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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Accidental Polar Plunge


It's the season for polar plunges, with fund-raising leaps into frozen lakes taken this week in Wausau, Whitewater, and Madison, among other cities. Here's a story about an unintentional plunge into icy Wisconsin waters taken by an unfortunate young lumberjack in 1878.

Paddy Disappears

John E. Nelligan (1852-1937) was the head of a logging crew in northeastern Wisconsin when a novice logger got too near the edge of a dam at Oconto Falls:

"... we began cleaning up the timbers which were stranded around the head of the falls. Paddy [a young inexperienced logger] kept working closer and closer to the danger spot, where a tremendous volume of water thundered over the edge and took an abrupt plunge of forty feet to the riverbed below. I warned him repeatedly of the danger there and told him to keep away from the place and let more experienced men do the dangerous work.

"But he persisted, probably feeling that he should share the danger with the rest of the crew. The inevitable finally happened. Paddy made a misstep, was thrown into the terrific current, and carried over the falls before anyone could raise a hand to help him.

"We were all quite dumbfounded, stood paralyzed for a time. When we regained our wits, we realized that it was useless to have any hopes. No man, we were sure, could live after going over the falls and being battered about in the seething caldron below. He would be either lost under the wing dams, or smashed to bits among the rocks. We all felt the loss of Paddy keenly, but the work had to go on and we continued silently, thoughtfully, and perhaps a bit more carefully."

Paddy Returns from the Grave

"About an hour later Paddy appeared on the scene again," Nelligan continued. "We stared at him in awe, for it was like welcoming a person back from the dead. His clothes were torn to shreds, but his bones were unbroken and, aside from the shaking up he had received, he seemed none the worse for his experience. It was little short of miraculous. He had been swept over a forty foot falls into an inferno of water, had been carried down a treacherous rock-studded rapids a mile long, and still had come out alive and unbroken. His tremendous vitality and strength, the high water, and plain, blind luck had combined to save him.

"'I'm all right boys,' he said in a voice which sounded a bit shaky, 'but I lost my hat.'

"Mr. A. Cole, superintendent of the Holt and Balcom Lumber Company, happened to be there. 'Paddy,' he said, 'when I get back to Oconto I'll find you the finest hat money can buy and send it up to you.' And he did. Paddy wore it with great pride."

You can read more about John Nelligan's in the Wisconsin Magazine of History. Many other lumberjack recollections are available at Turning Points in Wisconsin History; more than 200 photos of loggers and logging are included at Wisconsin Historical Images.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on February 24, 2012

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