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 Wausau History

The history of the Wausau area is tied to the Wisconsin River which through it runs. For years, the river served as an means of
transportation for American Indians and later for the voyageurs who explored the area. Later, it became both highway and power source for the sawmills that provided the incentive for the settlement of the area. As the logging industry slowed, the river was used increasingly by new industries as the area continued to grow. Today, the river continues to serve both industrial and recreational purposes, connecting the communities that call its valley home.

The Wausau area and Marathon County, Wisconsin’s largest, are located in north central Wisconsin. Wausau is about 93 miles from Green Bay, 140 miles from Madison, 181 miles from Milwaukee, 175 miles from St. Paul Minnesota, and 275 miles from Chicago.

The following 1998 population estimates are based on the 1990 census: Wausau - 38,777, Schofield - 2,424, Weston - 11,518, Rothschild - 5,234, Mosinee - 4,117, Rib Mountain - 6,835, Total of these - 68,908, Marathon County - 125,491, Wisconsin - 5,243,350.

In its beginning Wausau was called Big Bull Falls by early explorers of the valley. Exact cause and effect for the name is speculative, but as one story goes, early voyageurs of the American Fur Company, hearing the roaring sound from the river falls at Mosinee named them Toro, and moving further up the river to Wausau named them Gros Toro. These meaning, ruffly “gentle lowing of a bull”. Walter McIndoe proposed the name of Wausau saying it was an Ojibwa word meaning “faraway place” at the time Marathon County was organized. McIndoe also proposed the name Marathon, for the county when it was established. McIndoe was an admirer of the Greek, and give it this name in remembrance of the plains of Marathon and the Olympiads.

A brief summary of just a few of the important people to the area include:

George Stevens - Was born in 1790 in the state of New York. He died in 1866 in Belvidere Illinois and is buried there. While in St Louis in 1838, he met a Robert Wakely who had been in the Wisconsin Territories, and hearing of his exploits, Stevens traveled to this general area. Still in 1838, he returned to St Louis and made an agreement with three men for 1/4 ownership in a sawmill he would build in the Wisconsin Territory. Thus, in 1839 he set out to this area, ultimately arriving in what was known at the time as Big Bull Falls, and set about the construction of his first sawmill here. In 1840, the mill was still not completed, but did ship its first lumber for the market in 1841. In 1842 he built a second mill which was sold to John Clarke (after who the Clarke Island is named) in 1860. Meanwhile the first mill was near bankruptcy and he thus sold his interest to his St Louis partners in 1843 and moved south to Illinois where he had settled his family. Walter McIndoe later purchased this mill, and after McIndoe’s death in 1872, it was sold to Alexander Stewart. Because of the fact that Stevens occupied a point on the Wisconsin River about 35 miles south of Big Bull Falls where he stored his goods (there where no roads to Big Bull Falls from there at the time) it became known as “Steven’s Point”.

Walter McIndoe - Was a Scotsman, born in 1819, who came to the US in 1834. As the story goes, McIndoe was in business in St Louis where he met a Jim Moore to whom he extended some $500 in credit. The debt due him,, McIndoe came to Big Bull Falls in 1845 to collect his debt. Payment was made in lumber. The next year (1846) McIndoe returned to Big Bull Falls with part ownership in what had been George Stevens first mill. McIndoe is credited, more than any other, of turning the mill settlement of Big Bull Falls into a town. He was the first to come to this area with the intent of making it a home, rather than just for profits. In 1849, the year after Wisconsin was made a state, McIndoe was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly. One of McIndoe’s early accomplishments in the Assembly was to introduce a bill to divide the then current Portage County and thus create a new county to be named Marathon (so named by McIndoe). This bill was passed and became effective in 1850, naming Big Bull Falls as its County Seat, or, as the town then became to called as Wausau, a name picked by McIndoe. Walter McIndoe died in 1872.

Stewarts - The brothers John and Alexander Stewart arrived in 1849 after ‘walking” all the way from St Charles Illinois. Eventually going into business themselves, the business grew into the Alexander Stewart Lumber Co, the largest firm in the Wisconsin River Valley. John later returned to Illinois, but Alexander stayed, taking a leading part in the business and affaires of the Wisconsin River Valley.

The Wausau Group - Were a group of business men, that seeing the economic decline of the timber industry, resisted the idea to “pull up stakes”, take their earnings, and leave the area, but rather turned their attention to new enterprises. Alexander Stewart was the more senior of them. Another, Walter Alexander, was the nephew of Walter McIndoe. Walter Alexander gained notoriety by taking over the partnership, (along with Alexander Stewart) of his uncles mill after his death. Cyrus Yawkey, who move to Wausau in 1899 after success in the development and running a mill in Hazelhurst, combined his interests in 1905 to form the Yawkey-Bissell Lumber Company. A. P. Woodson married Cyrus Yawkey’s daughter and was an exceptional business lawyer. D. C. Everest who was initially hired as the manager of the new Rothschild Paper Mill also became an important influence in the Wausau area.

Following are some interesting dates in the history of the area:

1836: Wisconsin became a separate territory.

1837: Indians agreed to be “removed” from the area today known as Marathon County. The land of Marathon County is/was owned by two tribes - the Menomonee and the Chippewa.

1838: Robert Wakely, probably the first “white-man”, other than a French Voyageur or Jusuit Missionary, visited the Wisconsin River Valley.

1838: After hearing about Wakely’s exploits in this area, George Stevens made his first trip to the Wisconsin territory.

1839: George Stevens came to “Big Bull Falls”, as Wausau was then called. He came with the intent of building a lumber mill, and started construction of the mill in the fall of that year.

1840: Steven’s mill is still under construction.

1841: Steven’s mill shipped its first lumber. Other mills where started in the area. One of these was the result of a dam being built on the Eau Claire River some time in the 1840’s. The Eau Claire feeds the Wisconsin River at Schofield. In 1883 the mill and dam where purchased from the Schofield family.

1842: Steven’s built a second mill which was sold to John Clarke in 1860.

1843: Steven’s, at the point of bankruptcy, sold his share of the first mill to his St Louis partners and moved south. McIndoe later bought this first mill and moved it downstream to Plumber Island. After the 1872 death of McIndoe, Alexander Stewart purchased this mill.

1845: Walter McIndoe first came to Big Bull Falls. He was the first to come to the area with the idea to make it a home rather than others who came only for profit. McIndoe, more than any other is responsible for the development of Wausau.

1845: The “town” of Big Bull Falls was “organized”.

1845: Henry Moore, the first white child born in the settlement of Big Bull Falls, is born to James Moore and his wife. Moore, ex-New Yorker and ex-preacher, had came to Big Bull Falls to help Stevens run his sawmill.

1845: The John Le Messumer family arrives, bringing with them three cows, the first ever brought to what would become one of the leading dairy areas in Wisconsin.

1846: Probably the first Hotel was built, now razed, its was on First Street between Forest and Jackson Street

1848: Wisconsin became a state, and Walter McIndoe was elected to the state Assembly.

1849: The first area constable was elected to keep order when lumberjacks visited town.

1850: Marathon County was organized. About this time, Big Bull Falls becomes known as Wausau, a Chippewa Indian word indicating "a far away place." Walter McIndoe decided Wausau would be a more appropriate name for the little town.

1850: With the formation of Marathon county, the first postal station was established in Wausau.

1853: The first actual survey and plat of the town is carried out by McIndoe, Charles Shuter and Thomas Hinton.

1854: The Episcopalians hold first church service at a local inn. The clergy in attendance is a traveling minister. There is no resident clergy at Wausau until 1858.

1855: The first bridging of the main channel of the river occurred just above Big Bull Falls. It was called the Falls Bridge. It was rebuilt in 1866 and 1873. It’s the bridge (in to-days terms) that is on the west side of the river connecting at Stewart Avenue to Clinton Street and/or Scott Street..

1856: Germans continued to come to the area. By 1860 about 2/3 of the population of Wausau were foreign born, with the Germans dominating.

1857: The first newspaper was established in Wausau.

1858: The first financial institution in Wausau was established. It was at 414 3rd Street (now razed)

1858: Though not the first cemetery in Wausau, due to floods, 40 acres of land where purchase for Pine Grove Cemetery. It was officially designated “Pine Grove” in 1904.

1860: George Ruder came to Wausau and immediately began to brew beer. Located on Grand Avenue, by 1880, the plant was the was the largest brewery in northern Wisconsin.

1862: Burton Millard, a successful Wausau businessman, is the first Marathon County soldier to be killed in the Civil War. He is shot while on picket duty at Lee's Mill, Va.

1864: The great fire of Wausau occurred. Flames menaced the town and was only saved but by the efforts of it’s entire population. Fires where a menace due to the timber cutting. The “tops” of the trees where left behind, drying over time and becoming tinder.

1868: The first Marathon County Fair, today the Wisconsin Valley Fair, is held in what is now Marathon Park in the city of Wausau.

1868: Marathon Counties first real courthouse was erected.

1869: The first volunteer Fire Department was organized.

1871: A railroad line from the south was established to current day Stevens Point Wisconsin.

1871: The Peshtigo fire occurred. It was the same day as the great Chicago fire. Some 1200 to 1500 people where killed compared to 250 lost lives in the Chicago fire.

1872: The city of Wausau becomes official, holding its first election in April under the new charter it has just received from the state of Wisconsin. August Kickbush is the first mayor.

1873: About this time, Poles began appearing in Marathon County.

1874: The railroad line finally came to Wausau. This spelled the death for lumber rafting on the Wisconsin River, being a much better means of transport.

1875: A log jail served until 1880 when a brick jail house replaced it.

1880: A flood hit Wausau. Most logs where washed downstream. The railroad bridge and wagon bridges to Merrill where washed out. Wausau was isolated. All of Clarke Island was submerged. Damage was great.

1881: The Curtis & Yale Company began. It was a sash & door manufacturer. It closed in 1962 and was torn down.

1881: Another flood, equal to the last one, hit Wausau. It changed the landscape. Many small islands disappeared and a large sand bar formed moving the channel to the west. Since, the city has rerouted the river several times by filling in channels. What is now called Clarke Island is really a mixture of Clarke and Plumber Islands plus several smaller ones that where combined when the WPS built its dam on the early 1920’s.

1882: After the 1880/81 flood(s), the need for more bridges was seen and this year the Bridge Street bridge was first erected, known at the time as the Leahy & Beebe bridge. After this, a bridge across the slough channel from Scott Street to Clinton Street was built. It was the predecessor to the “The High Bridge”. At the same time, the old Falls Bridge was replaced with an iron/timber structure.

1883: The first electric generator in the county was put into use at a mill in Wausau.

1885: The Wausau Water Works was founded and the first well and pumping took place as a public utility. The first City Hall was erected at 125 Washington Street.

1886: The first hospital was opened in Wausau by two doctors, one of which was a woman.

1889: Wausau Electric Light Plant of Wausau brought electricity to the general public.

1889: Telephone service arrived in Wausau.

1890: In the 1890’s the first sewer lines where installed in Wausau. Discharge was to the Wisconsin River.

1891: The “High Bridge” replaced the slough bridge from Scott Street. It was replaced by the Memorial Bridge which was dedicated in 1928, and subsequently replaced by the current Scott Street/Memorial/High Bridge in 1983.

1892: The granite Marathon County Courthouse is erected in downtown Wausau. The building is demolished in 1954 to make way for a block of single story retail stores (i.e. the old JC Penny & Kreeske Store). The Wausau Elks Club was formed.

1892: Four “billion” board feet of lumber was cut in Wisconsin. Never had so much been cut in one year - and never again would so much be cut.

1893: The Marathon County Insane Asylum was built.

1896: The Brode Tannery was built on the west bank of the Wisconsin River a block below the present George Stevens bridge at Thomas Street.

1899: Ground was broken for the first paper mill in the area at Brokaw. The Wausau Country Club was organized. The Chicago & NW RR Depot was built on Clarke Island. It served travelers until the 1950’s. It then became a bus depot and in 1966 opened as the Billy Moy restaurant.

1899: The Marathon County Normal School began operation. This was the first teacher training institution in the state.

1900: Lumberman Cyrus Yawkey and his wife, Alice, build their neoclassical, revival-style home at 403 McIndoe St. In 1954, this building becomes The Marathon County Historical Museum.

1900: Wisconsin continued to lead the “nation” in lumber production.

1902: The Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul RR Station was built. Passenger service was discontinued in 1970.

1903: The Tannery Bridge was constructed. It spanned from Edwards Street to Oak Island. It was washed out in 1912 and rebuilt.

1904: The Strollers bridge was erected when Oak Island was still an island. A portion of what today is River Drive was actually a branch of the Wisconsin River. It ran from Oak Island east towards to-days River Drive. The Tannery and Stroller Bridges where the predecessors to the present George Stevens Memorial Bridge at Thomas Street (opened in 1952).

1906: The Wausau Street Railway was organized to bring electric transportation (street cars) to Wausau.

1907: The original public library building opened on the present site. Other library construction was in 1929, 1968, and the current building in 1994. St Mary’s Hospital (the original building) was built. After the Wausau Hospital was built in 1980 the building was remodeled as apartments.

1908: The original Rothschild Pavilion was built. Destroyed by fire in 1910 it was shortly thereafter rebuilt to the existing building.

1909: The Marathon Paper Mill (in Rothschild) was organized. At this time the dam there was constructed, taking about two years to complete, thus creating Lake Wausau and changing the landscape. In 1911, shortly after completion, a hole was blown in the dam in an attempt to save the mill from flooding. Just rebuilt in 1912, the 1912 flood hit, doing even more damage than in 1911.

1911. Work was still being done on the dam in 1916.

1910: The first air flight flew over Wausau. The plane was built in Wausau.

1911: The Employer Mutual Insurance Co was established. In this year, Wisconsin established the first successful state law for
Workman’s Compensation. The “handwriting was on the wall” for economic decline of the lumber industry.

1912: Another Flood. After much rain in the north, accumulating at the Brokaw dam, the Brokaw dam broke. Wausau was hit
thereafter at 2:00 am in the morning. All the bridges in Wausau were damaged in some way. The Bridge Street bridge, as well as the Falls, Strollers, and Tannery bridges where swept down river. The railroad bridge was dynamited to break up jambs. The Rothschild dam was blown to relive pressure behind it. There is no dam in Brokaw today - after the 1912 washout it was rebuilt several times and finally “given-up” in 1941.

1912: The Wausau Vocational School opened.

1920: Wisconsin fell to 14th (out of 48 states) in lumber production.

1921: WPS built the Hydro Plant. Construction was from 1921 to 1924. The dam height is about 27 feet.

1922: Rib Mountain was made a State Park when 160 acres of land where turned over to the state for this purpose. The road up to the park was completed in 1931. In 1933 the park was enlarged by an additional 120 acres.

1924: Hotel Wausau was erected on the site of the former Hotel Bellis. In the 1970’s it was converted to residential apartments and the name changed to the Landmark Building. The Memorial Hospital was built with a donation from Mary Plumer in memory of her husband. After the Wausau Hospital was built in 1980 the building was remodeled as Sturgeon Bluff Apartments

1925: The First American State Bank building was erected on the site of the former National German American Bank. It was replaced in 1974 by the present First American Center.

1926: Wausau’s first radio station broadcast. It was for but 8 days, meant to promote the medium of radio.

1927: The Grand Opera House opened. It was constructed on the same site as the former opera house built in 1899.

1928: President Calvin Coolidge comes to Wausau to address the Wisconsin State Convention of the American Legion. The Memorial Bridge (as known as the Scott Street Bridge) replaced the High Bridge. This was again replaced in 1983.

1928: The Wausau airport was established.

1929: The Great Depression hit Marathon County almost immediately after the stock market crash. The resulting “New Deal” of the 1930’s did much too modernize Marathon County however. Rural areas where wired for electric service, streets and roads where improved. Athletic Park was constructed, as well as the Youth Building in Marathon Park. Additionally, the CCC was put to work on improvements to the Rib Mountain State Park in 1934/36 developing the first ski areas.

1930: The “Snake” Bridge over the Rib River from Rib Mountain to Wausau has the official name of the McCleary Bridge. It was named such after a man who lived at the east end of the bridge in a small pink house on the left side of the road. He was a lumberman and lived there about the turn of the century. The original bridge was over 100 feet long and built of steel. It ran almost east and west, and was high above the water level to allow for flooding in the spring. The height made it necessary to have steep inclines on both ends which made it impossible at times in the winter to get across so farmers would drive over the ice instead. It was also very narrow and some had a hard time to get a load of hay across. At the west end of the bridge, the road divided and you could go west or south. It was built when the natural course of the Rib River ran into the Wisconsin River and the area where they worked was still dry land. It was removed and a new one was built in its place in 1918. It’s reported that it was of reinforced concrete, and no wider than the old bridge. The current (as of 1999) McCleary Bridge was constructed in 1930. It’s 702’ long and 23’ wide but a 4’ sidewalk extension was added in 1952. It was resurfaced in 1976 and new railings where added as well. Floods over the bridge have occurred several times, the most recent being in March of 1973 when 1 foot of water was over the bridges road. In 1941, 3-1/2 feet of water was over the bridge roadway.

1936: Amelia Earhart visits Wausau, a year before she and her copilot disappear while attempting to fly around the world.

1937: Wausau’s first regularly scheduled radio station (WSAU) went on the air.

1940: The Wausau High School football team goes undefeated, due primarily to the talents of Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, a Wausau native who, like fellow native Jim Otto, goes on to play in the National Football League and is inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

1940: The Wausau sewage disposal plant was completed and put into service.

1941: A new home office building was erected for Employers Insurance, sold to the city in 1967 it is now City Hall.

1951: Jerome Sudut, born of the Wausau area, died on a hill in Korea. Short of his 21st birthday, he is the only man of Marathon County to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

1952: The George Stevens Memorial Bridge at Thomas Street was dedicated. It replaced the Tannery and Stroller Bridges.

1954: The first local TV station went on the air (WSAU)

1962: A new state law decreed that all school districts had to be in a district which operated a high school. This consolidation thus ended numerous “small” schools in the rural areas and/or forced them to join with larger districts.

1963: The Highway 51, four lane, “beltline” opened.

In the late 90's the economy prospered, Wausau saw the need to purchase and development more land for the West Industrial Park to meet the needs of expanding companies. There was also an increase in commercial development on the west side of town along Stewart Avenue. More recently, the city acquired through gifts and purchases, the 400 Block in downtown Wausau. It was designated by council in 1998, as a public open square to be improved and otherwise developed for the use and enjoyment of the citizens of our great community as part of the Redevelopment Plan.

This Redevelopment Plan, called the Wausau Central Business District Master Plan, created a comprehensive long-range vision and implementation strategy for the redevelopment and economic structuring of downtown Wausau. It was adopted by the Common Council in March 2000. These redevelopment plans, along with the mission and goals of the Wausau River Edge Commission, proposes to maximize the aesthetic and natural benefits of the Wisconsin River edge within the central business district. Through study, planning, and cooperative programs with all public and private interest for recreation and other uses, the area will be enhanced and become a showplace of natural beauty for public enjoyment with a system of walks, recreation areas, and commercial sites that will attract tourists and increase the value of the river corridor, its islands, and surrounding areas.

In 2002, the Performing Arts Foundation completed an ambitious $13 million dollar expansion project. The project integrated three historic structures including the Center for Visual Arts and the 1927 Grand Theater as the centerpiece. This project provided additional amenities for patrons and performers which will serve the Grand Theater for many years to come. In June 2002, Governor McCallum announced Wausau’s acceptance into the Main Street Program. Main Street is a state-administered program that brings expert advice to cities to help merchants and politicians work together to focus on preserving and rehabilitating historical buildings; attracting more people to the downtown businesses; developing underutilized property; and maintaining the retail function in the downtown area. The downtown district, known as the River District, also represents the City's first business improvement district. The BID district assesses special assessments to each property within its boundaries to fund the salaries and operating costs of the main street program. The City of Wausau supplements these contributions with an annual allocation of room tax dollars for the main street program.

In recent years, the city has entered into several highly successful private-public partnerships. These partnerships have transformed the skyscape and vistas of the downtown rivers edge. In addition, these projects have increased tax base and employment in the community. The City is thrilled with the addition of the Dudley Tower, Eye Clinic of Wisconsin, Jefferson Street Inn, The Palladian and Wausau Benefits/Wipfli Building.

In this fast pace world, what we do and build now will have to fit in the future scheme, so decisions need to be made with special consideration to future needs. Our futures sees continued development along the Hwy 51/29 corridor, enhancements to the 400 block and expansion of the river edge trail, and the redevelopment of property along the Wisconsin River, and Third Street to name a few. The story of Wausau is far from over and the past gives good reason to be excited and optimistic for its future.


The Story of Wausau and Marathon County by Michael Kronenwetter
Wausau Daily Herald
Rib Mountain Bicentennial book
The Town of Stettin Centennial book
Pioneers of the Pinery by Malcolm Rosholt
Wausau Histories by Judge Clarke and E.B. Thayer
Early Beginnings of Wausau

City of Wausau

Gizo Ujarmeli Coldwell Banker Action, 928 Grand Avenue, Schofield, WI, 54476   

Data provided by CWBR (Central Wisconsin Board of Realtors)


Wausau View from Hwy K