Thanks for Asking | March 25, 2010

Frank Smoot |

Any info on the original naming of the Eau Claire River (and the city of Eau Claire)? Is there anything written stating the river was at that time actually “clear?” Both the Chippewa and the Eau Claire are “stained” waters, caused by tamarack swamps: back when this area was covered by native white pine, possibly the river was clear?

    Thanks for asking! I like your thinking, and there’s a bit of human-historical evidence for the Eau Claire’s clarity. A daft local legend says a French voyageur exclaimed when he spied the river in question, “Voici, l’eau claire!” “Look! Clear water!” (Sounds like an insult to the Chippewa River.) We always like to give white people credit, but really, it’s sooo much more likely that the river’s name is a French trader’s translation of the Ojibwe waashegaminaaboo-ziibi, “clear, good-water river” (like the Mississippi is misi-ziibi, “great river”). So the Ojibwe considered it clear.

But back in that day, it was probably still “stained.” The main Eau Claire River (after its two forks meet) runs east to west through Eau Claire County. And even though, as a whole, the Chippewa Valley was canopied in white pine – in our particular county, not so much.

Two Wisconsin ecological regions meet east of Eau Claire. Historically, the “Western Coulees and Ridges” had southern hardwood forests, oak savanna, scattered prairies, and marshes along the rivers. All growing on silty, sandy, loamy, leachy soil. The “Central Sand Plains” formed around the bygone Glacial Lake Wisconsin. That area contained wetlands – open bogs, shrub swamps, and sedge meadows – along with scattered prairies, oak forests, and barren land.

Since forever, these ecoregions would have deposited silt, staining leaves, and whatnot into the Eau Claire. It gets more “turbid” (cloudy) as it goes west, and it’s surely gotten more so over the centuries, as we’ve disturbed the soil around it. But it’s always been prone to turbidity and staining not linked to the virgin pinery (or its disappearance).

Why are so many old cemeteries so close to bodies of water? Weren’t they worried about water contamination?

    Well, yes and no on the water worries. Between 1800 and 1835, the U.S. suffered a dozen epidemics: smallpox, yellow and dengue fever, malaria, influenza, and at least five outbreaks of cholera. Some ancient world wisdom reoccurred to Americans: bury folks away from the city (as at Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives). Although we’ve now surrounded them, Eau Claire’s Forest Hill and Lakeview were originally platted well on the outskirts. So, in that sense, they were worried.

However, few thought of water as a contaminating agent. In 1854, a Londoner named John Snow proved water was the main agent spreading cholera, but it took 50 years for anyone to act on it.

To answer your “why” question, we planned cemeteries at scenic spots, and water is scenic (as are other scenic things like hillsides, vistas, trees, etc). Throughout the 19th century, the English Romantic Movement was trendy, with its appreciation of “nature” (by which they meant gardens), and major American cities built public “garden cemeteries.” The Chippewa Valley followed suit. Cemeteries became weekend leisure destinations – parks of the day.

But, actually, although no one knew it, we were keeping ourselves safe coincidentally. With current wisdom, Wisconsin administrative rules now require “grass buffer strips” around waterways (for fields, yards, ball diamonds, cemeteries, corporate HQs, whatever). But if you’ve got a 20-foot buffer, you’re good, and I don’t remember an area grave – even an old one – anywhere near that close to water.

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 41 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.