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Log Jam at Grandfather Falls

Three people pose near a large log jam on the Wisconsin River.
Wisconsin Historical Society
Three people pose near a large log jam on the Wisconsin River.

Grandfather Falls between Merrill and Tomahawk is the highest waterfall in Wisconsin. In truth, it is not really a waterfall; rather, it is a three-quarter mile long stretch of heavy rapids that has an 89-foot drop from start to finish. Today, most of the waterflow is diverted through a canal and a series of penstocks to feed hydroelectric generators, but in the past loggers found the falls to be a particular challenge.

The Wisconsin River is a tamed river, but in the past, before the dams, the river ran wild, and loggers found Grandfather Falls near Merrill to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Before Europeans arrived in the region, people of the First Nations had great respect for the water they called the long falls. Travelers often left gifts at the head of the rapids to appease the gods. French Jesuits were likely the first Europeans to see the rapids. It is said that Jesuit Rene Menard met his end along this stretch of the river in 1661, but this is in dispute.

In 1858, Jule Posey and Joe Beseau established a stagecoach station and trading post on the northern route out of Jenny, which later became Merrill, at Grandfather Falls. When the loggers first came there were no railroads or sawmills in the Northwoods, so the river was needed to drive the logs downriver to mills in Wausau, Steven’s Point, and other locations. The falls presented a serious barrier.

Around 1876, Simon Augustus Sherman, likely in conjunction with the Wisconsin River Advancement Association, built three wing dams in the vicinity of the falls. This helped, but the only time to move logs over the falls was during spring floods, and the falls continued to be a major source of jams.

As the pace of logging increased, the size of the jams at the falls grew. In the late nineteenth century, some of the worst log jams occurred. Among them was a one-mile-long jam that reportedly accrued 69 million feet of logs. It may have been larger. Lumberjack Matthew Stapleton alleged the jam to be at over two-hundred million feet of logs. Whatever the truth of it, it was big and lodged solidly against the rocks.

Most of the logs in that jam had floated down from the vicinity of where Eagle River stands today. At Grandfather Falls, however, the call was sent out for over 200 expert drivers to break the jam. When the men assembled, they sent back to the camps for dynamite. The dynamite arrived overland by wagon as no one wanted to risk a log puncturing a boat and igniting the explosives. The men rolled out logs roughly 100 feet apart and made spaces back for 500 feet. The dynamite was placed so the charges upriver went off first. This created a rush of water to strike the front of the jam.

When the charges went off and the water rushed forward, many of the logs shot up twenty to thirty feet. Over a dozen men working to loosen the logs were swept into the river. Some were badly injured, but the operation was a success. The logs were moved past Grandfather Falls.

The work was rough, but as Stapleton said, most of the men working the jams were out to buy an ox or horse for their father, or to pay for seed for the farm. In the days before unions there were no pensions or compensation paid to injured men. Stapleton made no apology and said, “it was go to it, or go home.”

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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