my 1880-set wip for a cuddly-wuddly night when H and H get stranded in a snow storm. I confess I made the dimensions a tad smaller than it probably was to get that cozy feeling LOL. And to make the hero seem brawnier and more magnificent LOL. Thanks for the post.

  10. Karen, what fabulous ideas. I think I’m going to borrow them for a dialogue scene. You’re the best LOL. After all, Grumpy, Doc, Bashful etc. were drawfs–easier to crawl inside the narrow passages/stopes of a rock mine, that’s for sure. Thanks for the ideas!

  11. Tanya,

    Sorry, I’m a bit late today. But I love places like this! It’s so fun to explore and try to imagine the boom days. That’s so sweet that they named the town after little Belle.

    The pygmy cabin is a mystery. It would be fun to include a diminutive minor in a story. :o)


  12. Hi Kirsten, yep indeed. Karen gave me a cool idea! You’d really enjoy the place. It’s so peaceful now with well-marked trails and relics. Just wish that space-time continuum thing was real and I could “cross over” for a day. No longer, though. I’m heavily into flush toilets, antibiotics, and modern female hygiene products LOL.

    Thanks so much for posting today. I so appreciate you.

  13. Hi Lisa, thanks for the compliment. Other than the pic with me in it, I took ’em all myself. It really was a special day, and hubby’s birthday on top of it! I so appreciate you stopping by today!

  14. Hi Charlene, yes, it was an inspired scene. I had it in my head the second I saw the cabin’s remains. I confess to making the dimensions of my book’s Pygmy Cabin a a tad smaller for obvious reasons LOL. Poetic license, I guess. I LOVE Karen’s idea about having a dwarf! I think I’ll work it in somehow. The heroine’s brother has to lose his leg in the story, and this could work about littler people still living their life just fine.

  15. Hi Robena, thanks so much for posting today! It means a ton. Holcomb Valley is not all that far from you! It’d be a fun weekend. Oh, and congrats on your new contracts and for being the Golden Heart finalist this year! You go! xoxox

  16. Thanks Tanya for taking time to tell us these tidbits. I don’t get out much and, since I’m from Alabama, I surely will never make it to any of the historical points out West. I enjoy so much hearing this stuff…it makes your books even better and THAT’S hard to do!

  17. Hi Brenda, my wonderful fan and friend. Thanks so much for taking the time to post today and send me good cheer! It means everything from one gramma to another! I admit I’m very lucky to be able to experience Western flavor, some local like our horse rescue, some far off like our Wyoming cityslicker wagon train. And I’m so happy that my books led me to friends like you! xoxoxo God bless.

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