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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

December 1999

The famous falls that sparked a park. © John Sehr

Why they couldn't tame Copper Falls

Spectacular falls and verdant cliffs are a lovely remnant of the wheeling and dealing that busted business, but left a scenic state park.

Katherine Esposito


The Bad River rushes into unruly falls.

© John Sehr

How electricity sparked the park | Saved by a local crusade

A few charge. A few shrink back. Most visitors step carefully toward the edges of cliffs at Copper Falls State Park and the promised scenery beyond. Then they stop and widen their eyes for the big picture.

The much bigger picture, however, is the story of how Copper Falls came to be.

The creatures of public planning or stepchildren of unusable swamps, the offspring of someone's timely goodwill or untimely demise, state parks come into being through a mix of social forces, personal custom, advancing technology, fads, philosophies – and sometimes, luck.

Copper Falls State Park, on the Bad River near Mellen in Ashland County, might have seemed preordained. Certainly today's campers and hikers might feel that way as they venture into a spectacular 2,676-acre semi-wilderness, cleft by the Bad River's cascades and cataracts sunk deep into Precambrian gorges, rushing with rust-colored water glistening like diamonds in the sun.

Nowadays most hikers are content to abide by rules in place since 1977, which forbid climbing in the short but marvelously treacherous river segment between Copper Falls and Devil's Gate. Fatalities have occurred there, as recently as two years ago, when a young man and a can of beer fell backwards and down a hundred feet from a precipice an hour after midnight. But even early accounts recorded breaks both lucky and unlucky befalling the picnickers and curiosity-seekers who ventured dangerously close to the cliffs.

"Mammas Get Hysterics and Papas Cuss the Heat, but Kids Call the Copper Falls Picnic a Big Success," reported the Ashland Daily Press in June 1925. Almost 1,000 cars entered and safely exited the area that day, but one rash father tempted fate: The man pulled a toddler up a 200-foot cliff, then left the child near the summit while he ascended the remaining heights. The child stood unguarded, "swaying and tottering on the edge of the cliff," as gapers watched, "shivering with fear," the paper reported.

Kent Goeckermann, the park's long-time manager and himself a father of two, would get hysterics as well if he saw anyone, let alone a child, teetering on a brink. Last summer Goeckermann watched as a middle-aged woman on the river's opposite side leapfrogged a heavy pine fence built to guard against a likely tumble so she could snap a better picture. "Hello? Hello?" he shouted across the stampeding river, to no avail. The woman hopped back without incident, and Goeckermann described his conflicting emotions: "A little irritation and a little concern, mixed," he said.

He turned to several youths watching the attempted exchange. "We've had some fall off that cliff, and that cliff," he told them, pointing to assorted rocky outcrops. "Any live?" one boy asked, incredulously.

"Some die, some live," Goeckermann responded. The exact figure, he confided, is lots of injuries but only two deaths since his tenure began in 1973.

The more profound story of survival belongs to the park itself.

How electricity sparked the park

The dream that inspired Copper Falls State Park began in 1914, as local leaders identified pressing wants for their little city of Mellen: a new train depot, a public library, paved downtown streets, the enforced prohibition of public spitting, and "a little ginger."

In the fall, a special issue of the Mellen Weekly-Record tallied every potentially tillable acre of cut-over forest land and pointed to a new source of prosperity: tourists. "Any publication on Ashland County would not be complete without some mention of the unexcelled fishing and hunting grounds, which the county offers to devotees of the rod and gun," it read. Lakeside resorts offering cool summer weather were already under construction and canoeing was growing as a sport.

The Wisconsin Advancement Association lobbied to mark all roads for the expected throngs, "with directions best calculated to meet the needs of tourists."

The impulse to promote tourism survived until it collided with the Great Depression and World War II, then reemerged as the automobile conquered America. From this and other social trends – including the struggle of farmers to conquer hardscrabble fields and the general weariness of women – would Copper Falls State Park grow.

Enduring endless rounds of childbirth, cooking and clothes scrubbing, tired housewives warmed to a new ally – electricity. In November 1915, a second generator installed at the Mellen Water & Light Company's tiny hydropower plant on the Bad River brought more power to town. With the additional electricity grocers could grind coffee, butchers could make sausage, and women could relieve their housekeeping burdens with "wash machines, irons, toasters, and broilers, as well as vacum (sic) cleaning appliances."

The hunger for electricity spawned plans for dams and flowages that backed up bodies of water, which would soon find more recreational uses.

Hints of another social force swinging into motion came from a single sentence in the Mellen Weekly-Record from September 1914. The special edition cited 24,000 acres already under the plow and 692,180 acres of cut-over, stump-infested lands "available for farms as soon as the timber is removed." The slogan of the moment became "The Man with the Plow is soon to follow the Man with the Axe."

Marginal successes kept farmers' hopes alive. "One Acre of Stumps Blown Up at Once," proudly proclaimed an April 20, 1921 Ashland Daily Press headline. A few politicians and 3,000 county residents watched eagerly as explosives demolished 127 large pine stumps. Several weeks later, a campaign stated a goal of clearing 10,000 acres. "This is the battle of the 'stumps,' our worst enemy," people were solemnly informed.

While farmers waged war on stumps, the Lake Superior District Power Company, which had bought both dams on the Bad River, wanted to ensure a steady demand for its product. So it entered another arena: selling electric appliances. It opened stores in Mellen and other small towns, and success was speedy.

In response, the company needed to produce even more power.

The 1920s were a promising time for the burgeoning electric generating business. Small municipal street lighting companies and railway systems were consolidating, and dams formerly used to mill and transport logs were frequently retrofitted to produce power. Area industries, including a black granite "gabbro" quarry in Mellen, were expanding, and farmers were beginning to receive power through a new 68-mile transmission line. And a new venture – dairying – offered a "substantial future" for electrical generation.

Lake Superior District Power had considered damming the Bad River at another site – the picnickers' haven at 40-foot Copper Falls. Stained brown by natural tannins and flowing north into Lake Superior, the river seemed like a prime candidate for continued electricity production. But Native Americans called the river "bad" with good reason: The waterway rose and fell by several feet in a day, and the high flows could shrink to dangerous, rocky rapids. The unpredictable Bad River couldn't be counted on for reliable power production. And so the glorious falls in Ashland County's most renowned park were saved, partly, by the swifter success of other dam sites.

As hundreds of new residential and business customers quickly raised the demand for power, utilities scrambled to buy existing dams, construct new ones, and string new transmission lines. The Bay Front coal burning plant, Big Falls hydro dam on the Flambeau River and the White River dam produced more power, more quickly, than Mellen's few hundred kilowatts. The only photograph of the Bad River in a half-century of the Lake Superior District Power Company's annual reports shows an unshackled Copper Falls in 1925, with the caption: "This hydro site is donated by the Company for use as a county park."

Meanwhile, the stumps and poor northern soils had thwarted area farmers. Families abandoned their homesteads in droves and neglected to pay property taxes, creating a financial crisis for state and local governments.

Copper Falls State Park: A path winds alongside the falls and offers a fine view of the bustling Bad River.

© Katherine Esposito
The park today: A path winds alongside the falls and offers a fine view of the bustling Bad River. © Katherine Esposito

Murmuring from Madison talked of replanting cut-over lands with tree seedlings rather than vegetables, and establishing federal forests and state parks. The best crop, it turned out, was what had grown there before: Trees.

In 1925 the Ashland County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking the Legislature to declare a 1,000-acre area around Copper Falls a state park.

At the same time, Wisconsin legislators began debating the merits of changing state tax policies to favor forest growth over farm harvests. Though proposals for several larger parks were placed before the Legislature in 1927, only the smallest one at Copper Falls was approved.

Saved by a local crusade

The news was good for Ashland County – or so it appeared. The only hitch was that Lake Superior District Power had to agree to the deal. Because the company still considered the falls a possible hydro site, they wanted to trade it for state-owned lands on the Flambeau River that had greater power potential.

Delays prompted John B. Chapple, the crusading managing editor of the Ashland Daily Press, to light a fire under state seats. "We Owe No Votes to the Men Who Have Blocked Copper Falls State Park," penned Chapple shortly before Election Day in November 1928.

Foot-dragging by several high-ranking members of the State Land Commission stymied actions to establish the park. Chapple blamed them freely: "...These gentlemen have proved very conclusively that they are interested in Chequamegon Bay region only so far as votes are concerned. ...They have practically told us to go jump in the lake."

Chapple's editorializing worked. Two months later, the notion of a trade abandoned, the state Conservation Commission offered Lake Superior District Power $13,000 for 520 acres around the falls. The deal was completed for $15,000 in December 1929.

A few decades passed before the Bad River was completely unharnessed by Lake Superior District Power. Mellen #2, the smaller of two dams, hadn't generated power for several years when, in 1929, the company asked the State Railroad Commission for permission to remove it because the dam "now serves no useful purpose." Mellen was receiving electricity from other sources and the dam was a hazard to downstream structures. The Bad River had proven too erratic to generate a steady supply of electricity.

"It is a bad stream for power, then?" asked Commissioner Adolph Kanneberg. "Yes, it is indeed the 'Bad' River," replied John Forss, a company engineer.

Mellen residents wanted to keep the dam and its flowage for wintertime ice harvests, and the company relented. But nature delivered the final verdict in the 1940s. Two sensational floods washed the dam away – and a few houses as well – ending the ice business.

By early 1967, Mellen #1 had also ceased providing useful power and was removed. The Bad River began to carve a path through its gorge once more.

With the forests grown back and the washing machines ensconced in every mother's house powered by electricity from other sources, only one vestige of the 1920s remains on the river: the popularity of a lovely state park. After raising a family in a house with the park as a back yard of almost 3000 acres, park manager Kent Goeckermann finds nothing to complain about.

"You're talking to a prejudiced man," he said.

Katherine Esposito writes for Wisconsin Natural Resources from our Madison office.