A Brief History Of Lake Wapogasset And Bear Trap Lake And its Sanitary District.
Every effort has been made to assure the accuracy of this history. Written in 1997 in celebration of the Sanitary District’s 20th anniversary, a number of sources of information were consulted in preparation of this document. However, at least as to some matters, information was either fragmentary and/or contradictory. Any comments, additions or corrections will be greatly appreciated.
The following is a brief summary of the history of Lake Wapogasset and Bear Trap Lake and also a summary of the origins of the Sanitary District, and the Lake Association.
WAPOGASSET’S EARLY YEARS
Although the records of Lake Wapogasset in the 1800’s are sketchy, what is clear is that the lake looked markedly different than what it does today. In 1878, only 13 years after the end of the American Civil War, a W.L. Sadler obtained a permit to build a dam on the outlet stream of “Sucker Lake” (now know as Wapogasset), in Polk County. Sadler intended to build the dam in order to significantly raise the level of the lake so that he could periodically release water and therefore allow logging operations downstream to “timber” two saw mills. Sadler’s permit allowed him to change the water level as much as 6½ feet! Building the dam, Sadler hoped to be able to collect monies from owners of logs and timber in the vicinity of both the Sucker branch and also the Apple River. Sadler went on to construct the dam and operate a sawmill powered by the stream of water coming out of the dam.
Perhaps interesting that Sadler’s dam increased the water level of Lake Wapogasset at least 4-5 feet! As a result, a number of homes owned by persons around Lake Wapogasset were flooded. A federal act known as the “Milldam Act” authorized the building of Sadler’s dam, and allowed Sadler to flood the land of others, without first securing an easement from the owners of the land that would be flooded. Instead, the only right of the flooded landowner was to secure payment from Sadler after the flooding of the land.
As a result of Sadler’s dam, the lake levels later were to fluctuate significantly. In time, the lake level permanently increased. Photographs taken by the Public Service Commission around 1922 show large white pine stumps submerged not less than 4-5 feet below the water level. Pictures reflect not only the change in the water level but also the fact that at one time the lake was at least partially surrounded by a magnificent stand of large white pines.
THE JAMES WALLACE YEARS
It is unclear how many years Sadler operated his saw mill, but apparently the mill was no longer in operation in 1901 when the James Wallace family purchased their land on Lake Wapogasset. For years, Wallace was the president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The next four decades, Dr. Wallace, other members of his family, and the residents of the lake were to battle tirelessly to seek improvements to the lake.
In the years following Sadler’s abandonment of the dam, the dam began to deteriorate badly. Also, Hank Snyder (whose assistance in preparing this history is gratefully acknowledged), recalls that from time to time, a loud underwater blast would mysteriously be heard in the vicinity of the dam. While the dynamite blast did very little good to the dam structure, it was rumored that fishing downstream from the dam picked up remarkably shortly after the blast!
When the Wallace family first came to the lakes, the water quality could hardly be described as ideal. Generations of farm runoff, combined with cities and towns upstream which dumped sewer into the Balsam Branch, had taken their toll. The story of long time Hickory Point resort owner, Ernest (Ernie) Guanella tells much about the water quality at that time.
About 1905, Ernie Guanella established the well known “Hickory Point Resort” on Lake Wapogasset. The resort was to remain in operation for approximately 35 years, and encompassed about 22 acres of land. Hank Snyder’s wife Kay was the daughter of Ernie Guanella and worked at the resort during the summer for a number of years. Kay’s job in part was to remove thick films of “scum” and algae in front of the resort before guests awoke so that they could use the beaches. Furthermore, Hank recalls that the lake was troubled from time to time by massive amounts of fish kills, which sometimes resulted in a solid mass of dead fish some 30-40 feet off the shore. At Labor Day, the entire lake was covered with a thick film of algae slime, making the lake almost unusable.
Water quality problems, combined with significant fluctuations in the water levels resulted in a significant hindrance to any recreational use of the lakes. Beginning in the 1920’s and into the 1930’s, a number of dedicated citizens led by Robert Wallace, Ernie Guanella, Perry Jerdee, William McMurray, and others met for purposing of improving water quality. Sometime prior to 1933, the group formed the organization known as the “Lake Wapogasset Association” (now known as Lake Wapogasset/Bear Trap Improvement Association). About 1933, the group acquired title to the dam site in order to maintain and repair the dam.
By 1922, a survey from the Public Service Commission indicated that the dam consisted of two waste ways or spillways constructed of timbers. The dam at that point was in poor physical condition and in desperate need of repairs. Makeshift repairs were done at the dam periodically, photographs from 1932 show that the dam was constructed of loose rock. The 1932 photos also show that there was considerable leakage through the spillways.
On December 19, 1933 the Public Service Commission approved plans submitted by the new Lake Wapogasset Association, for purposes of repair of the dam. The plan provided for a gate section having an opening 10 feet wide between abutments. It also provided for concrete-grouted rock spillway 69 feet long providing a stable elevation of the lake. The dam was constructed basically according to these plans.
The early records of the Lake Wapogasset Association reveal a group of amazingly farsighted persons who showed a strong dedication to environmental issues long before it became popular to do so. As early as 1933, or very early in the Depression, the group was led by those already mentioned, and a number of other well known individuals including M.W. Wangensteen of St. Paul, L.R. Moeller, the Assistant Secretary of St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company, and Tom Yates, an attorney practicing in Amery. At that time there was a total of 40 dues paying members.
THE EARLY 1940’S AND THE WAR YEARS
By the early 1940’s, the lake had reached the point where it now had upwards of 70 summer cottages, as well as public resorts. In a decision dated 1943 to establish a high water mark, the Public Service Commission noted as follows: “Lake Wapogasset, also known as Sucker Lake, is located in the towns of Lincoln and Garfield, Polk County. The lake is more than 3 miles long and has an average width of about two-thirds of a mile and an average depth of about 25 feet. The lake has six large lobes or bays. It has good bathing facilities along most of its shore…”
The year before the Public Service Commission hearing, the Lake Association had made further repairs to the dam including replacing the rock spillway with a concrete spillway. However the dam still left much to be desired, including inadequate capacity to deal with spring runoff and other flooding conditions.
The Public Service Commission held a hearing at the Lake Wapogasset park on September 4, 1943. At that time, some of the lake owners wanted a decrease in the water level to permit use of areas that were otherwise marshy or swampy. Other property owners sought an increase in the water levels. The Public Service Commission acted to allow construction of an additional spillway and established a permanent stable water level of the lake. This action finally resolved the long standing problems with fluctuation of the water levels. The Public Service Commission determination and the construction of the additional spillway again points to the dedicated work of individuals previously identified and led by Dr. James Wallace.
After land surrounding the dam was acquired by private landowners in 1933, a park was established by the lake residents and Garfield Township. Over time, the park expanded and developed, and ultimately by the early 1940’s included a concession stand, dance hall, and nearby, a general store. The park became a lively and entertaining summer location for both residents of the lake and citizens in the area. In 1941, a ceremony was held and the park then became dedicated as “Wallace Park”.
Unfortunately, a major storm struck the park in the 1940’s, causing extensive damage to the park and its buildings. The park was then abandoned by the Town of Garfield and the remaining buildings were torn down. A plate still exists on a large rock in the park, dedicated to Dr. Wallace.
There have been recent indications that the park will now be restored, at least in part, in Dr. Wallace’s memory. When that will take place is as yet unclear.
ORIGIN OF THE WAPOGASSET/BEAR TRAP SANITARY DISTRICT
The origins of the present sanitary system can be traced back to 1924. It was at that point that Dr. James Wallace helped to organize lake residents for various lake cleanup activities. At that time, a group was formed, again focusing on lake improvement projects as well as lake quality. These projects included concerns about pollution, concerns about the extensive amount of algae (and the means to deal with that), and other concerns.
In 1933, property owner L.R. Moeller joined the Sanitary District. Moeller, a farsighted man who envisioned the pollution problems of an increasing population, lobbied tirelessly for legislation to update the Sanitary District. Moeller, leading the Sanitary District, in conjunction with the Lake Association, spearheaded the efforts toward the 1943 dam improvement project.
In the early decades, the Sanitary District was engaged in various projects, including clearing the channel between Wapogasset and Bear Trap, dredging a channel under the entrance road to Wallace Island (which later became the YMCA camp) and worked toward lake improvement projects. Hank Snyder, formerly a commissioner for the Sanitary District, credits another District project as perhaps having the largest impact on the quality of the lake. For decades, the Sanitary District has used copper sulfate to control algae on the lake. Mr. Snyder believes that the use of the copper sulfate has resulted in a marked improvement in the water quality of the lake.
In the 1960’s, the lake population swelled at certain times of the year to almost 2,000 persons. Long standing pollution problems including drain fields and septic tanks, become more and more of a concern. In the 1960’s, Don Jansen and Wayne Lindberg formed the Sanitary Board, which then commissioned a study by a local engineering firm to address some of the growing pollution problems. In 1971, Robert Voosen became chairman of the Sanitary Board, joining Jansen and Lindberg and their crusade to save the lakes. It was these three men, with the assistance of Barney Sigel who set the machinery in motion to preserve the lake for future generations.
Members of the board began a process which was nothing less than a mind boggling five year odyssey in order to eliminate the significant pollution problems caused by sewage draining directly into the lakes from failed septic systems. Unfortunately, it wasn’t obvious to all that a central sewer system would be the best solution. The concept of a central system was revolutionary: The proposal would require construction of the largest inland lake sanitary system in the entire United States! The sanitary proposal, in two phases, would entail 23 miles of sewer line, and more than 500 hookups. Every single lakeside lot would need to be torn up so that sanitary sewer could be put in. Many locations would also need to have lift stations installed. Moreover, each resident was told that they would need to abandon the septic sewer system they were using and then pay the additional costs associated with the project. Damage would occur to large numbers of trees, as well as yards as a necessary part of the installation of the system.
Moreover, costs of over $1.5 million (in 1974 dollars) was simply mind boggling to the average citizen. The farsighted Commissioners on the board faced tremendous resistance and opposition from some property owners at each step of the approval process.
Once underway, the project itself generated positive publicity on a state wide level. Robert J. Feldt, head of the federally authorized agency dedicated to lake quality, quoted in the “Country Today”, a regional newspaper stated the following: “We think what these people in Polk County have done is a tremendous example of what can be done around hundreds of lakes in Wisconsin…We want people to see Lake Wapogasset and then apply some of the same work to their own problem.”
Other newspapers described the two phase sanitary district project as “One of the most ambitious sewer projects ever attempted in the State…”.
The application process itself was also not without hurdles. In 1974, contractors working with Mateffy Engineering and the Sanitary District applied for Phase I of the system. After months of delay by the local office, assistance from the Governor of the state of Wisconsin and the state Department of Natural Resources finally resulted in approval for Phase I of the project. The sewer collection system of Phase I was to serve 142 homes with the majority of the construction to take place on private property. Phase I was completed in the fall of 1975, resulting in the initiation of Phase II.
Phase II of the project included approximately 302 homes, 70 vacant lots, 5 commercial establishments, the YMCA camp and the Bible Camp. The system was designed to encompass in excess of 13 miles of lakeshore, have 16 main line lift stations, and included the aerated sewage treatment lagoons.
Phase II presented a new set of problems. Not only did the Sanitary District have to obtain over 370 separate easements to cross private property, also it entailed 50 miles distance separating 16 lift stations. Phase II entailed costs of $1,326,000.00 and became operational in the fall of 1978.
In retrospect, there can be little doubt that the sanitary system preserves wildlife, protects and enhances the environment, benefits man and improves the public health. Furthermore, the system serves as an asset to every property owner who no longer has to rely on a limited life expectancy septic system and enjoys a municipally operated sanitary sewer system.
In the twenty years since the system has been in place, it has been used repeatedly on a national level as a model for other lakes. The sanitary system has been visited repeatedly by other associations and governmental subdivisions who seek to establish their own sanitary system. Plans and information concerning the sanitary system have been provided numbers of times by both the Sanitary District and the DNR for use by other sewer systems.
The system continues to operate as a model of efficiency. However, growing pains with the system resulted in short term financial problems. Those problems were dealt with and the system now has one of the lowest operating costs in the state of Wisconsin. The District owes its thanks to the work of Robert Voosen, Don Jansen, and Wayne Lindberg, who had the fortitude to persevere in seeking installation of the system. Each of these individuals endured repeated criticism including the threats of lawsuits, and in fact lawsuits, in their quest for lake improvement. In large part, it is due to these individuals, as well as the others mentioned, that the sanitary system came to fruition.
It should be pointed out that officials with the Farmer’s Home Administration, including Dell Wehlen, indicated that in the 1970’s there was more money earmarked for sewer system loans than there were applications. Undoubtedly, the reason other lakes did not undertake to install their own sewer system was that they lacked these dedicated individuals who were willing to volunteer their efforts and weather criticism, in applying for federal government grants and seeking assistance in the installation of the sanitary sewer.
Many of the original founders of the Lake Association were also members of a informal organization known as the “Lake Wapogasset Sanitary District”. At its inception in 1924, the group was an informal organization seeking to improve water quality. In the intervening years, until 1941 when the Sanitary District was formally organized, the member of the Sanitary District were often interchangeably members of the Lake Association. By way of example, Len Moeller, first active in the Sanitary District, then also became active in the Lake Association.
Wapogasset & Bear Trap now enjoys a significantly better water quality than it has at any other time. The 20 year anniversary of the Lake Wapogasset & Bear Trap Lake sanitary system was celebrated at the Sanitary District facility in June of 1996. Attending the anniversary meeting were many current and former lake residents and former Commissioners of the Sanitary District and other interested individuals. Speakers discussed the early informal work of the Sanitary District before 1941 and its accomplishments since its formation. On April 10, 1941, the Town of Lincoln created a Town Sanitary District known as “The Lake Wapogasset Sanitary District”.
What emerged from the recollections of the long time residents of the lake, as well as from newspaper clippings, documents from the District and other information was the fact that the lake quality had markedly improved over the last hundred years. Lake quality improvement was needed in each of the following respects: The very reason that the early Lake Association and also Sanitary District was formed was to improve the significant water quality problems. As far back as the turn of the century, portions of the lake were covered with “scum and slime” from algae buildup. In addition, significant fluctuations in water level exacerbated the problems, sometimes creating pools or pockets of foul smelling water.
Sanitary District records show that in the 1940’s, the bay in and around Wallace Island (later turned over by the Wallace family to the YMCA camp) remained stagnant. The water accumulated so much algae, that birds were seen to nest on the crusty surface of the algae on top of the water.
Hank Snyder provided the history of the Hickory Point Resort in existence between approximately 1905-1940, and the significant water quality problems that the resort faced. He related that his wife, Kay, who was a daughter of the owner of the resort had a daily job in the morning of removing slime and scum from the top of the water in vicinity of the swimming area so that guests could enjoy the facilities.
Jerry Sondreal, the editor of the Amery Free Press, recalled as a boy that at some times during the summer, the smell of the lake would be so offensive, it could literally be smelled in town when the wind was right.
At present, due to the dedicated efforts of people in the past, as well as the present Lake Association, Sanitary District, and other individuals, it can be said with certainty that the lake quality has improved considerably. However, lake quality now is far from perfect. The members of the Water Quality Committee of the Lake Association, as well as other groups, are to be applauded.
Finally, your and your guests individual efforts in stopping pollution will make a difference. Just keep in mind the following:
Please do not burn anywhere in the vicinity of the lakes. In and around the lake is a natural watershed. Burning next to the lake will eventually result in the ash materials of whatever you are burning going into the lake and becoming a permanent source of nutrients for weeds and algae growth.
The Sanitary District has enacted an ordinance preventing the use any kind of phosphorous materials on lawns. Please ensure that any fertilizer used on your property does not contain phosphorous in any form whatsoever.
Also keep in mind that Eurasian milfoil, and also zebra mussels, are a constant threat to the water quality of Lake Wapogasset/Bear Trap. The presence of such materials would be devastating to the lakes. Please be sure that your boats are thoroughly cleaned before they are placed in the lake.
The history of Lake Wapogasset & Bear Trap Lake is made up of previous residents who showed outstanding awareness and concern for environmental issues long before it became popular to do so. It is thanks to these dedicated person’s efforts that we now have a stable lake level (due to the dam) and continually improving water quality. The work continues today through the efforts of another generation of volunteers.
David Erspamer, President
Lake Wapogasset/Bear Trap Sanitary District