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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Stephenson, Isaac 1829 - 1918


lumberman, financier, politician, Congressman, U.S. Senator, b. Yorkton, York County, New Brunswick, Canada. He worked in lumbering activities in the eastern U.S. for several years, principally in Maine, and in 1845 moved to Wisconsin, where for a time he managed absentee timber properties, but soon entered the lumber business for himself. In 1858 he settled permanently in Marinette, where his lumbering operations expanded steadily, especially during the Civil War. Although Stephenson suffered heavy losses in the Peshtigo fire of 1871, he recouped, and soon was one of the wealthiest lumbermen in the Great Lakes area, with real-estate holdings in Marinette, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago, and throughout the Great Lakes, as well as vast acreages of pine lands in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. A Republican, Stephenson's wealth made him an important figure in state politics. He was state assemblyman (1866, 1868), and in 1882 was elected to Congress and served three terms (Mar. 1883-Mar. 1889). He was not a candidate for re-election in 1888, and in 1899 was unsuccessful in his bid for the U.S. Senatorship. In 1900 he threw his support and substantial financial backing behind Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (q.v.), in his campaign for the Wisconsin governorship, and for a number of years was a prominent adviser to the Progressive faction of the Republican party, and a liberal contributor to its campaign funds. In 1901 he established the Milwaukee Free Press, providing Progressive-Republicans with a metropolitan newspaper, and competition for the Stalwart-controlled Milwaukee Sentinel. In 1907 Stephenson sought the U.S. Senate seat made vacant by the resignation of John C. Spooner (q.v.) and, after a brief deadlock, was elected by the Progressive-controlled state legislature. In 1908 he ran for renomination in the Republican primary, was opposed by La Follette, presumably because of his age, but despite this opposition won the nomination through lavish use of his personal wealth, and was re-elected by the legislature in 1909. Although his election was twice blocked by fraud investigations in both the state legislature and the U.S. Senate, Stephenson was eventually vindicated and resumed his seat in the Senate, serving from May, 1907, to Mar., 1915. After returning from Washington in 1915, Stephenson retired to his home in Marinette, where he remained until his death. Noted for his local philanthropies in Marinette, a park, street, and memorial library are named in his honor. Dict. Amer. Biog.; I. Stephenson, Recollections of a Long Life (Chicago, 1915); Wis. Blue Book (1911); Biog. Dir. Amer. Cong. (1928); R. S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives . . . [Madison, 1956]; Marinette Star, June 19, 1922; Superior Telegram, Mar. 15, 1918.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Isaac Stephenson Fishing Trip Photographs for details. See also the Isaac Stephenson Letters.

[Source: Blue book]
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