Submitted by Beaver Creek Reserve
The Chippewa River is a unique and beautiful resource. The Lower Chippewa River Area (LCRA) consists of the final 40 miles of the Chippewa River — Wisconsin’s second longest river — before it meets the Mississippi. The Chippewa River has always been an important resource. As settlers came to this area, the Chippewa River was vital for trade and travel. The timber industry and the mills on the river were directly responsible for the growth of Eau Claire and the surrounding towns. A lack of steep banks and a fairly level grade between the ground and water made ideal locations for boat landings. This made loading and unloading boats easy, as well as moving the thousands of logs that came down the river to holding ponds to be sorted for milling. Those logs were then held in places like Half Moon Lake and Dells Pond once the dam was erected. It is estimated that at the peak of the saw mill industry, more board feet of lumber was being milling in Eau Claire than any other city in the country! About this same time, bridges were being erected to unite the two banks of the river, with the first bridge located near what is now Grand Ave. This bridge connected downtown and the Water Street area, which at the time was known as “West Eau Claire.” In 1872 Eau Claire was incorporated as a city in 1872, and a hydroelectric generator was installed at the Dells Dam in 1882, close to the original logging dam.
The timber industry in the Chippewa Valley faded between 1891 and 1911 as the timber forests were all but depleted. This led to the growth of industry and agriculture in this area, both of which took their tolls on the quality of the river. One notable company located on the east bank of the Chippewa River, where Phoenix Park is today, was the Phoenix Manufacturing Company (later called the Phoenix Steel Company), which began in 1861 and manufactured equipment for the logging industry. In 1892 a new division of the company was started called the Phoenix Furniture Company which was located near Half Moon Lake. As the logging industry waned, the company was bought and sold several times, eventually converting to the manufacture of steel beams, sheet metal and other related products from 1925 until 1976.
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a focus on the environment. A major catalyst for change and social support towards environmental awareness and grassroots efforts was the establishment of Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, by Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson. Between the 1970’s and 1990’s, several state and federal environmental laws were passed. The state Endangered Species Act in 1971 followed by the Federal Act in 1977, the Water Pollution Control Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act passed by Congress in 1972 and 1974 respectvely. These state and federal laws set the stage for sweeping changes to industry practices along the river. While these state and federal laws gave structure to policies, there were still many grassroots efforts that helped protect and conserve the LRCA. In the 1970’s, a nuclear power plant was proposed at a site along the lower Chippewa River. Because of public outcry this plan was eventually abandoned. Last year, 1,000 acres of the property — now known as the Tyrone Property — was purchased by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from Xcel Energy. This area provides trail and river access for recreation and is also home to unique bird and insect species. In the late 1980’s, the Chippewa River State Trail was created and continued plans were made to improve the health of the river.
So why is the Lower Chippewa River so vital? In addition to its use for trade, travel, and recreation, the Lower Chippewa River Area (LCRA) remains one of the most diverse in the state. In the peak of bird migration, it is estimated that 100,000 land birds travel through the Chippewa River flyway each day! The Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area contains 25% of the state’s remaining prairies and savannas. According to the WI DNR, 75% of Wisconsin’s fish species are found in the Lower Chippewa River Area, and it is also home to 125 different species of birds. More than 120 species of plants and animals that inhabit the LCRA are identified as either rare, of concern, or endangered.
While the Chippewa River has come a long way, it is still far from perfect. As the Chippewa Valley grows, more people use the river and this poses a great threat of introducing harmful invasive species. There are dozens of organizations working to protect and conserve this incredible resource. To learn more about the history and how you can help protect the Chippewa River, attend the 5th Annual Celebrate the Chippewa River Conference, October 27th. More information is available at beavercreekreserve.org. To learn more about the history of the Chippewa River, check out Biking Into History: A Natural History Tour of Eau Claire on Thursday, October 11 from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. leaving from the Phoenix Park trailhead. Contact the Chippewa Valley Museum for more information at either 715-834-7871 or cvmuseum.com