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The Lumbering Industry of La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1841-1905
/ Selma Sather Casberg, 1953


Special Collections  F589.L1626  C3

 
 
         

 

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The LUMBERING INDUSTRY OF LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN

1841-1905

by

Mrs. SELMA Sather CASBERG

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment

of the requirements for the Degree of

MASTER OF ARTS

(History)

at the

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN

1953


Table OF CONTENTS

Chapter Page

One FOUTDATIONS OF THE INDUSTRY 1
1. Title to the lands.
2. Location of pine areas.
3. Early attempts at lumbering.

Two EXPANSION OF LA CROSS LUMBERING 10
1. Location of the mills.
2. Organization of the companies.
3. Early mills at La Crosse.

Three NATHAN MYRICK, PIONER Lumberman 22
1. Early partnerships.
2. Business activities.
3. Failure as lumberman.


Four MEN OF THE FOREST 35
1. Fur traders and explorers.
2. Mormon colony provides early
lumberjacks.
3. Labor forces.
4. Lumbermen.

Five RIVERS, RAFTS AND RAILROADS 48
1. In the forest
2. On the rivers
3. The railroads aid expansion.

Six FROM FOREST TO CONSUMER 58
1. Technology.
2. Production records.
3. Markets.

Seven END OF AN ERA 67
1. Decline of the forest products
industry.
2. Rise and expansion of manufacturing
in La Crosse.
3.Conservation and Reforestation, an
afterthought.

BIBLIOGRAPHY 73

Appendix A 78


Chapter One

Foundations of a New Industry

In a new country “the natural resources closest at
hand” are usually the first to be exploited, especially
if only a “small outlay of money is needed in the process”.
These “gifts of nature are transformed into capital” as
quickly as possible, and the means thus accumulated form
the basis for other fields of industry. 1

Fur trading arid lead mining were Wisconsin’s cheif
economic activities until the 1840’s. Lumbering was
carried on only in a minor way and in isolated area for
local markets;2 however, there were modest beginnings of
lumbering despite many hardships.

The prairie sections of southern Wisconsin suffered
a critical lack of building material during the 1830’s.
Lead miners, in fact, were forced to dig into the hills
for shelter. In spite of millions of acres of virgin
forests at its very door, the territorial capitol at
Belmont was built of lumber which came down a tributary.

1. Frederick Merk, Economic History of Wisconsin during
the Civil War Decade (Madison, 1916), 59.

2. Robert F. Fries, “Founding of the Lumber Industry in
Wisconsin,” Magazine of History, 26
(Madison, 1942-1943), 25.

page 2


of the Allegheny in Pennsylvania.

This rather surprising situation resulted largely
from a lack of capital for investment and from a shortage
of specialized labor to harvest the forest’s abundant
resources. “These elements were reluctant to migrate in
sufficient strength so long as the legal title to the
forest lands remained with the Indians.” Federal law
forbade the white man from engaging in any logging operations
on Indian land without permission.3

The government took whatever timber it needed for
the buildings at the military posts and soon realized
the futility of trying to prevent others from cutting
the timber that they might need After 1830, the War
Department issued permits to cut on Indian lands in
Wisconsin. Settlers quickly clamored for the extinguishment
of the Indian title.

In 1825 a council of the leading Indians was called
at Prairie du Chien by Lewis Cass, Governor of Michigan
which then included the entire Wisconsin area. This
meeting confirmed the right of the Winnebagos to land
along the Upper Fox and the Rock rivers. In 1829, the
chiefs gave up all lands south of the Wisconsin river

Ibid., 27.
3. “Some Wisconsin Indian Conveyances 1793-1836,” in
Wisconsin Historical Collections 15 (Madison, 1900),
11-15.
Fries, “Founding of Lumber Industry”, 26

Page 3


for $30,000 and the rest for $18,000, to be paid annually
for thirty years. In 1836 and 1837, all lands east of
the Mississippi river were ceded to the United States
for free and easy distribution.4 Transportation to the
Long Prairie reservation in Minnesota was provided. Many
returned and a few remnants of that tribe still live in
the vicinity of Hunter’s Bridge over Black river in
La Crosse county. 5

Eastern speculators who made great profits in the
lumbering industry of the East bought land in Wisconsin
for speculative purposes. The panic of 1857 brought a
temporary halt to this speculation, but the industry
soon continued its growth as the demand for timber had
not been met.

The forest area of Wisconsin covered roughly all of
the northern three-fifths of the state. It consisted
in part of mixed growths of pine and hardwood, and in
part of solid stands of pine. The 1attez’ contained “the
prize of every lumberman’s heart.” The estimated standing
pine in Wisconsin was one hundred and twenty-nine
billion feet. 6

4. Horace Samuel Merrill, “An Early History of the Black
River Falls Region,” Thesis (Madison, 1933), 26.
Louise Phelps Kellogg,” Story of Wisconsin,” in
Wisconsin Magazine of History 3 (Madison, 1919),
197-198.
5. Albert H. Sanford and H.J. Hirshheimer and Robert F.
Fries, A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin (La Crosse,
1951), 17.
6. Merk, Economic History. 59.

Page 4


Pine, the most sought and widely utilized of the
forest growths, is of light weight, soft texture, is
easily transported, and is adapted to many uses. Pine
attained its greatest perfection in the light, sandy
areas of the state. 7

The rapid development of the pine lumber industry
in Wisconsin resulted from the unusually fortunate combination
of an abundant supply of timber and a network
of water transportation connecting it with a region
lacking construction materials.

By reason or its strategic geographical location,
all the pine timber of the region drained by the Black,
the Chippewa, and the St. Croix rivers must pass La Crosse
on Its way to market; although great quantities found
ready markets locally.8

Wood comprised the basic material. in building
construction during the early years, particularly in
those areas within easy reach of a sawmill. As the
population of La Crosse increased, the demands for forest
products mounted. To meet this rising pressure for lumber,
sawmills multiplied vapidly in the young Wisconsin
community.

7. George W. Hotchkiss, History of Lumber and Forest Industry
of the Northwest (Chicago 1898), 752.
James E1liott Defebaugh, History of the Lumber Industry
in America (Chicago, 1906)1;311.
8. Leslie’s Weekly (La Crosse, Wisconsin) April 30, 1887.

Page 5


Happily, La Crosse was situated on an expanse of level
land which made the construction of houses and business
buildings far easier than in other river towns where the
bluffs frequently rose abruptly from the water’s edge to
complicate building problems. Thus when population poured
into La Crosse raising its size from a sleepy village of
only 548 in 1853 to a sprawling boom town of 6,000 people
in 1857, the construction of buildings to house this substantial
increase was achieved more easily than in many
neighboring towns.9

La Crosse lies within the great Driftless area of
Wisconsin. Here are found none of the physical features
resulting from the glacial action so characteristic of
northern and eastern Wisconsin. The topography, on the
other hand, is the product of erosion in the limestone
and sandstone bedrock. The soil is generally sand or
sandy loam, especially along the valleys of the Black
and the Mississippi rivers. 10

Three physiographic regions are found in the
region -- the bluffs paralleling the river, the valley
bottom from four to six miles wide; and several terraces,
above the flood plain and deposited there during the
glacial period by large streams which flowed across the

9. Sanford and others, History of’ La Crosse, 60.
10. Benjamin Bryant, Momoirs of La Crosse (Madison, 1907),
17.

Page 6


Driftless area from the ice covered regions. These
terraces were at one time extensive, but have been reduced
by erosion. An exception is the terrace extending
from South of Onalaska to New Amsterdam which is nearly
15 miles long and 3 miles wide. Brice’s Prairie and
French Island are river terraces, while the cities of
La Crosse, North La Crosse and Onalaska, and the villages
of Holmen and New Amsterdam are located on these terraces.
The French name “coulee” was applied to the
typical valleys of the area. La Crosse commands a
situation of great natural beauty.

Interest in the lumbering area of the Black river
was early aroused by the reports from various fur traders,
explorers and surveyors. As early as 1818 French traders
had built a mill but had been driven off by the Indians
and their mill burned.12 All their reports indicated
“woods to the world’s end.”13

The eastern half of Jackson county constituted a
rich pine area. The glacial waters which had entered
most of the area helped the lumbering industry immensely.
Not only did they bring in pulverized soil in the form

11. La Crosse County Agricultural Statistics Bulletin
#202 (Wisconsin, 1939), 3.
12. Milwaukee Journal, November 28, 1910.
13. Walter Havighurst, Upper Mississippi (New York,
1937), 153.

Page 7


of sand upon which the pine thrived but they also created
numerous lakes for storage and carved out several streams
transportation.14 Ideal water power sites were provided
at the falls of the Black river. Forty miles up
this river, at a considerable water fall, settlers 1ocated
the city of Black River Falls.

The basin of the Black river lies between the larger
ones of the Wisconsin to the south, and the Chippewa to
the North. This stream, .140 miles long, flows through
Taylor, Clark, and Jackson counties. Rough lands, many
swamps and stone outcroppings made lumbering difficult
in this finest of pine lands. 15

On January 7, 1819, Willard Keyes in company with
Colonel John Shaw left Prairie du Chien, assumed by the
Indian agent that no permission was needed to go to the
Black river area. By April they had eight rafts of timber
ready to transport through wild territory along the
river. 16

14. Fries, “Founding of the Lumber Industry, 26.
Joseph A. Schafer, History of Agriculture in Wisconsin
(Madison, 1922), 10.
Merril, An Early History, 12.
15. Fi1bert, Roth, “Forestry Conditions and the interests
of Wisconsin” in United States Department of Agriculture
Bulletin #16 (Washington, 1898), 62.
William Francis Raney, Pine Lumbering in Wisconsin”
in Wisconsin Magazine of History, 19 (Madison, 1935), 77.
16. Merrill, An Early History, 13.
John G. Gregory, West Central Wisconsin (Indianapolis,
1933), 1:159

Page 8


In 1838 a Mr. Dutcher, accompanied by a party of men,
worked his way up the Black river at or near present
Council Bay, and began cutting timber. Obviously, the
treaty of 1837 which opened the territory to white settlers
was not taken serous1y, and the Indiana of Decorah’s
village interrupted the operations in the woods and
ordered Dutcher away. The Indians, however, received
150.00 in provisions arid blankets; the price of the
first stumpage paid on the Black river. The name “Council
Bay,” so well known to later Black river lumbermen, came
from this council. 17

In 1839, Robert and Andrew Wood with Jacob Spaulding
came to La Crosse by steamboat. They went up the Black
river by keelboat and started a sawmill. They were soon
faced with trouble, however, for the Indians-tried to
burn their new -installations. At the peace conference
which followed, Uncle Jake, whom the Indians called the
“Great White Chief,” promised them food and clothing and
Camp Crawford authorities assured him protection in his
lumbering activities. 18

17. Badger Banner (Black River Falls, January 27, 1869).
Merrill, An Early History, 20.
Agnes Metilda Larson, White Pine Industry (Minneapolis,.
1949), 126.
18. Badger Banner., April 24, 1869.
 

Page 9


Reports also reached La Crosse creating interest in
another timber area along the Chippewa. The Chippewa
river drains an area of some ten thousand square miles or
one-sixth of the state. The main stream rises about 25
riles south of Lake Superior in Ashland county and enters
the Mississippi at the lower enc1 of Lake Pepin near
Minnesota.19 Its branches reached out in many
directions into some of the finest pine lands in the
state. 20

Interest was also shown in a third lumber area, that
of the St. Croix. The first operators ere pioneers who
the country for settlement.21

Despite the disaster of high waters which carried
the boom and the stock of William Holcombe in 1843
away they persisted in their efforts to establish the new industry
Thus at Stillwater, logs were collected and two
rafts of 500,000 feet each were run down the Mississippi
to St. Louis. From then on the lumber industry developed
rapidly on the St. Croix.

19. William F. Raney, Wisconsin A Story of Progress
(New York, 1940), 204.
20. Merk, Economic History, 66.
La Crosse Republican, February 19, 1881.
Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, February 19, 1861
21. “Early Lumbering and Lumber Kings of Wisconsin” in
Wisconsin Magazine of History (Madison, 1920) 4:102-104.
22. La Crosse Chronicle, October 21. 1906.
Ear1y Lumbering and Lumber Kings,” 103.

Page 10

Chapter TWO

EXPANSION OF LA CFOSSE Lumbering

The manufacture of lumber near the timber supply so
characteristic of initial lumbering activities gave way
to rafting logs to the sawmills on the Mississippi. To
float lumber, whether rough or finished, created many
problems. The construction of the rafts, the stage of
the water level, and an adequate labor supply were major
considerations

No other thought was entertained during the first
years of the timber industry but that the mills be erected
near the timber area. “Old Soc” Weston is given credit
for the important change to driving the logs down the
stream to be sawed. He had grown up on the Kennebec
where he had learned the business of lumbering.2 By the
close of the decade of 1850, others had followed his
lead and the running of logs became general, Increasing
annually in importance.

Among the noted names of the Black river area engaged
in rafting were such men as Andrew Sheppard who had
32 sawmills on the river and W. T. Price, who later

1. Merrill An Early History, 51.
Ellis Usher, Wisconsin, Its Story and Biography
(Chicago, 1914), 1:53.
2. Usher, Wisconsin, Its Story, 176.

Page 11

served in the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly and at the
time of his death was a member of Congress.3 W. H. Polleys
operated the last stationary mill on the Black river
above Onalaska, sawing river-logs, doing custom work and
grinding feed for the farmers. He maintained a fine mill
in La Crosse also, and after the disaster of December
1886 when the dam went out wrecking the mill on Black
river his was the first firm to desert La Crosse and establish
elsewhere. Even before operations ceased in the
La Crosse area he had established a sawmill in Georgia
(l884). 4

Certain lumbering points held out great inducements
to investors and gave promise of greater returns than the
sandy prairie. Timber, not land, was the “irresistible
bait” and much of the land went back to the county for unpaid
taxes once the valuable timber had been removed. 5

Two important sources of timber lands open to those
desiring to buy were the Land Office and the railroads
which had received land subsidies from the government.
The land in the La Crosse area was included In the Mineral

3. Gregory, West Central, 1:182.
4. A. D. Polleys, Pioneer Days in the Black River Valley
(Black River Falls, l948), 57, 75.
5. Robert F. Fries, “Some Aspects of the Lumber Industry
at La Crosse” in La Crosse County Historical Sketches 3
(La Crosse, l937), 14

Page 12

Point Land District and was put on sale by auction at
$1.25 per acre on January 1, 1848. 6

In June 1853, a Land Office at La Crosse opened with
Cyrus K. Lord as Register and Theodore Rodolf as Receiver.
Lord was an editor and attorney; while Rodolf was a real
estate and insurance man. In 1854, they began to publish
The National Democrat.7

La Crosse lumber mills did not draw their logs solely
from the Black river area. Some lumbermen, Paul and
Colman for example, rafted logs from the Chippewa area.
Continuous lumbering began on the Chippewa about 1836
when Jean Brunet built a mill for Hercules Dousman of
Prairie du Chien.8 This mill later passed into the hands
of H. S. Allen in 1842, and to Thaddeus Pound after 1857.
John Knapp operated on the Menomonie river, a branch of the
Chippewa. 9

To assure mill owners on the Mississippi an adequate
supply of logs was a business opportunity holding out the
promise of high profits. The Beef Slough Booming Company
as organized to turn logs out of the Chippewa river into
the Mississippi by a boom. In the spring of 1868, sixty

6. La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, August 9, 1931.
7. Sanford and others, History of La Crosse, 42, 69.
8. Fries, Some Economic Aspectss, 15
9. Early Lumbering, 103.
Raney, Pine Lumbering, 79

Page 13

million feet of logs were delivered. In 1874, seventy-
five million feet were stored in one boom.10

Sensing the need for order if the western lumber
business was to grow, Frederick Weyerhaeuser with
characteristic foresight leased the Beef Slough Boom
Company. He realized that whoever controlled the movement
and delivery of logs to the mills also controlled
the Mississippi River trade. Every sawmill on the
Mississippi joined the combine of 1871, known as the
Mississippi Logging Company. Back of this figure of
power lay years of lumbering experience, for Weyerhaeuser
had begun his exploiting of Chippewa pine lands during
the Civil war period. He paid up to $20.00 an acre for
stumpage. 11

In 1875, he purchased a mill which later burned but
was rebuilt into “the largest mill in the world.” Various
purchases of land were made so that his resources were
enormous. 12

An Immense amount of timber came out of the Chippewa
area. “Production leaped from sixty millon feet in 1860-
1861 to two hundred eighty-five million In 1868-1869, and

10. Raney, Pine Lumbering, 81.
11. Paul W. Gates Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell
University, (Ithaca, 1943), 58.
12. Walter A. Blair, A Raft Pilot’s Log (Cleveland, 1930),
47.
Raney, Pine Lumbering, 82.

Page 14

to four hundred thirty-six million in 1871-1872. 13 The
total value of the entire output was set at one hundred
sixty million dollars between 1830-1905.14

Another early entrepreneur in this region was Franklin
Steele who staked out a preemption claim to the water
power site of St. Croix Falls after the treaty with the
Chippewa Indians was signed on July 29, 1837. He also
secured valuable pine lands. By 1860, the annual cut
here was forty million feet for Wisconsin.15

Logs cut and floated down the St. Croix increased
from 300,000 feet in 1837-1838 to 75,000,000 feet in
1850, and reached a peak of 452,000,000 feet in 1890,
after which it began to decline.16

Four settlements near La Crosse, and in the vicinity
of the Black River which benefited by the lumbering
industry were Onalaska, Holmen, New Amsterdam, and Galesville.

The Royce, Boice, Melville Company mill (1856) at
Onalaska cut 16,000 feet daily of which one-third found
a market at home and the balance was rafted down the

13. Merk, Economic History, 66.
La Crosse Republican, February 19, 1861.
14. La Crosse Chronicle, October, October 21, 1905.
Harry G. Dyer, “Sawmills of the Upper Mississippi
and St. Croix 1842-1900,” in Chas. E. Brown Manuscript
Collections (Wisconsin Historical Library) Box 5.
15. Raney, Pine Lumbering, 80.
Robert F. Fries, Empire In Pine (Madison, 1951)., 2l.
16. Gregory, West Central, 229.

Page 15

river. In 1837, the A. H. Nichols and Company organized
and built a mill. Later it burned and was replaced by a
mill with a daily capacity of 120,000 feet, thus ranking
it among the largest in operation on the river. In 1895,
the output reached 20 million feet lumber, 16 million
shingles, and 6 million lath.17

At Holmen, Christian Casberg built a pin factory
in 1895, to manufacture rafting pins. These pins, made
of oak and four feet in length and two inches in diameter
were used by companies operating on the Black River. Unhappily,
Casberg’s mill was destroyed by a flood.’8

The large sawmill at New Amsterdam, then “Freisia”
gave employment to many people from Holland. This mill,
built in 1875 by Oepke Bonnema, closed in 1900 as it became
increasingly difficult to get the logs out of the
main channel of the Black River and the supply of pine
decreased. 19

In 1853, George Gale purchased 2,000 acres at land
including the present site of Galesville. While serving
as County Judge f La Crosse County he had urged the establishment
of an institution of higher 1earning in
La Crosse but was unsuccessful

I7 “La Crosse County Record” in Onalaska Centennial Booklet
(Onalaska, 1952), 5.
18. Personal interview with Peter Cass on September 23, 1950.
Personal Interview with Albert Nelson on September 30,
1951.
19. La Crosse Tribune, April 24, 1921
Cass Interview

Page 16

In 1854, however, he secured from the State Legislature
the organization of a new county of Trempealeau,
with the county seat at Galesville, and a charter for a
college to be located there. Thus he founded a town
and a college on his own responsibility.20 Since his
own resources were not great, he solicited contributions
for his projects. Thomas Douglas of North Bend paid
his donation in lumber. 21 The village plat of Galesville
was made in June 1854, and the college built in 1858. 22

Gale was a tall, bony, bald headed, stoop-shouldered
Vermonter who had some knowledge of law and a good deal
more of shrewdness and cunning. In church with the
moral and Christian element he posed as a model of
Christian purity, while in the saloon he was equally
successful in entering into the spirit of the place.23
Ambitious, with a strong will power and considerable
executive ability, he was a formidable adversary or useful
friend. But his career never quite reached his lofty
ambition or justified the promise of its early years in
La Crosse. 24

C3. History of La Crosse County (Chicago, 1881), 459.
21. Polleys, Pioneer Days, 82. -
22. La Crosse Tribune, August 1, 1925.
23. Banner Journal (Black River Falls), January 22, 1886.
24. History of La Crosse, 388.

Page 17

La Crosse County, organized in 1851, had been created
by the State Legislature on condition that La Crosse would
put, up a courthouse within one year without expense to
the County government. Voluntary contributor came in
readily for this modest 26- x 36-foot structure. The
county boundaries of the present were defined and legalized
as of March 13, l851. 25 A noted lumberman, Timothy Burns,
became the first County Judge as well as Chairman of the
first County Board. In .1852 he became Lieutenant
Governor while George Gale was his successor as County
Judge. 26

In 1846, John M. Levy, D.G. White, Peter Cameron,
Mr. Federlein, and Nathan Myrick owned the only homes.
By 1851, there were 15 residences, but by 1854, there
were 104 residences and a sawmill. 27

The cost of lots increased considerably in La Crosse
from 1851 to 1854. Nathan Myrick, then of St. Paul, sold
a lot on Front Street for $1,400.00, for which be had
been offered $75.00 in 185l. 28

C. L. Colman’s career comprises an interesting
“success story” illustrating the rapid expansion of the

25. La Crosse Democrat, March 18, 1851.
La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, July 13, 1930.
26. Ibid.
27. Sanford and others, History of La Crosse, 37, 38, 40.
28. La Crosse Republican, September 6,1854.

Page 18

forest products industry. In 1854, he came to La Crosse
from Fond du Lac riding in a wagon dawn by two blind
horses after traveling over roads well nigh impassable.
He brought with him Mr. M. L. Noble, a shingle machine
and a horse power sweep. Soon after his arrival, he
was manufacturing 30,000 shingles daily an shortly substituted
steam for horse power. As early as .1865, he
bought logs on the Chippewa river and with a mill frame
purchased from Peter Cameron began lumber manufacturing.

Fire was a particular hazard to Colman for his mill
burned three times -- in 1868, 1873, and 1886. Each time
it was rebuilt and enlarged to the great capacity of 40
million feet lumber, In 1898 he rafted logs from
West Newton to La Crosse where he bad a fine trade and
established good relations with the men working for him.31

Another leader in the expansion of the lumber industry
in La Crosse was John Paul who began work in 1860

29. C.L. Colman Papers -Manuscript (Wisconsin Historical
Library), Box 2.
Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 502,
30. La Crosse Tribune, JtL]-y 4, ,L4G
31. Harry Dyer “Raft Pilot’s Log,” -- Manuscript, Chas. E.
Brown Collections, (Wisconsin, Historical Society
Library).

Page 19

in a mill possessing a daily capacity of 12,000 feet,
operating day and night. The mill was destroyed by the
bursting of its boilers in 1868, but was rebuilt with
a capacity of 40 million feet of lumber, 12 million
shingles and 6 million of lath per year. 32 John Paul’s
leadership was recognized for he served as president
of the Black River Improvement Company. 33

“The White Collar Mill” owned by P. S. and. W. F.
Davidson operated as a ship yard during the Civil War
in building and repairing river craft. Improvements
were made to the building structure in 1876 and again
in 1880. Capacity per year was rated at 30 million
feet of lumber, 6 million shingles and 2-1/2 million
lath, and the firm maintained a fleet of boats on the river.35

Another pioneer in the industry appeared when N.B.
Holway and Abner Gile formed a partnership in 1864 to
buy out the Robert Ross Tub and Pail Factory. This
burned in 1877, when the partners erected a modern sawmill
with a capacity of 18 million feet lumber, 7 million

33. Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 505.
Harry G. Dyer, “Sawmills on the Mississippi,” Manuscript,
Chas. E. Brown Collections (Wisconsin Historical
Library).
34. Dyer, Sawmills on the Mississippi
35. Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 505.

Page 20

shingles, and 3 million lath per year. As the city had
grown in population, they found a ready market for large
quantities of slabs for stove wood. They also found additional
profits in the sale of by-products; for they baled
sawdust and. built up a trade in its shipment to distant
localities where it was in demand as horse bedding and ice packing. 37

The “Island Mill” was operated. o French Island,
opposite Onalaska in 1872 by Gideon Hixon and Niran
Withee. They were interested in lumbering, the improvement
of creeks and streams; and the prevention of floods.
Later Withee and Hixoxi in connection with A.W. Pettibone
maintained a sawmill at Hannibal, Montana.38

The La Crosse Lumber Company consisting C. C. Washburn,
Abner Gile, N. B. Holway, J.H. Weston, and J. R.
Shepherdson organized in 1871. C. C. Washburn, a lawyer
from Mineral Point, later formed a partnership with Cyrus
Woodman which schemed to monopolize all the valuable
pine land on the upper Mississippi. 39 They entered
between 150,000 and 200,000 acres of land.

La Crosse Tribune March 25, 1934.
Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 505, 508.
38. Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 510.
La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, April 8, 1934.
39. C.C. Washburn’s letter, April 24,1853 to Wm. D.
Washburn (Washburn Letters - Manuscript – Wisconsin
Historical Library).

Page 21

which with their associate, brought the total to a
quarter of a million acres. It enabled them to dictate
prices to a considerable degee.40 In 1855, they dissolved
partnership; Woodman taking money and Washburn
retaining the mill and the lands. A year later his holdings
were valued at a half million dollars. C.C. Washburn
manifested interest in both Chippewa and Black River areas,
and in the location of La Crosse. 41 He owned 200 million
feet of standing pine on the B1ak river in 1871, when
elected Governor. Later he introduced the roller or
Hungarian system in flour manufacturing to give Minneapolis
the distinction of a great flour center. 43

The Sawyer and Austin Company (1872) began operations
earlier than other companies as they shipped their logs
by railroad from their lands on the Black River.44

The important focus which contributed to the rapid
expansion of the Lumbering Industry (see Appendix A) were
due to strategic location, enormous supply of pine in
the areas north of La Crosse, a rich hinterland of farming
area, of skilled and ambitious labor force
and strong regional markets.

40. Gates, Wisconsin Pine Lands, 97.
41. Larson, White Pine, 126.
42. LaCrosse Tribune, October 16, 1933.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid., July 26, l936

Page 22

CHAPTER THREE

NATHAN MYRICK, PIONEER LUMBERMAN

Nathan Myrick, pioneer merchant and early lumberman,
is a striking symbol of the emergence of the forest products
industries in the La Crosse region. His career
summarizes the transition period in which the trader
turned his investments into timber and emphasizes the
successes and failures of his generation of frontier
businessmen as well as providing an excellent case study
of the methods of organizing, financing, and developing
the lumber business in Wisconsin.

As a lad of l8, Myrick left his home at Westport,
New York in 1841 to seek fortune and adventure in the
West. With an outfit valued at about $100.00 consisting
of his savings, a few books and personal effects he set
out. Happily at the last moment a thoughtful, and no
doubt worried mother enlarged his cash capital with a
gift of another $15.00. 1

Myrick was undoubtedly well prepared for his new
life in Wisconsin. Six feet four inches tall in his
stocking feet, straight as an arrow, a man of quiet and

1. Nathan Myrick to E. A. Copeland, June 28, 1892,
Wisconsin Historical Library. Manuscript.

Page 23

gentle speech and manner, he impressed other men with
his dignity and self-respect.2

On June 5, 1841, he arrived at Prairie du Chien.
unable to speak an Indian language, he could not find
employment with the American Fur Company so served without
pay as a clerk in the post office at Prarie du Chien.

While in this office he fell in with Eben Weld, who
had just returned from a trip up the Mississippi to report
to the eager Myrick that there were number of good
points where trade with the Indians could be established,
particularly at prairie La Crosse. J.J. Brisbois, the
postmaster, informed Myrick that at one time the American
Fur Company had some timber cut and had started a claim
at prairie La Crosse, but that the steamers had burned
the timber and no claim had been perfected.

These two men pooled their limited resources to form
the first of many partnerships in which Myrick was involved.
They borrowed a 40-ton government keelboat from
General Brooks, commandant of Fort Crawford, loaded it
with a stock of goods obtained from every merchant in
Prairie du Chien, except H. L. Dousman of the American
Fur Company, and set out.3

2. La Crosse Chronicle, December 20, 1908.
3. Myrick to E. A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.
 

Page 24

The problem of finding men to pole the heavy keel-boat
was solved by the appearance of Mr. Kurtz and three
fellow Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, who desired transportation
to the prairie La Crosse.

The partners and their Mormon crew arrived at prairie
la crosse on November 9, 1841. There they found no
timber for buildings, only a few oak shrubs. Nor was there
a man in sight, either white or Indian, or in the vicinity
of the prairie. The Indians were at the Turkey River
Agency drawing their money and supplies, but with their
return a good trade developed on Barron’s Island at a
double cabin made of logs purchased by Myrick in one of
is first timber transactions. 4

Fortunately, Myrick tranaciont open to study,
or three of his account books are now in the possession
of the Manuscript Division of the Wisconsin Historical
Library.

The first of these books records lists of goods
bought on credit by these two pioneer traders in Prairie
du Chien. These goods are divided into two groups, those
for the traders own use, and those for sale. In the first

4. Myrick to E. A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.
Sanford and others, History of La Crosse, 7.
Bryant, Memoirs, 32.
“Historical, picturesque and Descriptive” in LaCrosse
Illustrated (LaCrosse, 1887), 7.
Fadrelandet og Emigranten (LaCrosse), November 13,

Page 25

list are such items as a pair of mittens, a blank book,
a shovel, a pair of blankets ($10.00), a grindstone, four
spoons, a “kittle,” one axe ($.50), a frying pan, a coffee
pot, a padlock, and a rifle ($8.00).

In the second list of trading goods, some of the
prices are stated in dollars while others are entered in
Yankee shillings, i.e., twelve and one- half cents, eight
shillings to the dollar. 5 Very often no prices are given.
Typical of the items on the trading list are:

a card of beads, 12 shillings
2 barrels fine flour @ $7.00
4 barrels apples @ $5.00
6 pair scissors @ 2 shillings
20 lbs. candles @ 20 c.
13 paper needles
10 bushel corn
1 box raisins $3.00
3 kegs powder $30.00

It is obvious that Myrick and Weld are typical of
countless traders on the frontier, dealing in numerous
items arid operating on a narrow margin of credit and
profits.

Among Myrick and Weld’s customers are found in the names
of several well known Winnebago Indians: Chief “Winashiek”
who bought a coat for $10.00, flour $2.00, whiskey
$1.00, and Caramaunee who bought 1 barrel flour $6.00,
1 sack corn $5.00, and 1 dress $1.00.

Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 22
Myrick’s Account Books – Manuscript – Historical Library

Page 26

In their accounts with the Indians Myrick and Weld
used “descriptive terms instead of Indian names, which
they found too difficult to understand, and spell.” One
account with “Big Thick Lipped Indian” indicates he bought
two pounds of shot for two muskrats. Later this Indian
is credited with 15 muskrats and 7 muskrats.

But whiskey was the staple item of trade, for traders
considered it a prime necessity in the dealings with the
Indians. Such men as Dousman, head of the American Fur
Company, endorsed this practice, though he admitted its
terribly debauching effects upon the Indians, and in
spite of its prohibition by an act of Congress. In
Myrick’s account books there are few transactions involving
the sale of whiskey to the Indians.

“At one point in his accounts appears a list of skins
accumulated through several weeks.” 6 It included such
items as 26 minks @ .30, 8 otter, $2.50 each, 14 beaver
at $3.00 a pound, 80 coons @ .25, 8 wolf @ .25 and 70
pounds of dressed deer.7

Myrick and Weld acquired considerable cash along
with furs. Less than six weeks after beginning trade
they had accumulated $l00.00 In silver, as the Indians

6. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 23.
7. Myrick’s three account books -Manuscript - Wisconsin
Historical Library.

Page 27

had received their cash annuities which they spent at
their trading post

Myrick was as courageous as he was enterprising. In
need of more goods to sell; started for Prairie du
Chien in the dead of winter. For fear of losing the
$100.00 which he brought along to pay for goods while
crossing Coon Creek, then at flood stage, he threw the
money to the opposite shore. Then he crossed the
swollen stream on a log, bust midway fell into the icy
water up to his neck. Despite his half-frozen and numbed
condition he managed to make his way to a nearby camp of
drunken Indians. There, elderly and friendly Yellow
Thunder and his squaw recognized the stricken trader, and.
offered him lodging for the night.8

Myrick demonstrated his courage on another occasion
when he carried 3,500.00 in gold in a belt to Prairie
du Chien with only a pocket knife f or protection.9 Nor
did he find it necessary to carry a gun or revolver in
his travels and only once was he forced to fire, upon an
Indian who attacked him. He was always grateful that he
did not kill his assailant.

8. LaCrosse Tribune, December 24, 1922.
Bryant, Memoirs, 40.
LaCrosse Chronicle, December 20, 1908.

Page 28

During the winter months, Myrick and Weld added to
their finances by cutting wood and selling it “to the steamers
for $1.25 a cord. The also acquired some timber for
a cabin which they planned to build on the mainland. They
employed H: K. B. Miller (Scoots), who in the employ of
H. L. Dousman of Prairie du Chien was delivering goods to
the Indians at Onalaska, to transport their logs to the
prarie la crosse. 10 .

This frontier cabin 16 x 20 feet, erected by Myrick,
Weld, and Miller was hastily built. The first night that
Myrick slept in this crude house a northwest blizzard
swept in, ripping off the roof. Many times later Myrick
remarked on how at that moment he wished himself back
East.

Weld’s departure in March 1842 for Fort Snelling to
become superintendent of the Indian farm gave Myrick an
opportunity to buy his stock. But he still lacked sufficient
capital to risk the adventure alone, so he formed
a partnership with H. J. B. Miller. In order to get
their claim of 100 acres plowed and under cultivation,
Miller brought five yoke of oxen from Rockford, Illinois.

In the early summer of 1842, Myrick and Miller employed
men to get hewn pine longs in the Black river area

10. Myrick to E. A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.

Page 29

for a new house. The logs were transported by rafts for
this one and one-half story cabin. It was chinked and
painted with lime mortar, inside and outside, lathed,
plastered and weather-boarded outside. It had a shingle
roof and boasted a brick chimney. 11 Myrick obtained the
bricks and the lime at Galena and did the mason work himself.

To promote their land schemes, Myrick arid Miller
engaged Ira Brunson of Prairie du Chien to make a
survey of the town in 1842. This preceded the government
surveys of 1845 and 1846, and therefore not recorded.
But it covered the origonal plat of the village. 12

As Mississippi river boats could riot ascend the
Black river, cargoes were unloaded at LaCrosse. Myrick
and Miller stored and forwarded goods for a commission,
as is noted in the entry against John Adams and Company
for storing 63 sacks of corn $4.00 and against John
Lockwood for storing and hauling one barrel soap $.25. 13

Myrick’s operations had now reached a sufficient
scale so that he found it necessary to return East to
do his own purchasing. In 1843, on such a trip he combined
business and pleasure to visit his parents at

11. LaCrosse Tribune, February 19, 1916.
12. LaCrosse Tribune, August 9, 1931.
13. Myrick’s account books.

Page 30

Westport, New York and to marry Rebecca E. Isman of
Charlotte, Vermont. In September, they returned to
LaCrosse to find the Indians coming from far and near
to see the first white woman in LaCrosse. 14

It required great faith and courage for women to
establish themselves in this location. They were far
from home, in an unknown wilderness, and were without
the conveniences and society of the East.


As a token of the high regard which they felt for
him, the people of LaCrosse chose Myrick as postmaster.
Another indication is shown in the fact that the people
chose him as one of the three commissioners of Crawford
county which then included most of Western Wisconsin
north of the Wisconsin river.15

Myrick and Miller employed many of the Mormons who
in 1844 came up from Nauvoo, Illinois, to take refuge in
one of the coulees near LaCrosse, later known as Mormon
Coulee. Here they lived comfortably in 25 to 30 log
houses which they built. They were employed to cut
cordwood, rails and timber on the Black river. At the
end of the year, Myrick and Mi1ler sent their first raft
of lumber down the Black and Mississippi rivers to St.

14. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 27.
Myrick to E.A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.
15. LaCrosse Tribune, June 26, 1926.
Myrick to E. A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.

Page 31

Louis. This marked the beginning of the great lumber
industry at LaCrosse. 16

Elder Wight drew the pay for his fellow Mormons in
provisions to support the families. He forbad Gentiles
from entering his colony many young blades from
LaCrosse became interested in the Mormon girls. This
led to group resentments, both economic as well as
social. 17

In 1845 Myrick was informed that the Mormons on
Black river planned to join their kinsmen of LaCrosse
and depart by flatboat f or Nauvoo. With his own
business interests in mind, Myrick hastened to adjust
matters between them. The Mormons were determined
to leave, but left horses and oxen f or the amount owed
Myrick. That night they departed by the light of their
burning houses. 18

In 1846, Myrick and Miller entered their last business
venture on the Black River in partnership with A.O.
Dibble by purchasing a millsite, Myrick bought the mill
machinery at St. Louis. His venture was blighted, however

16. LaCrosse Tribune, June 6, 1926.501.
LaCrosse Tribune, July 9, 1933.
Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 501.
Louise Phelps Kellogg, “Story of Wisconsin” in Wisconsin
Magazine of History (Wisconsin, 1919), 202.
17. LaCrosse Tribune, June 7, 1931.
LaCrosse Tribune, April 1, 1946.
18. Albert H. Sanford, “The Mormons of Mormon Coulee” in
Wisconsin Magazine of History24, (Wisconsin, 1940),
129-142.

Page 32

by the fact that the waters of the Black river remained
very low for two seasons and the logs could not be moved.
On top of this, a sudden cloudburst tore out the dams
and scattered the logs far and wide. Myrick tried to
recover the logs, but unhappily was taken ill. In
the face of these repeated disasters, the partnership
dissolved and Myrick realized very little from his investment
Thoroughly discouraged, he decided to abandon
lumbering on the Black river for good and repudiated his
holdings including a mill which he and Spaulding had
built on the river.19

Myrick, however, retained interest in the land
investments in LaCrosse and in company with Levy, Snow,
White and Cameron journeyed in 1848 to Mineral Point to
buy lands at $l.25 per acre. These men believed right in their
“natural” right to occupy the land before it was surveyed
without fulfilling the legal requirements, arguing that
they had braved many dangers and had developed the wilderness
in the national service. 20

Another early lumberman, Timothy Burns, also correctly
judged the commercial possibilities of LaCrosse region in

19. LaCrosse Tribune, June 26, 1914.
LaCrosse Tribune, October 17, 1926.
20. Myrick to E. A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.
Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 501.

Page 33

1847 as he made a journey through the area. He purchased
an interest in the business of Myrick and Miller. Four
years later the three owners directed the official survey
of the townsite.21

Business failures and ill health, however, forced
Myrick to leave LaCrosse. In the spring of 1848 he accompanied
H. M. Rice who had the contract to remove the
Indians. Before leaving LaCrosse for St. Paul, however,
Myrick deeded to Miller a half interest in his townsite,
and to parties who had built houses, the lots on which
their houses stood.

In 1851, Timothy Burns then Lieutenant Governor of
Wisconsin, wished to buy Myrick’s interests In LaCrosse.
Myrick sold him half and kept the rest. It was sold
partly for cash with the balance on a two year credit
term.22 The first payment was made and for the second
payment Myrick took back one-fourth interest in the
original townsite of LaCrosse. From these Myrick profitably
sold many lots.

From St. Paul, he established trading posts at Sauk
Rapids, Itasca, Sauk Center, St. Peter, Yellow Medicine,

21. Leslie’s Weekly, LaCrosse, April 30, 1887.
LaCrosse Tribune, August 9, 1931.
Board of Trade Reports, 1885:61, 63.
22. Myrick to E.A. Copeland, June 28, 1892.
Albert H. Sanford, “Recollections of a Pioneer
Woman,” in LaCrosse Pioneers (Wisconsin, 1911), 210.

Page 34

Big Stone, Fort Ransom, Jamestown and Pembina, to continue
his career as a trader. His business connections
with the Sioux ended with the outbreak in 1862 but his
trading in Dakota continued until 1876 when he retired
from the fur trade to devote his remaining years to
real estate speculation. 23

23. Myrick to E.A. Copeland, June 28, l892.

Page 35

CHAPTER FOUR

MEN OF THE FOREST

The first white men in the LaCrosse area of whom
there is record were the French fur traders who knew the
forest trails well. Among the early traders were
Father Louis Hennepin, Michael Accau, and Antoine Anguel
who in 1680 were sent by LaSalle to explore the upper
Mississippi. Nicholas Perrot came by the Fox-Wisconsin
route to open trade at Trempealeau in 1685.

“In the next century many famous explorers passed
through the prairie LaCrosse. Among them were Carver
(1766), John Pike (1805), Schoolcraft end Cass (1819-
1820), and Long (1823).” Prairie la crosse was so named
from the ball game played on it by the Indians. 2 In
1835, some rails were cut and left by General Sibley,
H. L. Dousman and Francois LaBott, but LaBott, In whose
hands the matter was intrusted by his partners, neglected
to do the work and the rails were appropriated by passing
steamers for fuel. In 1839, United States troops camped
there to control the Indians.3

LaCrosse Chronicle, May 29, 1898.
Albert H. Sanford, “General Sketch of LaCrosse History”
in LaCrosse Historical Sketches II (LaCrosse,
1935), 7.
2. Sanford, General Sketch,” 5.
LaCrosse County Agricultural Statistics #202, 7.
LaCrosse Tribune, October 11, 1925.
3. Milwaukee Journal October 17, 1920.

Page 36

In 1841, the three Mormons who assisted Myrick to
pole the heavy keelboat carrying goods to trade with the
Indians, went to the Black river area. Strained relations
between the Mormons and an early sawmill operator,
Jacob Spaulding, led the latter to arm his men to guard
his mill and claims. In 1843, however, he sold out to
the Mormons f or $20,000 payable in lumber.

Meanwhile a large number of Mormons had settled at
Nauvoo, Illinois in 1839. Some of their numbers were
sent to the Black river area to get timber for a great
temple. In 1844, Spaulding received word of the death
of their leader at Carthage, Illinois. The Mormons then
disposed of their buildings, transferring the property
to Spaulding and departed for Nauvoo.4

Among the early settlers on the prairie la crosse
were Nathan Myrick, H 3. B. Miller, John Levy, Timothy
Burns, John Rublee and Chase Stevens. They were fully
aware of the favorable position of their little settlement.
Not so enthusiastic was Harvey Hubbard, a young
attorney, who said, “I wouldn’t give 25.00 for all the
sand knobs on that prairie.”5

4. Merrill, An Early History, 29.
Banner Journal, January 27, 1869.
5. Bryant, Memoirs, 33.

Page 37

In 1845, the total population of the village numbered
eighteen. 6 The next three to four years brought settlers
to the outlying territory as the progress after 1850 was
rapid and steady, although often discouraging to the
settlers. They were poor, lacking a cash crop comparable
in value to the furs which the Indians had used to barter
with the traders. Good agricultural lands, however, were
sound near Onalaska, New Amsterdam, Holmen, Mindoro and
West Salem. One of the earliest to push into the agricultural
back country was Mr. Lewis of Lewis Valley, near
Mindora, in l846. 7

Some settlers were influenced to migrate into Wisconsin
by state measure designed to attract people
from Europe with an offer of suffrage to any white person
of foreign birth who declared his intention of becoming
a citizen. Economic and social advantages of the state
were advertised including soil, climate, natural resources
and government land policy.8 Many were influenced
by this propaganda to establish homes and work
enthusiastically to achieve their dream of success in the
new land. 9

6. History of LaCrosse, 453.
“Historical, picturesque,” 7.
7. LaCrosse Historical Sketches II (LaCrosse, 1935), 21.
8. Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The United States of
America (New York, 1894). 1:306, 311.
Bryant, Memoirs, 34.
9. Republican and Leader, LaCrosse, July 1, 1876.

Page 38

At the opening of the Land Office in 1853, there
were seven hundred fifty four residents in LaCrosse. By
1856, the population reached two thousand five hundred and
in 1857 there were three thousand. inhabitants. The city
was incorporated in 1857. A large portion of its capital
was invested in the lumber business. 10

Immigrants came by prairie schooner, by wagons, and
by steamboat. As many as twenty-five steamboats came in
April 1853 with interested settlers. Many were too poor
to travel in steamboat cabins so they occupied the lower
deck both day and night with their “horses, cattle, and
hogs, dirt, dung and stench.” 11

At the completion of the LaCrosse and Milwaukee railroad
in 1858, LaCrosse saw a great influx of settlers.
Opportunities were sought in farming areas, in the
pineries, or in the city.12 The people of the settlements
turned out to welcome the new arrivals whether by
boat, train, or vehicle.13

The Yankees were among the first to start lumbering
in the wilderness. They realized the possibilities of
the industry as the wilderness was transformed into
cities and farms. They varied in activity from the

10. Leslie’s Weekly, April 30, 1887.
11. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 78.
12. Sanford, “Recollections of a Pioneer Woman,” 213.
13. Merk, Economic History, 86.

Page 39

lumberjack, toiling in the woods to the alert, shrewd
promoter, and sometimes a combination of both.14 Many
Canadians of French, Irish arid Scotch descent, plus an
untold number of Scandinavians arrived at LaCrosse,
spending their winters in the pineries to earn some
ready money. Many of these men could neither read nor
write, but they were good loggers. From early fall until
spring some of the men did not see their families or have
any word from them)-5 New England Yankees were credited
with moving westward to wherever a pine tree grew.16
Many of the men were glad to hire out to a lumber boss
and get free passage to the pineries even if they had to
rough it on deck with some cattle.

The Canadians took jobs as cruisers and loggers.
Germans, on the other hand, settled close to markets,
while others took to logging and to farming.17 One of
the workmen’s boarding shanties which stood near Black
river at Onalaska was called Fort Norway because the
region was dominated by Norwegians.18

14. Gregory, West Central Wisconsin, 1:212.
Walter Havighurst, Upper Mississippi, (New York,
1937), 161.
Banner Journal, November 21, 1931.
15. William W. Bartlett, History Tradition and Adventure
in the Chippewa Valley., (Chippewa Falls,1929), 232.
16. LaCrosse Chronicle, May 29, 1898.
17. Merrill, An Early History, 60.
18. LaCrosse Tribune and Leader Press, July 1, 1923,
July 13, 1924.
Theodore Christian Blegen, Norwegian Migration to
America (Northfield, 1931), 13, 64, 68.

Page 40

The men who worked in the woods were usually specimens
of good health; but there were old and young, shrewd
and slow witted; those whose eyes were clear and those
whose eyes shielded memories. All wore uniform clothing.
They were usually men of enormous energy, appetite and
endurance. Many hardships were endured in this life
remote from settlements, in the rough nature of their
work, the low wages, the coarse food, unsanitary lodging
and fraudulent company store. Such r1ames as “Lumber
Jacks” and “River Hogs” were often applied to them.19

As early as 1845 there were one hundred seventy-five
to two hundred men on the Black river while four years
later they numbered five and six hundred. William T.
Price arrived as a lawyer in that year with but fifty
cents and an axe to take work in the pinery. 20 1854,
there was no physician in Black River Falls as the place
was considered so healthy that if anyone did locate,
he would be forced to turn lumberman, landlord, legislator,
or to starve.21

The first operators in the pine districts were
pioneers who plunged all their money on a venture, often
to operate “on a shoe string” while waiting for increased

19. Gregory, West Central Wisconsin, 1:211, 234.
LaCrosse Democrat, May 29,1865.
20. Merrill, An Early History, 31.
21. LaCrosse Democrat, April 18, 1854.

Page 41

land values and profits for the next season.22 An exception
to the rule of partnership or single ownership
was the LaCrosse Lumber Company incorporated by C. C.
Washburn and five others. Many mill owners bought
timber first and built the mills afterwards; it was
important to get good timber. Not all who owned timber
owned mills, but allowed others to cut it. Before any
land was bought a cruiser or “landlooker” estimated the
amount of timber, noted nearness to streams, the ground
and the probable expense of getting logs to market.
These men were paid from 3.00 to 45.0O per day. 23 Occasionally
a cruiser estimated timber already purchased
by his employer. 24

Thus, having investigated and purchased the tract,
mill owners employed large crews during the winter to
log their timber. The cutting was usually let on contract,
the men cutting a certain amount f or a net sum.
The Island Mill Company of LaCrosse had its own crew
which cut the timber for the firm.25 Before any large
scale cutting of trees could be done, preparations to
house and feed the men and teams, to secure equipment

22. Fries, “Some Economic Aspects,” 14.
23. Gregory, West Central Wisconsin, 209.
24. Bowman, Why Wisconsin, 64.
25. Fries, “Some Economic Aspects,” 15.

Page 42

and supplies had to be made.26

Tremendous tasks of every kind were involved in establishing
a new industry. To cut, to saw and to market
the lumber was a big undertaking; it required continued
effort and hardship.27 It was no small risk to venture
all that one owned in the most inflammable of forest
lands, where wind storms ruined trees, floods destroyed
mills and rafts, low water held up logs, fires and explosions
burned the mills, worms damaged the logs and
frequent log jams delayed marketing. On top of these
hazards, lumbermen ran the risk of their capital by
financial panics, and the Initial rewards were sometimes
meager.28 During fires, people with grievances against
a company would avail themselves of the opportunity to
destroy other property of the firm. 29

In 1871, Ruel Weston of LaCrosse owned four thousand
acres of timberland on the Black river completely destroyed
by fire.3 Fires often destroyed piles of lumber
also and fire insurance rates were high as fires were a
constant hazard. Rates were 10 percent on the mill and
3 to 5 percent on the lumber piled in the yards. The
fire danger was the principle force behind the water

26. Gregory, West Central, 211.
27. Haney, Pine Lumbering, 79.
28. Polleys, Pioneer Days, 53.
Bowman, Why Wisconsin, 62.
Gates, Wisconsin Pine Lands,” 88.
29. LaCrosse Chronicle - Microfilm, July 29, 1879.
Republican and Leader Press (LaCrosse), October 14, 1871.

Page 43

system of LaCrosse. 31 Sometimes insurance companies refused
to insure companies; on the other hand some owners
refused to insure because of high rates. Several mills
were destroyed by fire, notably among them -- Holway,
Colman, Paul and Polleys.

The foreman or boss usually went into the woods in
with a skeleton crew while the other man followed.
The lumber camp was usually located near the
center of the area to be out and was put on well drained
ground if possible. The buildings, constructed of logs,
chinked with mud or mortar had shakes for a roof. The
usual set of buildings consisted of a store, office, cook
and eating shanty, bunkhouses, stables, blacksmith shop
and storehouse; sometimes the store or “wanegan” carried
clothing, medicines and tobacco to be purchased on
credit. system of fused to refused were des Coirnan,
Some contractors were financially irresponsible
and defrauded the men of entire seasons wages, even
leaving some of the workers in debt.33

The size of the labor force in a camp depended on
the extent of operations. The men were usually given
special duties. The bookkeeper and timekeeper kept time
and made out the payroll; swampers cleared off the

31. LaCrosse Tribune, July 4, 1948.
32. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse,
33. Merk, Economic History, 109.

Page 44

branches; filers sharpened saws; toters brought in the
supplies; blacksmiths shod horses and repaired the tools;
road foremen built roads and iced them in winter; barn-men
took care of the stables; and the cook, with several
assistants, made the meals. 34

The food served in some of the first camps was
coarse and without variety. With improved transportation
the fare changed from bread and salt pork to include
beans, tea, molasses, doughnuts, cookies, catfish, bass,
pike, wild ducks, berries, oysters and raised biscuits;
also available at times were sauerkraut, fresh beef,
butter and milk, prunes, salt, lard, flour and spices.
Table dishes were nearly all of tin and the silver ware
was of poor quality. The cook who could do his work with
the least waste was In great demand. His helpers cut the
wood for he cook stove, swept the floor, carried water,
peeled potatoes, washed dishes and served the food. 35

The men slept in the bunkhouse where the beds were
often made of hemlock boughs and there was one large
thick quilf to cover the bed. Many such lodgings were
unsanitary. When building dams or moving logs, the men

34. Fries, “Some Economic Aspects,” 15.
LaCrosse County Sketches, 3:15.
35. Cass an Albert Nelson interviews.
Bartlett, History Tradition, 232.
Merk, Economic History, l09.
Merrill, An Early History, 74.

Page 45

slept in tents. Here mosquitoes, black riles, and midges
bothered them.

Many of the lumber jacks were only part time workers
as Peter Cass, for example, who worked l00 to 120 days a
season on the Black river; the remainder of the year he
worked on farms in the locality. He followed this pattern
for thirty-two summers beginning 1879 to 1901. He was
often ordered to go out on one log to pick up strays where
a boat could not go. His boss was Allie Johnston, who was
the foreman on the river for thirty-five years.36

The men furnished their own amusement which took the
form of story telling, reciting poems, singing songs,
fighting, stag dances or dances where women were in the
minority. Music was furnished by a fiddler. Burling
or log rolling was a favorite sport. Some entered upon a
drunken debauchery that lasted until their money was gone
in places along Black river which kept women and whiskey.
Robberies, and even murders, occurred in those places.37
Sometimes practical jokes were played on new workmen or
greenhorns.8 Some of the latter had to be tagged as to
name and company as they could. not understand each other

36. Mrs. Are Johnston interview, June 11, 1953.
Cass interview.
37. Gregory, West Central Wisconsin, 272.
Fries, Empire in Pine, 236.
3. Havighurst Upper Mississippi, 175.
38. Cass Interview.

Page 46

Some workmen passed from chopping and sawing trees
in the woods to work on the rafts, at the mills, and in
transporting the goods to the ultimate consumer. Those
who chose to be raftsmen on the rivers had vigorous
struggles with nature, Indians and river pirates. They
were hardy adventurers, accustomed to long hours and
privations; fearless in character, reckless in habits
and lax in morals. They led a rude and carefree life,
often making the banks of the Mississippi echo with
their songs, jokes and jests..’ The journey back on the
steamboat was usually one long carousal. By the time
they got back their money was gone and they were glad to
get back to work. They worked by the month, the season
or the trip. The company paid all the expenses and took
all the chances. They usually had plenty of food although
often a beef was pilfered along the river when
available. A pilot’s reputation depended on the time
in which ha made his trip. Rivalry between pilots a
race against time concerned them all season.40

The workers were paid in full after the millmen received
their money for the lumber. The average laborer
worked 11 hours a day (6 a.m. to 12 and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.)

40. Charles Jagow, “Early Mississippi Transportation” in
LaCrosse Historical Sketches II, (Lacrosse, 1935)
Blair, A Raft Pilot’s Log, 36.
Havighurst, Upper Mississippi, 167

Page 47

and received $1.50 per day and board. 41 Swampers were
paid the least of all, earning from $16.00 to $20.00 per
month; choppers received $35.00; teamsters $30.00; filers
$5.00 to $10.00 daily and sawyers $4.00; and raft pilots
$3,000.00 per year. 42 Wages usually were paid according
to skill required. Women as well as men were employed
in the sawmills at Onalaska where they worked as shingle
edgers, sorters and packers.43 Often boys were given
work and because of their small stature were referred to
as “trundlebed trash.” 44


Integration of the industry brought about a growing
costliness, a need I or a skilled labor force and a greater
efficiency in, the use of improved machinery in the woods,
the sawmills and in transportation. An indication of the
growing wealth and maturity of the industry was the fact
that many leading lumbermen were active in the public
life of the city and state serving in various positions
oe responsibility.

41. Cass interview.
42. Lacrosse Democrat, May 29, 1865.
43. Hannibal Plain, “Black River Boom” in LaCrosse Historical
Sketches V, (LaCrosse, l940), 74.
44. Carrie Saunders, “Early Days in Onalaska” in LaCrosse
Historical Sketches I (LaCrosse, 1931), 17.
LaCrosse Tribune and Leader Press, February 7, 1932.

Page 48

CHAPTER FIVE

RIVERS, RAFTS and RAILWAYS

Next to pine itself, the rivers were of prime importance
in the Wisconsin lumber industry. They tended
to flow “outward radially,” thus dividing the state’s
forest lands into distinct lumbering areas.1 At the
boundaries of the state they joined the Great Lakes and
the Mississippi river. These in turn connected them to
great market areas.2

Before 1858, the only transportation facilities
available to LaCrosse residents were wagons drawn by
horses or oxen, and the two rivers, the Black and the
Mississippi. LaCrosse merchants tried to lay in a
supply of goods before the rivers froze over as most of
their goods came by way of the Mississippi river. Supplies
could be obtained at Prairie du Chien but it entailed
a journey of much inconvenience in the winter due
to severe climate, poor accommodations along the way, and
the long distance.3

1. Merk, Economic History, 60.
2. Fries,” Founding of the Lumber Industry,” 25.
Bowman, Why Wisconsin (Madison, 1948), 62.
3. Board of Trade reports, 1898, 51.

Page 49

Some Mississippi river boats could not ascend the
Black river and it became necessary for cargoes to be unloaded
in LaCrosse.4 In summer, the journey by keelboat
was accomplished in one day, while during the winter it
took three and a half to four days to go by sleds drawn
by horses on the ice.5
A variety of craft used on the Mississippi consisted
of canoes, barges, keelboats, flatboats and steamboats.
Some were towed while others had sails.6 In 1854, two
public ferries were introduced to give better crossing
service between the east and west bank.7 The “Lynx,”
built by Hercules Dousman, was the first, steamboat (1845)
between LaCrosse and the down river towns. 8

Packet boats adapted to navigation of shallow rivers
carried freight and passengers. Barges loaded with
freight, wheat and ice were often towed by packet boats.
On September 14, 1859,a steamboat company organized
by Davidson Brothers operated a fleet or boats at regular
scheduled trips on the Mississippi, the Chippewa, the
Black, the St. Croix, and the Minnesota rivers. The
railroads depended on the boats to carry mail, passengers

4. Bryant Memoirs, 34, 36.
5. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 52, 79.
6. Jagow, “Early Mississippi Transportation,” 1:29.
7. LaCrosse Tribune, June 26, 1914.
8. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 151.

Page 50

and freight to the opposite shore of the river at
LaCrosse.9

Covered wagons or “prairie schooners” came from the
east and departed across the river by ferry. As many as sixty-one
of these came in one day in June 1856.

Some well-to-do travelers patronized the stages
that ran in several directions to and from LaCrosse.
Agitation soon began for better service and better roads
over these routes. As the State constitution stated that
it should not contract debts for internal improvements,
results were slow.

The trees of the forest nearest the rivers were cut
first as the principal way of transporting the logs to
the mills was by floating them down the rivers. The
logs were hauled by oxen, horses, and logging railroads
to the rivers. (Oxen were used until 1892 in the Black
river pineries.)10 The logs were piled on the ice and
along the banks awaiting high water..

In 1853, Black River Booming and Log Company was
organized. Booms were built by many mill owners on
streams. Booms were floating dams for storage of logs
until sawed into lumber. They often held up log drives

9. H. J. Hirshheimer, “LaCrosse River History and the
Davidson’s” in Wisconsin Magazine of History 28,
(Wisconsin, 1945), 269.
Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 130, 133.
10. LaCrosse Tribune, July, 1948.
 

Page 51

and resulted in many bitter fights. As early as 1855,
W. W. Crosby built a boom on the Black river at Onalaska.
At the Beef Slough Company boom on the Chippewa it was
possible to hold twenty miles of 1ogs. 11

The Black River Booming and Log Company became the
Black River Improvement Company in 1864 and controlled
the river from source to mouth.. Inspectors for the
company attempted to establish proper log markings for
identification. These marks were registered with the
surveyor general.12 One mark was called the “bark mark”
cut through the bark into the sap with an axe, another
was the “end mark” put on each end with a stamping
hammer. Both marks were identical. Bonnema’s logs of
New Amsterdam, on the Black river were marked OB. 13

The Black River Improvement Company attempted to
prevent fires in the mills and the forests; to prevent
stealing by proper markings, to build booms for storage,
and to remove obstructions in the river bed which hindered
transportation.14

Weyerhaeuser, the head of the organization, planned
a great “pool” from which each owner got out an appropriate

11. History of LaCrosse County, 604.
Gregory, West Central, 212, 226.
3. J.M. Turner “Rafting on the Mississippi” in Wisconsin
Magazine of History (Wisconsin, 1940), 437.
12.Harry G. Dyer, “How We Built anLog Raft” in Chas. E.
Brown Manuscript Collections, Box 5, Wisconsin
Historical Library.
13. Cass interview.
14. Merrill, An Early History, 55.

Page 52

amount of a drive, whatever he put in. This meant a
great exchange of logs. His mill, “the largest in the
world,” closed in 1911 when the resources of the Chippewa
were exhausted.15

Between 1853 and 1897, records reveal that 4, 920, 811, 340
feet passed through the Black River Improvement boom at
Onalaska; the product valued at sixty million dollars.16
The Mississippi Logging Company, greatest lumber syndicate
of its day organized inl87l, controlled the movement
and delivery of logs. This company dissolved in
1909. 17

Rafting, a method used by lumbermen to get their
timber products to market, was a slow but inexpensive
process. Boards 12 to 20 courses deep made a “crib;”
6 or more cribs formed a “string,” and S to”18 strings
constituted a raft. Cabins of the crew and bundles of
shingles, lath and pickets were on top of the lumber
rafts. Rafts became larger s the industry assumed larger
proportions depending on the water stage. They went down

15. Raney, Wisconsin, A Story, 208.
16. LaCrosse Chronicle, October 21, 1906. -
Harry C. Dyer, “Sawmills at the upper Mississippi and
the St. Croix Rivers 1842-1910” in Chas. E. Brown
Manuscript collections Box 5, Wisconsin Historical
Library.
17. Gates, Wisconsin, Pine Lands, 58.
Merk, Economic History, 76.
Raney, Pine Lumbering, 83.
Blair, Raft Pilot’s Log, 34.

Page 53

the river at three to four miles an hour. 18

Logs were rafted in brails which consisted of loose
logs placed end to end and side by side and encircled by
a frame of boom logs which held the loose ones in place.
Wires were stretched crosswise from boom to boom to keep
the brails from spreading.19

Immense log rafts twelve hundred to sixteen hundred
fee long, three hundred feet wide, containing three
million feet or more went down the river in a single tow;
some filled the river from shore to shore. 20

Albert Nelson of Holmen for seven years helped build
rafts on the Black river, while Alfred Thoreson worked
as a brailler at St. Paul; his brother Carl had employment
at West Newton. Olaus Granuum served as foreman
of the rafting yards at St. Paul.21

Tow boats or raft boats of the stern-wheel type
moved the heavy lumber rafts to market. There were too
many snags and sunken logs, commonly called deadheads in
the channel to permit the use of a propellar type of
wheel. Deadheads were saw logs with sappy ends butts,
heavier at the butt end which sank making the log stand

18. Merk, Economic History, 83.
19. Frank T. Fugina, Lore and Lure of the Mississippi
(Winona, Minn., 1945), 46.
20. Milwaukee Sentinel, April 29, 1923.
21. Albert Nelson interview.

Page 54

nearly on end. They were a menace to navigation and
often called “hull inspectors.”22 A steamboat at the
bow did the guiding, and the one at the stern did the
towing or pushing after 1856.23

LaCrosse men with their raftboats operated in all
kinds of weather and in all stages of water on the
Mississippi, the Black, the Chippewa, and the St. Croix
rivers; they handled some of the products shipped to
LaCrosse by rail from the Wisconsin river pinery. Some
raftboats were elegantly furnished by wealthy lumbermen
to make trips with their families up and down the river
while the boats were towing rafts.

The pilot and his crew took log and lumber rafts
down stream to mills or markets. Until the middle of
the sixties, all rafts of both logs and lumber ware
floated down by the current and kept in the channel,
clear of sand bars, heads of islands, bridge piers or
any other danger.24 To get the rafts to market required
pilots of good memory, good eyesight, strong muscle,
nerve and skill. It was hard, rough work; the men were
often in icy waters up to their waists.25

22. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 78.
23. Usher, Wisconsin, Its Story, 186.
Havighurst, Upper Mississippi, 194.
Fugina, Lore and Lure, 4.
24. Blair, Raft Pilot’s Log, 34.
25. Turner, “Rafting on the Mississippi, 24.

Page 55

On June 12, 1879, near LaCrosse, a raftsman missed
his footing at the east head of a log raft and fell in.
He swam diagonally until he cleared the log raft of ten
strings and came up on the west side of the raft. 26

On July 4, 1846, Mr. Nichols arrived with a raft
at LaCrosse and ordered the best dinner available. Celebrations
were held whenever rafts arrived and after dinner
speeches made. Nichols stamped so hard on a whiskey
barrel upon which he stood delivering his speech that he
fell in. Diffcu1ty was experienced getting him out.27

While on the journey down stream the men on the
rafts spent time singing songs; also whittled models of
steamboats, made chairs, houses and ladders. The finest
of pine was always at their diposal.28 Peculiarities
of the pilot were noted and resulted in such names as
“Muskrat,” “Foghorn,” or “Foxy Grandpa.” The first
steam calliope was heard by 1870 on the towboats; others
had a six to eight piece colored orchestra. Raft boats
flourished until the pine was gone.29 The last log raft
went down the river in 1912; the last lumber raft in l9l5. 30

To supplement river transportation, the Milwaukee
railroad entered the city in 1858. The road, a LaCrosse

26. LaCrosse Chronicle, Microfilm, Jt2ne 8, 1879.
27. Sanford, “Recollections of a Pioneer,” 203.
28. Fugina, Lore arid Lure, 51,
29. J. Hirschheimer interview, June 10, 1950.
30. Dyer, “Raft Boat Pilot’s Log,” Manuscript.
 

Page 56

enterprise, originated with T.B. Stoddard, the first
mayor of LaCrosse, who also actively promoted the Southern
Minnesota railroad in 1855.

Timothy Burns, S. T. Smith and B. B. Healy were the
planning commissioners for the Milwaukee road chartered
in 1847 as the Milwaukee and Waukesha, an changed to
Milwaukee and the Mississippi in 1850. Later this road
extended to Chicago and became known as Chicago, Milwaukee,
and St. Paul.31 Frontier communities needed railroads
to secure settlers, to open markets, to get produce to
markets, and to enhance the value of every business, farm
and vil1ae lot. 32 A small demand for lumber caused low
shipments of it by rail in 1876 as the wheat crop had
failed and the waters in the rivers were low.33

Railroads for log transportation came into use in
the Black river area in the late 80’s.34 Several attempts
were made to built a railroad to Black River Falls from
LaCrosse for the transportation of logs. This failed as
the majority or the operators were originally from the
east where water transportation was considered the cheapest
way.35

31. LaCrosse Tribune and Leader Press, January 30, l927;
February 7, 1932.
Board of Trade Reports, 1898.
John Bernd, “LaCrosse and Milwaukee Railroad Grant”
in Wisconsin Magazine of History (Wisconsin, 1946),
142-153.
32. LaCrosse Tribune, June 27, 1948.
33. Northwestern Lumberman (Chicago, 1876), 1.
34. Leslie’s Weekly, April 30, 1887.
35. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse. 161

Page 57

The final connecting link in a transportation series
was joined in 1876, when the railroad bridge spanned the
Mississippi river.36 By 1887, transportation facilities
were exceptionally good at LaCrosse by means of the
Mississippi river and by three railroads -- the Chicago,
Milwaukee and St. Paul, the Northwestern, and the Chicago,
Burlington and Quincy.37

In 1898, this tremendous growth of LaCrosse as a
transportation center was dramatically revealed by the
arrival and departure of 30 passenger trains and 100
freight trains every 24 hours.38

36. LaCrosse Tribune, February 7, 1932; May 9, 1945.
H.J. Hirschheimer, Chamber of Commerce Notes, (LaCrosse, 1932).
37. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 147.
38. Board of Trade Reports, 1893, 53.

Page 58

CHAPTER SIX

FROM FOREST TO CONSUMER

The fame of the white pine in Wisconsin territory
quickly spread to the At1artio seaboard. Thus many
easterners skilled in lumbering shouldered their axes and
headed westward. As the lands passed into private ownership,
logging camps rapidly developed. Crews of men
from the small villages and from the farming areas also
spent the winter in the pineries.

The primary job of the camp crews was the felling
of trees. At4 first only the choicest trees near a
stream were cut. As prices rose and smaller logs became
acceptable on the market, some lands were cut over
several times.2

No tool seemed more symbolic of the lumbering industry
in its youth than the axe. The men of the frontier
were expert in its use and knew how to tell a tree in whatever
direction they desired.3 As soon as the trees were
down the branches were cut off and the sawyers arrived to
cut it into proper lengths of twelve, fourteen, and sixteen
feet for the sawmills.4

1. Cass interview.
2. Albert Nelson interview.
3. Northwestern Lumberman, December 9, 1876
4. Larson, White Pine, 30.

Page 59

Oxen were usually used in the Black river area in
“snaking” the logs to a skidway where the logs were
loaded on huge sleds pulled by horses or oxen. At the
riverbanks these logs were piled and awaited the coming
of spring, rains and floods which would bring them downstream
to the sawmills.

Time produced many changes in the tools and the
techniques of lumbering. Straight axe handles gave way
to the curved handles while before many years the cross
cut saw eliminated the axe altogether as a felling tool.
The arrival of railroads eliminated banking on the
streams.6

As the of the industry increased, owners of
timberlands let their logging work to contractors who,
assumed the risks, furnished the equipment and the
labor. Keen competition forced these contractors to an
ever increasing efficiency.

In the spring it was urgent that logs be started on
their way to the mills. Damage by fire, worms, and sap
stains were ever present when in a pile. As the logs
were released to join the fast moving waters of the river,
the workmen labored to keep the logs moving, and to

5. Merrill, An Early History, 54.
6. Larson, White pine, 32.
Cass interview.

Page 60

gather up those that got away.7

The chief tools used by these rivermen were the (1)
pike pole, sixteen foot long pointed pole, by which the
logs could be reached on shore and maneuvered back into
the water; (2) the jam pike, five foot long pole, which
had a point which when driven into a log would permit a
person to stand n another and ride along down the river
In comfort; (3) the cant hook, commonly used oil the Black
river, had an adjustable hook’ on the end; (4) and the
peavey, “a combination of cant hook and jam pike which was
used as a lever or as a gripping tool.” 8

With the rapid expansion of the industry after the
Civil War, lumbermen realized the importance of some
central organization f or control of drives, booms, and
dams. The Black River Improvement and the Chippewa River
Booming Company tried to accomplish these aims on their
respective rivers.

The boom companies handled the disposal problem of
prize logs, strays and scrabble. A prize log was one
without its owner’s name which had not been claimed within
a year. A stray was a marked log but misdirected at the

7. Blair, A Raft Pilot’s Log, 37.
Bowman, Why Wisconsin? 62.
Cass interview.
8. Cass and Albert Nelson interviews.
Larson, White Pine, 43.; 78
Fries, Empire in Pine, 43

Page 61

sorting works. Scrabble, any loose log marked or unmarked
that had escaped being rafted.9

The feasibility of rafting logs, to prevent loss on
the Mississippi or lake area was demonstrated by the
Mormons as they rafted logs for their church edifice at
Nauvoo; also, by the St. Croix company which gathered its
logs at Stillwater arid formed rafts which arrived at St.
Louis. After 1870, rafting was a common practice.

The weather exerted great influence on the movement
of logs and lumber, hence on the business itself. In-ability
to move logs brought financial failure to many
who were forced to operate on credit. Marketing stability
also rested on the weather, and if crops failed due to
weather or grasshoppers farmers tailed to buy lumber for
new buildings.10 Finally, the finished product and the
profits were affected by the quality of the mill machinery
and the competence of the workers.

The mulay saw with a capacity of 15,000 feet daily
as a maximum was used by Burns, Rublee, Simonton and
Smith, first mill in LaCrosse. It was extremely slow
and operated on an up-and-down motion, quitting only on
the down motion.11

9. Blair, A Raft Pilot’s Log, 48, 119.
Cass interview.
10. Northwestern Luiberm8n, August 9, 1879.
11. Fries, Empire in Pine, 61.
Hotchkiss , History of Lumber, 501.

Page 62

The circular saws, sometimes called rotary saws
were usually five to five and a half feet in diameter.
These were not economical to use as they cut a half inch
kerf. The Ohio Mill had one mulay, one rotary, and one
gang saw.

The gang saws cut dimension lumber. These held a
number of blades which cut a log into proper dimensions
in one operation.

The band saw was a continuous strip of metal about
fifteen inches wide and fifty feet long with teeth in one
edge, operated by a pulley belt. This saw cut a very thin
kerf and so produced as much as possible from a log.12

The C.L. Colman Mill changed its manufacture of
breasted shingle to that of the sawed shing;e the use
of the horsepower to that of the mammoth engines; and production
from five thousand to three hundred thousand feet
daily capacity. In 1886, they operated two band, two
gang saws, two edgers and one trimmer as well as shingle
and lath machinery. An annual capacity of forty million
feet lumber, sixteen million shingles, and six million
lath was produced b the firm. Waterpower and steam
engines were used for power as long as the industry lasted.13

12. Larson, White Pine, 20.
Fries, Empire in Pine, 61.
Hotchkiss, History of. Lumber, 502.
13. Linley, Brief History, 203 .
Usher, Wisconsin, Its Story, 1:163.
Fries, Empire in Pine, 63.
C.L. Colman Manuscript Papers. Wisconsin Historical

Page 63

Many improvements came in the sawmills for the transportation
of logs to the saws, as in the direct feed; the
“steam nigger” which turned the logs; the endless-chain
which brought in logs; and the carriers for finished products
and the waste.14 The portable mill came into being
after 1867 when railroads made their advance west. Up
to that time permanent mills were built close to the
forest as an economy measure.

With increased efficiency by improved machines, new
production records were achieved. In 1860, fifty thousand
board feet a day were produced, while in 1867, a new
quota of two hundred thousand feet was reached. Towing,
lumber rafts by steamer cut time over current. The advent
of the railroads enabled the industry to exploit
new timber resources, to get new markets; and to save
losses through water soaked and mud-covered logs.15

The final stage of the lumber industry, like any
other manufacture, is to get it to the consumer. Many
mill owners had lumber yards at their mills, and some
had them in towns along the railroad tracks going westward
LaCrosse commanded a considerable hinterland on
the Wisconsin side of the river where lumber found a
steady market.

1. Merk, Economic History, 70.
2. Ibid.
Fries, Empire in Pine, 63

Page 64

Much of the lumber sawed at the Oepke Bonnema sawmill
at New Amsterdam, the Nichol’s mill at Onalaska and
the numerous sawmills of LaCrosse found its way to the
farms in the coulees near LaCrosse, Onalaska, Holmen,
and Galesville. Many settlers hunted “strays” and “deadheads”
on the lowlands and claimed them f or their own.16

LaCrosse producers also sought markets in southern
Minnesota. The Southern Minnesota railroad extended
through the southernmost tier of counties in Minnesota to
Flandreau, South Dakota, a distance of three hundred and
six miles.17 This rich agricultural section was settled
rapidly.18

In 1872, the Southern Minnesota, transported six
million, one hundred eighty nine thousand feet of lumber;
in 1873, eight million, three hundred twenty four thousand
feet; and In 1874, ten million, three hundred fifty thousand,
seventy eight feet. In 1877, a reduction of lumber
sale hit producers hard as grasshoppers ruined crops in
the area. The Southern Minnesota railroad carried lumber
into the prairie country, arid wheat on its return
trip. By 1879, the Southern Minnesota carried twenty
million’ feet of lumber, eighty thousand shingles, and three
hundred thousand laths westward from LaCrosse. For a
period, this profitable lumber market belonged exclusively
to LaCrosse and in response to the insatiable demand of

16. Cass Interview

Page 65

this vast hinterland, LaCrosse rose quickly in prominence
in the lumber world. 19

To meet the growing markets, production statistics
in LaCrosse reached impressive totals. By 1879 the cut
of the LaCrosse mills reached seventy-four million, one
hundred sixty-five thousand feet with the C. L. Colman,
John Paul, P. S. Davidson, and the Hixon Withee Mill
the chief producers.20

LaCrosse mills operated only part time, employing one
thousand, two hundred twenty-five people and paying
$356,374.00 in wages f or the year 1881. This year also
marked a capacity production of one hundred forty-seven
million, ninety-seven thousand, nine hundred eighty feet,
a striking increase over 1879. Thus LaCrosse had ten
large sawmills with a capacity of over one million feet
per day.21

The prairies of Illinois, Indiana, and the plains
beyond the Mississippi attracted many immigrants as well
as veterans returning from the war. Here they found a
treeless area with little to use but sod for houses and
shelters. Each settler’s needs were limited, but when
multiplied by thousands of pioneers as well as that of
the rising cities and towns, the aggregate demand was
great. The army, too, placed large orders for timber.22

19. Ibid., 110.
Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 35.
20. Board of Trade Reports, 1879, 25.
21. Board of Trade Reports, 1881, 33.

Page 66

Large amounts of lumber from LaCrosse went on rafts
to towns far down the Mississippi. The sale was usually
made in one .of two ways; the lumber dealers came to the
mill town to buy or milimen sent their products to the
towns to he sold.23

LaCrosse served as the major port or outlet through
which the pine and hardwood sought a market. The
Mississippi river and the railroads gave it rivaling
facilities of transportation and along these several
routes ambitious towns welcomed the arrival of lumber
from which to build their dreams of expansion and
growth.24

3. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 163.
24. Board of Trade Report 1881, 33.

Page 67

CHAPTER SEVEN

THE End OF AN ERA

In the infancy of the lumbering industry the myth
that “the pine of the forests is inexhaustible” was
widely accepted. This prediction proved to be erroneous
and the collapse of the industry came with “dramatic
suddenness,” thus the timber history of the east repeated
itself in the west.2 The lumbermen’s rapid use
of the forest, the terrible destructiveness of uncontrolled
fires, and the lack of conservation were
responsible for the end of the industry.3

Wisconsin maintained first rank among lumbering
producing states in 1900 and held the position until
1905, when it yielded to the state of Washington.4 In
western Wisconsin the chief sources of pine were exhausted
as follows: Wisconsin river, 1876; Black river, 1897;
Chippewa river, 1905; and the St. Croix, l914. Thus
from 1841 to 1905, lumbering was the leading industry in
the LaCrosse area and it was as important to LaCrosse as

1. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 172.
Larson, White Pine, 110.
2. LaCrosse Tribune, July 24, 1924.
3. Fries, Empire in Pine, 246.
4. Wisconsin Blue Book by Industrial Commission of Wisconsin
(Wisconsin, 1915), 11.
5. Blair, Raft Pilot’s Log, 171, 291.

Page 68

iron to Pittsburgh or beer to Milwaukee.7 LaCrosse developed
and commanded a large trade in many lumber products
in the growing towns on the Mississippi and in the
west.

With the complete disappearance of pine and the
closing of the sawmills, however, LaCrosse was fortunate
in the rise and expansion of local manufacturing. During
the period from 1855 to 1880, industry centered around
home crafts in which small shops made and sold their own
products, such as pails and plows. The development of
the pineries greatly increased the demands on LaCrosse
merchants for such items as tools, food and clothing
supplies. The demands of agricultural areas included
implements, furniture, tobacco and the planning mill products.
All these helped to develop LaCrosse as a wholesale
center.9

The years from 1880 to 1905, were a period of tremendous
increase in sawmill output, reaching a peak and
then declining rapidly. At the same time a steady growth
in manufacture was taking place which enabled LaCrosse to
stand the closing of the mills without a permanent setback.10

6. Turner, “Rafting on the Mississippi,”l63.
7. History of LaCrosse, 604.
8. Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 509.
9. Sanford and others, Eistory of LaCrosse, 180.
10. LaCrosse Tribune, July 2B, 1936.
 

Page 69

By 1899 only three mills operated in LaCrosse - the Colman,
the Trow and tie Hoiway. In Onalaska, only the Niohol’s
mill was operating.11 As Colman had bought a large supply
of Chippewa logs, he kept his mill running until
1903; Holway’s mill burned in 1903; Nichols finished in
1902; Trow cleaned up and sawed all the logs from the
booms, piles and other stray logs left along the Black
river in 1905.12

The rapid development of other industries from 1880
to 1900 enabled the three thousand laborers who lost their
jobs in forest products’ manufacture to be absorbed in
local industries such as the flour mills, breweries, foundries,
machine shops, tobacco and clothing factories and
the rubber plant. Some of the skilled men followed their
employers to other parts or the United States. By 1903
local industries excluding lumber and its allied
interests, employed eight thousand, three hundred forty-
three hands and paid out 3,533,493 in wages. By 1904
the number of hands increased to eight thousand, five
hundred fifty-six with wages at f3,6l1,420 in the city of
thirty-two thousand inhabitants.

In 1904, Dun’s Commercial Agency credits LaCrosse
with eight hundred thirteen active business firms of
which one hundred ten were manufacturing concerns and
thirty-two were exclusively wholesale, not engaged in
manufacture.13

11. Theodore Nelson interview, June 11, 1953.
12. LaCrosse Historical Sketches, 3:9l.
 

Page 70

After 1905, Industry developed several very large
manufacturing units such as the Trane Company, Northern
Engraving, Motor Meter Gauge, Allis Chalmers and Segelke
Kohhaus.14

The pine forests played a major role in the development
of the LaCrosse area as well as the state and national
economies. The industry helped first to populate the area
as it attracted many men. Thus it helped the farm areas
by providing a market f or surplus agricultural commodities.
It also helped the farm families in providing good timber
for their buildings and by providing money to pay for
their farms, as many farmers worked in the pineries during
the winter season. Many individuals received training
in business management which was useful in other
industries. Some managers and owners accumulated large
fortunes even though outside capital had not been available
to them.5 Many homes and business establishments
built by these founders are still in existence. Still
others gained positions of leadership in the economic and
political lIfe of the state.’6 Some of the “lumber
barons” and their families relocated in the South and

14. Cass interview.
Fries, Empire in Pine, 244.
15. “Historical, Picturesque, Descriptive,” 20.
Fries, Empire in Pine, 254.
LaCrosse Chronicle, October 21, 1906.
16. Raney, Wisconsin, A Story, 90.
 

Page71

West, others invested their capital in banks, railroads,
stores and flour mills.

Again there were those who contributed to various
public programs such as C. C. Washburn. To his public
spirit is due the Washburn Observatory at Madison,
Wisconsin; the Public Library at LaCrosse, Wisconsin; and
an orphanage in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His beautiful
residence at Edgewood near Madison, Wisconsin, he gave
to the Catholic Sisters.17

As a result of the unrelenting decline in the productivity
of pine, lower grades of timber came into use
as well as an increased use of the hardwoods such as
maple, birch and oak. But even before this period of
decline, the idea of conservation was growing. C. C.
Washburn repeatedly urged owners of pinelands to conserve
the great heritage that was theirs. Newspapers and magazines
carried articles on methods practiced in European
countries. State Horticultural Societies promoted
policies of conservation. The State later developed a
policy of reforestation in the areas which were formerly
forest lands.18 Tod conservation and reforestation
are advocated by farm and youth groups of the area.

17. Sanford and others, History of LaCrosse, 241.
Hotchkiss, History of Lumber, 506.
18. Fries, Empire in Pine, 250.

Page 72

Unhappily, there remains little to conserve, viewed
against the vast resources of timber once possessed by
Wisconsin lumbermen.

Page 74

Larson, Agnes M., History of the White Pine Industry
in Minnesota. Minneapolis, 1949.

Merk, Frederick, Economic History of Wisconsin during
the Civil War. Madison, 1946.

Raney William Francis, Wisconsin A Story of Progress.
New York, 1940.

Sanford, Albert A., Hirsheimer, H.J., Fries, Robert F.,
A History of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. LaCrosse, 1951.

Schafer, Joseph A., History of Agriculture in Wisconsin
Madison, 1922.

Shaler, Nathaniel Southgate, The United States of
America. Vol. 1. New York, 1894.

Wisconsin Blue Book. The Industrial Commission.
Wisconsin, 1915.

Articles

Bernd, John M. “LaCrosse and the Milwaukee Railroad
Grant.” Wisconsin Magazime of History 30. Madison,
1946.

Dyer, Harry G., “How We Built a Log Raft.”
“McDonald Bros. in line on the Upper Mississippi.”
Chas. E. Brown Manuscript
“Raft Pilot’s Log.”
“Sawmills of the Upper Mississippi
and St. Criox.”

in Chas. E. Brown Manuscript Collection Box 5.
Wisconsin Historical Library.

“Early Lumbering and Lumber Kings of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin Magazine of History 4. Madison,1920.

Fries, Robert F., “Founding of the Lumber Industry
in Wisconsin.” Wisconsin Magazine of History 26.
Madison, 1942.

Page 75

,“Some Aspects of the Lumber Industry at
LaCrosse.” LaCrosse County Historical Sketches 3.
LaCrosse, 1937.

Hirshheimer, H, J., Chamber d Commerce Notes.
LaCrosse, 1932.

, “LaCrosse River History and the Davidson’s.”
Wisconsin Magazine of History 28. Madison, 1945.

“Historical, Picturesque and Descriptive.” LaCrosse
Illustrated. LaCrosse, 1887.

Jagow, Charles, “Early Mississippi Transportation.”
LaCrosse Historical Sketches . LaCrosse, 1931.

Kellogg, Louise Phelps, “Story of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin Magazine of History 3. Madison, 1919.

Plain, Hannibal, “Black River Boom.” LaCrosse County
Historical Sketches 5. LaCrosse, 19O.

Raney, William F., “Pine Lumbering, in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin Magazine of History 19. Madison, 1935;

Roth, Filibert, “Forestry Conditions and the interests
of Wisconsin.” United States Department of Agriculture
Bulletin #16. Washington, D. C., 1898.

Sanford, Albert H., “General Sketch or LaCrosse
County.” LaCrosse County Historical Sketches 2.
LaCrosse, 1935.

The Mormons of Mormon Coulee.”
Magazine of History 24. Madison., 1940.

, “Recollections of a Pioneer Woman.”
LaCrosse Pioneers. Madison, 1911.

“Some Wisconsin Indian Conveyances l793-l836.”
Wisconsin Historical Collections 15.

Saunders, Carrie, “Early Days in Onalaska.” LaCrosse
County Historical Sketches 1. LaCrosse, 1931.

Tuener J.M. “Rafting on the Mississippi.” Wisconsin
Magazine of History 33. Madison, 1940.

Page 76

3. Unpublished Theses

Linley, Victor, “Brief History of the Lumber Industry
in the Chippewa Valley.” Wisconsin, 1925.

Kerrill, Horace Samuel, “An Early History of the
Black River Falls region.” Wisconsin, 1933.

4. Pamphlets – Bulletins

Board of Trade Reports. LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
1879, 1831, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1886, 1887,
1886, 1889, 1890, 1691, 1892, 1895, 1896, 1897,
1898, 1899, 1901, 1902, l903, 1904, 1905.

LaCrosse County Agricultural Statistics Bulletin
#202. Mactison, 1939.

“LaCrosse County Record,” Onalaska Centennial Booklet.
Onalaska 1952.

Polleys, A.D.Pionerr Days in the Black River
Valley.” Black River Falls, 1948.

5. Wisconsin Historical Society Manuscript Collections

Colman, C.L., Correspondence.
Myrick, Nathan, Correspondence and Record Books.
Washburn, C. C., Correspondence and Papers.

6. Personal Interviews

Peter Cass – September 23, 1950.
June 10, 1950.

H. J. Hirshheimer - June 10, 1950.

Mrs. Annie Johnston – June 25, 1953.

Albert Nelson – September 30, 1951.
Theodore Nelson - June 11, 1953.

Page 77

7. Newspapers

Alma Center News. Alma, Wisconsin. January 15, 1931.

Badger Banner. Black River Falls. January 27, 1869.
January 24, 1869.

Banner Journal Journal. Black River Falls.
January 22, 1886. November 21, 1931.

Faedrelandet og Emigranten. LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
November 13, 1886.

LaCrosse Chronicle. May 29, 1898; June 8, 1879
microfilm: October 21, 1905; October 21, 1906;
December 20, 1908.

LaCrosse Democrat.
March 18, 1851; April 18, 1854;
May, 29, 1865

LaCrosse Republican. September 6, 1854; March 2,
1864; February 19, 1881.

LaCrosse Tribune and. Leader Press. July 1, 1876;
July 1, 1923; July 13, 1924; January 30, 1927;
July 13, 1930; February 7, 1932.

LaCrosse Tribune. June 26, 1914; February 19, 1916;
prii , i December 24, 1922; July 24, 1924;
August 1, 125; October 11, 1925; June 26, 1926;
October 17, 1926; January 30, 1927; August 9, 1931;
February 7, 1932; June 7, 1932; July 9, 1933;
July 23, 1933; October 16, 1933; March 25, 1934;
June 6, 1936; July 26, 1936; May 9, 1945; April 1,
1946; June 27, 1948; July 4, 1948.

Leslie’s Weekly. LaCrosse. April 30, 1887.

Milwaukee Journal.
November 28, 1910. October 17,
1920.

Milwaukee Sentinel. March 11, 1917. April 29, 1923.

Northwestern Lumberman. Chicago. September 16,
1876. December 15, 1880.

Republican and Leader Press. LaCrosse. July 18, 1874.

Wisconsin State Journal. Madison. February 19, 1861.

Page 78

Appendix A

Year Number of Hands Number of Sawmills Lumber Millions of Feet

1852 1 2-1/2
1879 10 74
1881 147
1882 1301 13 155

1884 1504 11 188
1885 1135 165
1887 1839 206
1890 2075 239
1892 1925 242

1893 2048 187
1895 1930 190
1897 1929 173
1899 1785 138
1900 480

1901 429
1902 545 3
1903 445 3
1904 40 1
1905 34 1

Board of Trade Reports (LaCrosse, 1979, 82. 84, 85, 87,
90, 97, 98, 99.

LaCrosse County Historical Sketches, 3:90, 91.

LaCrosse Tribune, July23, 1933.

Larson, White Pine, 126.

 


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