A Look at the Lake: Photo-filled book marks Lake Wissota centennial

Barbara Arnold

TAKE ON A LAKE. A newly published book features images like the one above, showing the Lake Wissota dam under construction in 1917. The book was authored by (left to right) Donna Bourget, Jim Schuh, and Anne Keller, shown during a visit to the dam.
TAKE ON A LAKE. A newly published book features images like the one above, showing the Lake Wissota dam under construction in 1917. The book was authored by (left to right) Donna Bourget, Jim Schuh, and Anne Keller, shown during a visit to the dam.

More than 100 years ago, work began on the dam that created the reservoir now known as Lake Wissota. It took 700 workers, two steam shovels, and seven “Little Dinkies” steam locomotives two years to build the dam. At the start in 1915, the structure was considered the largest concrete dam project under construction at that time, measuring 67 feet high and 4,390 feet long.

Lake Wissota: The Dam Story took one year to create with three extremely dedicated volunteers, hundreds of photos, and thousands of emails. The newly released 140-page pictorial history book with 300 photos celebrates the lake’s 100-year anniversary. All proceeds from the book’s sale will be donated to the Chippewa Area History Center Building Fund to help build a new home for the Chippewa County Historical Society and the Chippewa County Genealogical Society adjacent to the entrance of Irvine Park.

Jim Schuh, vice president of the historical society, and his wife, Nancy, had been discussing the idea of a book for years. As the previous executive director of Chippewa Falls Main Street, he had already produced two pictorial history books about Chippewa Falls. The centennial was perfect timing.

Schuh approached Donna Bourget, the photo archivist at the historical society, to collaborate. In 2013, he asked Xcel Energy for photos and was given 500 copies of original construction progress photos taken when the dam was built. Donna’s work was cut out for her. She would need to cull through these photos plus hundreds more of dam construction and life on Lake Wissota through the years. Jim and Donna also asked Anne Keller, newsletter editor for the Chippewa County Genealogical Society for two decades, to join them for her highly sought-after writing, editing, and proofreading skills. Together the energetic trio set to work tucked away in the societies’ current building, a four-story former convent next to Notre Dame Catholic Church on the East Hill.

Book planning began in June 2016. By the middle of that month, the initial book outline was done. In August, Jim put out word to the media and in public meetings requesting historical photos and stories about Lake Wissota, after having written several articles about the dam and its construction for historical society newsletters. The trio interviewed people as a group and individually, and many photos were contributed. Donna spent a huge amount of time going through hundreds of the photos (her daughter advised her to choose as many photos as possible that included people) as well as researching and fact-checking in old newspapers. She also laid the book out. Anne’s job was to write or edit items describing pictures for each page. They worked well together and met every Tuesday to “compare notes.” At a meeting this past May at Lucy’s Deli in downtown Chippewa Falls, the trio was happy to see proofs of the cover and pages ready for the final printing – but not before one more final proofreading.

“I have been especially surprised at stories that people have shared after reading the book,” Anne said. “Instances of ‘going over the dam’ after an evening of partying. Or sailboats that didn’t have a plug in. Or being pulled overboard by an unusually large fish. How many stories are still out there that were not included but were experienced?”

Lake Wissota: The Dam Story is on sale for $20 at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum in Eau Claire’s Carson Park and at several Chippewa Falls locations: the Chippewa County History Society, 123 Allen St.; Foreign Five, 123 N. Bridge St.; Gordy’s Market Lake Wissota, 17158 County Highway J; Gordy’s Downtown, 212 Bay St.; Sand Bar & Grill, 17643 50th Ave.; and Wissota Express, 17255 County Highway X.

Some Myths and Facts about Lake Wissota  

Myth: Lake Wissota was around in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the blockbuster 1997 film Titanic, Jack Dawson (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a poor 20-something vagabond, brags about the great ice fishing on Lake Wissota in Chippewa Falls, where he supposedly grew up, to the upper-class Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet). He in third class, and she in first class, they meet and fall in love on the famous ocean liner. The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Fact: Lake Wissota did not even exist until 1917, five years later.

Myth: Lake Wissota is “a naturally spring-fed lake.” In the 1920s, J.E. Garland, a promoter of the Wissota Amusement Park (later the Wissota Pavilion) mistakenly called Lake Wissota the “best spring-fed lake in the world.” Fact: Lake Wissota is a manmade lake created by the construction of a hydroelectric dam built to harness electricity. Farm families were moved, trees were felled, and bridges were raised to make way for the higher water levels caused by the reservoir on the Chippewa River.

Myth: Wissota is a Native American name. This myth may have been born when Chippewa Falls Poet Laureate and Lake Wissota resident/writer William Kirk wrote a poem in 1918-19 called “Lake Wissota.” The first two lines read: “ ’Here I am at Lake Wissota!’ Said the ghost of Hiawatha.” Fact: An engineer for the Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power Company named the lake by combining the first part of Wisconsin and the last part of Minnesota. Maps were due to a bank in Boston financing the dam project on a Monday, so the engineer was left working late on a Saturday night on the final blueprints and maps of the flowage and surrounding area. Everything was identified except for the lake. He preferred not to leave the beautiful new lake nameless. When the president of Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power Company was provided with the maps, he wondered who had named the reservoir, yet agreed the name was a good one. And, when the maps arrived at the banking firm in Boston, one of the bankers remarked that Lake Wissota was a very appropriate Indian name. The engineer? L.G. Arnold, my grandfather. Prior to working for the utility, he worked as an engineer for the City of Chippewa Falls.

This was made by