Marshfield, October 1911: Downpours flood central Wisconsin
By Kris Leonhardt
On Monday, Oct. 2, 1911, the heavy rains began. With a downpour lasting from Monday night to Tuesday morning, central Wisconsin became saturated to the point that major rivers had become swollen and violent.
Along the Wisconsin River, Stevens Point, Wausau, and Wisconsin Rapids were reporting serious damage. Marshfield — with its lesser connection to major waterways — experienced flooding in the low ground between the Upham mill pond and the artificial lake by the power station. The area around South Central Avenue resembled a lake while the backlog of water continued to seep into residents’ cellars.
As rain continued to fall that week, the Black River to the west of Marshfield climbed farther and farther up its banks. Turbulent waters and heavy winds tore down the waterway, and the water busted through one dam and then another before spilling into the city of Black River Falls.
It took approximately 30 minutes for the deluge of water, sand, and mud to destroy the small but growing city of 2,000. The city’s business district was almost completely wiped out, and nearly 100 structures were destroyed. What was once its main street now sat beneath 15 feet of water.
Damage was reported along the Black River from Hatfield all the way to La Crosse. The loss of farm property and livestock along the river was tremendous. The water stripped away both the land and livelihood of nearly all of the pioneers that had settled along the river. Many escaped with just their lives.
Meanwhile, Marshfield remained safely tucked between the major rivers. However, as the following week wore on and the rains continued to fall, residents watched as the artificial lake of the power plant grew and grew. The spillway could no longer keep up, and the water continuously spilled over the embankment.
On Monday, Oct. 16, after receiving two weeks of rainfall, the embankment south of the spillway gave way, and water spilled into the area east of the power plant, leaving water sitting five feet deep in the nearby road.
As Marshfield cleaned up from the flood, they looked to aid the surrounding communities that had seen more peril. In a special meeting of the common council, the city designated money from its general fund to aid the residents of the Black River Falls area.
In addition, members of the council gave their pay for attending the special meeting to aid Black River Falls. Fundraising efforts were continued throughout the city to further provide food and clothing.
Black River Falls would later rebuild its business district on fresh land.