Brule: A River of Presidents

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
It is hard to imagine Wisconsin without its most famous river, the Bois Brule, or simply the Brule to those who know her best. Nestled in the pines of Douglas County, the Brule flows unimpeded 49 miles north until it empties into Lake Superior. Early explorers came up the Brule to meet its cousin, the St. Croix which flows south to the Mississippi. It is this north south trade route that kept people coming back. These early visitors told of the bounty of the land, great fishing and virgin forests. Soon rich timber barons and ultimately Presidents came to experience the Brule. The reason why they came to enjoy the river is the same reason thousands of people visit the Brule today - wild forests and native trout. Both are thriving, but it wasn't always this way.

After the glaciers receded around 14,000 years ago, the land was populated with wildlife. Many of those first inhabitants still live here. The osprey fishes in the cool, crisp water, the whip-poor-will still sings through the night, speckled brook trout still slurp hatching mayflies - all interwoven in a rhythm of life that still courses with the river. But as the wildlife came, so did man.

The Mound Builders were here before 1400 AD. They used the natural veins of copper of the Copper Range for weapons, tools, beads, and needles. This valuable metal was also used in trade with other Native Americans and has been found in several archeological sites hundreds of miles away. Then other groups like the Potawatomi and Mascoutins moved into the area harvesting wild rice, smoking fish, and trapping. Then around 1600, when Shakespeare was writing sonnets in England, the Dakota (Sioux) roamed Superior's shores and camped on the banks of the Brule. But it is the Objibwa name for the river that remains today. In 1612 the Ojibwa came into the area and named the river Wisakoda, or "burnt pines." The French translation is Bois Brule. The Ojibwa and Dakota soon clashed and continued to fight fiercely for control of the land.

In 1680 the first documented white man traveled up the Brule in search of a trade route. Explorer Daniel Greysolon DuLhut, a Frenchman, was sent to the region to restore peace between the Ojibiwa and Dakota so that the fur trade could resume. He was followed by Pierre LeSueur in 1693, Jonathan Carver in 1767, and Jean Cadotte in 1782. The names of these early explorers and diplomats have not been forgotten. Stones with placards line the original portage between the Upper Brule and the St. Croix. They mark a vital trade route that soon gave birth to a booming fur trade.

DuLhut and other early explorers wrote in their journals about numerous beaver dams that made passage up the Brule almost impossible. These dams meant fur and in 1803 trapper Michel Curot wrote that it took him and his party of five men and three canoes 13 days to go up the river. In 1831 abundant wildlife was still being reported. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an American, wrote of fantastic moose hunting. But soon most of the beaver were gone and news of the native trout started to spread.

And a member of Schoolcraft's expedition said that "the river is exceeding cold and clear and is filled with thousands of real mountain brook trout." In 1846 John St. John, a surveyor, wrote "It surpasses all other streams in its brook trout, some of them weighing ten pounds." Alexandar McDougall (McDouglall Springs) reported catching 4,000 pounds in one fishing trip in 1873. And the fishing stories continued through the 1870's. In 1877 John Bardon claims to have netted 1,500 pounds of trout but said there were "millions of trout still left." In 1878 another fisherman claimed to have caught 500 trout in 3 days using hook and line. Fish stories? Probably not. Regardless, such reports soon caught the eye of settlers of the East and with settlers came the loggers. SIDEBAR: The large brook trout St. John speaks of are the coaster brook trout of today. Brook trout are the only stream dwelling trout native to the Great Lakes. Coaster trout are those brook trout that are hatched in the river but spend their lives in the near shore waters of Lake Superior. Coasters generally weight between 2 and 3 pounds, but the largest on record was 14.5 pounds. Unfortunately, coasters were easy to catch and their numbers quickly declined. Currently there are several efforts underway to reestablish a population of coasters in Lake Superior.

By 1880 the railroad had made its way to Brule and the town was established by the Central and Southern Lumber operators. The Brule Lumber Co. owned over 3,000 acres of some of the best timber in the state. Over 50 million feet of logs were cut from the land.

Rich lumber companies meant rich company owners. Colonel Knight and Senator William Vilas, rich owners, saved parcels of land along the river for their lodges and clubs. In 1905 another aristocrat, Henry Clay Pierce, and some of his partners bought land on the Brule and called it Cedar Island. On this land is the state's first private fish hatchery. Clay also built a main lodge, dinning hall and small zoo. Eventually Pierce bought out the rest of his partners and fenced off the brook trout rearing ponds.

Other families also build club houses and estates. In 1887 a St. Paul club adopted the name Winneboujou - the name of a mystical Chippewa (Ojibway) prophet. Winneboujou is described as "a blithe spirit whose feats of strength and dexterity were matched by his sympathetic understanding of, and his abiding friendship for, all the members of the animal kingdom who inhabited his wilderness domain." The name and the club still exist today.

Another name frequent visitors to the Brule will recognize is Joe Lucius - as in Lucius Lake and Little Joe Rapids. Joe Lucius built many of these early clubs, but he was also known for his hand made canoes. The Lucius Canoe was made of birch back and was designed for travel on the Brule. Very few originals still exist. Lucius also worked as a fishing guide for the elite, paddling the rich up and down the rapids to pools of trout.

The next "Chiefs"
It is during this time of club houses and estates that the Presidents came to visit this national treasure. First, President Grant came to the river in 1870 as a retired President and war hero. Word of the beauty of the land and abundant fish drew him to this retreat. President Grover Cleveland came next as a guest of Senator Vilas in 1880. Vilas ended up as Cleveland's Secretary of the Interior. They stayed at the fishing camps no doubt traveling up and down the river in a Lucius Canoe. Yet this was only the beginning of Presidential attention that the river would receive.

In 1928 perhaps the most famous presidential visit occurred. Calvin Coolidge established his summer White House at the Cedar Island Estate. Coolidge also had another building closer to Superior where he conducted business, but it was the love of the river that made him spend most of his time on the estate. (While spending the summer he was able to locate the graves of his grandparents, Israel and Sally Brewer in Columbia County.) It is reported that Coolidge switched from spin fishing to fly fishing while on the Brule. This pleased the local fishermen who felt fly fishing was more sportsman like.

Eventually the Pierce estate was brought by the Ordways - the same family mentioned in the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A very private family, they invited two Presidents to be their guest at the estate - Hoover and Eisenhower. The Ordway family still owns the estate, but they have yet to invite another President.

Yet it is the wealthy and famous who have had the largest hand in preserving this river for the rest of us. In 1907 Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser, a wealthy lumber baron, sold his Nabagamon Lumber Company. In so doing he also donated 4,320 acres along the river to the State of Wisconsin - thus starting the state's first forest. It is important to note just how important this donation was to the history of the Brule. At this time, serious consideration was being given to damning the Brule and creating a canal. This would have created a shipping canal from Lake Superior to the Mississippi River. Lucky for all of us, this idea never got off the ground. In 1905 a friend of Weyerhaeuser's youngest son, E.M. Griffith persuaded the state legislature to prohibit dams on the river and started to secure land donations that would be used "for the State Forestry purposes only." Since then the forest has grown to 52,000 acres. In addition, almost 90% of the privately held land is protected by conservation easements through the Nature Conservancy. Public and private stewards continue to protect the land with the vigor of these early founders.

But there are several beautiful rivers in Wisconsin. What makes the Brule different and what keeps Presidents and fishermen alike coming back for more? It is the fishing experience. While the Brule is world renown, the trout aren't the largest. While the Brule has rapids, they aren't the most dangerous. While the Brule attracts several visitors, they aren't allowed to have tubes, rafts, glass bottles, loud music, and other disrupting items. (The conservation police patrols the landings in the summer to make sure recreants know and follow the rules.)

So why come to the Brule? The simple answer is to float through history. The fish are as beautiful as DuLhut first saw them. But in the quiet between landing fish you start to hear the sounds of the forest. You hear the songs of birds you'll never photograph, yet you enjoy their melodies. You'll come around a bend in the river to spook a mother Merganser and her chicks. You'll see eagles fishing while their young squeak from a near by nest. But perhaps what is most striking is what you don't hear - people.

One trip down the river and you'll connect with the Native Americans who made their camps along the banks, you'll take your canoe down the rapids that first carried furs and later giant pine logs, you'll traverse Big Lake and wonder if your canoe is as sturdy as the ones Joe Lucius used to make, you'll see glimpses of American Presidents and aristocrats, but maybe in the end you'll experience a reverence for this wild river - a reverence that stirs emotion in all who visit her. This is a reverence that is carried back to the hectic cities of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis where businessmen dream of quiet paddling while their phones ring off the hook. It is this love and connection that brings visitors to her banks every summer and that keeps her in her wild state. Be sure to visit the Brule, but be sure to leave no trace so that we may all experience this raw beauty. When you go home take only the memories. You'll be much richer for it in the end.

Editor's note: Many thanks to the Friends of the Brule River and the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute for providing many of the historical facts for this article.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.