A short history of Wisconsin Rapids

Note: the following has been retyped from a typed manuscript of unknown authorship composed in 1930 and partially revised in 1959 (see note at end of document). There has been no attempt made to correct errors of fact, spelling or grammar in this retyping; however, the notation "(sic)" has been added in several places where inconsistencies and/or errors in fact, spelling and/or grammar are apparent, though unverified.


The history of Wisconsin Rapids literally is "a Tale of Two Cities." It was not until 1900 that "Grand Rapids" on the east, and "Centralia" on the west bank of the Wisconsin River, consolidated, and not until 1920 that its name became "Wisconsin Rapids." The English and Irish founders of Grand Rapids had worked their way westward from "New York", attracted by the newly discovered and apparently limitless forests, chiefly of White and Norway pine, bordering the Wisconsin River. They settled here because of the tremendous fall, thought to be 45 feet, of tumbling waters, split at its top by a tremendous rock, called "Shaurette," or "Sherman", making available two fine water powers.

The second group of founders included gay, irresponsible, but undoubtedly courageous French-Canadians, who recklessly drove the rafts of logs from timber camps farther north through the dangerous rapids and formed a nucleus for the settlement of "Centralia." Within a few years after the founding of the two settlements, the astute business men of the East Side had taken over all available power sites with the exception of two. Those of the French-Canadians who for one reason or another had abandoned raft piloting, had settled mainly on the West Side. Many of the homes are prevalent today.

Thus the two communities growing up side by side with little in common, merged in to the city of Wisconsin Rapids. In the past, personal, political and civic rivalry was acute between the residents of the East and West side. Vestiges of this rivalry have crept into the political and civic scene through the years although not with the previous, personal intensity.


Essentially, the first settler was Daniel Whitney, who previously had constructed a dam and mill at Whitney Rapids, on the east side of the river, just above Pointe Basse (now Nekoosa). In 1838, disappointed with the small amount of power that could be developed there, he sent his nephew and mill manager, David Whitney, with Nelson Strong and Ahira Sampson, up river in search of a better site. Discovering about ten miles north "Ze Tall Rapids", as the French called Grand Rapids, word was sent back that a place satisfactory for a mill site and a settlement had been found. Others came up and the construction of a dam and mill began. Sampson sold his interest to R. Bloomer, and David Whitney died, so that actually the mill was built by Bloomer and Cruikshank (Kruickshank in the old records) and began operations before 1838 had ended. Enough lumber was fabricated to erect not only a residence for Nelson Strong, near the mill, but a hotel, also owned by Strong, facing First Street, near the site of the present Labor Temple. To the south of what is now East Grand Avenue was an almost unbroken tamarack swamp. The first log house, used chiefly as a cook shanty had been built earlier that year by H. McCutcheon, who fed the men working on the mill.

First white child born in Grand Rapids was Emily Strong, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Strong. Henry Sampson was the first white child born in what is now Wood County, earlier in 1838, on a farm opposite Frenchtown (Port Edwards). With his father, he came to Grand Rapids in 1850 and was destined to become one of the outstanding loggers in the community, securing his timber from the Mosquito Creek region opposite what now is Biron. His father, Ahira Sampson, and he were, with Nelson Strong, most important of the pioneers.

During the period from 1839 until 1860, Grand Rapids increased rapidly in population, and still more rapidly in manufacturing. Wing dams were constructed wherever power was available, and the production of lumber, shingles, pails and other timber products created a lively commerce, the market chiefly at St. Louis. Two of the French names appearing among the important industrialists of the community were T.C. ST. (sic) Amour, also an early day store keeper, and John Baptiste Arpin, an extensive dealer in timber lands and founder of the Arpin Lumber Co. Industrial progress, was impelled to great extent by the business sagacity of the East siders, with their financial connections in New York.

Of these, two men became particularly prominent. Both were from New York. Joseph Wood came in 1848. Eight years later, in 1856, he organized the county that bears his name and became its first judge, (sic) Prior to that date, the towns now comprising Wood County belonged to Portage. Later he was mayor of the city, postmaster, and for many terms a member of the County Board of Supervisors. He was father of Franklyn J. Wood, founder of the Wood County National Bank, promoter and financial supporter of Grand Rapids industrial and business enterprises until his death. He never became reconciled to the gradual trend of business to the West side.

The other, Jeremiah D. Witter, also from New York, settled here in 1859 and was an attorney who loved finance and promotion better than law. A few years after his arrival he founded the First National Bank in Grand Rapids. Money seemed to cling to his fingers and it was not long before he was promoting and financing power sites and mills on both sides of the river. It was he who finally broke down the opposition of antagonism and dispute and he was responsible for the consolidation in 1901 of all the water powers on the river inside the limits of the community and built that same year the beginnings of Consolidated Water Power & Paper Company.

Another prominent citizen arriving during the 1850’s was Charles M. Webb, who, returning safely from service in the Union Army during the Civil War, became the district’s first State Senator, and later Circuit Court Judge, a post he held until his death. Judge John Gaynor, after practicing law and attaining the office of Justice of the Peace, became interested in the cranberry industry. These berries first grew wild, especially south-west of the city, and although a considerable number of others pioneered in raising the berries, increasing their size and improving their quality, it was John Gaynor who laid the foundation for one of the most successful cooperatives in the United States.

The first county court house, erected in 1856, which stood north of the present Sampson Canning Co. on First Street North, was a small, flimsy affair, and until 1881, when the brick court house was built facing Baker Street, a majority of the county offices were compelled to use offices in the down town district. The second court house has since been demolished to make way for the New (sic) county building facing the East Side Market Square. At first there were but two supervisors, W. H. Jackson and Eusebe LaVigne, but soon additional towns and villages were organized, each privileged to send its chairman, to the county legislature at the present time, including those elected from cities and villages, it numbers 48.

The first census taken in 1846 showed 130 males and but 17 females. A small school house was built by these East siders in 1850, on 8th Street North. Since that time two other schools have stood in approximately the same site, the first being the Howe High School built in 1872. Later this was turned into a grade school and the venerable building served the city until 1950 when it was demolished to make way for the present new Howe School. A Mr. Brundage (not J. N.) was the first school teacher, and mention is also made of Susan Compton at a shortly later date.

A crystalization of religious sentiment did not occur until 1857, when after the advent of a considerable number of Germans, a Catholic mission was established by the Rev. James Sachle. This was destined to become the present parish of St. Peter and Paul. The Protestants took strong root beginning in the 1860’s. Following the coming of a large colony from Germany, a Lutheran congregation was formed, its first building being on Eighth Street South about where the present Immanuel Lutheran place of worship stands. The Congregational Church was founded on March 27, 1862 and the Methodist and Baptist groups about the same period. A number of denominations are now strongly represented.

Until 1859 the river rolled uninterruptedly between the two towns and the only means of communication were rowboats and canoes. In that year Eusebe LaVigne built a ferry intended to ply between the foot of Vine Street, (now East Grand Avenue) and what is now Consolidated Park. Being propelled by poles, its landings in high water ran on a cable (sic) Consequently, it was abandoned in a few years for a ferry which ran on a cable over practically the same route. L.M. Nash is reputed to have been responsible for this improvement. The first bridge, a narrow wooden structure, connected Vine Street with the eastern end of Cranberry Street, Centralia, during the later 1860’s. Originally a toll bridge, controlled by a company headed by Mr. Nash, the county purchased it about 1870, and made it free, only to have it destroyed in April, 1875, by flood ice. Two years later the county built the first iron bridge, a very high and cheap structure, which, however, served until the flood of 1888, which tore off its western span. In 1899 it was replaced by a much more durable iron bridge which did duty until replaced on June 16, 1922, with the present modern type, concrete arch structure.

The Civil War period brought not only a business depression but bitterness. Majority sentiment, particularly among the influential and more affluent citizens, was strongly Democratic. Against the quiet undercurrent of opposition by this element, it was impossible to recruit an infantry company of full war strength here, although there were many volunteers who left the town quietly and jointed (sic) various Wisconsin regiments. Finally the half filled company finished recruiting at Stevens Point. Originally named "The Evergreens", it became Company "G" of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry. Daniel Howell was captain until his resignation, March 10, 1863, after which Lt. W. W. Botkin led the company, assisted by First Lt. Charles M. Webb. Fewer than half of the men who left their homes to fight for the Union ever returned. In spite of alleged "Copperhead" sympathy, the board of supervisors finally appropriated a small sum for support of war widows and orphans.

Four destructive fires swept the Grand Rapids business district between 1865 and 1873. How destructive they were is evinced by the fact that of all the frame structures originally erected on First Street, but one, the James Mason saloon building remained until the late 1930’s when this pamphlet was originally written. This structure was located on the site just north of the present East side entrance to the Jackson Street bridge and south of the Hotel Witter which was demolished in 1950. These fires were fought with a small hand "pumper", water being secured from the river. After the 1873 fire, the city bought an efficient fire engine. Grand Rapids had been chartered as a city April 6, 1869, with Seth Reeves as its first mayor. The city hall was the building at the corner of First and Baker streets, now a parking lot and earlier the site of the old T.B. Scott Library. The fire company used the lower floor.

Until the coming of efficient flood control it was a local fact that the Wisconsin River at this point took, at least one life a year. Of floods, both when the ice went out and in June and August there have been many, but the most destructive of all occurred in the afternoon of June 4, 1880. The stage of water, induced by continued rains, had been high all week, but on the morning of this day it appeared to be receding and the anxious merchants, although keeping a watchman far up river, relaxed. About 2:00 P. M. the watchman appeared, riding at a dead run to tell them of a tremendous flood rushing down upon them. Frantically they tried to save their wares, but suddenly, several hours later, the flood broke through at an eddy just above the Hotel Witter, (north of the east entrance to the Jackson Street Bridge) forming a veritable gulch east of 2nd Street, and rushing back into the river at the foot of Oak Street. J. N. Brundage and George Ferguson were in their store, when a great wave lifted the building from its foundations and swept it swiftly down stream. Brundage leaped from the front door, grasped desperately at a rock and was saved. Ferguson was drowned.

Timber falling steadily before the asaults (sic) of the axmen, and the lumber business began to decline. As a banker Jeremiah D. Witter noted this, and investigated the paper industry then developing in the Fox River Valley. In spite of skeptics who said that Wisconsin River water was too dark, and at this point too full of sawdust to make the manufacture of white paper possible, he formed a company, financed it and became its treasurer, for the making of wood pulp and later of white paper. This was the first paper mill on the Wisconsin River and was built at Hurleytown (now South Side) in 1888. On April 6, 1891, the first sheet of newsprint was "born". Frank Garrison was president, and G.F. Steele the first secretary and manager. Both were East siders, so although it was called the "Centralia Pulp & Paper Company", it was, strictly speaking, a Grand Rapids enterprise. It burned in 1912.

The first newspaper published in the community was the Wood County Reporter, its initial issue coming out in November, 1857. John N. Brundage was editor and publisher until he went to war. Afterward, for many years, Albert L. Fontaine, son of Henry Fontaine, was its editor and for a time published a daily edition.


Like "Topsy", Centralia "jes growed." The first record of settlement that can be found is in the hands of George R. Baker. It states that his great-grandfather, David R. Baker, and family, leaving New York in 1837 to become a partner of George Kline (Klein) and, for some reason, settling on the west bank of the river, built the "long log house" facing the river or what is now First Avenue, where now stands the parsonage of the First Moravian Church. The record also shows that the date was sometime during 1839. In 1843, a son, George W. Baker, was born to him there. In that same year George Kline built a mill north of what is now the Green Bay bridge, but there is no record that Baker participated in its construction or operation.

Other settlers who built log cabins in Centralia included J. P. Marcotte, Joe Fortier, Henry Jackson and Joe Sanville. North of an Indian trail, running northwesterly from the river front, there located at about the same time two families from the French canton of Switzerland, Hippolyte B. Lefevre and Henry Fontaine. Too poor to buy logs, these men first housed their families in shacks built from unusable slabs from the mill. Both men sold whiskey and prospered so that Lefevre, by 1860, was able to build, fronting First Avenue and the river, the most pretentious frame house in the town, using it as a tavern. The local chapter of D. A. R. restored this two-story gable and structure many years later and filled it with relics of the early days. Since demolished it stood on the site of the Consolidated parking lot fronting on First Avenue. It was used for a time to house the Palmquist Photo Studio before being town down.

One would have thought Centralia a place entirely unsuitable for a settlement. Scarcely 100 acres were dry land and it was so surrounded by tag alder marshes that only by these Indian trails was it possible to reach the hinterland. Presently streets took the place of trails, this being the reason for the fact that few of the streets today are straight or run with the compass. The first main street was First Avenue, running parallel with the river. Soon the main Indian trail became Cranberry Street and finally Grand Avenue, the present city’s main traffic artery.

The first frame store was built in 1842 at the corner of First Avenue and Cranberry Street. It was built either by Henry Jackson or George A. Corriveau, afterward partners. Jackson sold his interest to Corriveau, who later built another store at the corner of Third Avenue and Cranberry Street and L. M. Nash took over the First Avenue store, remodeled it and operated it until his death. The block now houses Montgomery Ward. Wooden shacks, chiefly used for saloons sprang up along Cranberry Street, and Third Avenue South was rescued from the swamp and turned into a residential street. The first school was a two-room log cabin, located on the north side of the present West Side Market Square facing Second Avenue and taught by the future wife of John Edwards, founder of the Nekoosa Edwards Paper Company. In the 1930’s the sole survivor here of all that gay French Canadian citizenry which characterized the earlier years was "Bat" Passineau born in the "long log house" 82 years ago. He stated that in the earlier 1850’s, when he first attended school there, the pupils numbered six beside himself.

Until 1856 there had been no law on the West Side. Murders, shootings, brawls, and crimes of violence of all kinds were frequent. On the above date, under threat that Grand Rapids, already governed as a Portage County town, would seize its territory, Centralia organized as a town, including Hurleytown, (Southside), Frenchtown , Seneca and parts of Siegel town, the whole containing a population of 806. In 1874, in May it was chartered as a city with R. C. Moore as Mayor. The city hall and fire house, a square two-story wooden structure, its lower floor used to house fire fighting equipment, while the upper floor contained offices and the council chamber, now stands in the rear of the brick city hall on Grand Avenue and west of Fourth Avenue. Centralia’s only newspaper was "The Enterprise", founded by E. B. Rossier in 1878.

The period between the early 1870’s and the beginning of the new century was made notable by the advent of railways. First to come was the Green Bay and Lake Pepin Ry. (now G. B. & W.) which finally reached here from the east in 1872, having stations on both sides of the river. Promoted by Reuben Lyon, the Wisconsin Valley Ryl. (Wisconsin Valley Division of the C. M. St. P. & P Ry came through in 1873, but was not fully completed between Wausau and New Lisbon until considerably later. In 1890, the Port Edwards, Centralia and Northern Ryl. (Marshfield branch of the "Soo") also built by private capital, connected Marshfield with Centralia, Port Edwards, and later Nekoosa. The last railway to arrive was the Marshfield branch of the C. &. N. W. Ry. paralleling the "Soo", between Marshfield and Nekoosa.

During the 1890’s, two major controversies arose. By this time there were five water power dams and mills in Centralia, the smaller concerns having merged with those more important, or gone out of business.. One, of these, Mack & Spencer, was making wood pulp. At that time poplar logs were used and a great deal of labor was needed to chop out the black spots at the knots. The Centralia Pulp and Paper Company was first to discover the superiority of spruce for making pulp and paper. Business in timber products was declining and the need for consolidation seemed imperative. J. D. Witter, Grand Rapids banker; who also had a bank in Centralia, was active in this merger effort, but many of the individual owners were stubbornly bent on fighting it out. The other squabble was over a proposed merger between the two adjacent cities. The younger folk were for it, but their elders headed by Theron Lyon, last Mayor of the city, fought bitterly. Centralia had an electric and water plant and no debt. However, a vote joined the cities in 1900.


So "the twain were made one". Once more did the East Side conquer when it was decided that the joint city should bear the name, "Grand Rapids." It remained so until, two decades later, Otto Roenius, president of the American Carbonic Mfg. Company, and at that time mayor, lost valuable mail which went to Grand Rapids, Michigan. An informal poll conducted by the Tribune showed the name "Wisconsin Rapids" as most popular and that became the city’s name after 1920. Meanwhile, the appearance of the community and particularly at the business district began to change. Brick and stone structures replaced the ugly frame buildings of early days, the banks of the river were parked, streets were paved, cement sidewalks were laid, swamps drained, and a street car line to Nekoosa was built with L. M. Nash as president. The T. B. Scott Public Library used the only Grand Rapids city hall (located behind the present city hall) after the structure on First and Baker Streets was built. Wisconsin Rapids was slowly but surely emerging from a rough lumber town into a small industrial city of more than average beauty.

It was April 6, 1900, that Attorney B. R. Goggins took over the reins of government of the combined city, succeeding H. C. Wipperman, Mayor of Grand Rapids in 1899 and Theron Lyon, chief executive of Centralia during the same year. About that time Consolidated Water Power & Paper Company, having acquired ownership to the six competing powers, including the Pioneer Pulp and Paper Company’s plant on the East side, had completed construction of its original mill and was making paper. Nels Johnson was president and J. D. Witter, treasurer. When Mr. Johnson died on a stock selling mission in the east, Mr. Witter’s son-in-law, George W. Mead of Rockford, was called here as emergency manager. He became president at the death of Mr. Witter and his was the hand which until his retirement from active business guided the destinies of Consolidated. Three times mayor of the city, he also is responsible for the park commission’s beautification program and for many other civic improvements.

As soon as the United States declared war, Troop "G", 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, the National Guard unit, was sworn in and immediately entrained for Waco, Texas, to become Battery "D", 120th Field Artillery. Captain Richard Gibson resigned, leaving the company in charge of First Lieut. Jack Corrighan. He, in turn, was supplanted by Capt. Edgar Tapping of Milwaukee, who commanded the Company at Saumour, France, along with other units of its regiment, and for the duration of the war trained artillery officers. Capt. Carrighan (sic) was transferred and became liaison officer, serving in all the principal engagements on the Western front.

Although murders darkly dotted the pages of early history, by far the most famous trial was that of John Magnesson, for the "Christmas Day Bomb Murder" of Mrs. James Chapman, wife of the County Board chairman. Actually, this bomb, mailed on Christmas Day, 1922, was opened by Mr. Chapman the following day and the consequent explosion maimed him and killed his wife. Magnussen (sic) was arrested, chiefly because he was known to hold a grudge against Chapman. Attorney Brazeau’s development of his "22 points" of circumstantial evidence, ably supported by the testimony of handwriting, metal and wood experts, proceeded similarly to the Lindberg baby kidnap murder case. Arthur Koehler, U. S. Department of Forestry expert testified as to the shavings in the box surrounding the bomb. Magnesson was found guilty on March 31, 1923, and sentenced to life imprisonment at Waupun by Circuit Judge Byron B. Park of Stevens Point. He was paroled in the early 1950’s.

Details of Wisconsin Rapids city government chiefly are handled by commissions, created at various times since 1900. Besides a council of 16 aldermen, a Mayor and a Board of Public Works, comprising all committee chairman, there are: a Light and Water commission; Police and Fire commission; Park Board; Athletic Field commission and the School Board.

Until 1930 this last body had kept scrupulously out of politics, electing its 16 members, two from each of the eight wards, at an annual meeting of all freeholders in the High School Assembly room. In that year, through agitation by the Central Labor Body, the School Board was reduced to seven members elected at large along with other municipal officials. "Elder statesmen" predicted trouble. In 1932 there was a movement to oust City Superintendent Julius Winden, and at secret meetings of certain of the board members, held illegally in private homes, preparation was made for such action. This became known and a committee of prominent men attended the next board meeting in protest. It was a tense situation and one member so lost his head as to call this committee a "mob."

Immediately an inflamed populace circulated recall petitions, and in the election which followed all of the anti-Winden members were defeated. Again, in 1936, trouble arose when the superintendent, at the behest of a majority of the board, refused to renew contracts of 16 teachers belonging to a newly formed teachers union affiliated with the A. F. of L. Once more a recall election was resorted to. Superintendent Windon (sic) resigned under pressure, and the four nonunion sympathizers on the Board were replaced by unionist members. Meanwhile, however, the old board had given contracts to other candidates so that the victory was a hollow one. No such heated controversies have maned the educational scene since that time although the teachers union has again come to life in recent years.

Due largely to the Consolidated Water and Power & Paper Company’s "Share of Work" program, put into effect early in 1933, the "depression" has rested with comparative lightness upon the residents of Wisconsin Rapids and in a business census taken in the spring of 1936, almost every business firm declared its business better than since 1930.

Written by unknown author in about 1936. Revised to some extent in 1959. This title has been digitized by McMillan Memorial Library. The Library believes this work to be in the public domain and claims no copyright on it. Links to McMillan's web site are encouraged and do not require notification.