The Great Marshfield Fire: A city begins
As the 130th anniversary of the Great Marshfield Fire approaches, Hub City Times will take a look back at the city’s beginnings, its near death, and the effects of the fire that wiped out much of Marshfield’s origins.
By Kris Leonhardt
The Fox & Wisconsin Improvement Company was established in central Wisconsin in 1855 to take advantage of a grant available from the United States government for improving the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to enable steamboat navigation between Green Bay and the Mississippi River. Among the company’s organizers were Horatio Seymour, Erastus Corning, John Magee, Samuel Marsh, William Butler, and B.J. Stevens.
In repayment for their work on the waterway, these individuals would receive 700,000 acres of prime timber land, which would be exempt from taxes for 10 years — the same number of years in which the river work needed to be completed.
When the Fox & Wisconsin Improvement Company’s contract ceased, the land was transferred to a new company — the Green Bay & Mississippi Improvement Company — involving many of the same individuals, and the parcels were divided among its incorporators. Following the allocation, the property that would eventually become the Marshfield region came into the possession of Magee and Marsh.
Louis and Frank Rivers came to the area and purchased a tract of land from Marsh, where they built a dwelling that became a store, tavern, and post office.
Due to the valuable timber, many of the early settlers were lumber workers. With no easy way in or out of the heavily wooded area, the Marshfield settlement grew very little until the Wisconsin Central Railroad sent its first train through in July 1872.
Once connected, the village began to grow. The business district would develop, but with the rough lumbering people comprising most of the city’s inhabitants, the businesses consisted mostly of saloons and a few stores.
Civil War veteran William H. Upham came to the area in 1879 and established a network of lumber-related industries. Upham’s vast business holdings grew to include a saw mill, shingle factory, machine shop, general store, flour mill, bank, furniture factory, and lumber railroad.
By 1887 the Upham businesses expanded to the point where the saw mill had an output of 22 million feet of lumber per year, and the furniture factory was shipping out 30 train cars of furniture per month.
Now a city of 3,000 inhabitants, Upham’s businesses accounted for the majority of Marshfield’s employment.
Monday, June 27, 1887, began as a hot, dry summer day. After three weeks without rain, it did not take much movement to launch dust into the dank air. The clear skies signaled another day with no rain as the city bustled in activity with the lumber season in full swing.
Next week: Where there is a spark, there is a flame