Theodore W. Brazeau was next witness. "I was born in Wisconsin Rapids,
which was then Grand Rapids; a place I think then of about eight hundred
inhabitants, with three or four saw mills; and the principal industry was
At an early age I learned to swim in the river, and spent all of my boyhood along the banks of the Wisconsin River; riding on rafts over the rapids when they would let me stay on; walking on the log jams in the river; watching the men driving the logs over the rapids and in the river; watching the men raft; going on the rafts whenever they laid up on the Wisconsin River to get pieces of prune pie, dried apple pie, from the cook; swimming off of the rafts; riding the logs, learning to cuff logs, roll them; entering contests in that line when I was a boy, on the 4th of July and other times.
I fished all along the river when I was old enough to carry a fishline in my pocket, and turned over the stones to get thunder bugs, as we called them, and fished for bass, suckers in season. I went down the river in a boat as far as Kilbourn with some boys, and camped on the banks. I went up the river above Biron and fished and camped. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. I saw the rafts before that time and saw the log driving, when I was old enough to go down to the river. In those days they didn't pay as much attention to boys as they do now; they had no made playgrounds, whirligigs, or anything like that; and we made our sport in and along the river.
I knew the river from above Biron in those early days, where I used to go fishing, to some distance below Nekoosa. In the river above Biron there were some rapids called Crooked Drive, which were very shallow, very bad; but the rocks were not as large and as rugged as they were down below; but it was bad enough.
When you got to Biron there was a saw mill there and a dam; and there were rocks and rapids below that; and there were slides to let the rafts through; slides with fingers, that they constructed. They could get up to Biron without the slide and the dam and the fingers. The dam was twelve or eight feet high at that time, built in 1839, according to historical records.
Then you came down, and shortly below Biron you came to what is known as the eddy. Speaking of the eddy, below there, there was a place where there was a still piece of water, between there and Big Island, rafts laid up after going through the Biron dam and the rapids to repair the pieces. There was always some grub or something that got loose, or something broke, and then they would gig back. They had what they called gigging cars. We used to get rides on the gigging cars. The old lumberjacks kind of liked the little boys and let us ride in the gigs into Biron. Gigs generally had three seats, and the men sat in those seats and went back up to take the next piece down.
Below Biron they ran what was the worst piece of rapids that I knew anything about; very, very bad. There was a fall of about one hundred feet in Wood County.
And that Wisconsin Rapids, then known as Grand Rapids, there was big rapids called Grand Rapids. That went over rocks which were very large. The stream was tortuous, and the rocks were rugged; impossible to navigate, or even go over with a raft without artificial help, so they built little wing dams. There was a couple of brush dams that threw the water into a narrow channel, and there was another place where they had a sort of crib dam.
When you got at what is known as German Rock, they had to turn twice through
there to strike that narrow channel that they made by building on each side.
Taking the rafts down through those rapids, they took them down during the high
water, a good stage water. In low water it was impossible, and they took them
over then with the wing dams and the chutes. These chutes were arranged with
logs laid side by side, extending down a couple of hundred feet. On the end of
those logs were fingers. Those fingers were like the fingers of a hand; and they
were loose, so that they could float up and down with the water. They were
fastened at the upper end, I thought, by chains, I am not sure; but they took
whole trees, just trimmed the ends of the limbs of the trees; but the lower end
floated down below, forming what they called a finger.
The rafts would go down over that, and onto the fingers and the fingers would sink a little, just enough to let the raft slide on the fingers. Without this arrangement they couldn't get over the Wisconsin Rapids at all. I doubt if they could get over a great many rapids.
After they got down below the rapids, the main rapids, they generally pulled it at the bridge at Wisconsin Rapids and laid up again. And sometimes they would pull in at the bridge, and the water would get away from them and they would stay there for a number of weeks, waiting for water to get below them. Then we would swim off of those rafts, eat off the cook shanty, and have a good time.
Then right below the bridge there was a place below there called Neeves Island, and there was a series of rapids there which were very bad, but not as bad as Grand Rapids. The rocks were not as high; but when the water was down you didn't have a good stage of water, you couldn't make it over there at all because the rocks are almost continuous. They are there yet. When they pull the head of South Side Dam down, those rocks are sticking up there, and you can't go down even in a row boat. I have tried it. I might have gone down with the water high there. You can hear the roar of that rapids for half a mile away. They couldn't get over those rapids in low water.
Then you came down and on the south side was what was known as Hurleytown then. There was a bad stretch in there, but a dam in there of some kind. Then, Port Edwards, they had a dam there, and you went through there on a slide with fingers, the same as the other.
Then we had Whitney Rapids at Nekoosa. At Port Edwards one time, when the slide got out of repair someway, they blew a hole in the dam, and turned the channel to go through there.
The rafting began as soon as they could get a good stage of water. It was carried on until the water subsided or they got all the lumber down. If they got hung up, they waited until the next stage of water.
When they got below Nekoosa, what is known as the Bayous, they began to strike sand bars. They struck sand bars all through -- between Adams County and Juneau County, for a long ways, sand bars in there, big and little; and in ordinary or low water you could not let a row boat through there without getting out and pulling it off, or taking your oar out and pushing off the sand bars.
When we got down to Kilbourn then we had a Dells to run; which is a narrow, tortuous course and, a great many fleets broke up on it, many men drowned; and a great many men drowned at Wisconsin Rapids, in log driving and rafting.
There had been no carrying of goods up and down the Wisconsin River. It was impossible to carry goods up and down the Wisconsin River. There was a limited carrying of material. It was limited in kind, it was limited in season, and it was historically limited. The only kind of traffic I ever saw, and that was one way, was lumber, logs and rafts. That was difficult, hazardous, expensive, great loss of the product, both of logs and of lumber. As soon as they could find any other way of carrying it, they quit.
If the river remained just as it was in 1888, you could do what we did then, if you wanted to spend enough money to do it, put it in the shape that it was in 1888, in 1889, somewhere along that time. Of course, there are dams all along the river now. They could float between the dams, but there is never going to be any lumber or logs floated on the Wisconsin River again, unless you spend millions and millions of dollars in building locks and dams, and things that would make it beyond any possibility.
Return to Lumber Rafting