Handbook of Stevens Point 1857
Ellis, Tracy & Swayze Publishers
Part 1: General History

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The design of this little Work is to lay before the reader some of the more prominent features of the Country on the Upper Wisconsin River, the business which has led to its occupancy and settlement -- its capacity for sustaining a population and a description of its principal Villages and important points. The limits imposed on this enterprise, are such as restrict us to a few pages, and the most prominent facts and incidents.

The "Upper Wisconsin"

THE “UPPER WISCONSIN” is a term usually applied to the country bordering this stream from POINT BAS, upwards to its source, at LAC VIEUX DESERT; a distance north and south of 150 miles. But our descriptions will for the most part refer to the lower portion of this area, lying in Marathon, Portage and Wood Counties - the very center of the State.

It is remarkable what a tendency is often manifest, to invest new and unexplored regions --TERRA INCOGNITA-- with all the habiliments and character of the terrible; -- such regions are too generally set down as impenetrable swamps, tenanted only with wild animals, and unfitted for man's abode. It is within the recollection of the writer, that nearly the whole State of Michigan, was reported by an Officer of the War Department as one unbroken lagoon; soon after which an immense Map made its appearance, laying down nearly the whole central area of that beautiful State as a SWAMP. The progress of settlement dissipated these ideal marshes, and redeemed the State. The same unfounded notions have prevailed to a considerable extent, with regard. to large portions of Wisconsin, including this same country of which we now propose to write.

In 1847, Mr. Owen, the Geologist, characterized it as a desert of sands, unapproachable by the Agriculturist; and but a few months ago, a respectable gentleman in one of the Southern Counties, in an elaborate article to the “WISCONSIN FARMER”, gravely asserted that Northern and Central Wisconsin was an alternate at sand ridges and marshes. In fact, the idea is too prevalent today, that at least the unexplored portions of Wisconsin, embracing the northern portions of Oconto, Marathon, Chippeway, La Pointe and Douglas Counties, are swampy, sandy, sterile regions, worthless and uninhabitable! -- whereas the truth is beginning to come out that they are quite the reverse of all these, and likely to prove the best agricultural districts in the State.

In the year 1852, it was proposed to apply to Congress for the establishment of a Land Office at Stevens Point the idea was regarded as Utopian -- supposed that not lands enough would be sold to pay current expenses of the Offices. It has now been open nearly four years; the result is that almost ONE HALF of the district is sold -- the title passed from the United States to actual settlers, and the remaining lands in the northern and western portions, are being sought and bought up with unparalleled avidity. Such are some of the. consequences of ACTUAL EXPLORATION in opposition to imagination, as touching new countries. This part of Wisconsin originally constituted a part of Brown County. Portage County was set off from Brown County by act of the Territorial Legislature, in 1844, embracing all the country north of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. Columbia County was set of from Portage in the year 1846; Marathon County in the year 1850, and Wood in the year 1856, leaving the present area of Portage within the Constitutional limit.

The first aggression upon the “Upper Wisconsin” as Indian territory, was by the search for Pine timber, occasioned by the settlement of Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin, when the price of pine boards went up to 60 & 70 dollars per thousand feet.

The Pine regions of the State lie mostly North of the East and West line, which marks Town 20 North of the surveys, abounding more or less in three fourths of this area; though there are considerable districts of beautiful Prairie and openings extending above this line; some of them between the Wolf and Wisconsin Rivers as high as Town 25; and between the Chippewa and St.Croix Rivers, as high as Towns 35 and 36 North.

The Pine is generally near the banks of the stream (the Wisconsin) and its tributaries, gradually diminishing at a distance from them and, giving place to the several varieties of hard timber, sugar tree, oak, bass, birch and hemlock, with a few scattering, but majestic pines. About one twentieth of the grounds may be set down as pinelands.

The first attempt at Lumbering, by a sawmill, that we heard of in Wisconsin, was made by a man named PERKINS, from Kentucky, on a branch of the Chippewa river in the year 1822. He built a mill on the Menomonee branch; but just before commencing to saw, it was swept away by a sudden freshet. The Indians threatening to disturb him, the enterprise was abandoned: to be renewed with better success on the same site, in the year 1830, by Joseph Rolette, and John H. Lockwood, of Prairie du Chien. Pine timber was made into boards with whip-saws in 1826, by the U. S. soldiery, at the building of Fort Winnebago, from timber cut on a small island about 10 miles above the Wisconsin Portage. DANIEL WHITNEY, of Green Bay, obtained a permit from the War Department, to erect a saw mill and cut timber, on the Wisconsin, (it then being Indian territory) in the year 1831, and built the first mill at WHITNEY’S RAPIDS, below Point Bas, in 1831-1832.

Messrs. GRIGNON & MERRILL obtained a similar permit, and built a mill at Grignon's Rapids in 1836. These two establishments were the pioneers of the lumbering business on the Wisconsin river.

In 1836, at a Treaty held with the Menomonee Indians at Cedar Point, on the Fox River by HON. HENRY DODGE, as Governor of Wisconsin, the Indian title was extinguished to a strip of land on the Upper Wisconsin, six miles wide, from Point Bas forty miles up the stream. This was done specially to open the country to the lumbermen. The high price and great demand for the article, quickened the business; the River was explored from Point Bas to Big Bull Falls that year, and the occupation and claiming of the most eligible sites, quickly followed. Messrs. Bloomer & Strong, and also Geo. Cline, occupied the Grand Rapids. Fay, Kingston & Draper occupied BIRON’s RAPIDS. A. Brawley commenced at Mill Creek; also Perry & Veeder on the same stream. Conant & Campbell occupied Conant’s Rapids. Harper & McGreer at McGreer’s Rapids on the Plover. These persons commenced at the several points named in the year 1837. In 1839 John L. Moore began at LITTLE BULL FALLS, and Geo. Stevens at BIG BULL FALLS. Thus was this whole region in the possession of the makers and venders of pine boards and shingles, before the year 1840.  In 1839, the Cedar Point cession, three miles in width on this River, was ordered to be surveyed by the Surveyor Gen. at Dubuque, JOSHUA HATHAWAY of Milwaukee, being appointed to the task. The whole tract was offered at public sale at Mineral Point in 1840. In 1841, ‘42, ‘43, ‘44 and ‘45, mills went up with great rapidity, -- villages and towns sprang up, so that in 1847, when Mr. OWEN’S party passed down this River from Lac Vieux Desert, the population of Wausau was estimated at 350 souls, and that of the Upper Wisconsin, at several thousand. The “Wisconsin Pineries” became known throughout the whole Northwest; the lumber from them furnishing materials for improving and rendering habitable the immense prairie worlds of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.

There are some peculiarities in the mode of lumbering on this River, especially in regard to the measurement of the boards, and in getting, the product to market. As a general thing, logs are cut in the forest to three lengths, 12 feet, 14 feet, and 16 feet in length. All common boards are sawed 1 1/8 inch in thickness, thinner stuff than this (except siding) being held at a reduced price in the markets below. Measurements are by line, and no stuff is marked at the mills.

The Wisconsin, above Point Bas, is a succession of rapids and eddies; most of the former surge over rocky bottoms, with a wild current of ten to twenty miles an hour, the channel broken and divided, offering almost insurmountable obstacles to anything like navigation: yet over all these the lumber has to pass. The piloting of rafts over these interminable falls, from Jenny Bull, to and below the DELLS, requires great skill, practice, courage, and extreme peril and hard labor. This branch of the business has produced a class of men known as PILOTS, who have become masters, both of the rapids and the capitalists in the lumber trade; as nothing can be done without them; at least in getting the product to market after it is cut out at the mills. When engaging by the day, they make their own terms at from live to fifteen dollars. Those of the better character, with a little means ahead, are accustomed to job the business, entering into contract with the producer to take the boards in pile at the Mills, and furnishing all necessary men and outlays at their own cost and charges, to deliver the lumber at Dubuque or St. Louis, at a stipulated price per thousand feet. Partaking somewhat of the rigorous, wild character of the river and its whirlpools, they are nevertheless for the most part, men of generous impulses, energetic, honest and trustworthy; being frequently entrusted not only with the custody of a year's earnings of a large establishment, in its transit to market, hut with the sale of the rafts, the disbursement of large amounts of the proceeds to hands, and the rendition of final accounts to the owners.

The cost of running out lumber from the mills to the lower market, varies according to the season and distance, at from five to eight dollars per thousand feet, not including wastage by breaking on the rapids, which may he estimated at one 20th of the whole. At a good stage of water, the run may be made from Wausau to St. Louis in twenty-four days. The great difficulty is in getting out of the Wisconsin into the Mississippi, and it is but seldom that this can be done with a fleet at one rise of the river; so that it frequently requires several weeks to make the trip: this greatly increases the cost, and is a direct abatement of the profits of the business.

Immense amounts of money have been spent from time to time in putting in various improvements on these rapids, mostly in what are called slides: they are wooden sluice-ways, over dams and falls, built of heavy timbers, secured by immense cribs filled with stones; they are laid from the top to the bottom of the darn or fall at angles of 15 degrees to 30 degrees over which the rafts are directed, with the speed of an arrow, frequently to the hazard of the lives of the raftsmen, and the destruction of the rafts. The keeping up of these improvements, is matter of great expense, as they are of short duration, owing to the wear and tear of the currents. The rafts in passing over, constantly cut them away in detail; but the principal cause of their destruction is from the running ice in the spring on the breaking up of. the River. Some of the most expensive and best constructed of these slides, are sometimes almost entirely destroyed in a single day by the running ice of the spring flood. Expensive booms, dams, and even mills, are frequently swept off in the same way, to say nothing of the peril and loss of whatever rafts or cribs of lumber may have been left in the stream over the winter.

The limits prescribed for this pamphlet will permit us to give but a brief description of the mode of constructing and running of the rafts. The lumber is generally rated in pieces of about 3500 feet, called “cribs,” five or six of which constitute a "rapid piece“; the cribs are either 16 by 12 feet, or 16 feet square, and generally consist of from 12 to 20 tiers of inch boards, exclusive of what are called the “grub plank“; these are two inches in thickness, and placed at the bottom. The cribs are bound together by means of ”grubs,” a kind of pin two inches in thickness, four feet in length, made from saplings of oak, ironwood or maple, dug out by the roots, a part of the root being left on to form the head or lower end of the grub. The raftsman in forming a crib, selects 3 grub planks: these he arranges about 5 feet apart, parallel to each other, up and down the stream; - each has, three, two inch auger holes bored in it: one near each end, and one in the middle, and a grub inserted in each: three inch boards bored in like manner, are then laid crosswise of the grub plank, the grubs inserted, which forms the bottom or foundation of the crib: he then fills up the spaces between with inch boards, and crossing the next tier, continues the operation till he has as many courses as he judges safe, not to make his raft run too deep. next he puts on two binding planks, bored to receive the grubs, parallel with the grub plank, and then applying a couple of links of a chain called a “witch,” by means of a lever, draws up the grub, pressing down the binding plank, and wedging the grub, makes all fast. his crib is now complete: about six of these are brought together endwise, and fastened by means of two more planks, coupling the crib to another, constituting a “rapid piece.” A solid piece of square timber, called a “head-block”, 5 by 7 inches, is laid across each end, and pinned. On each of these is hung the “oar,” consisting of a pole 36 feet in length, with a 12 foot 1 1/2 inch plank in the outer end, for a blade, the oar neatly balanced across the head-block: next, and last of all, is put on what is called the “spring poles;” being a couple of pieces of hemlock poles, some 20 feet in length and 6 or 8 inches thick: the forward end inserted under the outward corner of the head-block, brought back over a bit of wood for a fulcrum, is pressed down with the force of three or four men, thus turning up the forward end of the rapid piece, and fastened down to one of the grubs. This is a necessary precaution to keep the rapid piece from catching on the rocks at the bottom, when it dives in the eddy, as it leaves the slides, which it is sure to do, frequently submerging the rafts and men to the depth of several feet. In these cases, a line (cable) is stretched from end to end of the piece, to enable the men to save themselves by laying hold of it. This rapid piece is now ready for its long descent of the currents, over the slides, falls, dams, and rapids, and out to the Mississippi. From two to eight men are necessary to manage a rapid piece, according to the difficulties and dangers of the various rapids. Twenty of these rapids pieces, more or less, constitute a “fleet,” managed by one pilot and his gang hands. On approaching a rapid, slide, or fall, the whole fleet is tied up in the eddy above, and then two, four or eight hands, as may be necessary, get on to a single piece, and run it to the eddy below, where they tie it up and return to the head of the rapid for another piece: and so on till the whole fleet is over. This footing it up over the falls, after a piece is run down, is called by the river men, “gigging back," it is generally done at a quick pace, and the distance traveled from sun to sun by a rang in running a rapid, and “gigging back,” is often 60, 60 or 70 miles a day, and forms a pretty severe introduction of the green horns to the mysteries of going down on a raft. These eddys or resting places in smooth water, are indispensable grounds; and such has become the volume of business on this River, that the eddy-room is becoming insufficient for it in the more busy seasons of running out. Twenty fleets at the same time, may often be seen at the same eddy. During these seasons, the hardy riverman lives on his raft, cooking on shore at night, and sleeping in his single ‘blanket, on the ground, or on the raft. After getting below Grand Rapids 2 rapid pieces are generally coupled side by side, making a “Wisconsin Raft.” With these, they run the DELLS: -- below the “Dells,” several rafts are joined; but the whole fleet is not united until reaching the Mississippi, after which cook houses, and slight cabins, are erected, and The hands are able to get regular rest and refreshment for the balance of the trip. During the whole way, the rafts are driven entirely by the currents, the only labor required being to guide and keep them in the channels, from running into sloughs behind islands, and on to sandbars; all these, by the bye, requiring the utmost vigilance, knowledge of the, river, and skill of the Pilot; for if the channel be missed, a wrong one taken, and the fleet run into a slough, it is little better than lost, as the expense of breaking up, hauling out, moving across islands to the channel, reconstructing the raft, would in all probably be more than the lumber would be worth. It is difficult to back out, or run the raft up stream, to get out of such dilemma. We reserve a general view of the river, from its source to Portage City, for a future paragraph, and now take a glance at the EXTENT of the lumber business.

At the present day, this branch of industry occupies the whole length of’ the “UPPER WISCONSIN” from Point Bas to Eagle River, with most of its numerous tributaries including Yellow River and the “Little Pinery.” In all its ramifications, not less than two thousand five hundred men are employed throughout the year, and a capital of between five and six millions is involved. But an approximate result can be obtained as to the annual product. As near as we can ascertain, there are some 12 steam and about 40 water mills running an aggregate of one hundred and seventy saws, exclusive of edging, picket and lath saws. An experienced lumberman tells us that each saw will average seven hundred thousand feet per annum equal to one hundred and nineteen millions. It is valued at the mills at $12 per thousand; ONE MILLION FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY-EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS. To this must be added about seventy-five thousand dollars more for the annual product of shingles, lath and pickets: making a total of ONE MILLION  FIVE HUNDRED AND THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS, as the annual product of this business, here in the pineries. When marketed on the Mississippi below, the value will be increased to TWO MILLION FIVE HUNDRED AND FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS. These figures look large; but we are confident they are not larger than the actual footings will prove. Prices in the markets have fluctuated very much during the progress of the business: beginning at $50 and $60 in 1830, they declined to $l0 and $12 in 1849 and ‘50; but have steadily advanced since that date to the present rates (average of $20 or more) with a prospect of a further and steady advance for the future.

It is frequently observed that the timber will soon be exhausted. That it must finally fail, is of course certain; but that period is so remote as to have no practical bearing on the. investment of capital for present operations. Probably not a fiftieth part of the Pine is yet worked out the logging as a general thing having been extended but a short distance from The principal streams and even there, only the most choice timber having been removed. 

A great misapprehension has prevailed abroad not only in regard to the extent of this pursuit, but more especially as to the character of the men engaged in it, which the foregoing exhibit will serve in some measure to correct. The Lumbermen on the Upper Wisconsin are not only men of means to prosecute the business with eminent success, but they have the further qualifications of intelligence, energy and perseverance, so indispensable in any pursuit, in a degree equal to that possessed by men engaged in any of the vast pursuits of the country or age in which they live. The proof is in the reduction by - them in a few short years of those wild wastes into a land of productive industry equaled by no other in the State - scarcely in the West. The character of the Wisconsin Lumbermen for honesty, intelligence and astuteness in busi-ness will not suffer in comparison with that of any other class, at home or abroad. 

We have thus given an imperfect and hasty view of the Lumbering business on this river; although large and hitherto that which has led to the settlement of the county, it must not be supposed that it has exclusive possession, or is, in future at least, to be the only pursuit here. AGRICULTURE - the cultivation of the soil, has already began to engage the attention of many.

It is within the recollection, doubtless, of many of our readers, that the region about Galena and Dubuque were for many years pending the early operations of mining, entirely neglected for purposes of Agriculture. The land is were not considered fit for such purposes. As soon as the inhabitants found time to prove them, they were ascertained to be exceedingly rich and productive. The ease is quite similar in the Upper Wisconsin country. Our lands which were at first regarded barrens are found to be excellent and farming, as a legitimate business, is now becoming an institution of the country.

The Indian title to the “Indian Lands” was extinguished in 1848; this opened the whole Upper Wisconsin Country to the settler. In 1852 the lands were brought into market, at the Land Offices at Menasha and Mineral Point. The Stevens Point Land Office was opened in 1853. The District embraces a strip of land thirty miles in width on either side of the Wisconsin from the Dells to its source - about 170 miles long. In proof of our position that we have a good farming country we have only to give the amount of sales in this Land District; the aggregate from July 5th 1853, to March 31, 1857 is ONE MILLION FOUR HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED AND SIXTY ACRES. At Mineral Point and Menasha, previous to the opening of this office, the sales were probably about three hundred thousand, as within the bounds of this District - say ONE MILLION SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTY THOUSAND ACRES in all. Not one twentieth part of this was purchased for lumbering purposes, but for Agriculture, and that alone. Some two thirds of it is occupied by settlers, who are now opening farms. The whole of Adams County, the N. W. part of Marquette County in this District, West part of Waushara County, also in this District, together with the Southern and Eastern parts of Portage and Wood Counties are completely settled up: the lands being openings and prairie, proving first rate - equal to any in the State. To the West and North West of Plover and Grand Rapids, and North of Stevens Point, the lands are covered with timber, and more or less mixed with the evergreen. A short distance from the streams, however, almost invariably is found the hard timbered lands, which on proof are ascertained to be heavier and stronger than those either in the openings or along the streams; and for the last year have been sought and bought with great eagerness for the purposes of settlement and farming. Nearly all of Towns 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, & 25 of Ranges 2,3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8 are taken up. A colony of German's from Pittsburgh, after careful examination, have taken up for purposes of immediate occupancy some 27,000 acres of the most choice lands in Towns 28 & 29, in Ranges 4 & 5 on Rib River, about 15- miles West of Wausau, and as many N. W. of Mosinee -- Little Bull Falls. Lands in large tracts of equally desirable quality, lie on the East side of the Wisconsin, up the Plover, on the Eau Plaine, Eau Claire, Pine and Prairie Rivers, which have not been so much broached as yet.

A glance at the Map will show that on each side of the Wisconsin, at some 20 miles distance from it are the heads of the streams; those on the East that rise in ranges 10 & 11, and fall into the Wolf River eastwardly, and into the Wisconsin, westwardly: and on the West those that rise in Ranges 1, 2 & 3, and fall into the Black river on the West, Yellow River on the South, and the Wisconsin on the East. These are never failing clear spring brooks, and water every quarter section of the most choice hard-timbered lands.

The whole of this Upper Wisconsin country is without any considerable portion of broken or mountainous lands, being nearly a plane, just enough inclined to the Southward to draw off the waters of the streams in a quick current. As before observed after leaving the Wisconsin, the banks of which are a sandy, light soil, heavier lands, of gravel and loam, are found. Hence the selections for farming purposes, are mostly made near the sources of the streams, as above described.

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