The Ghosts of Holcomb Valley

Nov. 01, 2003 By Kevin Blumer

Guns blazed. Tempers raged. Greed reigned. Justice was served. Suddenly, everything fell silent. That, friends, is the nutshell story of Belleville, California.

Belle Van Dusen was born to the town blacksmith and his wife in 1860, and the boom town was named in her honor. Belle's birthplace had been an empty valley until the winter of 1859, when prospector William F. Holcomb discovered the valley and its gold while tracking a grizzly bear he had shot. Bellies full of bear meat, Holcomb and his companions began plucking as much gold as possible before the word got out.
Volunteers make it happen! These guys were on hand with maps, advice, and information for motorized trail users. Four wheels, two wheels, four- or two-stroke, these volunteers provided services that Federal funding did not. Also on hand was a genuine U.S. Forest Service Ranger complete with a ticket book, which was used to cite those without spark arrestors. If you meet a volunteer, smile! Remember, they're enthusiasts just like you.
The Willow Creek fire of 1999 scorched thousands of acres near Lake Arrowhead as it burned for solid two weeks. Pine forested vistas became blackened knolls as the flames licked all combustibles clean. Fortunately, Holcomb Valley was spared from the inferno. Although fire is a natural component of the forest's life cycle, the Willow Creek fire's origin may have been human-caused. Reforestation efforts are underway, evidenced by protective screens around new seedlings next to the sign.

Life in the mining boomtown of Belleville was a rough deal. Bad weather, hard manual labor, accidents, and fights over claims combined to make life fast, tough, and short for Belleville's population. This simple monument is known only as Wilbur's Grave. Who was Wilbur? Where did he come from? Did he leave a family behind? Only the tall pines and rocks know the answers. Admittedly rudimentary, Wilbur's grave is unique among the burial sites around Belleville: it's marked.
This stately Juniper has more tales to tell than most. This is Hangman's Tree. Frontier justice was quick and unflinching. Sentenced offenders were strung from the lower branches to face their common fate. After the sentence had been carried out, the branch was cut to get the body down. Quite a few branches are missing!

The gold in Holcomb valley made easy pickings for the prospectors. This "free gold"-placer deposits brought in by flowing water-was simple to extract. Gold pans and sluice boxes were all the tools needed. The word inevitably got out, and almost overnight the once-vacant valley had a population of nearly 1500!

This large population put Belleville on the map, and the settlement nearly became the San Bernardino county seat, losing out to the city of San Bernardino by a pittance. Then the placer gold ran out.

Interpretive signs next to Pygmy Cabin tell the tale of this now-empty meadow. Rocks and soils under the meadow prevent percolation, so the meadow stays wet until spring snowmelt evaporates during the summer. Gold washed from nearby veins trickled into the meadow, creating easy placer pickings for Holcomb Valley's first prospectors. Billy Holcomb and Ben Chouteau, began prospecting the valley in early 1860. The boom town of Belleville sprang up shortly thereafter. Less than a year later, the easy-to-find placer gold was largely sifted through. Fortune seekers then began to hammer into nearby rock in search of gold-bearing ore. The payoffs were disappointing and the effort monumental. By 1864 the once-booming Belleville was bust, fading into history as the meadow returned to its former quiet self.
  This quiet knoll was once the site of Two Gun Bill's Saloon. Since absolutely no remnants of the building are to be found, imagination must take over where artifacts leave off. No doubt that typical boom town debauchery was standard fare here. Many saloon patrons must have found their way over to Hangman's Tree and its short rope.

Sometimes timing is everything. The owner of this ultra-clean Bronco found its seller in a financial bind with time running out. He picked up the vintage Pony for a song and half a dance. The price? Less than what you'd pay for a rusted-out early '80's Toyota pickup. Jealous? Oh, yeah!
Modern trail prospectors can strike their own brand of gold with a run on the John Bull trail. John Bull, also known as Forest Service Route 3N10, winds along a ridge 8,000 feet above sea level. Its rock gardens are by no means the stuff of RCAA competitions, but they're still tough enough to require driving finesse. Those adverse to body damage should stay away. Sheet metal damage is not guaranteed on John Bull, but it's not a big surprise, either. Though most 'wheelers traverse 3N10 from West to East, our two-truck wheeling party picked up the trail at the East end. This sign shows the way off of route 3N02 to John Bull.

With the placer gold gone, the search was on to find the "mother lode." This "mother lode" was the vein inside nearby bedrock from whence the placer gold was washed. Prospecting for gold through bedrock was a tougher game, requiring stamp mills to crush extracted ore. Stamp mills were powered by steam engines, which had to be brought in over roads which had to be built. The work was exhausting and the payoffs disappointing. Winter weather was often severe. By 1864 the town named after toddler Belle had faded into the history books. The "mother lode" was never found. There's still gold in them thar hills!

Today, interpretive signs mark various sites around the valley. Visitors can pick up a map and directions at the Big Bear Ranger Station. Once in the Valley, interpretive signs fill visitors in on the life and times of Holcomb Valley during the gold rush.

Dan Barcroft eases his '71 Blazer through a tight spot on the John Bull connector trail. Dan is among the lucky ones who don't have to wheel their daily drivers. The '71 sports a number of rust spots and dents, which add confidence on narrow, rocky routes. Why? The body is already damaged, so let the fun begin!
This sign introduces John Bull proper. The Forest Service has a trail rating system that advises off-roaders of the conditions ahead. Jagged Black Diamonds warn of tough going, whether you're astride a dirt bike or quad, or behind the wheel of a 4x4. Is the trail really as tough as advertised? There's only one way to find out…

These Jeepers weren't expecting a big yellow Blazer to be the day's last trail obstacle. The Swamper-shod '71's steering felt suspiciously loose going in to the Bull's first rock garden. Closer inspection revealed that a repair was in order. With the stranded Bow Tie blocking the trail, the "Jeep Things" found a bypass route reserved for nimble, narrow rigs. Sometimes, wider isn't better.
Dan puts his 60-inch Hi-Lift into action as friend Ben Henslin looks on. Even with all the mechanical trouble located on the driver's side frame rail, lifting the hood seemed requisite for repair work. What can we say-we're creatures of habit!

A good imagination is needed, as little remains of the mining sites or the town. Photographs of mining in Holcomb Valley are virtually nonexistent. A lone cabin, nicknamed Pygmy Cabin, stood until the 1980's. After burning down, it was rebuilt and is there today.

Modern-day trail riders can strike a rich adventure with a visit to Holcomb Valley and a run on the nearby John Bull Trail. John Bull, a.k.a. Forest Service Route 3N10, winds along an 8,000-foot ridge above the Valley, overlooking the Mojave Desert. Four wheelers should be prepared to negotiate five miles of mild to moderate rock gardens. Budding rock crawlers, listen up! John Bull is a perfect trail on which to commence your 'crawling career. Body damage is not guaranteed, but comes as no surprise on John Bull. Hard core? No. Fun and challenging? Definitely.

Aha! With two of four steering box attachment bolts AWOL, it's no wonder the steering felt a little loose! The remedy was straightforward: simply run two new bolts into the holes, and be merrily on our way. The hitch in the plan was that there were no spare bolts to be found. Other locations on the vehicle were searched for bolts that could be "borrowed". No luck. In the end, the author had to throttle his '81 Toyota to Big Bear City as fast as four cylinders could take him. With closing time looming near, a parts store provided the badly-needed bolts, and the parts guys locked the door as soon as said bolts had been purchased. Unplanned excitement is what it's all about, folks!
With the missing bolts back in place, Dan's Blazer was ready to tackle the rest of John Bull's twists and turns. One didn't have to look far to spot the next repair project: a crack was busy making its way up the 30-year-old frame rail. We lacked any sort of welding equipment, and the crack was a fairly manageable size, so we motored on.

Yours truly crawls through the site of the "Blazer roadblock." A sudden shower slimed up the rocks and made careful line choices and throttle control essential components of a successful run. We got a taste of Tellico-style 'wheeling without leaving the state.
This smallish rock would normally be blip-up-and-over, but a coating of raindrops turned its surface to Crisco. The recipe for success was a little more momentum coupled with tire placement directly over the center of the rock. We gained a new respect for our Southeastern 'wheeling brethren. We're truly spoiled with traction out West.

Would we bypass the Rubicon to trail ride on John Bull? Would we skip Tellico and Moab? Nope. The 'wheeling is tougher and more abundant in those premium spots. Just the same, no self-respecting off-roader should visit Big Bear without checking out once-bustling Belleville and making a run on John Bull.

Off-roaders are made of the same tough stuff that coursed through the veins of the prospectors. We value self-sufficiency, ingenuity, and adventure. If you meet a ghost in Holcomb Valley, fear not. He'll more than likely nod his ghostly head in approval.

Even though the '71's body is dented through and through, the Bestop is brand new and unscathed. Dan did his utmost to keep it that way. Full sized vehicles will wish they could suck in their sheet metal in a few tight spots.
Dan eases over yet another boulder. His first-generation Chevy Blazer sports a few tricks under its tattered exterior. The original 350 V-8 was exchanged for a more potent 400 mill, which sends power downstream to the stock Turbo 350 tranny and legendary NP205 'case. The stock axles have been ditched in favor of a ¾-ton Dana 44 front and GM 14-bolt full-floating rear, which received disc brakes during the install. The axles came with 4.56 gears stuffed in the pumpkins, which provide a much better crawling speed than the original 3.73 ratio. The rear driveshaft was upgraded with a custom CV-equipped unit from High Angle Driveline. Since the rear disc brakes have no provision for a parking brake, Dan selected a transfer case-mounted unit, also from High Angle. Tires are 36-inch Super Swampers. Future mods include longer, softer front spring packs, crossover steering, and a front Dana 60.

Motoring through the twilight. The front '44 survived another thrashing, towing the line between the 400 small block and the Swampers. To reduce the chance of breakage, Dan vows to keep his front differential open until he swaps in a Dana 60. The mighty 14-bolt out back has welded differential gears. Crossover steering will accompany a locked Dana 60 onto the rig.
This rocky threshold between the pines seemed to beg for a photo-op, so we obliged. The '81 'Yota is fairly stock, but has a few key mods to make it more trail-worthy. The front axle uses a Lock-Right to find traction, while a limited slip does duty out back. The 33-inch BFG's are turned by 4.88 gears. All-Pro Off Road's heavy duty tie rod holds the front wheels together. An engine oil cooler helps dissipate heat from the 22r motor, which inhales through a K&N filter, and exhales through a Downey header. After the stock tranny's third failure, a W-56HD was rebuilt by Marlin Crawler and swapped in its place. Since the later tranny is longer than the '81 version, a Front Range Off-Road crossmember and skidplate combo locate and protect the aluminum transmission and transfer case housings. Future mods? Lots of 'em!

Money doesn't grow on trees, but apparently shoes do. This gnarled evergreen near Baldwin Lake was ripe for the picking.
In addition to boulder fields, the John Bull trail offers spectacular views as it winds along an 8,000-foot ridge. Southern California is noted for its diverse landscape. Below the greenery of the San Bernardino Mountains lies the parched Mojave Desert.


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