Thanks for Asking | Nov. 10, 2011
Our Local Jack-Of-All-Facts Tells You How It Is
There’s a plaque on the base of the flagpole at the Eau Claire Area School District building up on Main Street. It says it’s made from metal from the USS Maine, which sank in 1898. How did we get it?
Thanks for asking! All I have is a conjecture, but I think it’s a fair one.
In 1910, twelve years after the USS Maine sank to its fiery, watery grave in Havana harbor, Congress authorized raising her, both to remove her as a navigation hazard and to find and bury at Arlington National Cemetery any more bodies not among the 200 found just after she exploded. In 1912, she was raised, towed out to sea escorted by the North Carolina and the Birmingham, and let sink in 600 feet of water. The remains of 66 men were found during the salvage.
Also as a result, mementos ended up in memorials sea to shining sea, from a ship’s gun in Portland, Maine, to shells from the main battery in Tacoma, Washington.
A New York Central Park monument went up the next year, 1913. One small detail: a plaque, designed by famed sculptor Charles Keck, and cast from metal salvaged from the Maine. New York City’s John Williams Bronze Foundry cast copies of the tablet-style plaque, each made from Maine metal.
I’m the first to argue that Eau Claire is special, but in this case we’re not that special. The foundry cast more than a thousand tablets, now scattered across America. All exactly like our little guy, of course.
Still, there’s not a USS Maine tablet every 10 feet along the highway, so how did we rate? (Especially since, as far as I know, no one from Eau Claire was on the Maine when she exploded ...) Perhaps a fellow named Marshall Cousins.
Cousins was an Eau Claire native, born here in 1869. He led Company E, First Battalion, Third Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish-American War. The company saw service in the Puerto Rican expedition. While Company E mainly just got sick from the food and water, Cousins was actually wounded in the Battle of Coamo.
Busy fellow, Cousins, and very well respected. One of the original builders of the Wisconsin National Guard, served in the State Legislature, ran for lieutenant governor, served as state adjutant general, and was appointed Wisconsin commissioner of banking. He also – and this seems important – served for years as a curator of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and wrote often about early Eau Claire. As a lodge man, he belonged to the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, and the Elks (that’s a lot of lodging). He knew, oh, everyone.
So: Spanish-American War vet, big fan of Eau Claire, loved history, influential in state government, and state veterans associations. Doesn’t seem outlandish to think his fingerprints were on the plaque.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the plaque sat on display somewhere else in Eau Claire for some years, and was then moved to – and embedded in – the base of the flagpole, which was donated by Camp 27 of the Wisconsin United Spanish-American War Veterans. I’m thinking the flagpole was erected in 1925 when we built the building as the new Eau Claire Senior High. Cousins surely had a chance to see the plaque in place. He lived until 1939, when he was hit and killed by an automobile on a Madison Street.
NOTE: Umm, note to the person asking about the Carson Park boulders: Can’t be sure which ones you’re talking about: could you call again or email?
Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (firstname.lastname@example.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.