CRAWFORD COUNTY - Flooding has had, and continues to have, a large impact on the economies, transportation budgets and public safety in the towns and villages of the Kickapoo Valley.
It seems in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a strong citizens’ movement to put in place permanent flood control solutions. There was also a push to combine that with economic development in the form of lakes and recreational facilities.
Indeed, this economic development was an important component of the political backing behind these flood control projects.
These efforts led to construction of the earthen dams in the area, but also to a phenomenon that could be called ‘Lake Mania.’
County board signs up
The total cost of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan (B-KWP) was to be $1,538,982. Federal PL 566 funds would pay $1,136,179, and the other $402,803 would come from state and county (local) sources.
At the Annual Session of the Crawford County Board of Supervisors, held in Prairie du Chien on November 12, 1962, the board passed the following resolution in support of the project:
WHEREAS, the Blackhawk-Kickapoo and Hall’s Branch watersheds have suffered extensive agricultural, road and bridge damage from floodwaters, and,
WHEREAS, the Crawford and Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation districts, as local Sponsoring Organizations, have made formal application for assistance under Public Law 566 to the State Soil and Water Conservation Committee and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil and Water Conservation Service, and,
WHEREAS, all costs for road changes, administration of contracts, easements and right-of-way and at least 50 percent of the added costs of recreational developments are to be borne by local funds, and,
WHEREAS, all construction, engineering and inspection costs are to be borne by the Federal government for flood prevention and up to 50 percent of the added installation costs for recreational development purposes,
NOW, THEREFORE, Be It Resolved that the County Board of Supervisors of Crawford County agree to provide the sum of not more than fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) per year, during the project period of 1964 through 1970 inclusive; such money to be used for land easements, rights-of-way, administration of contracts and road changes required for the flood prevention program and the added installation costs for recreational developments in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo and Hall’s Branch Watersheds.
Dated this 16th day of April, 1963. Joe C. Monahan, A.R. Lechnir, Carl Achenbach
A motion was made by A.D. Lacke, seconded by Carl Hutchison, to refer the resolution to the Finance Committee for further study. The motion was rejected.
A motion was made by Neal Nelson, seconded by Harold Zabel, to adopt the foregoing resolution. Roll was called, with 24 members voting aye, and eight members voting no. The motion carried and the resolution was adopted.
At the same meeting they unanimously adopted a resolution urging representatives in Congress and the Corps of Engineers to begin immediately the planning and designing of the Kickapoo Flood Control Project (more commonly known as the LaFarge Dam Project).
According to John Ramsden, current Wisconsin State Conservation Engineer with the USDA NRCS, only one of the earthen dams proposed in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan (B-KWP) was ever constructed.
Most of the dams were to have been smaller structures referred to as “dry dams.” The structures were to be on the (former) Clarence Dregne, Fred Solverson, James Melvin, and Orvyn Salmon and farms. The Dregne and Solverson properties are on Tainter Creek; the Melvin property on Conway Creek in McManus Hollow; and the Salmon property on Folsom Creek in Jones Hollow.
The one earthen dam built in Crawford County was the Johnstown Dam, built on the property formerly farmed by Edwin Nederlo. It was the largest one in the plan, and was referred to in the B-KWP as “Structure No. 5.”
A lot of the old names for creeks in the area seem to have fallen by the wayside. The creek that runs down Johnstown Road valley used to be known as ‘Nederlo Creek,’ and today is most commonly called ‘Johnstown Creek.”’
And even former Crawford County Independent editor and daughter of Pearl Swiggum, Marjie Jurgensen, was unaware that the creek that flows down the Latham Road Valley in Utica Township is called ‘Conway Creek.’ Marjie grew up in a house right on that creek!
The Johnstown Dam was originally designed as a “multi-purpose, floodwater retarding and recreational structure.” Below the dam was to have been a 43-acre, 15-foot deep lake, roughly the shape of a crooked finger. It would be 3,600 feet long, with an average width of about 450 feet.
The facility was to have a boat landing, 24 camping units, a parking lot, a shelter with a well and sanitary facilities, 40 picnic tables, a 300-foot swimming beach, and an eight-stall changing booth.
A drawdown device to draw cold water from the lower levels of the conservation pool would be provided to maintain water quality for fish with which it would be stocked.
The cost of the Johnstown Dam itself would be a total of $213,642, of which $151,655 would come in the form of federal PL 566 dollars, and $61,977 would come from “other” sources – state and county.
The total cost of developing the site for recreation would be $262,810, of which $123,156 would come from federal PL 566 dollars, and $139,594 from the state and county. The State Soil and Water Conservation Committee agreed to contribute $78,171; the Wisconsin Conservation Department, $10,000; which left the County responsible for $51,423.
Annual costs of operating the facility were projected to be $7,968. This would include structure maintenance, recreational facility maintenance, replacement costs, equipment purchases, and wages for a custodian, and lifeguard.
It was anticipated the park would be used Memorial Day through Labor Day. Peak recreational capacity was estimated at 241 people at a time. A total of 10,868 visitors were expected annually. Annual revenue, at $1.50 per visitor per day, was expected to be $25,720.
Of course, these costs were estimated in 1967, but presumably visitor fee increases would have matched increases in operational, replacement and wage costs.
It seems almost comical to us today to see the per day visitor fee of $1.50 per person. However, in 1967, the average income per year was $7,300, the average monthly rent was $125, a gallon of gas cost 33 cents, the average cost of a new car was $2,750, you could buy a candy bar for five cents, and make a payphone call for ten cents.
Wauzeka and La Farge
Although Crawford County’s modest ‘Lake Blackhawk’ was never built, the scope of the proposal paled in comparison to the “lake mania” sweeping the larger Kickapoo Valley.
In the aftermath of the March 1961 flooding, Democratic Congressman William Proxmire and Republican Congressman Vernon Thomsen became engaged in the flooding issue in the Kickapoo Valley.
From their work, that occurrred in a simultaneous time frame to development of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan, impetus began to gather for “one big solution” to flooding in the Kickapoo Valley.
In 1965, rumors began to sweep the valley that U.S. Congressman Vernon Thomson was proposing to build a dam by Wauzeka, and to have one big lake from north of Wauzeka to LaFarge.
One article about a proposed hotel development in Wauzeka described plans for a four-story luxury hotel with 23 stores.
In July of 1965, it was reported in the Crawford County Independent that the Governor “disclaimed responsibility for the Kickapoo Valley Lake proposal.” The project remained a “political football” for over a decade.
The valley was in an uproar as essentially everything in the bottomlands from Wauzeka to LaFarge would be underwater.
Wisconsin State Assemblyman Bernard Lewison commented that “everyone seems to know about the Wauzeka-LaFarge Lake plan but the people of the Kickapoo Valley.” Congressman Thomson described the idea as “grandiose and unwanted.”
“I hope local residents will remember to see the value of the smaller flood control structures already planned,” Pearl Swiggum wrote in her weekly column, ‘Country Cousin.’
Eventually, the project morphed into the well-known and highly controversial LaFarge Dam Project.
The La Farge Dam Project was to include construction of flood control dikes around the villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills.
Perhaps, one of the reasons that it took so long to implement the B-KWP and obtain funding – eight years from first plan approval to funding and completion of construction – was that this other much grander project was evolving in a similar timeframe.
As most are aware, the LaFarge Dam Project was never completed. In July of 1975, an article appeared in the Independent with the headline, ‘Multi-Million Dollar Football.’
The article reported that $1.5 million had already been spent on the project, yet construction had been halted while “politicians, ecologists and others argue over the facts.” It reported that a scientific study had been produced which suggested that the lake below the dam would have poor water quality.
The Blackhawk-Kickapoo and La Farge dam and recreation development projects were designed to solve twin problems in the Kickapoo Valley – flooding and a depressed rural economy.
Obviously, the area continues to suffer from both problems. Since then, the valley experienced a massive flood in 1978 that resulted in the relocation of the Village of Soldiers Grove.
We saw catastrophic flash flooding in 2007, followed immediately by flash- and all-out-flooding from Ontario to Wauzeka in 2008. Following this flood, the Village of Gays Mills was partially relocated.
And most recently, in September of 2016, we again saw devastating flooding on Thursday, Sept. 22. Rainfall totals of 3 to 7 inches were reported across the entire area from Tuesday night through Friday morning, with localized totals especially along the Crawford-Vernon County border, of 9 to11 inches. It started to rain hard again Wednesday night, and early Thursday morning the first flash flood warnings went out to local residents.
In that catastrophe, two Vernon County citizens lost their lives. A Crawford County resident citizen had her car literally swept off County B in flash flooding on Tainter Creek and our local first responders put their lives on the line to perform a swift water rescue. A railroad bridge was undermined on the Mississippi below the Rush Creek Valley, a train derailed, and a potential major environmental catastrophe was narrowly averted. A family lost their home and all their possessions in Star Valley, and there are countless lists of personal, agricultural, and road and bridge damage.
The work of citizens that came before us, while tremendous and no-doubt helpful, has not solved the flooding problem. Data from the U.S. Agricultural Census, 1930-2012, demonstrate that the crucial “land treatment” measures called for in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan have moved in the opposite direction.
There are many hopeful trends and signs as well. Many farms are still using strip cropping, and sign-ups for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are the highest in the state in Vernon and Crawford counties.
Crawford County’s cover crop program is blazing an innovative trail.
The Vernon County Land Water Conservation Department has collaborated with Chaseburg Manufacturing to develop roller crimpers. These devices allow planting into a mulching and soil-building cover in no-till cropping systems. And, there are more hopeful trends on the horizon, according to those involved in land conservation planning.
It would seem plenty of work remains to be done in Crawford and Vernon counties, as those interested in land conservation continue to address these problems.
The Tainter Creek Watershed Council’s next meeting will take place on Monday, August 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Franklin Town Hall located in Liberty Pole.