Except in very dry years, when the level of Big Bear Lake drops 20 feet, you can’t see the original dam that held back the waters flowing out of Big Bear Valley.  That dam, built by young engineer Frank Brown in 1884, helped regulate mountain water for the use of citrus farmers in Redlands. It did the trick for 27 years, until the current, larger dam was built.  Although the original dam is submerged and out of sight, what you can still see is the dam keeper’s house, built just a year or two after the dam was completed, when the keeper’s original cabin burned down.

Don’t expect a model home. To say this place is blighted would be high praise. The old stone house, which sits on a hillside southeast of the present day dam, is in ruins. The cut-stone walls are still in place, but little else is. The local water district gave it to the Forest Service in the 1970s and it has languished since. The timbers have rotted. Weeds and bushes have taken over portions of the structure.

But at one time, it reportedly was a cozy dwelling and home to some of the region’s more colorful characters.  For 12 years, Bill Knickerbocker, a bit of a local legend, served as the dam keeper and lived in the house. Knickerbocker, born in Pennsylvania in either 1869 or 1870, came west before the turn of the century and eventually ended up in the San Bernardino Mountains. He had mining claims in Holcomb Valley, but earned most of his living the same way he had from the age of 12, cutting timber.

Knickerbocker reportedly was a marvel with an ax and had a reputation as a strong man. One story tells of his periodic trips to the general store, where he would buy a 100-pound quarter-side of beef, throw it over his shoulder and walk the four miles home.  He was the dam keeper from 1909-1918, probably during the same period that a phone was installed in the stone house. It was the first phone in the Big Bear region and residents of the village would occasionally make the trip out to the dam in order to use it.

Local history buff Rick Keppler said Knickerbocker was “an icon around the valley. He was kind of the Paul Bunyan of Big Bear. Over at the museum there’s this huge tree stump that’s about five feet across that he cut down by hand when he was over 80 years old.”

The big man cut all the timber for his permanent home, the Knickerbocker Mansion. Just above the old village, the dwelling now serves as a bed and breakfast.

This image was captured from the opposite side of the original dam.  You can easily see the deterioration of the structure.

While this shot was taken from the opposite side of the lake, peering through the pine trees to capture a glimpse of the structure.

~ by photographyfree4all on August 12, 2011.

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