Kemmeter Column: River pilot buried near river
By Gene Kemmeter
A fence made of pipe surrounds a solitary grave along the east side of West River Drive between the road and the west bank of the Wisconsin River in the town of Linwood in Portage County, just north of Al Tech County Park and the spillway at the Whiting-Plover Dam.
A granite marker on the grave says:
A RIVER PILOT
DEC. 12, 1862
That marker probably makes Isaac Ferris the most widely known river pilot in Stevens Point’s history.
But who was this “river pilot who died during the second year of the Civil War?
Ferris’ Find-a-Grave website says he was born Dec, 6, 1806, a son of Samuel and Mary (Kelly) Ferris, in Blakely Borough in the village of Peckville in Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania.
When exactly he came to Portage County is undocumented, but he was here before Wisconsin became a state in 1848.
He is listed as the head of a household in the 1847 Wisconsin territorial census, and he voted in 1849 in the town of Stevens Point, according to the voter poll list.
The 1850 Census for the town of Stevens Point, which didn’t become a city until 1858, shows Ferris, 47, a lumberman who was born in Pennsylvania, living in a boarding house.
The house was owned or managed by Jeremiah Haley, 28, a lawyer, with his wife Mary; their one-year-old son; and a 15-year-old girl.
Seven other boarders also lived there.
By that time, the need for river pilots was already nearly a decade old.
In 1841, George Stevens, for whom Stevens Point is named, was reportedly looking for someone to drive the first fleet of lumber down the Wisconsin River from his mill at Big Bull Falls (Wausau).
He selected Hiram Stow of Plover to pilot that lumber down the Wisconsin River from Big Bull Falls (Wausau), through the Stevens Point area, to St. Louis, the Stevens Point Journal later reported in its July 12, 1884, edition.
Whether Stow had experience is unknown, but he must have had some, based on the importance of the journey and the dangers associated with it.
“On the success or failure of this trip no doubt hung the future of the Upper Wisconsin Pinery,” Malcolm Rosholt wrote in Our County Our Story, a history of Portage County. “For unless the pine lumber could be rafted to market, there was no other feasible way out.”
Railroads were still more than three decades in the future, and the Wisconsin River and its tributaries were wide open bodies of water, no dams, slides or piers to block the logs, only whitewater rapids, jagged rocks and powerful currents threatening the journey.
“The slightest miscalculation might shatter the raft to smithereens and drown the raftsmen in whirlpools of foam that spun like a top,” Rosholt wrote.
Stow’s successful trip showed that the lumber could be taken downriver, and Ferris may have made the same trip shortly after him.
Rosholt lists Ferris among the well-known raftsmen between 1840 and 1860 who could be hired in the county to take “fleets of lumber over the Shaurette dam and Conant Rapids and beyond if needed.”
How long Ferris remained a river pilot isn’t known, but he was married to Mrs. Elizabeth C. (Story) Kelly, a widow, sometime in the 1850s.
His wife was the daughter of Solomon Story Sr., a lumberman and river pilot who came to the Wisconsin Territory about 1841 after his six children were born in St. Lawrence County in New York.
The family first settled near Portage but moved in 1842 to “Conant’s mill,” now in the town of Linwood south of Stevens Point. Conant’s mill was located on the west side of the Wisconsin River and was the first sawmill built on the Wisconsin River in Portage County.
Story worked in the lumber industry, logging and working in mills during the winter and then running lumber rafts down the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers during the summer. He reportedly ran the third raft of lumber over the “Grand Rapids,” the rapids for which the town of Grand Rapids took its name, his “findagrave.com” webpage says.
His three sons, George, William and Solomon Jr., all followed in their father’s trade becoming river pilots and working in the lumber industry before going into other trades.
Solomon’s daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Thomas Kelly who died sometime after the birth of their son, James N. Kelly in 1845.
Isaac Ferris married Elizabeth sometime in 1855.
They settled in the town of Linwood along West River Drive opposite of where the village of Whiting is located today.
They had one child, Laura M Ferris, who was born July 26, 1856.
Mrs. Ferris died before 1860, and Isaac raised their daughter.
The Pinery, Portage County’s first newspaper, announced in its Jan. 16, 1863, edition that Mr. Isaac Ferris, aged about 60 years, died Jan. 9, 1863, in Linwood.
The grave marker, as noted earlier, lists the date of death as Dec. 12, 1862.
Ferris, who was actually 56 when he died, apparently was prepared for his death because he named his brother, Edwin Ferris, in the community of Castleton in Penn Township, Stark County, in northwestern Illinois, as the guardian for his daughter Laura, who was six years old at the time when Isaac died. Laura then went to live with Edwin.
Ferris, who apparently died of natural causes, was buried along the river where his house was located and he owned the property. Because the grave is along the river, many people assume Isaac Ferris died in a rafting accident.
But his death in December or January is when the river is frozen, so no rafting takes place.
Next: Restoring the gravesite and locating his daughter