Louis Schultz said he was eighty-three years last month. That he was born in
1856 right in the town of Portage and still remained there.
"I have been acquainted with the Wisconsin River from Kilbourn years ago when I used to be hop picking in 1868, a young lad, between there and Kilbourn. That was just a rowboat. Then from Portage to Prairie du Chien, I was there steady for the three years, 1875, '76, '77 and part of '78. I was running an engine, firing an engine on a government steamboat.
In 1871, they started to build the wing dam system on the Wisconsin River from Portage to Prairie du Chien, to make that stream navigable in that section. In 1871, they started in at Portage and at Merrimac. In 1872 they started three crews; down at Lone Rock, and Merrimac and Portage. Then they started to build three steamboats, the government did, right there at Portage, to convey the material for these dams; that is, brush and stone.
My boss at that time – his name was Captain John M. Nader, from New York. In 1872 I was – when I started there – well, I will just go right along, because otherwise I will get it mixed up. In 1872, in the spring of the year, I started to work for Captain Nader. The government office at that time was in Portage. There was another man who was his assistant, who was John Pierpont; and the head clerk was Horace K. Rice.
Captain Nader wanted to hire a man in his office as an office boy, and I was recommended. Somebody told me about it, and I got the information and saw the captain, and he hired me.
In the middle of the summer I commenced to get sick. In them days there was an awful epidemic of malarial fever. It used to be every year in the south, that malarial fever, and it got as far up as up in Wisconsin. Well, at intervals, I would get so sick that I couldn't attend to my work; so in the fall, when it froze up, they moved the office to Madison, Wisconsin, and I didn't go along because I couldn't stand it, the fever was too bad. He wanted me to come down there, he was satisfied with my work.
So the next spring, the first of April, he came up for to hire a bunch of men to work on a wing dam, Captain Nader did, came from Madison. And I was informed in the evening that Captain Nader was there, and he hired some men to go down to Merrimac to start work at Merrimac on the wing dam. So I made it a point to see him at the hotel, and I did see him, and he appeared to be very pleased to see me.
"Why", he said, "Louis," he says, "it is too bad," he says, "that I didn't see you during the day". He says "I would certainly want you along down there tomorrow, but", he says, "nevertheless I only have orders from headquarters to hire twelve men."
He started in cutting brush, to have the material on hand when the work crew got going in a couple of weeks, so that they would have material on hand, such as mats, mat brushes, ten, twelve, sixteen feet long; and stone also.
I said, "All right, I will go if you will give me a chance." So we had to go through down by the Low Dive to get to Merrimac, because the river was so terribly high at that time.
We got to Merrimac, the next morning, and we started to work right across from Merrimac; and I was not there only about two weeks when I got the ague again.
So Captain Nader made his first investigation about two weeks after we started, and there was a steamboat, Portage. They had chartered the steamboat Portage, which was a side wheeler, at Portage. The government had chartered it to tow these mat scows, which were about thirty or forty feet wide, and about sixty or seventy feet long, and to haul the stone with from Wildcat Bluff. That is, I should judge, about fifteen miles below Portage. Well, there was another quarry there. There were two different contractors, and each one had his quarry. Well, then, we went – we hauled acme (sic) of the stone there to the ground.
And I got over the ague, and Captain Nader came there for an inspection, and he seen me sitting on the quarterboat. We had a large quarterboat, holding about seventy-five men, boarding the rooming them, you know. And he wanted to know how I – he was in the cabin of the Portage, the steamboat, and he wanted to know – he saw me sitting there – it was after supper, and he motioned over to me to come up there, and I went over to the steamboat and he says "How are you feeling, Louis?"
I said, "I have gotten over the ague pretty well. I don't know how long it will last. You know how it worked on me last year."
"Yes" he said, "you certainly had a bad siege of it. Nevertheless," he says, "the water is a very poor place for ague; that is where the malarial fever starts down south during the summer, around the Mississippi River."
He says, "You come down to Madison, to the Madison office Monday. We are going up to Portage, and whenever you get ready, come down to Madison and work in the office."
And so I did. I was then two years and nine months at Madison, working in the office for Captain Nader. Our office was right in Main Street, opposite the Park Hotel. I was transferred back to Portage on a steamboat that they had built, a stern wheeler they called the Decorah. They built three of them for hauling material, such as stone and brush, and to tow these scows from one place to another.
Well, I was transferred back on the steamboat at Portage, this Decorah. I remained there for that season. I worked, that is, I did and our crew, worked from Portage, out of Portage down as far as Merrimac. Then the other crew worked at Honey Creek Flats, that is this side of Prairie du Sac, and then down at Spring Green and down further; and the third crew, they started that spring.
I never worked there, but we went down with our Decorah, because it was a very light draft boat, to take soundings, and we took soundings about five or six times in one season, and we sent them reports on to Washington. We continued that way for two or three years. Then Captain Nader would always come up about once a month to make an inspection.
The dam was built from the shore, and the first part of it went up against the stream. Then this end you laid down-stream, so as to give the water a shoot, to get rid of that sand, if there was any way of trying to do it, because that was the trouble, the hard thing to do with; and the only thing to do, we thought, with the sand that standing in the river from Portage to Prairie du Chien.
Well, we worked at that and put in the dams all along. We had orders from headquarters, through Captain Nader, that if at any time we had time, to give any aid to the raftsmen, to aid the raftsmen to get through, on account of these sand bars, which today would be here and tomorrow would be there. The sand rolls just through that water, that was quicksand. There is not any river that I know of where there is such floating sand, such a degree of quicksands, as there are in the Wisconsin River. A pilot never knew where a sand bar was going to be the next day. We had pilots from all over the country and they said they never seen anything like the Wisconsin.
The first course of the dam would be lapped with a course of mats. Those mats were generally from six feet, according to the size of the brush — if it was long brush, why, they would be longer mats, twelve or fourteen feet long. Otherwise the oak brush would not be so long, they would be eight or ten feet, and about six feet wide. Then there were poles put across this way about eighteen inches from each side, on the bottom and on the top, and then they were bound through with marlin cord.
A "marlin" is a cord that has a tar filling, and that keeps out the water. That marlin would last for years in the water there. And then they would go to work and put the first course down. The other one they would lap over part way, and they would throw stone — there was one large barge of stone and one barge of brush, of mats. They would go to work and have a stone crew and a mat crew on these barges.
They had poles they would put in according to the depth of the water in the river wherever there would be these dams. Some places they would go down ten or fifteen feet; in other places probably only a foot or two; but they would always protect the bottom so that the water would not wash underneath them, because that would spoil the dam. Then they would put a course of stone right on top of it. Every course of mats would require a course of stone. They would build them up, well, in a normal way, about two feet above the water; so when it is high water they handicapped the raftsmen that were running rafts down the river.
We were all a good deal under the impression that the Wisconsin River was navigable even Captain Nader, but it was only a couple of years afterwards when Captain Nader was changed to Washington, and he came and made an inspection from Washington, and they found it was a different proposition than they thought.
That evening Captain Nader told me in a conversation we had, when were talking about old times in Portage, when he was living there, and I was in the office, and he said "Louie, I used to think we could make the stream navigable, but we can't make that stream navigable any more than a dog can use two tails". He said, "I will guarantee you that we can't."
And it came true, and he gave it up then, and when he gave it up, another man, Mr. Hinman, a captain or lieutenant, Hinman, took over the job, and they thought they were going to make it navigable. They both died a long time ago. Now, he didn't do any more than Captain Nader did.
Captain Nader said, "The only thing we can do with it is to build a wall on both sides and fence it in."
That is the only thing we can do with that river, because you can't and no one can do anything else with it, anything with sand. The sand is just the same as the water. It seems impossible for sand and as coarse as that sand to roll in the water, as heavy as that sand is; but that water and that sand work together.
Anyone can go out and stand on a sand bar that is just out of the water about two inches, and inside of an hour he will be up to his knees in that quicksand. I know, because I worked there; and time and again, when the captain was tired, and everything else, I says, "Cap, I am going to take a spar out to the line". We were caught there over the sand bar, and was trying to get across. I would take it out for him because he was an old man. His name was Captain John Stevenson. He is dead long ago now. This was in 1874 – no, in 1875.
Probably some of you people have heard of the old Fort Winnebago at Portage. We got all them stones that all them building were built with. They were all stone buildings in the fort, and there naturally was a good many of them. Some fellow, I did know at the time what his name was, bought all of these buildings and sold them to the government for the stone, because it costs quite a little to quarry them. These were already quarried, and they hauled them to the river bank right there at Portage. Then with the steamboat we took them down to the works, wherever we were.
Some days we go down the river with the expectation of being back to the quarterboat up here at Portage to get our supper, and probably we wouldn't get back until ten, eleven or twelve o'clock that night, on account of these bars. We would strike these bars.
When we went down, the current was here, the channel one place; and when we came back, it was way over in another. It changed that way.
I can tell you an instance – we had an order, I think I mentioned it before, from the government quarters, through Captain Nader, that when it was anywhere reasonable that we should give the raftsman aid. Well, this evening a pilot was laying up at Merrimac, and he come up to the boat and he wanted to know if the captain was there. I was then firing this steamboat, a side wheeler. And he wanted to know where the captain was. He was sitting up the pilot house, just got through with his supper. And he wanted to know if he could see him. I called up to the captain, Captain Clemens, who lived then at Burlington, Wisconsin, and he came out. He knew Captain Clemens, George Marsh, the pilot of this 14-raft fleet.
He said they had saddle-bagged the pier at Merrimac. What I mean by saddle-bagged, here is your pier or the bridge, built with a great heavy rail. We didn't know anything about cement in them days. Here are the rafts and when he got up here, there was a very deep channel underneath that bridge at Merrimac, underneath the Merrimac bridge; very deep today, more so than it was, because this lake from Prairie de Sac up to Decorah, within eight miles of Portage, that is all lake, clear to the dam at Prairie du Sac. Well, he saddle-bagged the pier in this way with his rafts.
Well, we turned the steamboat around and we went down and threw a towline, and they fastened the towline, and they said "all right," and we commenced to pull. Just as soon as we commenced to pull we made the current so much stronger, and the rafts went down, part of the rafts went down and the rest shot right up here on the top of this pier.
The three boats, the Merrimac, the Decorah, and Boscobel; they were all built the same year, stern wheelers, so as to give them ample room. They were used mainly for hauling supplies and material, these mats or stone to the place where we were working. When they were unloaded, no load in them, they drew six inches in the bow, and eighteen inches on the stern. The wheel and the engine made that difference. But when they were loaded with stone or brush on the bow, it brought that down and brought the stern up. That made them, when they were loaded, with the usual load, draw twenty inches. We didn't dare to load over twenty inches because we would strike sand bars.
When it was empty, coming home, we did not get stuck because it was so light it was built so light. The engine was light and the boiler was light. That was all the weight we had on it. But if we had a load on we got stuck, because the weight of the stone, and with a full hull seventy - five feet long, it will not take much to put it down in the water.
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