In late October 1975, the La Farge Fire Department notified the Corps of Engineers that there could be no fire protection coverage on the federal dam lands without a written agreement. The fire department was leery about driving the fire trucks across the old bridges on Highway 131 north of town, since the trucks would exceed the 10-ton weight limits. Eventually the Corps and the fire department came to a temporary agreement over fire protection coverage and the Wisconsin DOT gave approval to the La Farge fire trucks crossing the bridges as long as a 5-mph speed limit was followed.
Many of the problems with traffic using the old bridges on Highway 131 could have been avoided if the new section of the highway, running from La Farge to Rockton had been opened in mid-October as planned. The paving of the new section of highway was completed by then and ready for traffic, but disagreements between the Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin DOT over the ownership of the new section stopped the transferal. The DOT felt that the new section of highway did not meet state standards nor was adequately or properly completed. Finally, Jim Ruyak announced from his Corps offices in St. Paul that the new highway would not be transferred to the state as planned nor would the new section be opened to traffic in 1975.
The new highway project was also stopped when several local governments balked at plans for what to do with the old highway. Once again, the local school district joined in the controversy. It was suggested by some that the school buses could avoid crossing the bridges on old Highway 131 by instead using the new route. But the La Farge School District resisted running their buses on the new road until the DOT had officially taken over that section of the highway.
The school also wondered about the flood-prone section of the old highway south of Rockton and the condition of the bridges on that section south to Weister Creek. That section of the old highway was to become part of County Trunk P, but Vernon County had no money for road or bridge improvements on that section of the old state highway. Several Vernon County board members opposed the county assuming ownership of that section of Highway 131 due to the projected high cost of maintenance and repairs.
The Town of Stark was supposed to assume ownership of old Highway 131 from the Corps’ dam site south to the La Farge village limits. But Town of Stark officials rejected assuming ownership of the road due to the poor condition of that portion of the state highway. That portion of old Highway 131 had damage caused by heavy machinery traffic on the road during the dam construction.
Finally, the Village of La Farge was to assume ownership of the old highway from the northern village limits (next to the Star Cemetery) south to where the old road joined new Highway 131 on Mill Street near the ballpark. But that section of the old highway contained the crumbling bridge at Seelyburg that needed massive repairs or replacement entirely. Since the village had no money for either bridge option, La Farge also rejected taking over that portion of old Highway 131.
So as the winter season approached, the new section of Highway 131 remained closed to traffic (although it was unofficially open to those who chose to use it and many did) and what to do with several sections of the old highway remained in tumult.
With all of the controversy over the bridges around La Farge, there was one positive development when a new bridge was built across the Kickapoo River at the Lawton (Rehbein) farm south of La Farge. The Highway 131 Bridge was opened for traffic at the end of November, but of course, not before some controversy.
The new bridge was actually the first part of a larger project to renovate and straighten Highway 131 between Tunnelville and La Farge. The plan called for cutting through the hill known as Elk Point on the Rehbein farm, which would eliminate the old railroad tunnel still at that place. Besides the historic tunnel, there was also an ancient Native American burial ground located on the top of the hill above the tunnel. The DOT plan called for the elimination of the tunnel and the removal of the Native American mounds beginning in the summer of 1976. The project was to be completed by the fall of 1977. (More on the local efforts to save the old railroad tunnel and burial mounds in a later installment)
On Monday, December 8th, 1975, as early morning drivers headed north from La Farge on Highway 131, they came upon a burning bridge a mile and a half north of Rockton. One car stayed at the bridge (Bridge #9) to ward off any traffic trying to cross, while another driver went back to Rockton to notify authorities.
When the La Farge Fire Department arrived at 6:30 am, the south end of the bridge was fully engulfed with flames. The creosote coated wooden pilings under the bridge on that end were already burned off, indicating that the fire had been burning for some time. Some of the wooden under-planking on the deck was also burned through and the entire southern end of the bridge had collapsed, dropping a foot below the roadway approach. The fire department was at the scene for two hours pouring water on the burning timbers. Later that afternoon, the La Farge firemen were called back to the bridge fire scene as several flare-ups of the creosoted timbers were extinguished.
The Vernon County Sheriff’s Department and county highway crews were at the burning bridge scene immediately. An alternate route needed to be established for traffic. The lengthy detour routed traffic to County Roads P and F and Highway 33 before returning to Highway 131.
Vernon County Highway Commissioner Ernie Urban inspected the bridge after the flames were extinguished and declared the burned out bridge unsafe for any traffic. Barricades were set at each end of the bridge as Urban said it was even unsafe for people to walk across the bridge. The bridge was also being treated as a crime scene.
Vernon County Sheriff Geoff Banta said that the burning of the bridge was a deliberate act of vandalism. Some noted that the bridge had been burned only four days after the U.S. Senate had rejected all funding for the La Farge dam project. Earlier in the fall, the Wisconsin DOT had inspected the bridge and a 15-ton weight limit had been placed on it.
The week before the bridge burning, another meeting had been held in Madison between the DOT and Corps’ officials about the possibility of opening the new section of Highway 131 between Rockton and La Farge. Earlier, possibly spurred on by the school bus protest, the DOT had asked that the old section of Highway 131 between Rockton and La Farge be closed due to the old and crumbling bridges along that section of the state highway. Corps’ officials had seemed ready to open the new section of highway in mid-October, but that plan was thwarted when state, county, village and town officials balked at assuming control of the old highway and its poor bridges. The early December meeting in Madison had been called to see if those problems could be resolved and the new highway opened. But in the end, the Corps again said that the new section of highway would not be opened to traffic.
The week before Christmas, Senator William Proxmire made a surprise visit to La Farge. As he talked to people in an impromptu meeting on the sidewalk in front of the La Farge bank, tempers flared and several people cursed the Senator. Local anti-dam leader Gale Huston defended Proxmire, but also drew curses and jeers from most of the gathered crowd. Before quickly leaving, Proxmire, who some in La Farge called “Senator Scrooge” as befit the holiday season, told people to buy flood insurance or move out of the flood plain.
The following week, the Vernon County Highway Department announced that the burned bridge north of Rockton would be rebuilt. In La Farge, members of the fire department and ambulance squad held a practice on the use of the new Jaws-Of-Life extrication device. Using some donated junk vehicles the emergency personnel learned how to open up vehicles with the device to get to injured people trapped inside.
As 1975 ended, there did not seem to be much good news in the village of La Farge. At the last village board meeting of the year, it was noted that the village Christmas tree located at the old firehouse between the bank and post office did not have enough lights to be sufficiently festive. The board also heard that the brand new Bean Park skating rink leaked. Bah, Humbug!
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Save the date! As part of the Driftless Dialogue lecture series at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, I will be talking about this crazy time of the La Farge dam project history on Wednesday, June 21. “More On That Dam History!” will begin at 7 pm with socializing and refreshments offered one-half hour prior to the program.