Index of "Good Old Days" Articles

Clark County Press, Neillsville

May 28, 1997, Page 32

Transcribed by Sharon Schulte

Good Old Days

Clark County News of 1911

James L. Gates


James L. Gates was a pioneer in Clark County's lumbering industry and one of the chief promoters in the growth of the Neillsville business district.

James L. Gates was an energetic individual influential in Clark County’s development, referred to as a self-made man of this country.

Starting life with limited schooling, a period of but three months, he later became credited with being one of the largest individual holders of pine lands in the United States, his interests in the states of Wisconsin and Florida.

Gates was born in the pine forests of the Adirondack Mountains, N.Y. in 1850. His father was a timber inspector, and as a child he followed him through the pine woods thus instinctively acquiring a knowledge of the giant trees which were to be the basis for his eventual wealth.

Daniel Gates, the father, died in 1885; his mother was formerly Jane Hewett. In 1856, when James was six years of age, his parents moved to Neillsville, where the father continued to work as a lumberman and the son followed in his footsteps. Natural ambition pushed the younger Gates into acquiring information which he needed to become a lumberman. When only sixteen years of age, he had advanced to the position of foreman in a logging camp on the Black River. Although it was unusual that one of young should be a "boss," he not only remained the foreman, but proved himself among the most competent ones in that region.

Gates believed that a railroad from Merrillan to Neillsville would be of great advantage, and when told that the proposed route was impracticable, he surveyed the line himself, and became instrumental in the construction work.


The Neillsville bank was founded by James L. Gates in 1879, being affiliated with the business for three years. The above bank building was the second structure on the corner of Hewett and Sixth Street.

He was virtually unacquainted with banking, but in 1879 he founded the Neillsville Bank, which became a most flourishing institution, operating it successfully for three years. It seemed whenever he took hold of a project, it continued to succeed.

For many years, Gates was a chief promoter of the material prosperity of Neillsville. He founded the firm of Gates, Stannard & Co., which operated the largest mercantile business in the city. He erected a number of most substantial buildings, including two of its finest brick blocks, and introduced the telegraph and telephone, enabling the U.S. Signal Service to be installed.

The rich natural resources and broad possibilities of the Lake Superior regions early claimed his attention, and he made a large investment in its timber and mineral lands. He was one of the main moves in the enterprise which secured the franchise and built the Sault Ste. Marie railroad, being a director in the company organized for that purpose.

Throughout his life, Gates’ carried on an extensive logging business. His logging operations had represented an amount exceeded by but few operators in the Northwest, being accomplished by six-hundred men, under his direction, without the assistance of either clerk or bookkeeper. He owned approximately 800,000 acres of pine lands in Wisconsin and Florida.

In 1886, Gates moved his family to Milwaukee, residing there until the time of his death on August 25, 1911. One of his strokes of successful businesses while living there was the purchase, from the government, of the old post office building. He purchased it for the sum of $256,000 and resold it later.

Self-made and self-educated, Gates was a forcible writer. He had written instructive articles on the question of free coinage of silver and against the appreciation of gold, as well as the varied phases of the tariff in question.

Gates’ first wife was Lydie Eyerly of Neillsville. They had two children, Robert and Edith. In July 1885, he married Katherine Meade of New Hampshire, to whom were born a son, Harrison, and a daughter, Helen.

At the time of Gates’ death, the two sons were affiliated with the James L. Gates Land Co. One daughter married Dr. H.A. Peterson of Soldier’s Grove and the other became Mrs. R.B. MacDonald of Ladysmith. He had two brothers, E.H. and Charles, as well as one sister, Mrs. R. J. MacBride, all living in Neillsville.

James L. Gates was buried in the Neillsville Cemetery.

The Great Black River Flood of 1911

Continuing heavy rains for nearly a week in October culminated on the afternoon of the sixth as the high, turbulent waters of the Black River broke the Dells Dam, Hatfield Dam and swept practically all the business part of Black River Falls.

Supt. Of Construction, W.T. True who had charge at Dells Dam saw the water in the pond was rising to a dangerous stage. Getting into communication with the Omaha Railroad officials, he got permission to call out the 300 men and their teams employed in the gravel pits nearby. Farmers in the area also came to his aid and a dike over half a mile long was put up to keep the water from running around the west end of the dam. The crest of the fill on the west end was raised and fortified with a double row of sand bags. True patrolled the works day and night watching for breaks and taking measurements. His activity and the help of the men saved the dam for a time and the waters began to recede.

Thursday afternoon it began to rain again and poured all night long. Again the railroad men and farmers responded to True’s call, working through the night in attempt to keep the dike from braking. A heavy northwest wind set in, driving the waves heavily upon the dike. Seeing that a break was likely to occur at any moment, True began telephoning down the valley warning all whom he could reach, especially and repeatedly warning the people at Black River Falls. By cutting the dike far out at the west end and letting the water go out across the country side, he thought he might save the Dell’s Dam. He was sure the flood would strike Black River Falls before morning and fought trying to hold back the rising tide.

Early in the morning he knew a break was inevitable. He aroused all the men and ordered them to get up steam on their work trains and pull out of the gravel pits. The families and men about the dam were all send to places of safety. With his horse saddled, True telephoned warnings continuously to those living below the dam and down along the river land. Just before seven that morning, the water broke through and soon had a great gap torn in the west wing, a rushing flood moving down the valley. Mounting his horse, True rode for his life to get across the bridge to George Schultz’s house where his family had been sent, the approach of the bridge being covered with water as he passed.

For nearly four hours after the Dells Dam broke, Hatfield Dam held the flood, then the east wind broke through and the combined torrents swept down upon Black River Falls. Although repeatedly warned, the people there could not realize their great danger. Pouring over the west side of the power dam, the course of the river was turned to the west and soon was cutting through the heart of the business part of town. The business section was entirely swept away, the city stood on alluvial sand that cut away before the flood like snow.

Sunday night at Judge O’Neill’s suggestion, services at the Congregational Church were turned into a relief meeting. Committees were appointed and by Monday morning, a big drag load of provisions were brought into City Hall, prepared for shipment on the 11:30 a.m. train.

True desperately worked day and night for nearly seven days previous to the flood, dropping in exhaustion as he reached Schultz’s home.

His efforts and those who helped, save some lives of those living in or near the path of the flood.


Dells Dam was built on the Black River during the logging days to help control the water for moving logs to market down river. The flood of 1911 destroyed the Dells Dam, Hatfield dam and most business buildings in Black River Falls.



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