Thanks for Asking | Mar. 17, 2011

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

Frank Smoot |

It’s spring again, and they’re predicting we might have bigger-than-usual floods. What’s the biggest flood we’ve ever had?

Thanks for asking. What little good news there is comes from the surprising fact that, historically, Eau Claire’s biggest floods haven’t been in spring. Our worst spring flood ranks fifth on the all-time list.

Highest “recorded” flood? September 1941. Anything above 773 feet above sea level, at the Grand Avenue bridge, is a flood. Fall ’41 we recorded 781.6, or more than eight feet, above flood stage.

However, in June 1880, a flood estimated at 782 feet did extensive damage in Eau Claire, and a scant four years later, September 1884, a devastating flood nearly destroyed Chippewa Falls, swamped huge sections of Eau Claire and took out every bridge but one along the lower Chippewa River. Whole houses were floating down the mighty Chip. Estimated at 786 feet – more than four feet higher than the ’41 flood and 13 feet (think of a one-story commercial building) above flood stage.

Eau Claire had its highest spring flood in April 1967 at 779.6. It filled many downtown basements and flooded much of the Water Street / Randall Park area. But we didn’t have to rebuild the city or all of our bridges. That’s not to say we’re safe this or any other spring.

How many dams are there on the Chippewa River? I can think of four, but are there more?

Indeed there are. Readers can correct me (and I hope they will), but I can think of eight – which altogether, you might like to know, account for almost one-third of Xcel Energy’s Wisconsin hydroelectric capacity. Traveling downstream, you got yer:

Winter Dam: Built in 1923 in part to control flooding, but more importantly to the regional power company, called NSP at the time, to control water flow for power generation: targeted water releases would drive turbines downstream. The people of Lac Court Oreilles fiercely protested the dam. The resulting flowage flooded Pak-wa-wong (Old Post), unearthed generations of Indian graves, and drowned wild rice beds where the Ojibwe had harvested 25,000 pounds per year, enough to provide independence as well as subsistence.

Arpin Dam: Built in 1914 (its powerhouse in 1971). Don’t know much else about it.

Holcombe: Completed in 1948 to provide “peak power” for the post-WWII boom. A much older dam a few hundred yards upstream (built 1878) washed out in the 1884 flood (see how bad that flood was?), was rebuilt in 1885, and washed out again in the 1920s.

Cornell: NSP bought the dam from a paper company in 1929. In the 1970s, after the oil embargo, the power company redeveloped it to increase generation.

Jim Falls: the current dam is the product of a mid-1980s redevelopment – almost 100 million bucks – and now it’s the largest hydro generating facility in Wisconsin.

Wissota: Completed in 1918 by 700 workers who lived in a small town built at the site. Formed Lake Wissota. A certain popular James Cameron flick mentions Lake Wissota, but when the RMS Titanic sank in 1912, there was no such lake on the face of the earth.

Chippewa Falls: Built in 1928 at the site of what was called the Big Mill – supposedly, in its day, the largest lumber mill in the world. Though I haven’t dived it, I’m told the natural “Falls” sit underwater in the small flowage behind the dam.

Dells Dam: Has had a dam since the logging era. The “new” dam, 100 feet downstream from the 1878 original, dates from 1924. It’s gotten major maintenance work twice in the past 20 years or so.

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 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.