A Dam Fine History

Lake Wissota and the dam that created it turn 100 this year

Barbara Arnold

Chippewa County Historical Society (Image: Chippewa County Historical Society)
Lake Wissota Dam construction in 1917 (Image: Chippewa County Historical Society)

Lake Wissota, one of Chippewa Falls’ crown jewels – which sparkles like hundreds of diamonds on a sunny day – and the dam that created it celebrate their 100th birthday this year. The occasion will be marked with the publication of a commemorative book and the debut of a special musical/visual extravaganza.

One hundred years ago, the Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power Company (later known as Northern States Power and now as Xcel Energy) hired 700 workers, created a temporary village, and built the hydroelectric dam that created Lake Wissota. The dam took only 18 months to complete, from November 1915 to May 1917, and cost almost $6 million. Manpower, a horse-drawn steam shovel, and seven little locomotives were used to build the dam, spillway, and powerhouse. All  still stand today. The utility company also hired a professional photographer to shoot more than 500 black-and-white work-in-progress photos, which are now archived at the Chippewa County Historical Society.

The dam and the lake became part of the area’s economy and were nicknamed “The Niagara of the Northwest.” At the time, the dam was considered the largest earthen dam in the world, measuring  67 feet high and 4,390 feet long. The Chippewa River drops nearly 700 feet in elevation along its length, which is ideal for hydropower. Lake Wissota covers 6,148 acres, has 56 miles of shoreline, and has a maximum depth of 72 feet.

Lake Wissota (Image: Andrea Paulseth)
Lake Wissota today (Image: Andrea Paulseth)

The Chippewa County Historical Society will soon publish Lake Wissota: The Dam Story. The new pictorial history book celebrates the lake’s 100-year anniversary with approximately 300 photos and hundreds of newspaper clippings and memoirs of the building of the dam and the lake as well as the people who lived, worked, and played there then and now. Volunteer authors Donna Bourget, Anne Keller, and Jim Schuh compiled the volume. All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Chippewa Area History Center Capital Campaign. The money will help build the new home of the Chippewa County Historical Society and the Chippewa County Genealogical Society next to the south entrance of Irvine Park on Bridgewater Avenue. Beginning in early June, the book will be available for $20 from the Chippewa County Historical Society, 123 Allen St., and five other locations, including Foreign Five, 123 N. Bridge St.; Gordy’s Market Lake Wissota, 17158 County Highway J; Pine Harbor Campground, 7181 185th St.; Sand Bar & Grill, 17643 50th Ave.; and Wissota Café, 17255 County Highway X.

The visual history of Lake Wissota and the dam inspired retired music teacher and entertainer Jerry Way to create Wissota in the Making, which tells the story of the building of the dam and the creation of the lake in words, music, and slides. It will be performed at the Heyde Center for the Arts at 7:30pm Aug. 10-11 during Chippewa Fall’s Pure Water Days. The Swampers – a musical lumberjack aggregation featuring Amanda Tanzer, Kathy Danielson, Judy Brist, Tim Danielson, Rob Kuchta, along with Swamper Jer – will perform the story playing a variety of folk instruments and singing a unique blend of three-and-a-half-part Swampgrass harmony. This debut will mark the group’s 16th original Pure Water Days production celebrating the Chippewa Valley past and present. Tickets will be $11 for adults, $10 for senior citizens, and $5 for youth.

To learn more about the Chippewa County Historical Society, visit chippewacountywihistoricalsociety.org or facebook.com/ChippewaCountyHistoryCenter.

This was made by

Barbara Arnold 

Barbara Arnold, a writer in Eau Claire, is a “cool aunt” who will take care of your kids for a date night and deliver them back on a sugar high. She has served as a coach and mentor to hundreds of young people.

View more of Barbara Arnold's work »