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"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!) 
Lyle Arthur Seefeld

Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld 

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Chapter 2: The Town and Rivers

The City of Tomahawk is located forty-five degrees and twenty-eight minutes north of the equator, and eighty-five degrees and forty-four minutes west of the prime meridian at Greenwich.  This places it in the north central part of Lincoln County, which, in turn, is in the north central part of Wisconsin.  It covers an area three miles square, and, when I lived there, had a population of about three thousand.  Tomahawk could quite logically have been named "Three Rivers", since the Wisconsin, while flowing through the city, is joined by two smaller rivers, the Tomahawk and the Somo.

The source of the Wisconsin river is a lake twelve or fifteen square miles in area, called Lac Vieux Desert, which straddles the border between Upper Michigan and Wisconsin.  Two hundred and forty air miles to the south-southwest, it contributes its flow to that of the Mississippi River just south of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, having wandered well over four hundred miles in its journey, and flowed in every possible compass direction, including due north.

The Wisconsin enters the City of Tomahawk from the east.  It flows westward nearly all the way through the city and then makes a sharp left turn, exiting through the southern border.  Just as it turns south, the Wisconsin is joined by the Tomahawk River, which enters from the north, and which drains an area of several hundred square miles to the north and northwest, including a wet-land area where Indians used to harvest wild rice.  Not more than half a mile downstream from the outlet of the Tomahawk, the Somo River empties into the Wisconsin from the west.  The Somo drains an area to the west and northwest of Tomahawk.  There are actually two Somo Rivers, Big and Little, which join about two miles above the outlet.  A mile or so above the junction, the Little Somo widens to form Somo Lake, a popular fishing and recreation area.

Before the white man "improved" this area, it must have been a beautiful place, with clear-running streams and dense virgin forests growing right down to the water's edge.  A perfect place for Native Americans to gather and celebrate, and a great place for explorers to camp while  deciding  which  river  to
explore next.  All those virgin forests and convenient waterways were of great interest to timber companies as well, and some time between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, logging began in the Tomahawk area.

In northern Wisconsin, logging was done mostly in winter.  The loggers, of course didn't have any of the modern logging equipment such as tractors, chain saws, trucks and loaders.  Trees were felled by hand, using axes and one- or two-man crosscut saws.  After the trees were down and cut into logs, many were dragged by teams of horses to a nearby river bank where they were stacked in huge piles waiting for spring when they would be dumped into the river and allowed to float downstream to the sawmill.  Where this system wasn't practical, the logs were loaded on large horse-drawn sleighs and hauled to a railroad siding, where they were reloaded onto flatcars for shipment to the mill.

In 1886, William H. (Bill) Bradley, originally from Maine and who later lived in Milwaukee, founded the Tomahawk Land and Boom Company, to carry on logging operations and develop the Tomahawk area.  In 1887, the company had the site of a new city surveyed, and in June of that year the first city lots were offered for sale, at prices starting at one hundred dollars.  The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway tracks into Tomahawk were completed in September, and the first train arrived in Tomahawk October 8, 1887.  In that year, John Oelhafen built his general store, the first in the city.

Since many of the logs arrived in Tomahawk via the river, it made sense to build the sawmills on river banks.  Each sawmill had a conveyor chain extending down into the water, and logs were guided onto this chain and  hauled up into the mill where they were sawed into lumber.  Of course, the river froze over in the winter, and would have kept the mill from operating in winter except for an innovation called a "hot pond".  This was simply an area of the river around the conveyor chain which was walled off from the rest of the river, and kept from freezing by steam from the mill's boilers.  Of course, logs couldn't be floated to the mill, so a railroad siding was so placed that carloads of logs could be dropped directly into the hot pond, thereby making the sawmill a year-round operation.

With more than one sawmill company operating in the area and floating logs down the river, it was necessary to devise a means of determining the ownership of stray logs.  So they used a variation of the branding system used by ranchers to mark cattle, except in this case hot branding wasn't necessary.  One face of the head of a sledge was fashioned into a raised version of the company's "brand" or identifying mark.  Then, one blow of the sledge on the sawn end of a log produced an indented mark which could remain identifiable for years.

Soon so many logs crowded the river that plans were made to widen it by constructing a dam just south of the city.  The dam, completed in the winter of 1888/89, flooded large areas of the Wisconsin, Tomahawk and Somo river valleys.  These areas had, of course, been logged off before the flooding, so afterward there were many areas of shallow water with some stumps sticking up out of the water, and many lurking just below the surface.  This made for some interesting navigational problems for boaters, especially in the lower reaches of the Somo, unless one knew exactly where the deep water was, which, of course, was where the river had run before the flooding.  I used to know where the main channel was, but that was many, many years ago.  The higher river level also created a number of new islands, bays and inlets, all of which tended to interfere with the smooth flow of logs down the river.  So the company chained long strings of logs together and placed them along the edges of the main channel.  These strings of logs were called "booms", which accounts for the "Boom" in Tomahawk Land and Boom Company.

The first sawmill in Tomahawk was built in 1888.  It was acquired by Bill Bradley shortly afterward, and became known as Mill No. 1.  The Bradleys built a second mill in the winter of 1888/89.  And then they moved a sawmill from Woodboro, a small town about twenty miles  away,  and  erected  it  on  part  of what is now Tomahawk's S.A.R.A (Somo Avenue Recreation Area) park.  In 1890, A. M. Pride and a Mr. Newton built a pulp mill on the east side of the river at the new dam.  In 1909 a second dam was built, this one east of the city, and called King's Dam in honor of an old settler who had lived in the area.  When I was growing up, Mother used to tell me about a time when the Wisconsin River was so dry you could walk across it.  While I didn't actually disbelieve her story, it always seemed somewhat improbable until a few years ago when I found out when King's Dam was built.  After its completion in 1909, the gates were closed so the reservoir above it (Lake Alice) could fill.  With no water passing through the dam, and with the turbines at Tomahawk Dam south of the city still using water, the river level fell until the bottom was exposed, and you could walk across it.  Sorry, Mom!

Tomahawk's first school building was built in 1888.  In 1910 I went to kindergarten there, and the building now houses the Tomahawk School District offices.  I think the Whittier School was built next.  This building stood across the east end of Wisconsin Avenue (Main Street) and when I went there it housed grades one through four.  Mother used to call it the "old high school" so that's what it must have been in Tomahawk's early days. This building was torn down a few years ago and replaced by a retirement home.  In 1909 a new high school was built, and named  the Washington School.  Nobody called it that, though, and I didn't know its name even though I attended classes there from the fifth grade through high school.  This building was totally destroyed by fire in 1978.  Fortunately, a new high school and junior high had been built on a site east of town which used to be called "Squaw Point."

In 1893, "Bill"  Bradley built a three story wooden hotel at the corner of Tomahawk and Wisconsin Avenues, and named it the Mitchell Hotel, for a Milwaukee friend of his.  It was the hotel in Tomahawk until March, 1929, when it burned to the ground, taking with it more than a dozen other old buildings, including Tomahawk's first store, the one built by John Oelhafen in 1887.  Also, in 1893, an order of Catholic nuns started a small hospital in Tomahawk.  A larger one was built a year later (Sacred Heart Hospital), which was enlarged and remodeled several times before being torn down and replaced by a modern facility in 1962.

Bill Bradley was quite a promoter, and was always trying to get friends and acquaintances in cities like Milwaukee and Chicago to become interested (and invest) in the Tomahawk area.  To this end he had built what could only be called a "boat train."  It consisted of a small steam tug named the Nyack (more about the Nyack later) which towed three barges.  The superstructures on these barges were very similar to railroad cars!  One was like a sleeping car, one like a dining car, and the other was the observation car.  So Bradley loaded his "boat train" with people from the city and took them up the Somo river for a weekend or longer to enjoy the good fishing and to let them experience first-hand the wonderful qualities of the great north woods!

In those early days before electric refrigerators, northern cities like Tomahawk had a distinct advantage over southern towns, in that they had a readily available source of ice.  The river froze in winter, of course, sometimes to a depth of a foot and a half or more.  In Tomahawk, on the river bank east of town, was a huge barn-like building, the "ice-house". It had a conveyor chain extending into the river like sawmills had, and when the ice around the conveyor was thick enough, it was sawed into blocks, using saws very much like those loggers used.  The blocks were hauled up into the building by the chain, and were carefully packed and surrounded by large quantities of sawdust insulation.  Then in summer, the "ice-wagon" made its rounds in the city, delivering ice to peoples' iceboxes.  On "ice day", if you wanted ice, you placed a card in a window where the iceman could see it, and he would leave 25 or 50 pounds, depending on which side of the card was visible.  And the kids in the neighborhood would chase after the wagon, greedily snatching up small pieces of ice that sometimes fell to the street.  I remember doing that!

The 1890 U. S. census showed that Tomahawk had a population of 1816.  Not bad for a town that was less than three years old!  The city was incorporated on March twenty-fifth, 1891.  By 1902, Tomahawk had two railroads, five sawmills, two planing mills, a paper mill, three doctors, two newspapers, a population of nearly three thousand, a municipal "water-works" and a complete new sewer system, which, like other systems in the valley, emptied raw sewage directly into the river.  Below the ice harvesting area, of course!