History of Petenwell Flowage and Castle Rock Projects

In 1986 Max Andrae (now retired president of Wisconsin River Power Company) compiled this report.

At the request of Conrad Amacher, I will attempt to relate the history of the Petenwell and Castle Rock projects. The request that prompted this research, made by Mr. Walter Leverance, Tomahawk, only asked for the history of Castle Rock, but, in essence, these two projects should be considered as one as they were essentially constructed at about the same time, and the two projects historically were always considered to be one coordinated project.

The sources for the history will be gathered from my 36 years of experience with these projects, dating back to 1951. My associations were with William F. Thiele, who along with G.W. Mead I and Tom Utegaard were the original planners of this project; Harold (Red) Loock, who was the land coordinator during the construction of this project; and Ralph Kutchera and Russ Christensen, who were civil engineers for Consolidated and essentially the in-house project engineers. Some of the other sources of information will be gathered from my familiarity with the corporate records, my association with Brian Duffy (one of the project surveyors) and many others.

The History

The original plans and dreams of construction additional hydro plants on the Wisconsin River began in the mid to late 1920?s. It was at this time that Consolidated Water Power & Paper Co. (then Consolidated Papers, Inc., now Stora Enso North America) was beginning to grow and expand, and the need for added electric power sources in the Wisconsin valley was a necessity. By this time, Consolidated had already harnessed some hydropower at the Wisconsin Rapids site (1903); they had purchased the Biron site (1911); and they had taken over the plans for rebuilding the hydro station at Stevens Point from the Jackson Milling Company (1919). In 1920 and 1921, large hydro additions were made at the Biron and Wisconsin Rapids sites. By this time, they realized that more electric power would be needed, and the Wisconsin River seemed a likely source. It was at about this time in Consolidated?s history that William F. Thiele, an electrical engineer from General Electric Company, came on board, as did Tom Utegaard, civil engineer.

The Corps of Engineers had made a detailed survey of potential hydro sites in Wisconsin in about 1905, so in a general way, a fair amount of information was available to anyone who wanted to explore the river?s potential. This information was obtained by Consolidated, and the dreaming and planning of harnessing the Wisconsin River in this general mid-section area began. Under G.W. Mead?s direction, William F. Thiele and Tom Utegaard began their research of data available and began their on-site field trips to these various areas to look at their potential. These field trips included several extended canoe excursions on the Wisconsin River so they could become familiar with the terrain, the soils and the problems of constructing hydro facilities at various sites.

By this time in history, the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company was in existence and looking for additional sites for reservoirs. In about 1928, a surveyor named Halldane was employed by Consolidated to make detailed maps of areas to be included in the future hydro sites. From the historic records available, I have concluded the Thiele and Utegaard had chosen a net head of 40 feet at the Petenwell site and about a 28-foot head at the Germantown site. Once the maps were completed and contour elevations superimposed on the maps, the land-purchasing process began. At this time, it was decided not to let the general public know the purpose for the land purchases lest the prices asked for the property might skyrocket. In general, I think the public was informed that the land was being purchased for grazing and pasturing purposes. The records indicate that three area persons were chosen to purchase the land in their names, and later they would deed the land to Consolidated. The three main buyers were Mr. Kinnister, Mr. Brockman and Mr. C.C. Fuller. Mr. Fuller at the time was president of the Necedah Bank. The Consolidated person who kept tabs on the purchases and other data was Claude Lynn.

As one might recall, the U.S. economy was not the greatest in this era, and purchases came relatively easy. Also, some large parcels were gained by the delinquent tax process from the counties. Probably the largest concentrated area purchased this way was many hundreds of lots in the old 1922 Dellwood subdivisions. This subdivision was quite and interesting project. In 1922, 4,000 lots, generally measuring 50 feet by 125 feet, were laid out in a rectangular manner. The streets were normally 33 feet wide. A large hotel and a rather elegant town houses were erected by the developers. Since the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad was very close to this subdivision, it was the intent of the developers to bring trainloads of prospective buyers to the area and entertain them for a weekend. Unfortunately, the depression put a lid on this type of development, and lots by the hundreds eventually went tax delinquent. The general asking price for the lots was $49.50 per lot. In addition to the hotel and town house, a large dance hall pavilion was also erected. During its heyday, many of the large name bands (like Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo and many others) made frequent stops at this facility. The dance hall is still in use and in existence today, and is now know as the Dellwood Pavilion.

At about this same time, Consolidated was also in the process of surveying and looking at an additional hydro site at Knowlton, Wisconsin (later named DuBay hydro project), and at reservoir sites and the Big and Little Eau Pleine Rivers. In addition to this, Thiele and Utegaard also had dreams of diverting about 1,500 cfs from the Wisconsin River to the Fox River to augment the hydro facilities on the Fox. The site they chose for this diversion was the old crossover canal at Portage, Wisconsin.

The very first drawings for the Petenwell and Castle Rock projects were made in the 1930 to 1936 era. It was in this era when George W. Mead I, along with his able electrical engineer William F. Thiele and civil engineer Tom Utegaard, began in earnest to put together a plan for increased development of the section of the Wisconsin River from the Mosinee dam to Portage canal to the Fox.

They formed a state-authorized organization called the Wisconsin Hydro Authority, and they began looking for additional support. They talked with organizations within the State of Wisconsin and with contractors to see if they could gain their support and assistance. Most important of all, they entered the political arena. Such names included in this scenario were: Governor Phil LaFollette, Senator Bob LaFollette, and Senator F. Ryan Duffy, Harold F. Ikes, David Lillenthal, William Huffman, Sr. (at that time editor of all local newspaper), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and others. In the federal arena, a lobbyist by the name of T. Yancy Millburn was retained. Several years were spent in trying to enlist support from the state federal governments, and to seek grants or financial cooperative support from both the PWA and WPA (both of these were federal organizations set up under Franklin Roosevelt?s New Deal administration).

The total plan developed by Thiele and Utegaard was as follows:

1) The Mosinee dam would be rebuilt, and canal would be constructed from this new dam to the Big Eau Pleine River.

2) A dam would be erected on the Big Eau Pleine River, and a large reservoir would be created. The reservoir would be filled via the rainfall and snowmelt method, plus excess water from the Wisconsin River would be routed down the canal from the Mosinee dam to the Big Eau Pleine reservoir.

3) A dam would be erected on the Little Eau Pleine River, and the reservoir larger than the Big Eau Pleine reservoir would be created.

4) An underground tunnel would be built from the Big Eau Pleine reservoir to the Little Eau Pleine reservoir. Thus, the Little Eau Pleine reservoir could be filled either from local runoff, from excess runoff into the Big Eau Pleine or from excess water from the Wisconsin via the Mosinee canal and the underground tunnel between the two reservoirs.

5) A dam and hydro plant would be constructed at the Knowlton site, and this would later be called the DuBay hydro plant. This site would have a head of about 25 feet and would generate between 7,000 and 8,000 kW.

6) A large dam and hydro plant would be constructed at what was then known as the Petenwell site. This site would have a head of about 40 feet and would generate about 18,000 kW.

7) A sister dam and hydro plant would be constructed about 14 miles downstream from the Petenwell site and would generate about 14,000 kW. This plant was then known as the Germantown site and would later be called the Castle Rock hydro plant.

8) A diversion canal would be constructed from the Wisconsin River to the Fox River at the old crossover canal site at Portage, Wisconsin. It was planned that up to 1,500 cfs could be diverted at times to the Fox River, and the Wisconsin Hydro Authority would be reimbursed by the hydro users on the Fox River.

The total estimated cost of the whole project would be about $21,000.000.00

There was a great deal of the statewide interest in this project, and newspaper articles heralded this as Wisconsin’s own TVA project. However, the federal bureaucracy was much harder to penetrate. Even though it appeared that federal dollars were available, and the short era of the Wisconsin Hydro Authority died a natural death.

The plans, submittals and correspondence are still available in the records at Consolidated. In retrospect, one must be astonished at the marvelous foresight that these gentlemen had at this time in history, and it would had been a great boom for the state had this project been allowed to proceed in its entirety.

While the plan had received a mortal blow, Consolidated decided to proceed with the parts of the plan that were possible. In 1938, the Big Eau Pleine reservoir was constructed by Consolidated. Later this entity was sold to the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company. In 1938, Consolidated also made an application to the Federal Power Commission (FPC)?now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)?to construct the DuBay hydro plant, the Petenwell hydro plant and the Germantown hydro plant. It was about this time in history that there was some controversy about the FPC?s jurisdiction over the Wisconsin River as it had never been exactly determined if the complete stretch of the Wisconsin River was navigable under the federal rules. In about 1940, Consolidated decided to withdraw its application for the three hydro plants, and it sent a letter to the FPC to that effect. In 1941, Consolidated requested permission from the FPC to construct the DuBay hydro plant. In the same year, the construction was started, and it was completed in 1942. At this time, there was still some confusion about the necessity of a federal permit.

It was in this era that World War II began, and this pretty much put a halt to any plans Consolidated had to continue the construction of any further plants downstream from DuBay. So for the moment, the plans to construct the Petenwell and Castle Rock plants were put on the shelf. It was in 1945 that a federal lawsuit involving the Tomahawk site was decided. Under this decision, the Wisconsin River was declared to be navigable in fact, and FPC had prime jurisdiction.

After World War II, Consolidated again revived the plans for the Petenwell and Castle Rock plants. However, now it was much more difficult to obtain a permit, and the costs of construction had reached such a proportion that it was not feasible for Consolidated to fund these projects by itself. After about a year of talks with Wisconsin Power and Light Company and Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, it was decided that these two companies, along with Consolidated, would proceed as partners with the project. It was also decided to call in an engineering consulting firm to redesign the plans for these two plants. The original plans were drawn up by Thiele and Utegaard. They called for the plant to be constructed on wooden piling driven to refusal, which was a similar design used to construct the Kilbourn plant. While most of the upsteam hydro plants, such as DuBay, Stevens Point, Biron and Wisconsin Rapids, were founded on the bedrock, it was determined at the Petenwell and Castle Rock site that the bedrock was well over a hundred feet below the bed of the river.

The consulting firm hired was Harza Engineering Company of Chicago, which had a national and international reputation for large construction projects including many dams. When they looked at this site, they decided that a most unusual construction method would have to be used. The final plan called for a ?floating foundation?, which had been engineered in another area with good success. A floating foundation essentially consists of a large pad of reinforced concrete laid on the riverbed over a complete encirclement of steel sheet piling driven 15 to 25 feet into the sand.

Once the engineering plans were completed, the paperwork and permit work began. In 1947, the Wisconsin River Power Company (WRPCo.) was formed and incorporated, and stock was issued in essential equal amounts to Consolidated Water Power Company, Wisconsin Power and Light Company and Wisconsin Public Service Corporation. Consolidated was chosen to be the entity that would handle all of the legal, administrative, regulatory, maintenance and operating details of this entity. A permit to construct was obtained from both the FPC and the State of Wisconsin. (At that time in history, it was the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin that handled the permits for dam construction. Later this would be turned over to the Department of Natural Resources.

Construction was begun in 1947 at the Petenwell site. In late 1948, the earth dam was closed at Petenwell to allow the filling process to begin. The first unit came on line August 30, 1949. Construction at the Germantown site (now known as the Castle Rock site) also began in late 1948, and the river channel at Castle Rock was closed on November 9, 1949. The first unit came on line on August 1, 1950. Thus, George Mead I and William F. Thiele lived to see a great part of their dreams come true.

Later they would make one more attempt to construct the Little Eau Pleine reservoir. A permit was actually approved by the State of Wisconsin, but the plans included so many north-south roads spanning this large flowage that the cost became prohibitive and the plan was discarded. In order that this vast assemblage of property in the Little Eau Pleine should not go to waste, it was decided to make a gift of this land to the State of Wisconsin; thus, the now famous George Mead Wildlife Area was created.

A summary of some of the interesting statistics about these two plants is as follows:

  • Land purchases began: Petenwell – 1926 / Castle Rock – 1926
  • Construction permit applied for: Petenwell – Nov. 21, 1947 / Castle Rock – Nov. 21, 1947
  • Construction started: Petenwell – Aug. 1, 1947 / Castle Rock – Mar. 15, 1948
  • First concrete poured: Petenwell – May 4, 1948 / Castle Rock – June 30, 1949
  • River channel closed: Petenwell – Dec. 20, 1948 / Castle Rock – Nov. 9,1949
  • First unit started: Petenwell – Aug. 30, 1949 / Castle Rock – Aug. 1, 1950
  • Plant in commercial operation: Petenwell – June 1, 1950 / Castle Rock – Jan. 1, 1950
  • Surface water acres: Petenwell – 23,000 acres / Castle Rock – 16,600 acres
  • Net head in feet: Petenwell – 40 feet / Castle Rock – 28 feet
  • Maximum output kW: Petenwell – 22,000kW / Castle Rock – 15,000 kW
  • Number of hydro units: Petenwell – 4 units / Castle Rock – 5 units
  • Maximum flow through units: Petenwell – 7,400 cfs / Castle Rock – 8,750 cfs
  • Maximum fluctuation of head (summer): Petenwell – 12-inches / Castle Rock – 12-inches
  • Maximum fluctuation of head (winter): Petenwell – 5 feet / Castle Rock – 6 feet
  • Expiration date of FERC license: Petenwell – Feb. 1, 1998 / Castle Rock – Feb. 1, 1998
  • Date the plants were automated: Petenwell – 1983 / Castle Rock – 1981

The total number of acres owned by WRPCo., including both sites, is about 24,600 acres (this is exclusive of the surface water area). The total number of acres of the above total that is within the project boundary as approved by FERC is about 14,900 acres. A recreation plan has been filed and approved by FERC for both of these projects. This plan is in great detail and affords the general public ample use of the project area well into the future. At the present time, there are two county parks located on each flowage, and a stated park (known as the Buckhorn State Park) is located on the Castle Rock Flowage. Numerous public boat landings have been created by WRPCo., and this number will increase in the future as the need arises. A large and well-used sailing center and harbor have been located on the Petenwell Flowage known as the Barnum Bay Sailing Center (now known as the Lure Bar& Grill). A smaller marina has been located on the Castle Rock Flowage. As the need arises, WRPCo will provide more amenities of this nature. A very informative sports map has been published for each flowage by WRPCo., and these are available to the public at no cost.

The Castle Rock hydro plant is the last major project constructed on the Wisconsin River, and in all probability, this will be the last major hydro construction as the costs are now to high to justify additional new plants. Also, the regulatory process has become some complicated that it actually discourages new plants of this type. One will continue to see individual new hydro units at existing plants, as was done at the Wisconsin River Division site near Whiting, Wisconsin in 1964 and at Merrill, Wisconsin, plant in the early 1980s.

While we do some peaking at the Petenwell plant during less than maximum use flows, we do very little peaking at the Castle Rock plant, as some continuous flow is needed to operate the Kilbourn plant at Wisconsin Dells in efficient manner.

An interesting fact about the Castle Rock plant is that we have added about four or five feet of net head at this plant due to natural process called “tailrace degradation”. This is the process whereby the yearly floodwaters cause a continuous eroding of the channel downstream from the powerhouse. The Harza Engineering Company had predicted that this would happen and provided and means of constructing and artificial weir in the tailrace area in cases the situation becomes too serious and actually allows air to get into the discharge tube. If one would look at the Prairie du Sac hydro plant, they would notice that this same situation was prevalent at this plant. In fact, years ago and artificial barrier had to be created in the tailrace so as to allow the units to operate in a safe manner.

In 1998, we have had a situation occur whereby a unit at Castle Rock will require major repairs or replacement of one waterwheel, and at the same time, the generator will be rewound. This record of running these units for 40 years with out major problems is a tribute to the ongoing maintenance and repair program that WRPCo. has always followed.

In conclusion, it is gratifying to look at the great foresight that the original planners had in creating the 26 hydro plants up and down the Wisconsin River. When one visits the Petenwell and Castle Rock plants, it is hard to visualize that these neatly kept and maintained stations are over 40 years of age. The Wisconsin River rightly deserves the credit for the ?Hardest Working River in the Nation?, and one should be equally as proud of the recreational opportunities that the owners of these stations have provided the public over these many years.

The name of the Petenwell plant is derived from the famous Petenwell Rock, which lies one-half mile downstream from the dam. This rock tells us that the ancient glaciers never passed this area; least the rock would have been leveled. Rather, it was one of many small islands that were part of the ancient Glacial Lake Wisconsin.

The Castle Rock plant was originally called the Germantown project, but later the name was change to Castle Rock. A large rock outcrop resembling a castle is located some miles south and to the west of the dam, and, no doubt, this is where the name comes from.

While no one can predict the exact life span of such a structure as Petenwell and Castle Rock, it can be said with some certainty that these plants, with continued proper maintenance and repair, will be serving the public for many decades into the future.