ALA History

Arrowhead Lake Association
A History of Lake Arrowhead

High in the San Bernardino National Forest, the clear blue waters of Lake Arrowhead glisten in the clean, cool mountain air.  Today, Lake Arrowhead is one of California's most prestigious and popular resorts, with many fine homes lining its shores and water sports of every description enjoyed in this peaceful alpine setting.  It hasn't always been this way.  Lake Arrowhead has a long and fascinating history.

In the mid-1800's, lumbermen and their families came to harvest the vast timber resources of the San Bernardino Mountains.  By 1890, many prosperous sawmills were producing millions of board feet of lumber annually for the small but growing communities of San Bernardino, and Los Angeles, 90 miles to the west.  In addition to lumber for homes and businesses, much of the lumber was made into crates for citrus growers to ship their produce to far away cities in the East.  Although the San Bernardino Valley had fertile soil and a perfect climate to grow oranges and other produce, it lacked sufficient water for irrigation.

For this reason, one little valley high in the mountains above San Bernardino was destined to become something special.  Known as Little Bear Valley, it was, in 1891, a pastureland for oxen, cattle, horses and mules used by the several mill owners whose sawmills dotted the valley.  Fed primarily by Little Bear Creek, which runs through present-day Blue Jay, it had an ample, year-round water supply.

It was in this year that engineer Adolph Koebig and Col. Adolph Wood, representing a Cincinnati syndicate headed by millionaire James Mooney and soap baron James Gamble of Proctor and Gamble, began purchasing large timberlands in and around Little Bear, Grass Valley and Huston Flats, now Lake Gregory.  All this was done in the name of the Arrowhead Reservoir Company, and their ambitious plans were to change the mountain forever.

At an elegant banquet attended by 200 San Bernardino businessmen, Adolph Wood announced plans for the Arrowhead Reservoir Company to build a dam at Little Bear Valley, impounding waters from Little Bear and other creeks, and through an elaborate system of flumes and tunnels, divert water then flowing naturally toward the desert to the San Bernardino citrus groves instead.

Time would prove that Wood's projection of one-half million dollars and one year to complete the project and reverse the course of mountain streams were grossly underestimated.

Nevertheless, work began.  Within a year, a vastly improved road up Waterman Canyon was completed to haul materials and equipment to the mountain top.  Tunnel boring, designed to divert water from Grass Valley and other watersheds to the proposed reservoir at Little Bear Valley began in earnest.

Digging on Tunnel One, intended to carry outflow from the new reservoir one mile underground was completed and readied for an application of concrete lining.  Plans were prepared to build a concrete corewall 60 feet thick at the base of the proposed dam and 114 feet high.   The corewall would be reinforced by thousands of tons of fill on both sides of the corewall -- 1100 feet thick at the base.

By 1893, the difficulty of getting material and equipment to the project was being felt.  Accidents at the construction site, severe winters and the rugged terrain slowed progress to a crawl.  Seven years later, as the 20th century dawned, Gamble, Mooney, and others had poured another million into the project...and dam construction had yet to begin.

In 1901, the Arrowhead Reservoir Company sought a powerhouse site in upper Water Canyon.  Water would be channeled by way of a 56 inch pipe from the portal of Tunnel One at Willow Creek through a systems of flumes to the mountain front, then the cascading flow would provide hydro-electric power sufficient to generate enough power and subsequent revenues for the intrepid investors to recoup their losses.  That was the was never realized.

A year later, desert water companies filed formal protests against the diversion of waters from their arid land.  This was the first battle in a legal war over riparian rights that would last for a decade.  Still, the company persisted.

In the spring of 1904, they began clearing the remaining timber from the valley floor and excavated to bedrock to build a foundation for the corewall.  Mooney hired more workmen and a camp and cookhouse were erected at the north end of the dam site about  where the North Shore Marina is today.  Other houses and offices were built at Camp One near the Gatehouse Shaft on the present-day Doheny property.  Mooney was not a man who feared a difficult challenge from either the elements or a handful of desert farmers.

With Mooney driving his engineers and contractors hard, 1905 was a promising year.  By April, Little Bear Dam was 43 feet high.  Cement, in thousands of sacks, was hauled up the switchbacks in mule-drawn wagons...400 tons in all.  Two narrow-gauge locomotives, four miles of steel rails, forty-five dump cars, a steam hammer for the machine shop and two steam shovels were brought up the steep mountain front to the dam site.  A hundred and fifty men were now working on the project with a thousand dollar per day payroll and material expense.  The company reorganized with an additional six million dollars in capital, mostly from Gamble and Mooney.   They now called themselves the Arrowhead Reservoir and Power Company anticipating substantial profits from the sale of hydro-electric power.  Plans for a larger dam were announced.  The corewall would be 175 feet high with the earthen embankment 30 feet higher.

But the following spring, following an 11 inch downpour in thirty hours, the fifty-three foot high dam was only eight feet above the impounded water.  One steam shovel was buried and the stables had to be moved to higher ground.  When things dried out, the two steam shovels began moving 1500 cubic yards of earth daily and sending it via four trains to the fill level 25 feet below the rising corewall.

To transport material up the mountain at a faster pace, the company built a 4,000 foot, narrow-gauge incline rail up the steep face of the mountain with a steam engine at the Skyland summit pulling two cars on an endless cable.  It was an ingenious idea.  It did NOT work, however, and Mooney lamented "All that the Incline ever hauled was one load of cement and a bunch of apples."

By 1907, a 3700 foot long tunnel diverting Grass Valley water to Little Bear was complete and Mooney compromised with the desert water companies by promising that some Little Bear water would be sent to them through yet another tunnel at Rock Camp.  Mooney thought that at least his legal problems were resolved.  They weren't.

Amid all the frustration and problems, there rose a splendid success right in the middle of the rising waters behind the dam.  The Outlet Tower, a giant, cylindrical column, was an engineering marvel. Designed to lower and aerate the lake through staggered gate valves at 20 foot intervals, the tower stood 195 feet above the lake bed on a thirty-one foot square base six feet thick resting on bedrock.  Water could be delivered at the rate of 350 cubic feet per second gallons per minute  through a series of valves located in Tunnel One which were reached by a 185 foot vertical shaft on the North Shore.  New plans were drawn for a hotel on the shore of the developing man-made lake.  The lake would be stocked and an electric trolley would transport vacationers to the resort.

With the completion of the Outlet Tower, the lake could be allowed to fill. Mooney hoped that water could flow from the tower and through the tunnels to San Bernardino within a year.

If the tower was the crown of the system, the dam quickly became the thorn.  To everyone's dismay, the 15 foot thick, solid concrete corewall leaked.  Finger-size cracks were discovered and tempers flared over responsibility.  In the end, it was decided to cover the corewall with a one foot thick curtain of dryer concrete, reinforced with steel rods toed into the former work.  Much of the earthen fill from the previous two years work had to be removed.

Years passed.  World War I depleted the supply of both men and materials, but work on the corewall curtain continued...slowly.  In the end, it was a California Superior Court decision that dealt the fatal blow to the company's dream of sending San Bernardino all the water and electricity it could use.  The 1913 ruling stated clearly that water from one watershed could not be diverted to another for the purposes of irrigation.

As an irrigation project, Little Bear Lake was a white elephant.  As a resort destination, it was a potential goldmine.  In 1914, the lake was opened to fishermen through a concession at Orchard Bay and 2,000 anglers promptly descended on Camp Fleming.  Lakefront lots at Cedar Glen sold for as much as $150.  A few years later, Little Bear Resort, the predecessor of the Lake Arrowhead Village, had 26 rental cabins and a dance pavilion. 
In 1918, the corewall curtain was finished and the height of the dam raised to 170 feet.   A year later, James Mooney, the driving force behind the entire project, died at his Cincinnati mansion.  Work ground to a halt while his huge estate was probated.  For two years, everyone wondered what would become the Little Bear Project.

Then, in 1921, the public was surprised to read in the newspapers that a syndicate of Los Angeles millionaires,  headed by J.B. Van Nuys, had purchased all the Arrowhead Reservoir and Power Company's property, including 47,000 acre feet of water, for almost $5 million.

Calling themselves the Arrowhead Lake Company, this new group had plans drawn that would mold the newly-christened Lake Arrowhead into a fashionable alpine resort.  Millions would be spent on roads, lodges, dance pavilions, marinas, a grand hotel, a golf course and Norman-style village.

Thirty years and millions of dollars after Gamble and Mooney began their unprecedented enterprise, the dam was raised to its final height of 190 feet, impounding almost 16 billion gallons of water from a 6 square mile watershed    Over the next five decades, ownership of the lake changed several times until, in 1973, the state proclaimed the dam unsafe and subject to failure in a 6.5 earthquake.  To alleviate pressure on the dam, the state insisted that the lake level be lowered 70 feet.  In doing so, the domestic water supply would have been severely affected, the lake would have been rendered unusable for recreation and property values would have plummeted.  The surrounding Arrowhead Woods property owners rallied to save their lake.  Together, they formed an association called Arrowhead Lake Association of ALA, and purchased the lake from Boise Cascade.  With the slogan “Give A Dam”, they issued a $7 million bond to build a new, far more secure dam just downstream from the original, and thereby saved the lake; its water now preserved solely for domestic use and creation.  Management of this valuable resource now rests with the property owners, represented by a 7 member Board of Directors and by a full-time professional staff.

The new dam was completed within 18 months of the overwhelming approval of the bond.  It is 210 feet high and was built from two and one-half cubic yards of material readily available at the site, compacted to maximum density to withstand an 8.0 earthquake.

A new lake, Papoose, was created with water from Lake Arrowhead and has a surface area of 31 acres.  Other important assets were included in ALA’s purchase of Lake Arrowhead:  Grass Valley Lake, which supplies water to Lake Arrowhead through the old Arrowhead Reservoir Company’s tunnel; two members-only beach clubs, which ALA has expanded and improved; the North Shore Marina; the Outlet Tower and all of the inflow and outflow tunnels, the spillway, with its 67,500 gallon per minute capacity when the lake is full, and of course, the original dam still traversed by Highway 173.

ALA is responsible for administering boat registration and dock fees, plus maintenance of the lake and related properties. In 1983, ALA brought in divers to remove and clean the screens in the 76 year old tower and check for structural damage below the water line.  After many dives, the investigation found the integrity of the structure sound.

Dredging the many shallow bays is a year-round operation as silt from runoff continually flows to the basin.  The silt is removed to an offsite location. Lone Pine Island is one area of erosion concern and considerable effort has gone into reducing the effects of wave action.
Each year ALA stocks thousands of pounds of lake trout and sponsors the annual Memorial Day Fishing Derby. The conscientious lake patrol is responsible for Lake Arrowhead’s fine safety record. They not only enforce the boating rules, but assist troubled boats and monitor the sanctioned races of the Lake Arrowhead Yacht club and Waterski Club.

 Although most of ALA's operations go unnoticed by the general public, one event attracts thousands of residents and visitors each year. People from all over gather in boats and line the shores at sunset every July 4th to witness the resounding fireworks display.  The sky bursts reflecting in the lake’s deep-blue water are spectacular.  Perhaps, as much as a national birthday party, ALA’s fireworks show is a celebration of the fine quality of life experienced at Lake Arrowhead.  The Arrowhead Lake Association is dedicated to the preservation of this rich and rewarding life style and the beautiful alpine lake which makes it all possible.