From a few yards away, a woman and four small children watch a massive machine rumble to life.
They stand, look, and point as a boat is lifted by the Burnt Rollways Boat Hoist, carried over a road and dam, and dropped gently in the water on the other side.
“It’s a novelty,” said Scott Blado, who is operating the machine. “It’s just kind of a thing that you go and do. It’s not really a ‘we’ve got to go that way’ kind of thing. It’s more of an event.”
This week, operators fired up the hoist, the only one of its kind in the state, for the summer season.
For more than a century, it’s been lifting fishing boats, pontoons, and speedboats over a dam that separates the Eagle River and Three Lakes chains of lakes.
This summer, thanks to the removal of countless tons of sand on a nearby water channel, boaters can navigate freely once again.
Blado, who works for the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company (WVIC), may call it a novelty. But it’s actually written into Wisconsin state statute.
When the WVIC bought the dam more than a century ago to help regulate water flows, constructing a lift was part of the deal.
The first version, a so-called “marine railway” was built in 1911.
“It was a waterwheel and a wooden trestle-way that would carry the boats up and over the dam,” Blado said.
Almost 70 years ago, then-WVIC President Bob Wylie crafted a new, electric lift using surplus hoists and motors from World War II.
“Essentially, what you see there today is what Bob Wylie designed in the 50s,” Blado said.
History is rich in this place.
Burnt Rollways, the official name of the Three Lakes Chain and the boat hoist, came about from a logging-era story.
Anticipating a downstream businessman wouldn’t pay for the logs floated to him, loggers burned a “rollway,” an implement used in transporting timber to waterways.
“Apparently, it’s sunken somewhere about a mile upstream from the dam,” Blado said.
He can’t vouch for how much of the story is true and how much is a tall tale.
However, piloting a boat through the channel below the hoist and dam, he can speak to something else.
The change in the ease of navigation between last year and this year is tangible.
“Right here, proceeding like we are right now, with the trim down all of the way, last year, we would be hitting sand now, pretty much all through here,” Blado said as he rounded a corner.
Sand accumulation made parts of the channel nearly impassable. The farther from the dam, the weaker the channel’s current, and the more the water dumped sand onto the bottom.
“It was to the point where the word was out – you can’t get up to the boat hoist, or down, for that matter. Business at the hoist suffered. You just weren’t getting the exchange of people between the two chains. I think that’s kind of a cascading effect. Hopefully, this drums up a little bit of excitement,” Blado said.
Last fall, a major dredging project removed 4,000 cubic yards of sand, which has afforded boats easy access to the channel.
One of the people who will likely hear comments from boaters about better navigation is Gene Kucharski, the Burnt Rollways dam tender.
That job means he’s in charge of manipulating the dam to ensure the right flow rate.
“It’s muscle power. It’s got a big wheel on it, and you’ve got to crank it up. It’s got cables, and you’re just simply [cranking] on the wheel, and crank it to up to whatever level it needs to be,” Kucharski said. “It’s doable, even for an old geezer like me.”
Kucharski is also one of three operators of the boat hoist.
“Oh, they love it,” Blado said of the operators.
All of them are retired. All are working part-time for the enjoyment of seeing boats, running the machine, and interacting with people.
“They like to have their picture taken with their boat up in the air over the road. With cell phones now, that’s one of my other side jobs, is I’ve got to take a picture of everybody as they go over,” Kucharski said with a laugh.
When families get their picture taken, go over the hoist, and navigate the channel, their experience is almost identical to that of boaters in the 1950s or 60s.
There’s history all around, said the WVIC’s Scott Blado.
“Other than the growth of the vegetation, it’s going to be a similar experience, for sure,” he said.
Maybe those four children watching from the side will have a story to share at the end of the summer. Maybe, that is, if things work the way they did in Kucharski’s day.
“At least when I was in school, one of the first days back in school, what you had to do was write a report [about] what I did over the summer,” he said. “What better thing to do than that?”
The Burnt Rollways Boat Hoist is taking COVID-19 precautions this summer, like using extra sanitation measures and offering no-cash transactions.