Breaking log jam costs 11 lives

Eleven men drowned below the Little Falls Dam, now at Holcombe. This was the original dam, since replaced by a concrete structure. In July 1905, a large jam was formed just below the dam and a train load of "jam breakers" was taken to Little Falls. All were in a holiday mood. However, by the end of the day, 11 of them lost their lives when a boat tipped in the rushing water.

     "The greatest calamity in the history of log driving on the Chippewa River" was how the morning Eau Claire Leader proclaimed an incident that occurred at Holcombe 71 years ago.
     Holcombe at that time still was known to many as Little Falls, and its old wooden dam was one of the world's largest. Below the dam were rapids where logjams often formed; logs backed up when they hooked on jagged granite outcroppings in the stream bed.
     On July 7, 1905, some 74 log drivers were sent on a 75-minute train ride from Chippewa Falls to break up a huge logjam 250 feet below the Little Falls dam. Some arrived, as both the Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls newspapers later noted, n Sunday suits "and many had bottles and had been drinking heavily."

"To be first"

     "There was a rush to get to work and some (drivers) seemed possessed with the idea of being first on the logjam."
     An overloaded 26-foot bateau carrying 16 men and their equipment pushed toward the logjam, but a swift current carried the boat too far downstream. Five of the 16 men leaped to safety on the logjam, but the others remained on the boat, which capsized.
      Eleven men drowned, including a popular rural Elk Mound youth who was an Eau Claire High School senior and was reputed to be the best high school football tackle in the state.
     Among others who perished was Louis Gokey of Flambeau, who a year earlier narrowly escaped death in a log incident downstream at Jim Falls where his brother, Mike, drowned. Gokey was the fifth member of his family to drown.

Other victims

     Max Billiard, Patrick Leyden and Joe Peloquin, all of Drywood (between Chippewa Falls and Jim Falls); Ole "Whitewater" Horen who gained fame on the river for his ability to "swim like a fish" while working on logjams. Adolph Toutant, Pike Lake, Burt Leary and Oscar Barquest, both of Anson, and Andrew Gagnon of Jim Falls, who the old Chippewa Herald indicated was more responsible than anyone for the 11 drownings, were other victims of the accident.
     Byron Ferguson of Chippewa City, which is where O'Neill Creek empties into Lake Wissota, also drowned, leaving a widow and five small children.
     Two of the five survivors were Eddie Martin, 17, and John Dressel, about 19. Others were George Kaiser of Chippewa Falls, William Smith, Drywood, and William Toutant, Cadott.
     Martin recalled later that as the bateau thrashed in white water rapids, heading stern-first downstream, he fell out of the boat but was grabbed by Brackett who told Martin:
     "Hold for your life, Eddie. We are in great danger." The newspaper noted, "Those were the last works he spoke as a mortal man."
     Other heroes were among the 63 men sent to Little Falls to break the logs free. When these drivers saw the bateau capsize, eight men immediately jumped into another boat and headed for drivers still bobbing in deep water. Among them were Kiley and Andrews, who the Chippewa Herald called "heroes of the right stuff."
     The rescue boat also capsized in rough water and Kiley and Andrews drifted downstream more than two miles before reaching shore.
     When they returned to the logjam, they saw the other drivers standing ashore, afraid to rescue the nine men stranded on logs - three form the first boat and six from their own second craft.
     So Andrews and Kiley, still dripping from their own brush with disaster, jumped into another bateau and made two trips to the logjam, rescuing all nine drivers.
     "There bravery has never been surpassed on the Chippewa River," the Eau Claire Leader commented.
     The Chippewa Herald said: "The whole affair seems to have resulted from undue haste and unusual carelessness on the part especially of boatman Andrew Gagnon."
     He was the crew leader and encouraged men to keep piling into the bateau. However, foreman Walter Sugars and drive leader John Ryan of Eau Claire reportedly told Gagnon his bateau was overloaded with men and equipment and it never would reach the logjam. They said later they told Gagnon to wait while they went for another bateau to replace one that leaked. Gagnon gave orders to push into the stream then the two foremen left.
     As the newspaper said, "Gagnon wore a heavy mackinaw jacket and his assistant, Louis Gokey, was in his Sunday suit. He had not taken time to get into his work clothes. It was a hurrah to fill the first boat and get to the logjam."
     It later was revealed that Sugars gave orders for no more than 10 men to a boat, but when Gokey objected to Gagnon that too many men were in his bateau, Gagnon told Gokey to "mind your own business and get in the boat." Both men drowned with nine drivers.
     Many relatives of the incident's principals still live in the area.

- Tom Lawin

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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