The Ontonagon Mail Trail In The 19th Century

Jun 17, 2020

Transportation today is something we take for granted, but in the past getting from here to there could be an arduous experience. Particularly if the destination was the Northwoods. Historian Gary Entz has the story of the Ontonagon Mail Trail.

When the first American fur trappers, loggers, miners, and settlers arrived in the Northwoods, the region was thick with timber interwoven with lakes, rivers, and streams. Travel through the area was difficult for the uninitiated. Peoples of the First Nations, of course, had been living here for thousands of years and knew that the quickest way to get around was via canoe. However, they also cut numerous trails through the woods, and for that the earliest American settlers owe the First Nations of the Northwoods a tremendous debt of gratitude. Among the trails they established, one of the most important was the Ontonagon Trail.

Although the trail likely went much further south, its starting point is generally acknowledged to be in the Wisconsin River Valley where the city of Wausau is situated today. That location was a natural intersection for trade, and both Native Americans and French fur traders used it. After the forcible removal of the Ojibwe from the area in 1836, George Stevens moved in and founded Big Bull Falls, which became Wausau in 1852. The term “Bull” comes from French fur traders and refers to a part of the river that had rapids and was difficult to navigate.

From Big Bull Falls the trail moved northward to a point on the Wisconsin River that American settlers called Jenny Bull Falls. In 1843 John Feely established a trading post at that location, and by 1854 a town called Jenny was organized. Jenny became the town of Merrill in 1881.

After Jenny Bull Falls, the Ontonagon Trail followed the east bank of the Wisconsin River northward to the Pelican Rapids, which is the current location of Rhinelander. In 1859, John Curran became the first settler when he built a trading post and way station on this site. The trail crossed the Pelican River and continued overland toward the area of Sugar Camp and Indian Lake. From there it continued its northerly journey up the Eagle River to Eagle Lake. The Ontonagon Trail headed around North Twin Lake then around the west shore of Lac Vieux Desert. At that point it entered Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and followed the northerly route of the Ontonagon River until it terminated at Lake Superior.

The Ontonagon Trail was originally little more than a narrow footpath through the forest, but all that began to change once loggers started setting their sights on the Northwoods. A road was cut from Steven’s Point to Wausau in 1853, and in 1854 a work crew set out to widen the Ontonagon Trail between Wausau and Jenny. The new tote rode was barely wide enough to accommodate an ox drawn wagon, but it became one of the earliest roads to allow wheeled vehicle traffic into the Northwoods.

In 1857 the road was extended from the Grandfather Falls near Tomahawk to Eagle River, and in 1860 all the way to Lac Vieux Desert. It became known as the Ontonagon Mail Trail and carried settlers and supplies to Northwoods logging camps and mining camps in the Upper Peninsula.