Lake Arrowhead History

The Arrowhead and the Name

Lake Arrowhead was originally named Little Bear Valley by early settlers. Theycame to the mountain area for the purpose of logging and cattle grazing. The mountain valley retained the moniker until the 1920s when it was changed to Lake Arrowhead for the purpose of marketing and name recognition. The name was derived from the scar in the shape of a giant arrowhead on the southern slope of the San Bernardino Mountains next to Waterman Canyon and just above a hot springs formed by the San Andreas Fault. The seven-acre-large arrowhead points downward and can be seen for 30 miles across the San Bernardino Valley. Although many people think the arrowhead was carved into the mountain landscape by humans it is actually a natural phenomenon.There are those, however, who may assume otherwise:

Indian legend has it that the San Bernardino Valley Indians, who were known as the Guachina, which means “Place of Plenty” became arrogant because of their exceptionally bountiful land. The Great Spirit became angry at their conceit and sent the Heat Spirit to create a drought that parched the land and blighted their fields, shriveling the vegetation for many years. There seemed no end in sight as the drought worsened over time. Finally, after sacrificing the Chieftain’s beloved daughter, Ne-wah-na as an offering to the Heat Spirit, the heavens opened and a great white arrow of light struck the Heat Spirit who was then swallowed up by the earth. Another white arrow struck the mountainside, leaving its mark, reminding the Guachina of their prior arrogance toward the Great Spirit and the famine they had endured for so long. Then the rains came and the holes that were left from devouring the Heat Spirit became cauldrons of hot, steaming water. The Guachina bathed in the hot waters and began to heal from the illnesses brought on by the prolonged drought. 

Lake Arrowhead’s Earliest Settlers

The Guachina were content living in the San Bernardino Valley and occasionally ventured to the higher altitudes in the mountains above. But this usually occured only when the desert heat was too intense for comfort. Other Indian tribes, namely the Paiute and the Mojave, ventured into the mountain valleys periodically for the bountiful hunting the area provided. On a more regular basis, the peaceful, desert-dwelling Serrano tribes of the high desert occupied the northern mountain area of Little Bear Valley known as Rock Camp every spring to avoid the summer heat, descending to the desert highlands and warmer inland valleys during the winter months. 

Serrano is the Spanish word for “mountain people”, they called themselves the Yuhaviat or “people of the pines” and lived in many family groups peacefully, hunting and gathering acorns that they left for the winter snows to leach. Upon their return in the spring they would grind the acorns into a life-sustaining mash.

Although the Spanish visited the San Bernardino valley as early as the 18th century there is no recording of them venturing into the adjacent mountain range, It wasn’t until 1826 that fur trappers set foot in Little Bear Valley. Then came the Mormons who looked upon the arrowhead carved into the mountain as a symbol from Brigham Young’s visions that pointed to the location of their new settlement. They were among the first loggers and are said to have built the first logging road to Little Bear Valley called the ‘Mormon Road’ constructed in 1852. They came to harvest the vast timber resources of the San Bernardino Mountains. They brought with them cattle for food and oxen, horses and mules used for hauling timber to the nearby sawmills that dotted the valley. The valley was a good pastureland fed primarily by Little Bear Creek, that later became a primary source of water for present-day Lake Arrowhead. To this day it continues to run through the mountain village of Blue Jay with an abundance of year-round water. 

Lake Arrowhead – The Creation of a Lake

In 1870 the Daley Canyon Road was built to accommodate the increasing production of lumber. By the 1890s the lumber industry had grown extremely prosperous and the sawmills were producing millions of board feet annually for the growing towns of San Bernardino and nearby Los Angeles. With its fertile soil and perfect climate, San Bernardino was becoming a major player for growing oranges and vegetables. But it was soon growing larger than its water supplies. In 1891 the “two James’,” millionaires, James Mooney and his partner James Gamble of the Proctor and Gamble soap dynasty, who were representing a Cincinnati syndicate, hired the “two Adolph’s,” engineer Adolph Koebig and Colonel Adolph Wood to purchase large tracts of timber in the San Bernardino Mountains that included Little Bear Valley, Grass Valley and Huston Flats (now Lake Gregory). The ‘Arrowhead Reservoir Company’ as it became officially known, announced their plans to build a dam at Little Bear Valley that would impound water from Little Bear Creek among others, and divert waters from the northern desert, where it flowed naturally, to the people and orange groves of San Bernardino. 

The dam was to be a semi-hydraulic, fill dam 200 feet high, 720 feet long and 1,100 feet thick at the base. It would utilize a steel reinforced concrete core wall, implanted20 feet in bedrock. Trees were cleared from what was to be lake bottom so as to prevent decay from fouling the waters. The water would then be transported by 60 miles of water conveyance channels and tunnels to be built by Chinese work crews. In 1890 a tramway was built for transporting supplies up the mountain. It began in Waterman Canyon and was designed as a cable powered mechanism. Problems with engineering eventually rendered it useless. By 1893 accidents at the construction site, rugged terrain and severe winters slowed the project to a crawl. By the end of the century another million dollars had been invested and dam construction had yet to begin.

By 1901 the Arrowhead Reservoir Company (ARC) realized that the lake could also be used to provide hydroelectric power to San Bernardino Valley. They looked for locations to build a powerhouse and eventually chose a site at upper Waterman Canyon. Water would cascade through a 56-inch pipe from Willow Creek to the mountain front. The subsequent power generated would, hopefully, relieve the ARC investors of their substantial debt. A narrow gauge railroad was eventually built and, for a period, hauled materials and equipment up the mountainside. Two narrow-gauge locomotives were put into use of which one, named “Black Annie”, proved to be real workhorse. Meanwhile, the reservoir slowly started to fill with water. A year later the farmers to the north filed formal protests against the diversion of mountain waters away from their arid land. This began a legal battle that would last for ten years. Meanwhile, the ARC continued work on the dam and by April 1905 the water in the dam had risen to 45 feet and the Arrowhead Reservoir Company had changed its name to Arrowhead Reservoir and Power Company (ARPC).

After many setbacks, including leakage in the concrete dam wall, the removal of earthen fill from previous work, and the completion of only 6½ miles the 60 mile long diversion waterway, the project came to a halt when, in 1913 a California Superior Court ruling stated that water from a watershed could not be diverted for the purposes of irrigation. The desert farmers won and San Bernardino lost any future ideas of being the main beneficiary of water and power from the adjacent mountain. 

Lake Arrowhead – A Lake Resort

However, as a mountain resort location, Little Bear Valley, with its new lake, became a highly desired destination for anglers. In 1914 over 2,000 fishermen converged on Camp Fleming in Orchard bay to cast their lines. Cedar Glen sold lakefront lots for $150 and Little Bear Resort (later the site of Arrowhead Village) built 26 rental cabins and a dance pavilion. Work slowly continued on the dam, however, and by 1918 the leaks in the dam were plugged by a core wall curtain of concrete and the water level in the dam had risen to 170 feet. During the same year, James Mooney, the primary force behind the entire project, died and work ground to a final halt. For several years after, no one knew what would become of the Little Bear Valley and the beautiful lake that was now an integral part of its setting.

In 1921, the lake and the land around it currently owned by the ARPC was purchased for $5 million by a syndication of millionaires from nearby Los Angeles headed by J.B Van Nuys and called the Arrowhead Lake Company. For the next thirty years the company would transform the area into a fashionable alpine destination resort that would include three hotels (the Village Inn, the Arlington Lodge and the North Shore Tavern), a new dance pavilion, marinas, lodges, paved roads, a 9-hole golf course, an outdoor movie theatre, restaurants, beaches, and a Norman style village. The lake, now ‘Lake Arrowhead’ was at 190 feet holding 16 billion gallons of mountain water. Sections of the lakeside land were subdivided and sold for private homes and estates. The area was frequently used as a movie location and many Hollywood stars visited the resort area while some purchased homes there.

Ownership of Lake Arrowhead changed hands many times during the following decades. Despite many successes, the Arrowhead Lake Company went into receivership. In 1946 the owners of the Santa Anita Race Track (called the Los Angeles Turf Club) purchased the lake and the surrounding properties now known as Arrowhead Woods. During their period of ownership, they spent millions improving properties while donating lands to many different organizations. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were beneficiaries as were several churches and the county of San Bernardino. Land for a hospital was donated along with $50,000 dollars toward its construction. In addition, the North Shore Tavern and the land surrounding it was donated to the University of California. It is today a popular conference center and outdoor recreation center.

The Lake Arrowhead Development Company, formed in 1960, added 9 more holes and a clubhouse to the existing 9-hole golf course and subdivided an additional 18 residential tracts. They merged with Boise Cascade in 1967 and added several more subdivisions.

Following the Van Norman Dam incident, a result of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake where the top thirty feet of the dam crumbled, Boise Cascade found themselves with the choice of either building a new dam or lowering the lake to 70 feet. This was due to a study of all dams in California required by the state and found the Arrowhead dam would be unsafe if a 6.5 magnitude earthquake should occur. If the lake water was to be lowered to 70 feet, not only would the domestic water supply be affected but the lake would also no longer have value as a recreational or resort area and property values would drop substantially. The only option would be to build a new dam. Boise felt that the cost of building of a new dam should be shared by all property owners in Arrowhead Woods. 

The property owners formed an association called Arrowhead Lake Association and purchased the lake from Boise Cascade. They then issued a $7 million bond that would finance the building of a new dam, that met the requirements of the state, just downstream from the original dam. The new dam was completed 18 months later and was built to withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. In addition, the 31-acre Papoose Lake was created just yards downstream from Lake Arrowhead and between the two dams. In 1977 Boise sold the remainder of its holdings to the Metropolitan Advertising Agency. 

In 1978 a group of investors purchased Lake Arrowhead Village and the adjacent lodge properties. The buildings were in considerable need of repair. Rather than spend money on the upgrades the developers decided to demolish most of the buildings and rebuild. A year later in 1979 the Lake Arrowhead Fire Protection District, along with the San Bernardino County Fire Departments joined with the Air Corps to burn down most of the village. This was called ‘Burn to Learn’, a controlled exercise that resulted in destruction by fire of the old village. Only the dance pavilion, the post office, bank and real estate office remained. The new village was rebuilt shortly thereafter with the completed restoration of the dance pavilion becoming the centerpiece and the original “Norman’ style architecture continuing as the overriding theme for the new Lake Arrowhead Village.