Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Potosi Canal

THE POTOSI CANAL
From the day in 1829 that Thomas Hymer started building his cabin near what is now Potosi it was certain that the town would be unusual.  Crammed into a narrow hollow that ran down to the flats of the Mississippi it presented both handicaps such as flooding and great opportunities in the lead contained in loose mineral (float) lying about.  As miners rushed in followed by merchant establishments, saloons and boarding houses it became more apparent that access to the mighty river below was essential.  The lead must be transported, and the Mississippi was the most convenient pathway.  As the town grew it was necessary to bring supplies in by means of Mississippi riverboats.  Ferry boats were also needed to cross the Mississippi in those days before bridges.  The earliest reported ferry service near Potosi was that of J.P. Cox and Justis Parsons.  Parsons Landing was ten miles above Dubuque in Iowa.  Cox held a landing in Osceola, about a mile from Potosi.  In 1844 James F. Chapman, was granted the right to operate a ferry from Potosi across the Mississippi probably to Specht’s Ferry.
   In the earliest days it was possible to navigate the Grant river slough.  Ferry boats and shallow draft steam boats could unload at Osceola or a landing built at the village of Lafayette below Potosi.  As the years passed silt built up making it difficult to bring the boats up.  This was probably due to lumber cutting and farming that caused greater runoff from the surrounding land into the Grant river.  In the age of the steamboat the forest land along the river was stripped of its lumber to fire the boilers of the steam engines that propelled the vessels upriver.  By the end of the 1840’s there were over 1,200 steamboats using the Mississippi and side and rear paddle wheelers were becoming ever larger.
   Potosi was growing by leaps and bounds.  The Merchants and miners of the town needed to keep the water deep enough for mineral to be shipped out and goods for the growing town to be shipped in.  The Territorial Legislature, wanting ports to compete with Dubuque and Galena were sympathetic.  In June of 1844 Congress passed legislation providing for the sale of a section of land to fund improvements of the Grant River to allow better access to the Mississippi.  In January of 1845 the Legislature named James F. Chapman (the same man who had been given the right to operate a ferry in 1844) to lead a commission to organize the sale of lots.  Joel Allen Barber was named Receiver to take funds from the sales and disburse payments for costs incurred.
The engineer of the Port of Dubuque, Joshua Bryant, was called upon to study the problem and make a report. In that report, submitted November 15, 1845 he wrote:
The harbor at present, situated as it is on one of the collateral branches, or channels, of the Mississippi, appears to be approachable only by the tortuous sinuosities of Grant River Slough, or, by the shorter and little less objectionable meanderings of Swift Slough. The channel of the former is obstructed at numerous points by shoals or bars formed by de posits of silt. The removal of this would require a great amount of dredging to make it navigable at low water, and the annual operations of a dredge boat would, in all probability, be indispensable to keep it at a proper depth. In a channel so long and crooked, it is dif´Čücult to form a correct idea of what the result might be in case it should be so improved. The removal of the bars as they now stand might cause the accumulation of deposits in other places; and the work of one season might be counteracted and rendered useless by the result of the succeeding one.”
 The best plan according to his report was to build a canal of sufficient depth and width across the low flats and wetlands directly to the Grant river bend at Lafayette.  His opinion was that “The canal from the Mississippi will he approachable at any stage of water, for boats ascending or descending the river. The current of the river impinges against the bank with its full force, and the water being deep, little apprehension may be entertained of the formation of any bars contiguous to the entrance of the canal.” He recommended that a canal 100 feet wide be excavated and the Harbor deepened.  He estimated the cost to be $20,041.45.
   The lots were sold throughout the year 1845, and with the engineers report the Commissioners submitted the report of Barber.  The section given by Congress had yielded $4,130.64. After expenses of $1350.40, only $2780.24 remained for the project.
   Despite the severe shortfall the work went on, first grubbing the trees, shrubs and other obstacles in the line the canal would follow and then commencing the excavation.  In those days there were no steam powered dredgers and shovels available on the frontier, so the grubbing was done by men with shovels, grubbing hoes, and bars.  The rocks and wood were then thrown mule pulled wagons for removal.  The Story told by old  timers later in the century was that the contractor went to     
An Early mule drawn scraper                            in   Missouri to buy mules.  These were not normal mules, but rather large mules from draft horse mares.  There are Percheron, Belgian and Clydesdale mares that are very large, but those breeds were not brought to the United States until the later 19th Century.  The large mules obtained were used in the excavation of the canal.  The greatest part of the earth removal was done by “scrapers”, large shovel like implements pulled behind four mules.  Men behind the scraper would lift handles to cause the device to dig in, removing shallow layers.  The earth filled scrapers were hauled up an embankment at           An early mule drawn scraper                                     the end of a one or two hundred yard pull.
   In addition to the income from the sale of lots, the Legislature granted the town the right borrow $5,000.00 per year to finance the work on the canal. They were further authorized to levy a tax of not more than $3,000.00 per year for the purpose of repaying the loans.  This should have enabled the ongoing work to continue to its conclusion.  The people of Potosi in a town meeting voted to construct a canal of 50 feet width and sufficiently deep to give a six feet clearance which would suffice for most of the Shoal draft (aha shallow draft) riverboats of those days.                                      
The work was still in progress in 1849 when several calamities struck Potosi and the area.   
                                 Painting of Mississippi Riverboats of the Late 1840's  

The first was a cholera epidemic.  The hollow and the river land had never been a paradise of health.  Rev Matthew Dinsdale, minister of the Methodist Church at Potosi wrote to his family in 1845 “There has been much sickness in this part this summer, and several deaths.  I have had a funeral to attend almost every day I have been here.” The year 1849 is remembered as one of three epidemics of Cholera that hit the middle of America.  It was worst along the rivers which were the highways of commerce and settlement. “If it be the Divine will that I should live a little longer God can shield me… All places in the vicinity of rivers are subject more or less to ague (probably malaria) and bilious fever (typhus)” Cholera is a disease that attacks the walls of the intestine.  The bacillus Vibrio Cholerae destroys the lining of the intestine causing uncontrollable diarrhea that leads quickly, sometimes in hours, to dehydration and death. Bad sanitation in disposing of fecal wastes and poorly lined, shallow wells allowed those wastes teeming with bacteria to pollute drinking water wells, spreading the dreaded death dealer.  Of course no one knew the cause, and the treatment was not only ineffective but harmful.  Bleeding, withholding fluids, and noxious nostrums sped the work of the killer.  People fled Potosi, thereby spreading the disease.
    The second event was the discovery of gold in California.  Through 1852 many miners left for the New Eldorado, depopulating Potosi and many other Grant county Towns.  With depletion of the population many of the merchants packed up and left.  Although Potosi was authorized to borrow and expend $5,000.00 annually and tax its citizens $3,000.00 additionally per year it was not possible with the greatly reduced tax base.  Some           histories say the canal was never completed, but I believe it was done on a very modest scale not sufficient to serve the riverboat traffic it had known.  Lafayette Landing did receive steamboats for years including the Teal owned by the Specht family, which later became the Potosi.  In the late 1920’s one writer made the following comment about the canal in his article on the Grant River: “The old diggings can easily be traced across the bottoms and fields although it is more than 80 years since the big ditch was dug.”

So the canal, begun by industrious men wishing prosperity, wilted and died.  It is no longer to be seen, for as the map shows, the construction of the Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam #11 at Dubuque in the 1930’s lead to the flooding of what was farmland and meandering channels.  According to one source the pool behind lock and dam #11 raised the water as much as 15 feet at Potosi (9 Feet seems more correct).  The map shows the shoreline as it was before the Lock and Dam pool.  The red line drawn shows the present shoreline.   None of that flatland of meandering river branches and sloughs will ever be seen again.

 Approximate location of Lafayette Landing 

   
                                                        At the present Boat Landing

                                               Panoramic view from the present day Boat Landing


Sunday, March 20, 2016

THE MURDER OF A GOOD DAUGHTER







    It was in this country, in 1926, that a soap opera of homicide played itself out in the ridges and valleys near Rising Sun in Crawford County, on the north side of the Wisconsin River that forms Grant’s northern boundary.  The hill country near Seneca was populated largely by poor but honest farmers, many of Norwegian ancestry.  Hence its nickname “Little Norway.”
     
 The Lutheran Church was a powerful force in the Norse families of the region.  Despite the force of religion in everyday life, there were many who made a buck hosting dances where moonshine, not so secretly trafficked in the midst of prohibition, warmed the blood and propelled dusty feet to fox trot the night away.  Seneca was a popular gathering place for such events.

     Clara Olson first began keeping company with Erdman Olson after meeting him at a Lutheran Church Social. They kept company in the following months.  They were not related. She was 22 and he was 18.  She lived with her parents on a small farm. She was her father’s favorite.  Erdman was attending Gale College in Galesville, Wisconsin, a Norwegian Lutheran Church institution.  He had been attending that school since the age of sixteen.  His father was a well to do (for those hills) tobacco farmer near the tiny village of Rising Sun.  He was wealthy enough to have provided stylish clothes and a car for Erdman.  During the early summer of 1926 Erdman used that car to take Clara to dances and go for long drives in the hills and valleys of the Kickapoo.  Clara was in love.

 
     Not surprisingly, Clara found herself pregnant, and that was a matter, even in the roaring twenties, of great shame in hill country.  Erdman had always avoided meeting her family and usually picked her up at the end of the long lane leading to her house.  Now he was avoiding her.  It is not known what words passed between Erdman and Clara regarding her pregnancy, but on August 17, 1926 she wrote a letter to Erdman’s father, Albert Olson:

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Albert Olson – 
I know you folks will be surprised to hear from me and what I have to say.  Understand I am a good friend to your son Erdman and am sorry to say that we are in a pinch and have to get married – if God is willing and if you folks are willing to help us.  I wrote Erdman a letter some time ago to come down and marry me because I do not want to get him in trouble and I don’t want my parents to know and I hope you folks will help us before my folks find out what has come.
“Please be good to Erdman.  I know he never meant to leave me.  It is only four and one-half months’ left now until I will be expecting.  So I hope Erdman and I can get married this month and make our lives worthwhile.  I am closing with love and God’s blessings and I hope to hear from you and see Erdman soon.” 
     When the letter was received Mr. and Mrs. Olson confronted Erdman.  Recounting the event in later testimony Albert said that Erdman “seemed surprised.”  He ordered the boy to go and bring Clara to their home.  Clara refused the invitation.  Perhaps she knew that the intent of Erdman’s family was to procure an abortion, in those days termed an “illegal operation.”  From that point her life was coasting toward its end.
Lane leading to Christ Olson Home
     On September 9th Clara received a letter that Erdman had send two days earlier.  He asked her to destroy the letters he had written and not to disclose to anyone the contents of the present letter after she had destroyed it.  He asked her to pack only the clothes that would be needed for the trip and to bring money.  “We’ll go and get the ceremony over with and come back in a week or so and let them know” he wrote.  “Do as I have asked you and everything will be OK.  If you don’t, your chance may be shot, and I might make a scarce hubby.  So if you want to avoid disgrace, do as I say and keep mum.  As ever, as usual” These were hardly the words of a person in love, but Clara's hopes soared. On the night of September 9th , Erdman wrote, she was to put a lantern in her upstairs window which faced the road.  He would drive by at midnight and wait for her if he saw the light.  She was then to run to him and jump in the car for the wedding trip to “Hendrum, Minnesota which is the same as Winona.” That afternoon she looked forward to the coming midnight, when she would have a husband and father for the child coming.  She looked in her geography book, but couldn’t find Hendrum, which was actually north of Fargo, North Dakota, 400 miles away on the Minnesota side of the Red River.  She baked cookies while reviewing Erdman's letters, smiling occasionally as she read the words before crushing them, lifting the hob eye, and tossing them into the fire.

 Wine and new wine take away the heart." Hosea 4:11
 
Marie Anderson
     On the night of September 9th, Erdman went to a dance in Seneca.  He danced the Fox Trot with the girls and drank beverages which he laced with “Synthetic Gin.”  This was in the middle of Prohibition. The hills were full of moonshiners.  Erdman was known as a supplier.  His last dance was with Marie Anderson, a friend of Clara's younger sister Alice.  She testified later that “he couldn't keep step,” probably because he was drunk from ingesting the liquid courage that he would need to carry out a foul deed.  At about 11:30 pm Erdman stumbled out of the hall accompanied by a man unknown to the others and never to be identified. He sped away into the night mists.

     Christ Olson was not asleep.  He saw the lights at the end of the lane. Clara was leaving.  “I’m getting a breath of air" she said.  A few moments later he heard the car speed away.
     The next morning the family realized that Clara had not come home.  They found a note that Clara had written which read:

“Dear Folks:  I know you all will be surprised to find me gone.  I am leaving this evening.  I will have to go tonight.  I did not know I was going until this afternoon, but could not make up my mind to go till now, when I am leaving. Please do not worry about me as I will not be gone very long. If anyone asks about me tell them that I have gone to La Crosse. Again I must tell you not to worry about me as I am taken good care of and will be back soon.  I cannot explain to you tonight why I am leaving, but will when I come back.  Now, please do not take it too seriously, as it will mean nothing, only a little surprise.  I will be back soon from my trip.  Now please remember, don’t worry about me.  I will be back soon.”

     Did her repeated assurances and entreaties to her parents not to worry betray her own doubts?

     Christ sent Clara's older brother Bernard to the farm of Albert Olson to inquire after his daughter.  Bernard noticed the tire prints where a car had turned.  He noted the distinctive pattern and observed that three of the tires matched but one didn’t.  He noted the prints in the ditch at several places.  When he arrived Mrs. Olson invited him in.  He asked to see Erdman and was told he was asleep.  Soon after, Erdman came into the room.  Bernard asked where Clara was. At first Erdman denied having seen her.  When Bernard confronted him with the fact that his tires matched the tracks observed, Erdman changed his story.  He said he had driven Clara to Viroqua and left her there with fifty dollars to travel to Minneapolis.  He didn't say why.  Clara's family didn't believe a word of it, and they began to make inquiries.  

Albert Olson, father of Erdman Olson
     After weeks had gone by, Christ visited the home of her daughter’s companion, confused and angry.  He was told that Erdman had returned to college and then he received a contemptuous brush off.  “Forget it for a while” said Erdman’s mother.  “She’ll be back about Christmas time with a child and no husband.”  These words hit Christ like a lightning bolt.  He had not known of her pregnancy.  The shame he may have felt was subsumed in dread and anger. He decided to take action.

     On September 26th Christ and Bernard went to Galesville, found Erdman, and confronted him.  His pals at school knew about Clara.  He referred to her as “my hick sweetie” or “the green country girl.”  Christ demanded to know her whereabouts. Erdman repeated the story he had told Bernard on September 10th.  Christ offered him land and cattle to establish a small farm for them and the child.  Erdman had no interest in that.  Finally, Christ gave him an ultimatum; bring his daughter back within three days or he would send the Sheriff after him.  Erdman had told Christ that he would need time to go where she was and bring her back, but the next day he advised the school that he was leaving and dropped off the map, but not before saying to a friend “Offering me cows to marry his daughter. Them hicks must think I want to be one too!” 

     The night Erdman disappeared Christ had a dream. He told his neighbors “I saw her buried on her face,” he said and went on to explain that it seemed she was in a ditch or shallow grave.  He hired two detectives, John Sullivan, retired Milwaukee chief of detectives and a Madison private detective named Casween also a retired police detective, to search for Clara.  They interviewed witnesses piecing together the movements of Erdman Olson.  Two letters were sent by Erdman. One to his parents and one to Christ.  To Christ he wrote: “I know Clara can't be back by the time you say.  What a fool I would be to wait for the Sheriff.  I don't want you to cause trouble for my people who know nothing of this. Your daughter will come back to you when I come back.  I am leaving school so don't try to find me.”

     His letter to his parents did not show the defiance and bravado that he had shown Christ: 

     “I am leaving tonight for some place where no one knows.  I have decided to skip until things come back to normal. I shall not even tell you folks where I am going, though God knows how I feel.  I have thought of finishing everything, but life is sweet and hard to part with, but I say this, that I would rather take death than captivity… Some time I may write you, but I can't say that you will ever see me again.  I would not blame you if you don't.  I will never stay long in one place, for that would be dangerous.
      “Mother, I suppose your health will suffer tremendously from this and it might wreck father, but don't let it do that.  Forget me.  These people cannot prove anything definite, although they will try.  Do not let them try to pull anything over on you folks.  Please try to bear this with bravery and forget me as I am not worthy of your memory.  Shut me out of your thoughts entirely, as though I never lived.  Good bye and God bless you.”

     On November 25,1926, Thanksgiving Day, Christ with detectives Sullivan and Casween met with Sheriff Harry W. Sherwood and Justice C.H. Speck and laid out the evidence.  Justice Speck issued an arrest warrant for Erdman Olson based on “information and belief” and Christ Olson's complaint.  The news exploded over the news wires.  Bernard Olson asked the American Legion to help organize a search for Clara's body, and Christ Olson offered a $200.00 reward, which was soon raised to $3,000.00 by a community fund drive.

     When the news broke, Arthur Price Roberts of Milwaukee, a well-known Welsh born medium and “psychic detective” who had assisted the police on past investigations made a prediction.  He said that Erdman Olson would never be found alive.
     With the Sheriffs consent over 600 men formed a posse and began searching the region for the body.  On December 2nd searchers Charles Bowden and Al Marvin found a patch of overturned soil on Battle Ridge, about 100 yards off of Highway 27 and near a lane.  The spot was only a quarter of a mile from Erdman's home.  As they removed the clods they saw the heels of a pair of shoes.  It was Clara, buried face down in a very shallow grave.  The body was taken to the coroner’s office in Prairie Du Chien.
Alice(left) and Bernard (right) comfort Christ at the inquest.

     Dr. Charles H. Hunting, the State Pathologist was called in to conduct the autopsy.  As they removed the sticky clay dirt from her body, Hunting found two letters stuffed in her bosom.  They were a damp, gory mass.  They carefully separated and cleaned the paper revealing the letter Erdman had sent her on September 7th instructing her to meet him in the night after destroying all correspondence.  She hadn't destroyed this letter, instead taking it along, perhaps to retain as a keepsake for the happy years she expected would follow.  These letters zipped up the case against the killer.  He had killed her with a massive blow behind her ear which fractured her skull.  Erdman's parents still denied his guilt.  They said he had returned home at 1:15am on the fatal night, and had a sandwich.  He could not have taken her at midnight, drove ten miles, killed her, and dug and closed even that shallow grave in an hour and 15 minutes.

     For his accusers the answer was simple and horrible.  He had dug the grave on the seventh of September, the day he wrote and sent the letter instructing Clara how to meet him for her short, fatal voyage.  The letter that lay by her heart when it stopped beating.

At the Utica Norwegian Lutheran Church
The Crowd of Mourners
     On December 7,1926 Clara was laid to rest in the graveyard or the Norwegian Lutheran Church, now known as the Utica Lutheran Church.  A crowd of about six hundred came, but only 300 could be accommodated inside.  Rev. Martin Dummernaess asked the mourners to pray for the one who took not one but two lives; that of Clara and of the little girl she carried.  “Ask forgiveness for him, and ask God to bring repentance on his heart,” he said.  Outside, the family stood by her gray Coffin as she was interred.  The snow was soaked with rain and formed a dirty slush, which the previous night’s misty fog had topped with a hard frozen crust.
Clara's Casket leaving her home


      












     In the following years tens of thousands of wanted posters were sent all over the country.   At the urging of Albert Olson, Governor Zimmerman sent Assistant Attorney General J. E. Messerschmidt to review the case and report back.  After several weeks he reported to the Governor that there was no doubt of Erdman Olson's guilt.  He stated that there was sufficient evidence to try him for first degree murder “when and if he is found.” The search went on for years with the $3,000.00 reward unclaimed. Reports came in from all over claiming Erdman had been spotted.  A suicide victim in Chicago was thought to be Erdman – it wasn't.  In 1932 a man was detained in Los Angeles thought to be Erdman.  In 1933 a man in Portage was detained.  In 1939 the Sheriff of Crawford County issued thousands more wanted posters. In 1940 the county, having never had a good lead, absorbed the reward fund into its general fund for 1941.  In 1949 the last suspect, Theodore Wagner of Fargo, North Dakota was detained on suspicion of being Erdman Olson and sent to Crawford County for identification.  Wrong again.

     Two weeks after Clara's death, Frank Blazek of Prairie Du Chien reported seeing her ghost “flitting over the snow, crying for her sweetheart.”   In February of 1927 the body of Will Holmes, age 19, of Prairie Du Chien was found with a pistol at his feet in a hollow tree in the Kickapoo River bottoms not far from the grave Clara had been buried in by her killer.  He was reported to have been despondent at his girlfriend enduing their relationship.  In the spring of 1927, a cardboard box was found near the shallow grave she occupied from September to December 1926. It was hidden in a nearly invisible crotch formed by two stumps and a sapling. It contained a “georgette gown with a ribbon sash, a silk slip. A yellow polka dot dress and two pairs of silk hose.  It was quickly labeled as Clara's “wedding trousseau” by the press.

        

      Clara lies in the Utica Church cemetery, now joined by her parents and other family members.  The fog still owns the night in those hills and valleys, but in the morning the sun rises and the fog lifts, and all is clear. The memory of this heinous crime is still fresh and is part of the folklore of the hills.  The mystery of Edman’s disappearance remains shrouded in darkness and fog.  It is unlikely that anyone now lives who can answer the question of the murderer's fate.  Did he start a new life in some faraway place?  Did he kill again?  Did he tire of running and end it all?  There are many wooded bluffs, caves, and swamps in the Kickapoo region.  They have many secrets that may never be given up.