Thanks for Asking | Sept. 12, 2013

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

Frank Smoot |

I heard someone talking about Tyrone? What is Tyrone?

Thanks for asking. Tyrone is a place, a power plant (well, two actually), and a rallying cry (the Chippewa Valley’s “Remember the Alamo”).

The place: Hamilton and Margaret Hubbard settled in the Town of Peru, Dunn County, in 1856. Cleared a farm, built a mill and a dock. The little steamboat stop grew to a village of 350. But after 1870, steamboat traffic slowed. The new railroad bypassed it. The state highway bypassed it. By the 1920s, it was all but a ghost town.

The power plant: In 1973, Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy) proposed building “Tyrone Nuclear Park,” with two 1,150-megawatt reactors. In 1977, the federales issued construction permits.

OMG, what then? One version goes like this: Sharply falling power demand in the late 1970s caused the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to rethink the plant, and in 1979 the commission denied permission on the grounds that there would be “insufficient demand for electricity.” NSP then proposed to build a 750-megawatt coal plant (just one-third the size of the canceled nuclear plant). Again energy consumption fell, and now new hydropower and wind will produce the 375 megawatts we need.

The rallying cry: Wait, two nuclear reactors turned into a renewable-energy package of wind and water? Hold up there: not so easy. Twenty-seven landowners were threatened with “eminent domain” (fancy talk for “we need your land and we’re taking it”), but three families resisted: Harold and Lucille Bauer, Henry and Clara Falkner, and brothers Joseph and Stanley Cider, who apparently thought of themselves as the “mayors” of Old Tyrone. Representatives from NSP and “hippie types,” as the Bauers called them, descended on Dunn County. Area environmental groups Citizens for Tomorrow (a farmer-led group) and Northern Thunder held marches and protests and picnics. It went on for years.

All this was our little paragraph in a national story about energy and pollution. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin got an Earth Day for everyone in 1970. Love Canal, a Niagara Falls neighborhood built on a toxic-waste site, was evacuated in 1978. In March of 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown — and, in the kind of coincidence you just can’t buy — the Jane Fonda movie The China Syndrome hit theaters that summer. Well, two days before Christmas 1979, NSP officially announced it was abandoning plans for the nuclear plant. Coincidence? Maybe.

Xcel owns the land bought from the 24 landowners. After the Cider brothers died, their heirs sold their 960 acres to the power company. The Bauers, who had been required to pay rent to NSP on land they had owned since 1953, were “forgiven” and took back full ownership in 1992. Not sure what happened to the Falkners.

The easiest way to get there for the curious: Take State Higwhay 85 southwest toward Durand. About 8 miles below Rock Falls, turn right (north) on 650th Street. It goes left, then right, then around a curve like the sickle in a Soviet flag. In the middle of that curve – you can see an open field on your right and the mighty Chip on your left – you’re in Tyrone. You can also get there on the Chippewa River State bike trail. By trail, let me calculate here for a second, it’s a long way from Eau Claire.

For a while, you could still see two weathered gray buildings – a house and a barn, if memory serves. But I’ve been told they’re down now, and there’s nothing left of Tyrone at all.

(Many thanks to the late Jon Dodge for helping preserve this history.)