THE HISTORY OF CLARK COUNTY
Chapter XIX, 7 October 1909 -- Thorp Courier, Clark County, Wisconsin
THE BLACK RIVER -- DESECNT OF THE RIVER
WATER POWERS --PIONEER SAY MILLS.
"For men may come and men may go, But I go on forever."
It is considered that a description of Black River is worthy of a separate chapter.
The distance by river from the Soo Line railroad bridge over Black river on the Duluth branch, to a point near La Crosse, where it joins the Mississippi, is one hundred and thirty-one miles.
Black River until is very recent years, has been used almost solely as a natural watercourse and highway for the transportations of logs, lumber and timber. Its usefulness in that line has passes away for the reason that practically it has not more saw longs on or about its banks, to be floated away. The river however has great possibilities in its undeveloped water powers.
In a work published by the State of Wisconsin -- Geological and Natural History Survey (Bulletin No. 16) there is published a description of the Black River that should be of interest to the people of Clark county; what here follows is reference to the river, its water powers, and other interesting data, is taken from the work referred to, the precise language there used is not her given, but the statements made, are accurate and have been verified with the work in question by careful comparison.
Black River has by far the steepest grade, and the swiftest current of any river of its size within the state. Some of the rivers flowing north to Lake Superior have generally swifter currents but they are much smaller.
The mouth of Black River where it joins the Mississippi is 628 feet above the level of the sea. At the Soo Line bridge on the Duluth branch 131 miles distant, the elevation above sea level is 1198 feet, showing the descent of the river to be 628 feet or an average nearly of five feet per mile.
The descent between points, vary, considerably. From the Soo Line bridge just mentioned to the railroad bridge west of Withee a distance of 6-10 miles, the descent is eleven feet or an average of 1.7 feet per mile.
From the Withee railroad bridge to the bridge on sections 20 to 29, town 29, range 2 west, the distance is 5.5 miles, the descent 20 feet, an average of 3.6 feet per mile. From the last named bridge to just above Hemlock dam is 6 miles, the fall is 16 feet, an average of 2.7 feet per mile.
From above Hemlock dam to 600 feet below the dame a distance of one-tenth of a mile the descent is 19 feet.
From below Hemlock dame to a point between Sec. 27 and 22, town 27 2 west a distance of 3.2 miles the descent is 25 feet, an average of a little over 8 feet per mile. From the last named point to the new Greenwood dam a distance of one mile the descent is two feet.
From the Greenwood dam to the Fairchild and Northeastern Ry. Co. bridge, a distance of 1.5 miles, the fall is 11 feet, an average of 7.3 feet per mile.
From the Wagon bridge last name to the mouth of O’Neill creek, a distance of 8 miles the fall is 45 feet, an average of 5.6 feet per mile.
From the mouth of O’Neill creek to the center of section 22, town 24, R. 2 west, a distance of four miles, the descent is 60 feet, an average of 15 feet to the mile.
From the point last named to the mouth of Cunningham creek to the mouth of Wedges creek, 6.3 miles, descent 16 feet, average 2.5 feet per mile.
From Wedges creek to the Dells dam, one mile there is a descent of nineteen feet.
From the Dells dam to the mouth of the east fork, 3.5 miles, there is a fall of 28 feet, or an average of 8.5 feet per mile.
From the mouth of the east fork to the railroad bridge at Hatfield, just south of the Clark county line, the distance is three miles, and the descent is 8 feet or an average of 2.7 feet per mile.
The elevations above the sea level have been determined, at a number of the railway stations in the county, on and adjacent to Black river and its tributaries. Abbotsford and Dorchester are each 1420 feet above sea level, Colby 136 feet, Curtiss 1370 feet, Thorp 1277 feet, Withee 1135 feet, Owen 1242 feet, Lynn 1139 feet, Granton 1112 feet, Humbird 1022 feet, and Neillsville 997 feet.
The water powers on Black river in Clark county are among the natural and valuable resources of the county.
In "Water Powers of Northern Wisconsin," by L. S. Smith, the extent of head, and horse power of the water powers in the county of Clark on the Black river are given as follows:
Hemlock dam, 12 feet head, developed horse power 175, and 500 horse power undeveloped.
At Sec. 2 town, 24, range 2 west (Victor Huntzicker) 24 feet head, 1500 horse power undeveloped.
At Ross’ Eddy (L. B. Ring’s) 42 feet head, 3000 horse power undeveloped.
The control of the river for log driving purposes, ever since the year 1864, has been with a corporation known as the Black River Improvement Company. This Improvement Company was created by the act of the Legislature, chapter 84, of the P. L. laws of 1864, as amended by chapter 447 of the P. L. laws of 1866.
The officers and directors were all lumbermen operating on the Black river, as indeed was all of its stockholders. The purpose of the corporation as expressed in its articles of organization was to improve the navigation of Black rive and lakes near the mouth of the same, in the counties of Clark, Jackson, Trempealeau and La Crosse, by building dams, breaking jams, deepening, widening and straightening the channel, closing up chutes, and side outs leading from Black river into the Mississippi, and into its bottom lands, and into sloughs; to erect booms and piers, to construct levees or dikes, and repair and straighten the banks of Black river; and they were authorized to prescribe, charge and collect tools on the running of logs down Black river.
This improvement company had complete control of the river from the time of obtaining their chapter until the driving of saw logs ceased.
It was policy of the company to discourage the manufacture of lumber on the river, except at its mouth. It was a selfish one and took no thought of the years to come.
If all the saw logs cut from Clark county soil, had been manufactured into lumber within the county, by means of the magnificent water powers that lay at their doors, this county would contain cities in fact, as well as in name, and would have became many times wealthier than it is today.
After the year 1872, when by constitutional amendment, the Legislature was prohibited from creating corporations by special law, several corporations were organized under the general laws of the state, for the purpose of competing with the Improvement Company; among them was the La Crosse Booming and Transportation Co. and the Black River Flooding Dam Association. In litigation that afterwards ensued between the Improvement Co. and the new corporations, the later was uniformly beaten.
The Supreme Court of the State decided, that the Black River Improvement Company, having under their charter taken and retained possession of a part of the river, for the purpose of improving its navigability, the other companies had no right under the law, and took up authority to improve any part of the stream, even if it was a part of the river, that the Improvement Company had never attempted to take, and improve that the possession of a part of the river, was in law a possession of the whole of it, by the Elder company.
From there on the Black River Improvement Company held and is puted control of the river.
The first saw mill erected in the territory now called the state of Wisconsin, was at Green bay in 1809.
The second was built about four miles from Prairie du Chien, in 1818, and the third was built at Black River Falls in 1819.
The Green Bay saw mill was built when the whole area of the present state was a part of the territory of Illinois, and the saw mill at Black River Falls at a time when it then formed a part of the territory of Michigan.
It is probably that there were two saw mills built in 1819 on Black River at Black River Falls.
In Volume 2 of Wisconsin History Collections, page 117, in a foot note to the narrative of James H. Lockwood, entitled "Early Times and Events in Wisconsin," there is found a letter from Constant A. Andres, who was from Pennsylvania, and who was associated in business with Gov. McNair of Missouri, and a man by the name of Dixon, from which it appears that 1819, the parties named built and operated a saw mill was burned, supposed to have been fired by the Winnebago Indians, who had then lately taken possession of the country and claimed it as their own.
The letter referred to was written to a Dr. Peters, bore date of November 10th, 1819, from the Falls of Black River and read as follows:
"On the 2nd day of November I set a saw mill a running not much inferior to any in the United States. **
The mill is about thirty or forty miles east of the Lake Pepin. The Sioux very willingly gave us permission to come here. There were seven chiefs, in council -- Leroy not there, the seven gave us five years; Leroy came back after, and gave it forever.
I am very much pleased with my situation. I was obliged on account of rain, to go to the "Prairie" once, but was overjoyed on my arrival back and now regret to leave sight of the mill. ** Here I am happy to live -- here I am will to die."
"In 1819 I proceeded up Black River to the first fall, about six foot descent, and erected a saw mill on the southeastern back of the stream. I had got it a going when hundreds of Winnebagos came there in a starving condition, and importuned me incessantly for everything I had for eating or wearing purposes, and I was left without supplies and returned to Prairie du Chien. The next spring I went up there again and found the Indians had burned the mill.
I then rafted down a quantity of pine lags I had cut the previous year. These were the first mills erected in western Wisconsin."
It will thus be seen that nearly a century ago, or to be more accurate just ninety years, the Black River was being utilized for both manufacturing and transportation purposes.
In June 1849 Rev. Alfred Brunson, in a letter to the corresponding secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, giving the geographical names of a number of places, lakes, rivers, etc., and alludes to the Mountain of the Stars, and describes it as follows:
A mountain thirty miles in circumference would more than cover a township of land, and certainly no such mountain exists in either Taylor or Clark County.
It was undoubtedly the exaggeration, and imagination of the Indian that gave the description of the country at the headwaters of the river. That Indian was always a romancer, and prone to exaggeration.
The poet Longfellow knew the Indian well, and in describing the various accomplishment of Hiawatha, says:
"He had moccasins enchanted, Magic moccasins of deer skin, When he bound then round his ankles at each stride a mile be measured."
The mountain of the Stars is akin to Hiawatha’s mile stride.
No description of Black River would be complete without reference to the large concrete dam and power house at Hatfield, as well as the new dam now being built at the Dells. Both of them will be treated in a future article.
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