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(Sesquicentennial story in Wausau Daily Herald, Dec. 29, 1998)

Logging fueled rapid growth of Lincoln County

Tomahawk dam created major controversy on Wisconsin River

By Pat Peckham Wausau Daily Herald

When Wisconsin became a state May 29, 1848, Lincoln County did not exist and would not be recognized as a governmental entity until 26 years later in 1874.

Exploration of Wisconsin began in Green Bay and spread along the territory's river system but settlement was another thing. The Milwaukee area was the main point of arrival for people who sought a permanent home rather than a relatively short- term stint in the lumber industry. Permanent settlers followed the loggers into the northwoods.

Being farther south and earlier to be occupied by the European newcomers, Portage County had official status in 1836 while Wisconsin was still a territory.

Creation dates for counties tell a story of their own.

· Portage County originally took in a wide swath that extended all the way north to what was to be the state line.

· Marathon County was formed in 1850, two years after statehood.

· Lincoln County waited until 1874.

· Price County was formed five years later in 1879.

· Oneida and Forest counties were not formed until 1885.

· The county map was filled in later by Iron and Vilas counties in 1893, Rusk County in 1903 and Menominee County in 1961.

Merrill was incorporated in 1883 and Tomahawk was incorporated in 1891.

Lincoln County has fewer people than the city of Wausau. Lincoln County's estimated population in 1996 was 28,396. Marathon County's head count that year was 123,258.

Historian George Gilkey said one of the first establishments by white people was a Hudson Bay Co. trading post at the confluence of the New Wood River and Wisconsin River. A series of rapids on the Wisconsin River was named after Bill Cross, one of the partners in the trading post, one third of the way upstream from Merrill to Tomahawk.

Fur traders loaded furs into canoes and paddled upstream to Tomahawk, said Gilkey. From there, they portaged from lake to lake until they reached the Bad River. Their last leg was down the Bad River to Lake Superior and they unloaded at LaPointe on Madeline Island near Bayfield.

Rivers played a large role in where communities grew up as logging con-tinued to fuel an era that was depen-dent on moving logs or lumber to market without rail or road. Tomahawk's location at the conflu-ence of three rivers - the Wisconsin, Tomahawk and Somo - was a fact not lost on its founder, William Bradley, according to a book by Richard Durbin, "Wisconsin River: An Odyssey Through Time and Space."

Bradley had timber interests in Michigan and Wisconsin. He and his partners' holdings contained an esti-mated 1.5 billion board feet of lumber.

The first construction in Tomahawk began in the 1880s and, because building supplies had to be hauled by wagon from Merrill until the winter of 1886-87, Bradley arranged for a small circus tent in the middle of town to serve as a tem-porary hotel.

He went on to be the first mayor of Tomahawk and had business concessions to local enterprises that- included the lumber mills, hotel, box factory, brick yard, Bradley Brothers Bank, electric and phone companies, a newspaper, opera house and a department store with branches in outlying areas. Bradley created major controversy when he announced plans for the Tomahawk dam on the Wisconsin River. Competitors feared it was a move to control the flow of the river they needed for their own operations. These were serious matters for those dependent on logs that could be sawn to become lumber.

Durbin said when it was believed Minocqua was hoarding water in a low-flow year, a group from down-stream went there and forcibly opened the dam gates. In a never-solved crime, Minocqua's dam was dynamited six years later, an act  sometimes blamed on Wausau lumber magnates.

Tomahawk boomed. By the early 90s, the community had grown to 2,800 people. By the time people settled in Merrill and Tomahawk, Cross and his partner had gone out of busi-ness. Cross drifted from one odd job to another and wound up in an insane asylum in Wausau.

By the late 1880s the railroad had begun shipping logs south from Minocqua. Rafting of logs down the river would dwindle over the next few years.

An early figure in Merrill, T. B. Scott was not idle during those years and in 1886 had installed a turbine in the Merrill dam and began to gen-erate electricity As ways were found to eke more electricity out of the river's flow, the utility owners con-structed a 2.5-mile streetcar system.

Peak years for the sawmills in Merrill were in the 1890s, Durbin said in his book. In 1892, the sawmills processed logs that yielded a 150 million board feet of lumber and 86 million shingles. That had dropped to 100 million in 1896 and continued to drop, leaving the mills' 1,500 to 2,000 employees to move into other work or leave the area.

For a time, employment was avail-able in tanneries that were depen-dent on substances derived from the bark of hemlock trees. The tannery industry moved elsewhere but some of Merrill's operations switched to making shoes.

Merrill Paper Co. was formed in 1905, one year after the startup of the city's first pulp mill. Later reorga-nized into the Grandfather Falls Paper Co., it lasted until 1936 when the Depression hit.

The stage was set, though, for the future of Lincoln County.

The following pictures will take a few minutes to download, but are quite interesting.

================================================================================= There is a book titled History of Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties, compiled by George O. Jones, Norman S. McVean and others. It was printed in 1924 by H. C. Cooper co. Co. 787 pages are online and accessible through the Vilas County History Page and includes the history of Lincoln County. The web site is:, or I thank Judy Groh for this information.

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