A couple of weeks ago a group of teachers from all over Wisconsin gathered here in La Farge to take a class called “Making It Home In The Kickapoo Valley”. Chuck Hatfield and I help as lead instructors in the class and I focus on the history of the area. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Visitor Center serves as host for the course with college credits provided through the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.
Early Tuesday morning, I led many of the participants in the class out to the dam site north of the village for a little tour and explanation of the La Farge Dam Project. Most of the participants in this year’s class were from other parts of the state, such as Milwaukee, West Allis, Janesville and Madison, who had very little prior knowledge of the dam project. We started the tour at the Corps of Engineer’s maintenance building on the west end of the 3,000-foot long dam. I used drawings and photographs done by the Corps at the time of construction to help tell the story. By the time that our caravan of cars had reached the east end of the dam, the group’s curiosity had peaked. Looking down at the water-intake tower and gazing across the unfinished gap towards the new highway, the question had to be asked. What stopped the completion of the dam?
My standard and short response to this question when I lead these tours of the dam site is that there were three general reasons for the stoppage of the dam at La Farge. Those reasons were financial, environmental and political – three neat and tidy categories for a project that was anything but neat and tidy. Let’s spend some time in this Notebook looking at perhaps the easiest of the three to explain – the cost of the project. In the end, that was the reason why Senator Bill Proxmire came to La Farge in September 1975 to announce that he was pulling the plug on the dam project. He withdrew his support for the dam project at that point because it had become too expensive.
William Proxmire was viewed as a fiscal conservative in the U.S. Senate, even though he was a liberal Democrat on most social issues. Proxmire had a monthly press release gimmick back then called the “Golden Fleece Award”. The award went to a government program or agency that in the Senator’s opinion was foolishly spending money. Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece Award” was immensely popular, not only because it poked fun at and exposed wasteful government programs; but also because the Senator was good at telling the story of the federal follies. Proxmire gained a reputation as a watchdog of wasteful government spending. That reputation led the Wisconsin Senator to finally withdraw his support for the La Farge Dam Project. That support was pulled due to the escalating costs of the project, which made the La Farge dam look like wasteful spending in Proxmire’s eyes. The dam project became too expensive for the Senator to support.
It wasn’t always that way.
The cost of the La Farge dam is an elusive number to follow when researching the history of the project. When I am giving presentations on the dam project at the Reserve, I have a Pop Quiz that I spring on the participants. (This is a holdover from my days of teaching history classes to students at La Farge High School.) One of the multiple-choice questions on the quiz deals with the cost of the La Farge Dam Project and it includes five or six different numbers ranging from a low of just over a million dollars to a high in excess of $50-million. Just to be difficult (another holdover from my teaching days), I throw in a “None of the above” or an “All of the above” as a possible answer for most of the questions. By the end of my presentation, the participants realize that all of the cost numbers listed as answers are true at some point in the history of the dam project.
I have been writing all summer on my next book, “THAT DAM HISTORY! – The Story of The La Farge Dam Project”. The research for the writing has led me to some interesting conclusions about the project. One of those conclusions that I have formed is that the story of the dam project is very complex and convoluted. There are so many crazy twists and turns in the story of the dam project that I have come to the realization that the story has taken on the nature of the river. The story of a failed dam project on the twisting Kickapoo River apparently has to meander, just as the river does. First you are here in your research and then you are there. First you think that you’re paddling in the main current towards truth and understanding, and then you realize that you’re diverted and trapped in the backwaters of a fetid slough of rumors and gossip.
But the key question to answer about the escalating costs of the La Farge dam is: Why and how did the La Farge Dam Project become too expensive for Senator Proxmire to support? It seems like a simple enough question with an attainable answer, but looks can be deceiving here in the Kickapoo Valley. Cost numbers and estimates can also be deceiving on a federal project like the La Farge Dam Project. For our purposes here, lets begin with the cost estimates of the dam project when Congress first authorized it in 1962.
The dam at La Farge that was authorized at that time was a little over 1,000-feet in length and seventy feet high. Behind the dam would be an impoundment or reservoir of water (The term Lake is rarely used in discussing this early body of water) of approximately 840 acres at its greatest size. Most of the water would be retained in the Star Valley area, but at its greatest size during floods, the reservoir’s waters would stretch up into the mouths of Weister and Jug Creeks and lap at the sandstone cliffs below Rockton. Spillways would regulate the flow of water over the dam and back into the Kickapoo River.
In addition to the costs to build the dam, other money would be spent purchasing the property from people who lived and farmed in the impoundment area. Additional money would be spent on the relocation of State Highway 131, as much of the section of that highway between La Farge and Rockton would be under the impoundment’s waters. Part of County Highway P would also have to be rerouted. Utilities would also have to be removed and relocated, specifically the electrical sub-station at Star Valley. There were four undeveloped recreational areas planned around the impoundment’s waters – two at the site of the dam and two more located farther up the river.
The estimates for the cost for such a project were just under or a little over $15-million, depending on whose numbers were used. That 1962 project also included the cost for construction of flood control levees for the downstream villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills. The total cost of the Kickapoo Valley Project as estimated by the Corps of Engineers, who were the builders of the dam and levees, was a tad over $14.5-million. When Senator Proxmire withdrew his support in 1975, the cost had escalated to almost $52-million. What happened in those fifteen years to more than triple the cost for flood protection for the Kickapoo Valley?