History: The Wisconsin River Valley

Poster: Janet Schwarze



----The Wisconsin Valley First and Natural Highway Water Powers Developed Drainage: Wisconsin River Improvement and Water Storage Reservoirs Annual Precipitation Physical Geography Soil of Marathon County and Elevations Minerals, Climate and Health.  



1913 Map of the Wisconsin River Valley

A history of Marathon county without a description of this, the greatest river in the state, this first and natural highway to the Wisconsin pinery, of which Marathon county was the most important part, would be like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out. The pioneers came up the Wisconsin river; over its turbulent waters they poled up their supplies; from its banks and the banks of its tributaries they cut the pine which was sawed and floated down the Mississippi and built up the cities and farms of the western states; on its bosom over the falls and rapids they brought the products to market. To navigate the river and bring down its thousands of millions feet of logs and the fleets of lumber of enough value to pay the national debt, required bra^-e and nervy men who feared no danger. Year after year the river exacted its tributes in drowned men in driving logs as well as running lumber. The early pinery required men of brains as well as brawn and muscles; it did not hold out the hope of sudden riches which animated the gold seekers of California in 1849, but it promised independence after years of hard labor; and that was what animated the sturdy pinery pioneers.  

Lumber prices were low; to keep down costs only trees close to the banks were cut; crotch hauling with ox teams was then in vogue, and in order to get timber close to the banks. lumbermen invaded the tributaries, and as early as 1856, logs were cut on Eagle river, about one hundred miles above Wausau, and driven to Big Bull Falls, and even to Grand Rapids.  

The demand for foodstuffs invited farming, but it took years before the attempt was made, there being a belief that neither the soil nor climate was favorable. For many years Galena was the base of supplies, from where flour and pork and blankets were brought up in log canoes as far as Big Bull Falls, and from here still higher up. Later on, supplies could be taken to Fort Winnebago and Plover from the prairies of Wisconsin, by ox teams, and brought to that place, which was made the county seat of Portage county in the spring election of 1844, a solid vote of 28 given for that place in the election precinct in Little Bull being the deciding factor. That led to the formation of Columbia county by detaching the southern tiers on February 3rd, 1846.  

In spite of the difficulties of getting provisions, and the still greater difficulty of bringing the timber and lumber to market, the number of men engaged in this business gradually increased, enough to justify the creation of a new county, and by act of the state legislature, Marathon county was established out of Portage county.  

The Wisconsin river, because of its length, its great drainage area, and its central location is preeminently the main river of the state. Its extreme source is Lake View desert, of about eight square miles on the state boundary line between Wisconsin and Michigan, and about 1,650 feet above sea level. The general course of the river is south for three hundred miles, then near Portage City it makes a turn to the west, emptying in the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien. Its drainage basin is 12,280 square miles, a little less than one-fourth of the state.  

Its chief tributaries from its source to the south boundary of this county are, on the left bank: the Eagle river, emptying at Eagle River (city); the Pelican river, joining immediately below Rhinelander; the Prairie river, which joins the Wisconsin in the city of Merrill, and the Pine river, emptying four miles below Merrill; in Marathon county : the Trappe and Eau Clair rivers. On the west bank of the Wisconsin are, beginning in the north : the Tomahawk, the Somo, Spirit, Newwood and Copper rivers, and in Marathon county, the Rib river and the Big Eau Plain. In addition to these are many smaller ones and numerous creeks, all of them navigable in the sense that logs could be floated out. On the banks of all these rivers and creeks there was the splendid white pine, which attracted the eye of the pioneer. But the pine is now cut; only a small portion is still left in the hands of small owners, farmers, who save it jealously for their own use.  

Nevertheless the importance of the Wisconsin river will be even much greater in the future than it ever was in the past, because of the immense water powers that are and can be developed for manufacturing purposes.  

It has a fall of 634 feet in the one hundred and fifty miles from Rhinelander to Necoosa, and an average fall of 4.233 feet per mile which gives splendid opportunities for the development of water powers, thereby offsetting the want of coal in this state. It is not too much to say, that the Wisconsin river valley will, in a not far time, be one of the great manufacturing valleys of the United States.  

The water power of the Fox river is already used to its fullest extent. The paper industry is coming to the Wisconsin, because the wood supply for the manufacture is better here than on the Fox, and more power can be developed on this river. Railroads parallel the course of the river for hundreds of miles, or touch on the most important points.  

In Marathon county alone the following powers are developed on the Wisconsin river :  

The Mosinee Paper Co. Mill; fall, 22 feet.  

The Rothschild Paper Mill; fall, 20 feet.  

The Street Railway Co. at Wausau; fall, 20 feet.  

The McEachron Co. at Wausau; fall, 8 feet.  

The Brokaw Paper Mill, at Brokaw; fall, 16 feet.  

Water powers still undeveloped in the Wisconsin river in Marathon county :  

The Battle Island power below Knowlton, where a 15 feet head will develop 4,000 horsepower.  

Trappe Rapids, six miles above Brokaw, where a head of 20 to 25 feet can be developed.  

An accurate description of the mills operated by water power will appear under proper heading hereafter.  

There are now eight dams across the Wisconsin river in Lincoln and Oneida counties which are used for manufacturing purposes, and more will be put in, in the near future.  


As early as 1878, Hon Thad C Pound, of Chippewa, then member of congress, conceived the idea of storing the spring freshets and the rainfall which supply the Wisconsin, the Chippewa and St. Croix rivers in Wisconsin, as well as the Mississippi in Minnesota, by constructing dams at proper stations, thereby creating reservoirs with a view of regulating the flow of water in those streams.  

A beginning of surveys was made while he was in congress, but after his retirement from congress in 1882 was not prosecuted with vigor, and the project slept for some time, until taken up by the mill owners on the Wisconsin for their own benefit, assisted later on somewhat by the state.  

As the logging on streams has practically disappeared, or log driving has given way to railroad transportation, the water powers of the rivers can now be permanently developed.


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