Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - April - 2006 Issue

Bear Valley Irrigation Co. Photographs Offered By Dawson's

Bear Valley Reservoir from the Bear Valley Irrigation Company album.


By Michael Stillman

This is not the typical booksellers' catalogue we receive, but it is certainly one of the most stunningly attractive. The Michael Dawson Gallery, in conjunction with Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc., is offering a collection of photographs taken from the rare album Views of the Bear Valley Irrigation Company assembled by that firm over a century ago. The Michael Dawson Gallery is located within the famed Dawson's Book Shop, Los Angeles' oldest continually operating bookstore, also over a century old.

To understand the source of these spectacular photographs taken by Herve Friend in 1891, we need to take a brief look at the history of California's San Bernardino area. After California was admitted to the Union in 1850, settlers began to arrive from the East. One who came during the 1870s was Frank E. Brown, an Easterner with an engineering background and big dreams. He purchased land which he used for growing, and was one of the founders of Redlands, California. However, this area is quite arid, with little rainfall through the summer months. Brown realized that the land which he owned would become spectacularly more valuable if a way could be found to store water from the melting snow in the nearby mountains for summer use.

Brown was involved with several water companies in the 1880s and the building of a mountain dam. That would lead to his major undertaking in 1891. The assets of his various entities were combined into the Bear Valley Irrigation Company. Along with expanding the water supply, Brown set out to lure settlers and tourists to the area. Part of this effort was to commission Herve Friend, a well-respected Southern California photographer, to photograph the area. The result was the album from which the photographs now being offered were taken. Friend's pictures must have enticed anyone who saw them, for he did a masterful job of conveying the stark beauty of what was then a pristine and sparsely populated countryside.

Ultimately, the project proved tragic for Brown. Much of the water was lost through poor transmission facilities, and the company could not keep up with demand. A shortage of funds forced the cessation of the building a new dam in 1892, and after the Panic of 1893, the company's fate was sealed. It went bankrupt in 1893, and Brown had to leave town, disgraced and blamed for a series of events beyond his control. However, his legacy remains in Big Bear Lake, which he created, now confined by a replacement dam built in the early 20th century. Big Bear is a cool vacation spot for those living in the hot lowlands around Los Angeles, and has been the backdrop for innumerable Hollywood movies. The land is now far more valuable as a recreation spot than Brown could have imagined it would be as a water resource.

Friend's images from Redlands and Big Bear country may be seen in Dawson's catalogue. The catalogue includes a history of the area prepared by Nathan Gonzales, Associate Archivist of the A.K. Smiley Library in Redlands. Individual album photographs are priced from $1,500-$7,500. You may contact Dawson at 323-469-2186, or visit their website at www.dawsonsbookshop.com.

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