Thanks for Asking | Jan. 20, 2011

our local jack-of-all-facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot

I know that Putnam Park was once owned by Henry C. Putnam, but I’m curious about the road that runs through the east side of the park, Putnam Drive. I once heard a rumor that this trail was originally cleared by soldiers, including a young Jefferson Davis. Is there any truth to that?

Thanks for asking! That rumor works just like rumors do, weaving some half-told tales together. The Eau Claire Lumber Company owned that land before Putnam acquired it about 1870. The company got it from the U.S. Government. The Ojibwe ceded it to the U.S. at the Treaty of St. Peters in 1837. For a century before that (more or less), it had been hotly contested by the Ojibwe and Dakota, because, being so near the river, deer and elk hung out there, and that made the area worth fighting for.

It’s fairly likely that the Dakota first used a trail below the bluff followed by Mini Creek (once called Minnow Creek) – but more likely yet that the Dakota followed a deer path even more ancient. It was in 1886 that Henry Putnam first opened the trail that’s pretty much as you see it now. At that point, Jefferson Davis was almost 80 years old.

The first Europeans to come anywhere near Putnam Drive were Louis and Angeline DeMarie and their adventurous family, including a bevy of beautiful daughters who ended up marrying the founders of Chippewa Falls, Blue Mills (later Lake Hallie), and Dunnville, the original county seat of Dunn County.

The DeMaries wintered near the Chippewa–Eau Claire River confluence in 1832. Around the same time, Jefferson Davis was stationed at Fort Crawford (now Prairie du Chien), then at Fort Winnebago (now Portage), then back at Fort Crawford. At that point, some say, he led an expedition up the Red Cedar River, near present-day Menomonie, to log off enough white pine to expand Fort Crawford. He’d just been up the Wisconsin River on a similar quest, when the U.S. expanded Fort Winnebago.

I don’t much doubt that Davis, or at least his crew, was on the Red Cedar. The north woods were crawling with Southerners, and with future leaders of both the Confederate States and the United States. (About then, Abe Lincoln was wandering around southern Wisconsin with the Illinois militia, trailing a few days behind Black Hawk. A couple of years earlier, Zachary Taylor commanded Minnesota’s Fort Snelling; his daughter eloped with young Jeff Davis.) But as far as I know, there were no soldiers of any kind, doing anything, in what’s now Putnam Park.

After I answer a question, I often get responses – adding information, correcting me, telling stories. In the December 16 issue, I answered this question: Recently the City of Chippewa Falls opened up the rebuilt River Street. Now, when traveling west, one can see a large arch in the railroad bridge next to the Chippewa River. I was wondering if that was where an old road once went.

A few days after the issue came out, a fellow called and said an old railroad man once told him he thought that arch was for a kind of flood relief. If the river rose, the raging water would put tremendous pressure on the concrete piers at each end of the span; designing a hole into them would let a lot of water through and perhaps save the entire bridge from washing away in a flood. Sounds downright plausible. I like it.

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (mail@volumeone.org) and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.

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