Clark County Press, Neillsville, Wisconsin

December 3, 2014, Page 12

Contributed by "The Clark Co. Press"

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 


Compiled by Dee Zimmerman


Clark County News

 November 1869



The Black River Falls residents’ claim the first sawmill in the state was built on the Black River.  Their authority is Horace S. Merrill, a graduate assistant in history at the University of Wisconsin.


Not only are Black River Falls residents now claiming they had the first sawmill, but they maintain that they first two.  Both were constructed in 1819, according to a thesis prepared by Merrill on the early history of this region. 


In the winter of 1818-19, carpentry work and school teaching at the little trading post of Prairie du Chien became too dull for venture-some young Willard Keyes.  An Indian Agent told him that the Black River pinery was waiting for his ax, if he wanted to use it.


Keyes sharpened that tool and on January 7, 1819, started up the river.  He was accompanied by 14 men and fur-traders.  They traveled on seven one-horse sleighs.


Three of the company stopped at a trading post enroute, but the others reached the falls.  They back-tracked three or four miles built a cabin and cached part of their supplies from over-overcurious Indians.  Then the trees began to fall.  Occasionally, a fur trader stopped, but more frequently, the perpetually half-starved Winnebagos dropped in for some “white man grub.”


When the party returned to Prairie du Chien April 24 with eight rafts of pine, they had had thrills enough on their downstream journey to keep them talking for weeks. A skiff and a canoe were broken and the rafts almost torn apart.


On the approach to the mouth of the Mississippi River, Keyes wrote in his diary: “The Mississippi is no more than one and a-half miles distant, but we have 20 miles to go before we enter.  The current is very gentle, but the river spreads into many different channels.  These are obstructed by old trees, stumps and sand bars, which render it difficult for our rafts to pass.”  Keyes diary was one of the major sources for information concerning the first sawmills built on the river.  (Merrill found other information about them in personal letters, diaries and narratives of persons who lived in the region.)


When Keyes returned to Prairie du Chien, he found a millwright friend, Constant Andrews, busy with plans for a mill at the falls.  Seven Sioux chiefs willingly gave their permission for the project.


By November 2, the mill was completed.  The Winnebagos, however, decided about that time they had first right in the Black River Falls country and that sawmills were undesirable neighbors.  So Andrew’s mill, which he claimed “was inferior to any in the United States,” was reduced to ashes.  Just when it was burned is unknown, but it probably operated for no more than a year.


No further attempts were made at the falls until 1838, although the American Fur Co. maintained a trading post there.


Early in the spring of 1897 when the country was electrified by the news that the richest gold strike the country had ever known had been discovered in the region of the Klondike River, thousands of Americans made the dash to the frozen north to join the scramble for wealth and fame.  Neillsville, then young and flourishing logging center, was rich in pioneer characters and the subject of gold was upon every tongue.  Men began planning trips to the Eldorado.  Many of these plans never materialized, but to five young men of the city, the lure of the yellow dust was strong enough to bring about a realization of their dreams for a journey into the gilded ice-locked wastes.


They were Charles H. Gates, High Hart, Geo Huntzicker, Frank Hewett and Charles Breed.  Added to the party was a man named Ed Foss of Fairchild.  They had persuaded several residents to finance their enterprise with the promise to divide their spoils with their backers.  John Paulus, who ran the O’Neill House, backed Charles Breed, Vic and Fred Huntzicker helped finance Geo Huntzicker and Charles Gates was backed by Fred Huntzicker, Ernest Eilert and his son, Will.  High Hart financed himself and Mr. Gates does not know whether Mr. Foss financed himself or received aid.  The following year several other Neillsville men went into the Klondike.


The Gates’ party left Neillsville July 29, 1897 and after purchasing fur-lined sleeping bags of Gordon and Ferguson in St. Paul, proceeded to Seattle where they bought the balance of their out-fittings and provisions.


On the ninth of August, the party left Seattle on the steamer Wilamette for Skagway, which they reached about nine days later, making a brief pause at Juneau.  At Juneau, they saw the bones of mastodons that had been excavated by miners, one tusk in front of a store measuring fourteen feet in length.


Each member of the Neillsville party was carrying approximately 1,500 pounds of equipment and food.  They had sixteen horses. From Skagway they took the forty-mile trail to Lake Bennett, head of the Yukon River.  They were sixty-three days making the forty miles and every horse perished on the way, testimony of the hardships the men encountered negotiating the muddy trail.


Their luggage was taken forward in relays, each man taking as much as he could carry for a mile and a half.  They then returned and took another load, making four such trips a day until the entire 1,500 pounds was transported a mile and a- half.  From that point, the same process was repeated until they had covered the entire 40 miles.  Along the trail lay the carcasses of 2,000 horses that had died and numerous stones marked the resting places of men who had fought to reach the goal and failed as death halted their struggle.  Not a few committed suicide in the face of the desperate odds against them.


At Lake Bennett the men built skiffs, 20 feet long with a 4 ˝ foot beam.  The lumber was whipsawed by them from the logs they cut.  When the craft were completed the party stared on the 600-mile cruise down the Yukon.  While passing Lake LaBarge about 100 miles down from Lake Bennet, they met their first grizzly bear.  The animal, which was on an island and had been shot at by some men from Wichita, Kan., who were following the Neillsville party, had taken to the water and started swimming for the boat Gates was in.  When within 30 feet of the skip, Gates raised his 40-65 Winchester and fired.  The bullet broke the bear’s neck.  The animal, which they estimated to weigh 800 pounds, was tied behind the boat and floated downstream a half mile where the banks were less precipitous and hauled ashore.  Eight men were required to get him on land.  The party sat up all night and fried bear meat. Eating first the heart and liver, then finished with with the steaks.  “Swiftwater Bill,” as Charles Gates was nicknamed by his cronies, said they kept two large frying pans going throughout the long winter night as the bear furnished then with the first fresh meat they had tasted in more than a month.


As they continued down the Yukon and the “big freeze up” was setting in and by the time they reached the mouth of the Big Salmon River, the stream was running ice from bank to bank, making it impossible to proceed farther.  A camp was made at the Big Salmon, a large log cabin built and they remained until the river opened in the spring of 1898.  Twelve other mining parties camped at the same site.


While at the Big Salmon Major James A. Walsh, deputy of the minister of the interior of Canada came down the Yukon and stopped at their camp.  The miners advised him against trying the trip to Dawson but he decided against their warning and started.  He got only20 miles when the ice became impassable and one of the crew lost his life in trying to reach shore and two boatloads of supplies sank.  Walsh returned to the Big Salmon and stayed the winter.


In the spring the men started for Dawson.  Before reaching Dawson the Neillsville party stopped and built a large raft of logs, which they disposed of at Dawson for $600, receiving $50 a thousand for the logs.  Two other men on a raft near them killed a moose on the way to Dawson and floated it behind their raft.  At Dawson they sold the carcass to a butcher for $1,000 without taking it from the water, receiving about $1 a pound for the meat.


The party reached Dawson on the Queen’s birthday, which Mr. Gates recollects was May 26, 1898.


On the Yukon cruise, Mr. Gates recalled that Frank Hewett and High Hart took their boats through the famous White Horse rapids, an extremely treacherous stretch of water where a large number of miners lost their lives in trying to navigate the raging rapids.  Mr. Gates and the rest of the party portaged around the canyon, taking a week to make the distance of two miles.


Upon their arrival at Dawson they pitched their tents on the beach where 35,000 Americans were encamped in tents.  In this vast camp colony flourished the notorious saloons, dance halls and gambling dens where men burned the candle at both ends and money flowed like water.


“In one roulette game,” said Mr. Gates, “I actually saw the manager of the Alaska Commercial Co. store lose $22,000 in gold dust in less than two hours.  I was told it was common for him to win or lose that much every week or two.  The halls were full of miners day and night.  It was just as light at night as in the daytime during the summer and the sun was visible at midnight.  The streets swarmed with men all day and all night.  Nobody worked in the summer because the prospect holes would fill with water and make mining impossible. 


There was no fighting, gun play or loud shouting among that vast army of men such as one would expect under the circumstances. A patrol of 65 or 70 Canadian mounted policemen kept order and the miners knew better than antagonize them.


Whiskey was $1.50 a drink over the bar and beer the same.  Later they dropped to 50 cents a drink.  One time Frank Hewett and I ran out of tobacco and had to pay $12 for a pound of plug, which we divided and cut up for smoking.”


By the summer of 1898 hundreds of women had made their way into the interior, mostly for the purpose of preying upon the miners, according to Mr. Gates, although a number of wives followed their husbands into the diggings and seemed to stand the hardships as well as the men.


In the summer of 1898 Frank Hewett, Charles Breed and Ed Foss, having failed their hunt for gold, returned to the states with Mr. Gates and Mr. Huntzicker remaining.  For two years, Gates and Huntzicker prospected at Fortymile River in American territory and found some gold, but not in paying quantities.  While there, Gates sold one claim for $700 and a half interest in another for $350.


Finally abandoning that project, Gates and Huntzicker split up and started down the Klondike River in the boat he had built two years before.  They proceeded 1,700 miles down the Klondike to St. Michaels at its mouth, taking 30 days for the trip.  The Klondike River was a mile to two miles wide in many places and 60 miles wide at its mouth.  On the way, the men shot ducks and geese, which they cooked in the boat as they floated along.  At night they camped on shore.  From St. Michaels they went overland 100 miles to Nome where they had heard of rich placer mining sites, but upon their arrival at Nome, found the town under quarantine of smallpox and they were not allowed to enter.  Huntzicker, however, had one to Nome a week previous and was permitted to enter the settlement.


Gates and his companions then trekked back to St. Michaels where Gates engaged in paper hanging and painting, receiving $5 a day and board.  He worked there a month and then started for the states in September 1900, the trip taking 22 days on the Pacific Ocean.  In Seattle, Gates was surprised by a man coming up behind him and slapping him on the back.  He turned and discovered Huntzicker behind him.  Neither had known where the other was.  They returned to Neillsville together.


“Those were great days,” said Mr. Gates.  “Our food consisted of bacon and beans.  On rare occasions, we had a little rice and a few dried apples or apricots.  Everything in the way of food cost $1 a pound except butter, which was $1.50 a pound.  Butter came in sealed tin cans and was of good quality.  Once in a while, I shot a salmon with my pistol in the Klondike, which was an unusually clear stream and provided us with drinking water.


 Mr. Gates has a Free Miner’s Certificate issued May 14, 1898, at Fort Selkirk for which he paid $10.  The permit allowed him to fish, hunt and cut timber so long as the timber was used for building houses, boats or for general mining operations, but not for sale.  The permit was issued by the Major James A. Walsh mentioned before, whom Mr. Gates states was the man who captured Sitting Bull some years previous in Canada and turned over to the United States.


Mr. Gates, who is 74 years old, is enjoying good health and takes a keen interest in fishing, spending much of his summers at the various area lakes and streams here.  He occupies the rear of his store building on Sixth and West Street.  “Swiftwater Bill” is a facsimile of the picturesque sourdoughs that combed the Klondike country during those stirring days.  Though plainly furnished, his quarters are immaculately clean and one cannot help being impressed by the neatness of the surroundings upon entering his place.  Here and there are reminders of pioneer life.  An old coal stove that resembles those seen in the early cabins stands near the north wall casting its welcome warmth throughout the large room.


Near the west wall stands a large round table, above which swings an electric light shaded by the conical paper shade of the early days.  In the center of the table is a pile of fiction magazines depicting life in the early west.  In one corner is a large closet containing the weapons he carried with him beneath the northern lights and pictures of outdoor life and hunting adorn the walls.


Above the kitchen table hang several cooking utensils and large iron forks that were used when he cooked his bacon and beans “up north.”


When one enters “Swiftwater Bill’s” quarters, he feels he has walked into a painted scene of frontier life and catches himself wanting to say: “Howdy Pardner, what luck in the diggin’s today?”


(“Gold Fever,” lured many to the Black Hills or Alaska, seeking to strike it rich with most being disappointed DZ)


During the 1920s Dahnert Brothers Garage was located on the north side of West Seventh Street in the 200 block.  Soon after this photo was taken, the west half of the building was remodeled into what is now “The Green Lantern.”


(Photo courtesy of Angie Larsen)





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