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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Conquering "a Multitude of Hates"

In May of 1848, lumberjack Osborn Strahl (1818-1902) narrowly escaped death thanks to the timely help of a passing Ojibwe Indian.

Strahl had come out from Ohio at the age of 23 to try his luck as a lumberjack. In the fall of 1847 he made his way to Chippewa Falls, where Hiram S. Allen owned not only the sole mill but also the only boarding house and store. He was "styled 'King of the Chippewa' on account of boom privileges and assumption of arbitrary power," Strahl wrote later, and "woe was the malediction meted out to all intruders unless they paid him tribute in some way... he dictated prices on both sides -- 'thus and so' I charge for supplies and 'thus and so' I pay you for logs... It was all hard work, and no mistake" but "any good fellow could buy according to the amount of work he did, and especially did he who drank the most whisky elicit the most admiration."

Allen's petty monopoly rankled Strahl, so he and some others "who believed that air, navigation, and pine were free, decided to go in for ourselves and get out shingles and square timber, intending to carry the shingles on our rafts of timber to be floated down the river in the spring." They went upriver to the site of modern Jim's Falls and spent the winter cutting majestic pines, making some of them into timber and splitting others into shingles. The next spring they lashed the largest trunks together into rafts, piled them high with shingles for downriver markets, and pushed out into the Chippewa.

"We had large heavy oars at each end of the raft," Strahl recalled, "and three men at each oar; and the men had to be as quick and vigorous as possible. The perpendicular falls was at the foot of the rapids, a ledge extending straight across the river like a dam ten or twelve feet high and obstructed by rocks on either side, save one place or chute just wide enough for the raft, and one must make the right spot, for the force was terrific... We could hear the ominous roar of the falls and all vocal demonstration was hushed in token of the dreadful peril of this first attempt at running the fearful cascades. Commencing gradually three-quarters of a mile above the falls, the current gets swifter and swifter as the increasing inclination accelerates the velocity, and there are a hundred side currents to draw one onto the innumerable rocks both above and below the water. Nothing but cool vigilance and plenty of muscle will avail here on this mad run. There is no time for reflection..."

Three times their rafts made it through the perilous gap, over the perpendicular drop, and downriver. But the last raft "was banged about amongst the rocks and crushed to pieces," leaving the lumberjacks clinging to a point of rock that stood a foot or two above the water, on the brink of the waterfall. Upriver were hundreds of miles of untamed forest; downriver, the only possible rescuers were miles away.

"For half a day or more we waited there," Strahl went on, "feeling sure there was no help for us, when an Indian in his bark canoe made his appearance on the wild waters above us, dropping from rock to rock until our location was reached; and skipping across the mad waters from the eddy of one rock to another, with a dexterity only attainable by these savages that we assume to despise, he put us one at a time on shore.

"As I stood on safe land again looking back at the perilous situation, one could not blame me for a fervent emotion of thankfulness, enduring as life; the despised Indian got the better of me here, in rendering invaluable service for a multitude of hates..." The memory of this unexpected act of compassion from a stranger whose race he had been taught to fear and despise lingered with Strahl for decades, and his account of it is among his papers donated to the Society after his death.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 24, 2007

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