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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XIII


TOWARD the close of the war, even before peace had been actually declared, the country began slowly to shake off the lethargy from which it had not recovered altogether since the panic of 1857. Industry revived, the current of trade began to move again, and a period of development, which was to endure for several years, was soon under way. The effect of the revival upon the lumber industry was most pronounced. The average price, which had been only twelve dollars a thousand up to 1863, reached twenty-four dollars before the end of the following year.

The change marked the beginning of a tremendous development of the Menominee River region, the production of which was to mount upward within less than a score of years from one hundred million to approximately seven hundred million feet. More mills were erected, older mills were enlarged, and on the lower reaches of the river and along the bay shore the lumber area steadily expanded. Operations in the forests above were extended with proportionate rapidity. This necessitated the creation of a central organization to handle the enormous number of logs driven down the stream and distribute them among the numerous manufacturing plants and resulted in the incorporation of the Menominee River Manufacturing Company, afterward called the Menominee River Boom Company.

In 1865 I had built piers in the river to facilitate the handling of timber, but these proved to be inadequate for the growing requirements and during the following year a freshet swept. several million feet of logs out into the bay. This awakened the mill owners to the necessity of concerted action, and the establishment of the boom, which had for its prototype the Oldtown boom on the Penobscot, constructed and managed by Jefferson Sinclair, followed soon after.

This placed additional responsibilities upon my shoulders. There was no one else among the mill owners who had had practical experience in this kind of work, in which I had learned many valuable lessons from Mr. Sinclair and the lumbermen of Maine, and I was accordingly made president of the concern, an office which I still hold, and given full direction of its affairs. It was no small task. To secure the necessary flow of water and regulate the swift current of the river, forty damns were built on the main stream and its tributaries, some of which supply power for traction, lighting, and manufacturing to-day. These were of the gravity type with a broad sloping base. In constructing them we were without the advice of engineers and the advantages of modern mechanical contrivances and materials, but they have stood the test of a half-century. On the Peshtigo River I built twenty-seven more damns, making sixty-seven in all - a record in which I take some pride.

The Menominee River Boom Company is no longer the important institution it was in the halcyon days of lumbering. The millions of feet of pine and hemlock logs, which sometimes extended from bank to bank for miles along the stream, have dwindled to less than one-tenth of the original number, as the forests have been stripped and the huge straight trunks free of limbs have given way to small knotted timber, but the system remains the same.

These were days of large industrial enterprise and men of great capacity and breadth of view were required to encompass and make the most of the opportunities that began to appear upon the brightening horizon. And such men were forthcoming. Some of them, it seems, were endowed with almost prophetic vision and yet were sufficiently trained in the school of experience to progress with safe and sure steps toward the attainment of the dimly discernible ideals that have since been realized. Many of these men it was my good fortune, by reason of the position I held, to be associated with and to know.

Towering above all of them physically as well as mentally, in energy, breadth of vision, and masterful enterprise, was William B. Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago. For ten years I was closely associated with him in business and saw much of him at his home in Chicago and later on in New York. During that time I had ample time to judge of him in an environment of business men. To my mind he was one of the dominating figures of the Middle West during this period and had as much if not more to do with its development than any other man.

He was moderate, almost abstemious, in his habits. He worked eighteen hours out of the twenty-four, planning his schemes of constructive enterprise and reviewing matters submitted to him for final decision. Only a small part of the undertakings he had projected were carried out, but even these gave him place as a man of very large business affairs. He was one of the pioneers who built the railroad from Galena to Chicago. He also built the Northwestern Railroad from Chicago to Green Bay and was president of and a large stockholder in the company. In Chicago and elsewhere his enterprises were almost without number, and his activities as agent of wealthy capitalists in the United States and abroad covered a. wide field.

When the panic of 1857 came, Mr. Ogden had outstanding paper to the amount of $1,500,000, a much larger sum according to the scale of operations at that time than it appears measured by present standards. When he went to New York to arrange matters to tide himself over the crisis he engaged Samuel J. Tilden as his attorney. Subsequently the two men became very fast friends and Tilden was made a director in the Northwestern Railroad Company. In such esteem was Mr. Ogden held in Chicago that upon his return from this trip he was greeted by bonfires all over the city.

In the fires of 1871, at Chicago and Peshtigo, he lost upward of five million dollars, possibly twice or thrice that sum. When the disaster overtook him two of his clients, one a wealthy man in New York, another in England, wrote to his brother, Mahlon Ogden, who was in charge of his real estate operations, directing him to sell out their holdings and devote the proceeds to the liquidation of Mr. Ogden's debts. By, this display of friendship Mr. Ogden was deeply touched, and from that time until his death in 1878 the portraits of his two benefactors, who, as it happened, were not called upon to make the sacrifice they proposed, hung in his house. Despite the losses he suffered, he left a large estate.


William B. Ogden

Iii the autumn of 1864 Mr. Ogden and Mr. Tilden, who were returning from an inspection of their mines in the Lake Superior copper district, stopped at Marinette on their way to Chicago and were my guests for thirty-six hours, The national campaign was then in full swing. Both Mr. Ogden and Mr. Tilden were of the Democratic faith, although they were in favor of the preservation of the Union and upheld the principle of protection, and had before leaving Chicago played a conspicuous part in the nomination of George B. McLellan on the Democratic ticket. They told me at the time that the platform upon which McLellan ran was prepared in Mr. Ogden's library. It was the best, Mr. Tilden said, that Vallandigham's wing of the party, the "copperheads," would accept. I gave Mr. Tilden a copy of the Green Bay Advocate containing a copy of McLellan's letter of acceptance, and after reading it he observed that McLellan had added the soldiers' plank in accordance with a suggestion he had made to him to "tune it up some."

A few years later I had occasion to go to New York several times on business matters, and on one of these visits, while stopping with Mr. Ogden at his home, an imposing residence on the Harlem River just above the aqueduct bridge, made the suggestion that, Tilden, who had then been been governor of New York, was the strongest candidate the Democrats could select for President. The same idea must have been lurking in Mr. Ogden's mind, although I had never heard it expressed before, for, when I made the remark, his face brightened.

"Stephenson," he said eagerly ''will you support him?"

"Oh, no!" I replied. "I am a Republican."

In 1870 Tilden was nominated and, it is very generally admitted, was elected, although counted out. From patriotic motives, it was said at the time, he preferred to make no contest rather than stir up serious trouble.

From Marinette Mr. Ogden and Mr. Tilden went to Peshtigo, where the former had a large lumbering establishment. Using this as a nucleus it was his purpose to erect a large plant for the manufacture of woodenware and other products, but he encountered serious difficulty in the lack of a manager in whom he had confidence to take charge of these operations. For four years, since I had first met him in 1863, he had tried to induce me to take part in the enterprise. At length, in July, 1867, I bought fifty thousand dollars worth of stock and became vice-president and general manager of the Peslitigo Company.

We began operations on a large scale. The fifty thousand acres of timber lands which the company had when I assumed direction of its affairs were increased to one hundred and twenty-five thousand in the course of the next five or six years. In addition to the water-mill at the village of Peslitigo we erected at the mouth of the river a steam mill, the largest and most complete establishment of its kind in the West. The two had a combined capacity of from fifty to sixty million feet of lumber a year, and on the first day of the operation of the new plant, the men, in a working day of eleven hours and using selected logs and putting forth their best efforts, sawed approximately 350,000 feet of lumber and 53,000 lath, a record for that time.

In 1868 we began the erection of a factory for the manufacture of wooden pails. There were two of these already in Wisconsin, one at, Two Rivers, owned by Mann Brothers, and another at Metiasha, owned by E. D. Smith, whom we induced to take an interest in our enterprise. We also entered upon the manufacture of broom handles and clothes pins under the direction of a man, whom we brought. from New Hampshire, reputed to be the most skillful in the country in this branch of industry. The magnitude of our operations may be gathered from the fact that at one time we had in the yards drying two and one-half million feet of basswood boards to be made into broom handles. In addition we built twenty drying-houses, two large warehouses,— one of them three hundred feet long and five stories in height,— and smaller buildings. At Chicago we maintained a large lumber yard, and used for the storage of woodenware the old sugar refinery on North Point. Mr. Ogden also contemplated the establishment of a large tannery and took up negotiations with one of the largest firms in New England for that purpose, but before the plan could be carried out the great fire in 1871 intervened.

Our work, however, consisted of much more than the erection of buildings. The problem of transportation still confronted us. It was necessary for us to bring our manufactured products to the bay from Peslitigo, a distance of seven miles, to construct a harbor where vessels could be loaded, and to ship it thence to the market at Chicago. This involved many difficult problems.

A railroad from the village to Green Bay, equipped with locomotives which we obtained from the Northwestern Railroad and transported on scows, provided the first link. At the mouth of the Peslitigo River a private harbor was made by driving piles out to deep water and filling in the intervening spaces with slabs and edgings. This plan proved so successful that it attracted the attention of the government engineers who for three or four years came to make an annual inspection; and, becoming convinced finally of the value of the methods we had followed, adopted them for the construction of many of the piers and harbors at lumber ports.

The transportation of the lumber and other commodities to Chicago presented greater difficulties. The railroad did not extend beyond Green Bay city and, besides, the freight charges were prohibitive. On the other hand, the cost of carrying lumber on ships was excessive. To reduce this item of expense it occurred to me to use barges, a decided innovation, as it was thought impossible up to this time to tow these craft on the rough waters of Lake Michigan. We purchased two tugs: the "Reindeer," which was brought from New York by way of Oswego, and the "Admiral Porter," a larger vessel, which came through Canada by way of the Welland Canal. Subsequently we disposed of the "Porter" because it was not strong enough for our purposes, trading it for a larger boat.

The barges we had built at the shipyard at Trenton, near Detroit. There were six in all, three with a capacity of one million feet of lumber each and three that carried half this amount. These we proposed to tow in pairs. While one of the larger and one of the smaller vessels were in transit, another pair was at Chicago unloading and another at Peshtigo taking on cargo. From the very outset the plan worked successfully. Thus was established the first barge line on Lake Michigan.

Having accomplished this much, we decided to enlarge the tows and I went to Cleveland, Detroit, and Bay City to purchase more barges to avoid the loss of time required to build them; but there were none suitable for our purposes. At this time there was only one barge line, a very small one, on the lower lakes running from Bay City to Cleveland. The captain of of the tug "Prindiville," —heralded abroad as the best vessel of its kind in these waters,— who had charge of the line, contended that barges could not be successfully towed on Lake Michigan. When he left Bay City, he said, he encountered rough water for a distance of only fifty miles and, if the wind were unfavorable, he turned back. From the mouth of the river to Cleveland he was exposed to rough weather for another fifty miles. His experiences with these short stretches convinced him that towing on the open lake where contrary winds and storms prevailed was an impossible feat. He was somewhat taken aback when I informed him not only that it could be done but that we were actually doing it successfully.

Our example was soon followed by others. After we had operated our barges from Peslitigo to Chicago for two years, four companies on the Menominee, including the N. Ludington Company, which was still under my direction, adopted the plan and we purchased the barge line operated by Theisen, Filer and Robinson, of Manistique, Michigan. Extensive additions were made to this equipment and in two or three years we had fifteen barges in operation towing five at a time. We instituted another innovation on Menominee by designing the tug ''Parrot" for the use of slabs as fuel. On this item alone we effected a saving of five thousand dollars a year. The vessel carried one hundred cords of this wood, which was then inexpensive, sufficient to make the round trip from Marinette to Chicago.

The establishment of the barge lines raised the problem of signaling passing vessels, especially during the night or in foggy weather when there was danger of colliding with the tow. The usual signal of one whistle gave warning of the approach of the tug, but not of the barges behind. A number of years later, in 1884, when I was a member of the House of Representatives, I filed with the Secretary of the Treasury a petition recommending the adoption of a special signal for a tow. Of the nine supervising inspectors of the Bureau of Navigation four were in favor of the proposal and five opposed to it. I thereupon took up the question directly with Judge Folger, then Secretary, explaining to him the conditions, and pointing out the danger to navigation not only from our own barges but from the tows of logs which were brought from Canada in booms. Fortunately he had been on Lake Michigan the year before and, while on his way from Chicago to Sturgeon Bay on the revenue cutter "Andy Johnson," had met our tow. He easily understood the situation and it was not difficult to win him over to my position.

I proposed a signal of three whistles at short intervals. He issued the order despite the disagreement among the inspectors, and it was adopted. It has always been the occasion of much satisfaction to me, not only that my recommendation was followed, but that the signal is used to-day in all waters under the jurisdiction of the United States and has, possibly, obviated many dangers and saved many lives.

The progress we made in the improvisation of new methods and the reduction of the cost of transportation has since dropped into the background, and these achievements are largely only of historical interest. With the advent of the big steel freighters, the development of railroads, and the establishment of important terminals, the entire problem has been transformed and even the old wooden vessels are disappearing. At the time, however, what we did was of great value not only to ourselves but to others and perhaps it was but a step in the direction of all that since has been attained.

Another important improvement in connection with water transportation to and from Green Bay which, though accomplished in later years, I may mention here, was the construction of the Sturgeon Bay Canal, an artificial channel across the peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan from the northeastern part of Wisconsin. Before the completion of this waterway it was necessary for vessels from Green Bay ports to make a wide detour around the barrier by way of Death's Door, the rocky passage between the islands at the northern extremity.

The project of building a canal across the narrow neck of land at Sturgeon Bay called the portage had been under discussion for some years, but nothing was done until the Peshtigo Company took the initiative in the formation of a corporation to undertake the work of construction. At the outset obstacles were encountered. The general rate of interest on money was ten per cent. People who were expected to take an interest in the completion of the improvement assumed an attitude of indifference and declined to contribute to the fund we attempted to raise for a preliminary survey. In Green Bay, the city which was to be most benefited by it, the only subscription we obtained was five dollars from one of the prominent lumbermen.

Nevertheless a preliminary survey was made, largely through my efforts and at my expense, but the route contemplated was abandoned because of the discovery of a ledge of rock at the eleven-foot level, an insuperable obstacle because the use of dynamite for under-water blasting was unknown at the time. Later I succeeded in having the government engineers make another survey for a route a mile and a half in length. This was adopted, a grant of two hundred thousand acres of land, odd sections lying for the most part in Marinette County, was authorized and the company began work in the early seventies.

General Strong, secretary of the Peshtigo Company, Mr. Ogden, Jesse Spalding, and myself had charge of the enterprise; but the actual direction of the affairs of the corporation fell largely to me, as the others were without the practical knowledge needed for work of this kind.

About midway in the work of excavation we encountered a ridge, thirty feet above water level, covered with a heavy growth of timber. In removing this we came upon a cedar tree, fourteen inches in diameter at the butt, buried under forty-three feet of earth. How long it had been there is, of course, a matter of speculation. But in view of the depth of the soil above it and the size of the trees that had taken root there it seemed probable that it had been covered for two or three centuries or more. In spite of its great age every branch, even the bark, was perfectly preserved; and so great was the curiosity aroused over it that we sent sections to various parts of the country for examination, and scientists endeavored to solve the problem of its antiquity.

The discovery confirmed the conclusion I had reached several years before: that cedar resisted decay much more effectively than other woods of the northern region. While making repairs on the company's railroad from the village of Peshtigo to the bay I found that a cedar tie, which had been used inadvertently, was in a much better state of preservation than others adjoining it, although they had all been laid at the same time. This gave me the clue that was borne out by the cedar tree unearthed in digging the canal, and I proposed to Mr. Ogden and other railroad men that cedar, which was of little value at the time for other purposes, be used for ties. My suggestion met with opposition. Mr. Ogden contended that it was too soft, but eventually he yielded to my judgment, others followed our example, and in time the cedar tie became one of the staple products of all northern lumbering establishments.

The canal was carried through to completion as expeditiously and economically as any work ever undertaken under like conditions; harbors were constructed and the waterway was opened to traffic in 1873. The two hundred thousand acres of land granted the company was at the time of little value. Most of it was swampy or boggy and it had been for the most part stripped of timber. We disposed of it at two auctions, at one of which we sold 77,000 acres for $38,000. At present the tract would be worth millions, but no one foresaw the agricultural development that was to follow. In 1893 the canal was purchased by the government for $103,000.


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