Below is an article that originally ran in the Chippewa Herald-Telegram following the ice jam and ice gorge in November and December of 1896.
Battle of the Ice Gorge
You could almost hear disaster approaching! It came riding in on a soft warm breeze approaching from the southwest. Suddenly an ominous warning signal, a long low rumble of what sounded like thunder.
“What’s that,” John Murray asked as he looked up sharply from the December issue of the Police Gazette. “Sounds like thunder,” he said to nobody in particular. The hotel proprietor checked the clock above the pigeonhole desk. It was 7:30 p.m. Then he glanced at the date on the calendar. What was it doing thundering on the evening of Nov. 30, 1896?
“I’ll go take a look,” a lounging lumberjack pulled his long legs under him and pushed open the door. The evening air was mild. It was clear with a couple of evening stars shining brightly in a winter sky. There was no moon and yet from the northwest came the low rumble of thunder.
Neither man realized it at the time, but in the next five days, the young, vigorous, swashbuckling city of Chippewa Falls was to fight a battle of the elements and of tense frayed nerves. It was to be known later in history, as the Battle of the Ice Gorge.
It all started with an equinoctial rainstorm, which had begun four days before. The Chippewa River rose rapidly and then receded as the rains drizzled out. Even so, the C.L. and Boom Lumber Co. lost 250 feet of boom, which had been carried out by the rushing water.
At the Ottawa House (122 River St.), that same evening a grizzled old timber cruiser shook his head. “It looks bad, I seen it happen once on the Mississippi. I’m ‘fraid were in fer trouble.”
By morning the bad news spread like wildfire up and down Bay and Spring streets. A timber runner brought in word that ice was piling up at the Dells in a jam of logs and debris. To make matters worse the temperature dropped to 2 degrees below zero, in a matter of hours.
An anxious Chippewa Falls watched and waited throughout Tuesday, Dec. 1, 1896. By mid-afternoon a call came for every available man to turn out. Lumberjacks poured out of Dick Kunsman’s saloon and offered their services. Merchants discarded aprons to gather at the Chippewa River Bridge.
Great chunks of ice still floated silently downstream in the boiling waters at their feet. And then the news turned even worse. A wary surveyor brought word that ice was jamming downriver at Gravel Island (now the Town of Hallie). He had measured the ice to be from 15 to 40 feet thick. It was freezing all the way to the bottom and the floating ice was continually jamming up against the enormous bottleneck.
Quickly the men formed a fighting team. Merchants with establishments out of the Spring Street area, joined forces with the lumberjacks. The grizzled timber cruiser for some reason was elected head of the party. Webb and Fletcher, hardware merchants, broke out all available supplies of dynamite. The fighting team took off.
At the battle scene towering icebergs cast an eerie glow in the light of lanterns as men drilled holes in the ice. Charges were placed and detonated. A few ice chips exploded into the air, but the main gorge held fast and firm.
Meanwhile back in Chippewa Falls, the river continued backing up. Already there was water in the basements of Murray’s Hotel at the corner of Bay and River and in Gailey’s Furniture and Hodge’s Store halfway up Bridge Street. Duncan Creek, up to its old tantrums, started backing up and flooding when no more of its overflow could get into the Chippewa.
By morning, (Dec. 2, 1896), The Daily Independent came out with this editorial on it’s front page:
“It looks serious. It seems now as if the calamity cannot be averted. The situation is growing worse hourly. Water is now over the first floor of all buildings below Spring Street and is still rising.” Draymen changing teams every four hours, worked around the clock moving merchandise to safe ground. Old-timers stopped talking about the bad floods of 1880 and 1884 and pitched in to help out wherever they could.
Trains on the Wisconsin Central, operating on ‘slow order’ for the last 24 hours, were stopped completely. The Milwaukee Depot had been chained to the rails.
Everywhere there was water and debris and activity as men fought the elements. The weather turned bitterly cold overnight. The Ice Gorge at Gravel Island (Hallie) had expanded to four miles in length. Every effort to break up the pack proved fruitless. Millions of saw logs stuck like so many toothpicks out of the ice as far down as Badger Mills.
Wisconsin Governor Upham telegraphed city officials his condolences and offered whatever assistance his office could provide. At noon Wednesday, a government engineer, Col. Jones from St. Paul, arrived on scene. Immediately spirits rose. Directing activities at Gravel Island the Colonel ordered a large hole carved in a crevice, under a huge shelf of ice. A 300 lb. charge of dynamite was poked into the crevice. The fuse burned slowly…and then….
Telling about it later an old lumberjack commented: “It seemed as though the very bowels of the earth erupted.”
Strong men waited, watched and prayed. Outwardly the ice gorge appeared to be the same but then the water started rushing through the channel some 40 feet wide and 50 rods long beneath the ice pack. Chippewa Falls has survived still another battle with the mighty Chippewa River and the elements.
In less than a week, the newspaper reported business as usual on Spring, Bay and River streets.