News: Old Log Drives on the Black River (1937)

Contact: Tiffiney Hill


Pioneers Recall Days Of Pineries And River Drives

*** The Log drives on Black River, once a great business enterprise and a most thrilling feature of life in this region, have become a memory in the minds of a few old men or a tradition handled down to the younger generations.

From the earliest days of logging in the forties, beginning with the Mormons who cut timber for their temple at Nauvoo, Ill., on till 1907, millions of pine logs cut on Black River and its branches were floated down the stream to be sawed into lumber at the mills near its mouth. Lumber for the home market was sawed at local the mills, but the untold wealth of timber drifted away to build up the fortunes of down-river cities.

In the early days each logger hired a crew and drove his own logs when the spring floods came; but in 1864 a corporation was chartered by the state legislature, entitled the Black River Improvement company, for the purpose of building flood dams, booms, dikes, etc., and with full control of the river. The stockholders an officers of the corporation were all loggers, who participated in the benefits and profits of the corporation, and all paying tolls on logs driven in proportion to their respective outputs.

At later times other corporations were formed disputing the rights of the B.R. Imp. Co., one known as the Black River Flooding Dam Association or locally called the Driving association; but eventually its rights were set aside by the [illegible text].

One day last week Bob French of Levis and John Leopold, long a resident of that town but now living in Neillsville, dropped into the Press office to talk over old times and recite some chapters of log-driving history.

Mr. French had recently received a letter from Mrs. Helen MacWalters of Black River Falls, giving the names of some of the old foremen on log drives and reviving Mr. French’s own memories of these men. The writer of the letter is a daughter-in-law of Jule Walters who took charge of the last company drive on the river in 1906. Mr. Walters in still hale and hearty and lives at Black River Falls.

The first foreman on the company drive, recalled by Mr. French and Mr. Leopold was Hand Powers others they recall were Dave Mason, Amos Mason and Mike Collins.

John Leopold came on the river with his parents when a small boy in 1865 and grew up familiar with all phases of business along its banks. He went on the drive at the age of 15 under Hank Powers and working for the company 21 years steady, later coming back to its employ and working 6 years longer.

In 1907 after the last company drive Waite and Trow of Merrilan brought all the scattering logs up river, and Mr. Leopold took charge of the driving crew to clean up the river. Beginning at Little Black six miles above Medford, they "sacked in" logs along the bottoms and drove everything that would float down stream. This took about three years to complete. A portable mill was set up at the mouth of Arnold creek and there these logs were sawed out.

Mr. Leopold recalls that the old Dells dam was built in 1879, and he helped in the work. He is of the opinion that the dam at Hemlock was built earlier by the Withees and used for operating a grist mill, and brought later for a flood dam by the company. This organization also built the first telephone line in the county, running up from La Crosse to Hemlock. By means of this telephone warning could be given down river when the dam at Hemlock was opened and the drive was coming down, and this information was relayed down stream to other points. There was a pay station at Greenwood and on in Webster’s livery barn (now the Chevrolet garage) at Neillsville for local use.

While the main river was under the control of the Black River Improvement company, loggers on the branches had to drive their own logs to the river, where the company crew took charge.

A small corporation was formed to drive on East Fork and Mr. French and Mr. Leopold recall the names of Hi Goddard, John Paul Lumber Co., the Island Mill Co., L.F. Nichols and P.S. Davidson, who logged and drove on the East Fork.

On Wedges creek they remember H.A. Bright, the Spauldings, Dave Wood and others.

Early day men on the river were Bob Ross, Len Stafford, Hewitt and Woods, Root and Thompkins, J.L. Gates, Andrew Emmerson and many others.

Driving was not only thrilling, but also dangerous work and not a few lives were lost.

Lying flat in the sand, at low water on a island near the east shore of Lake Arbutus is an old fashioned tombstone, erected to the memory of James Spires, who was drowned there on the drive. The drivers took up a collection and brought the memorial at LaCrosse, and it was erected by the foreman, Amos Mason, and some of the crew, The legend carved on it can still be deciphered and reads "Remember me as you pass by; As you are now, so once was I, As I am now, you soon shall be, Prepare for death and follow me."

The daring feats on the river in breaking jams and riding logs developed skill and courage and to a considerable extent a spirit of romance.

Mingled with the rough and crude outward life of the river men was a certain tender sentimental feeling that frequently found expression in the old songs and legends still known to the few who are left.

The story of the stirring days when the forests along Black river were felled and floated away is a great chapter in local history and should be preserved.

--The Neillsville Press



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