Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Archival rendering of the main building © DNR File

Bayfield State Fish Hatchery main building.
© DNR File

October 2011

A gift that spawns Great Lakes fisheries

The legacy of Bayfield pioneer R.D. Pike

Julia Riley, Darren Miller and Karl Scheidegger

If there had been a "Conservationist of the Year" award in 1896, Captain Robinson Derling (R.D.) Pike would certainly have been a nominee. A Civil War veteran and founding father of the City of Bayfield, R.D. Pike gave his family homestead containing rare coastal wetlands along the shoreline of Lake Superior and his private fish hatchery on Pikes Creek to the State of Wisconsin.

The Pike family's private fish hatchery was owned and operated by Elisha Pike and his son R.D. from the mid- 1860s until 1895. In 1895, the Legislature increased the annual appropriation of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission by $8,000 and required that a fish hatchery be established in the northern half of the state. R.D. Pike, along with Isaac H. Wing and William Knight of Bayfield, donated more than 405 acres to build a new fish hatchery with the stipulation that it be used for the public's benefit in perpetuity, or the land would revert back to the families. The state accepted this generous gift in 1896.

Archival photo of R.D. Pike © DNR File Photo
Captain Robinson Derling Pike
© DNR File Photo

The pristine acreage included nine miles of excellent spring-fed trout waters in the Town of Bayfield and the confluence of Pikes Creek and Birch Run Creek with Lake Superior at Chequamegon Bay. Resident brook trout are common in the headwaters of these creeks, which today are classified as Class 1 Trout Streams and Outstanding Resource Waters. They produce annual spawning runs of approximately 1,000 rainbow trout and an unknown quantity of coho and Chinook salmon. All of this land is now part of the South Shore Lake Superior Fishery and Wildlife Area and home to the more modern Les Voigt Fish Hatchery.

But the first structure seen upon arrival at the Les Voigt Fish Hatchery is the old Victorian brownstone building constructed in 1897. The sandstone used in the building came from Pike's Quarry south of Salmo. J.H. Sykes was the initial superintendent of the state fish hatchery at Bayfield and oversaw construction of the fish rearing ponds and hatchery buildings. The front section of the hatchery building was used for office space and living quarters for the superintendent's family. An office and a parlor were on the ground floor, and family living quarters were on the second and third floors. The caterer's menu for the dedication of the building on Friday, September 10, 1897, reflects it was a festive event for the surrounding community.

The rear of the building housed the fish egg propagation area. The eggs were laid down on 2,200 12- by 17-inch wire mesh trays, in long troughs brimming with cold Birch Run spring water that kept the eggs at a constant temperature. The eggs were visually inspected and discolored or opaque eggs were tediously hand-picked with tongs and discarded. The building is listed as a National Historic Building and is used today as a supplemental fish rearing space.

Workers used horse-drawn scrapers to dig 10 fish-rearing ponds near the hatchery. Each pond was 12 feet deep and 100 feet long, with a 50-foot by 4-foot spawning raceway. Willow trees planted around the edges of the ponds helped stabilize the banks and provide shade. Fish fed on ground liver shipped by the barrelful from Ashland to supplement the natural food in the ponds. Often sizable crowds would gather to watch the spectacle of thrashing, jumping and feeding fish.

Archival photo of the Badger railcar © DNR File Photo
The Badger railcar contained aerated tanks to transport fish to stocking locations.
© DNR File Photo

The Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway line lay within 100 feet of the hatching house, and the railway company built a side track to the building. A regulation size Pullman car, the Badger, distributed fry and fingerling fish for stocking Wisconsin streams and lakes. The Badger contained aerated tanks for the fish in transit to their stocking destinations across the state. One end of the car was equipped with living quarters for the crew and included a kitchen and sleeping accommodations.

Hatchery operations were updated in 1974 with the construction of modern buildings and wells. Three buildings are used for producing fish and rearing is done completely indoors with well water to ensure good fish health and a biosecure environment. Incubation of the annual 1.2 million eggs is done indoors in vertical incubators. After hatching, the fry are moved to one of the 38 start tanks. As the fry grow, they are transferred into the raceways.

Current production consists of five strains of salmonid: splake, brown trout, lake trout, coho and Chinook. The lake trout are currently used mainly for restoration work on Trout Lake, Black Oak Lake and on Lake Superior. Some of the lake trout are used for enhancement on Geneva and Green Lakes. Chinook and coho are reared for the Lake Michigan's sport fishery. The splake and brown trout are raised to yearling size for anglers on Lake Superior as a put-grow-and-take fishery.

The newer hatchery building contains a self-guided Visitor's Center/ educational exhibit area that includes a 3,500-gallon aquarium. The public can also watch hatchery operations from a viewing area. Approximately 5,000-8,000 visitors stop by the hatchery Visitor's Center annually. The hatchery also hosts an open house in June that has drawn over 500 participants. Education stations at the open house engage children and families in bait-casting, fly-casting, fly-tying, creating fish print T-shirts and other activities. The event teaches families how to have fun with fishing while protecting Wisconsin's fisheries.

The fish hatchery facility was dedicated as the Les Voigt State Fish Hatchery at a formal ceremony in August 2006. Voigt ran the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the agency's predecessor, the Conservation Department, for a combined 22 years from 1953-1975. At its April 2011 meeting, the Natural Resources Board approved naming the original 1897 fish hatchery building the "R.D. Pike Building" in honor of Captain Pike and his significant gift to the people of Wisconsin.

Hatchery Superintendent Darren Miller was a key supporter of the initiative. "The Bayfield County Historical Society and the Bayfield Heritage Association, Inc., are enthusiastic over the recognition of R.D. Pike's legacy at the fish hatchery," Miller said. "It is hoped that members of the local community will form a 'Friends' organization to help restore and maintain this historic building for the enjoyment of future generations." A formal dedication for the naming of the 1897 building was held on July 9, 2011, and R.D. Pike's great-great-grandson, Robinson Drake Pike, attended the ceremony along with other Pike family members.

To many in Bayfield, this additional tribute to R.D. Pike is appropriate for someone who contributed to his community through numerous acts of generosity combined with ingenuity. A well-known and respected figure in the history of the City of Bayfield, Captain Pike built a large sawmill in Bayfield named the "Little Daisy" that averaged over 70,000 feet of cut lumber daily, mapped out the streets of the city, set up electric street lights and the first telephone service and established its first bank.

One could also attribute Captain Pike's initial land gift and passion for fish propagation as setting the stage for the eventual land acquisitions to protect and conserve the Pikes Creek and Birch Run Creek watershed and other key spawning areas.

The South Shore Lake Superior Fishery and Wildlife Area was created in 1992 to preserve spawning areas for Great Lakes fish and spans five distinct stream drainages including Pikes Creek, Fish Creek, Cranberry River, Flag River, and Sioux River and their associated coastal wetlands. The fishery and wildlife area currently encompasses more than 6,700 acres in Bayfield County.

The legacy of R.D. Pike's generous land gift is that it has helped to keep fishing a vital part of Wisconsin's nature-based economy.

Julia Riley is a water resources specialist in the Bureau of Watershed Management. Darren Miller is the Les Voigt Fish Hatchery superintendent in Fisheries Management. Karl Scheidegger is a warmwater rivers management biologist in Fisheries Management.