The Mills of Waterford – The Dam

Pictures courtesy of Waterford Public Library Digital Collection


Chapman and Barnes laid claim to the eastern one-half Section 35, Township 4, Range 19 which was where the fall in the river had the greatest potential to harness the water power. While Chapman and Barnes staked their claim to the land in the area, they had not made formal claim for the water power – apparently, an oversight on their part. When Chapman returned to La Porte, Ind. to retrieve his family and belongings, a Mr. Beebe staked the claim for the water power, which is a separate claim not covered in a land claim, and erected a shanty, which was a requirement of recognizing a staked claim.

Upon their return, Chapman and Barnes bought the claim for $700 (approximately $20,000 in 2020 dollars.).1

Chapman and a number of other early pioneers in the area;  L.D. Merrills, Archibald Cooper, Ira A. Rice, William Palmer, John T. Palmer, Osborn L. Elms, Elisha Elms, John Fisher, proceeded to build a dam on the river where Chapman would harness the water power and build a sawmill. They claimed a six and one-half foot fall of water.2  This was done before the Great Land Sale of 1839 which meant that other staked claims didn’t have any recourse about the resulting flooding upstream.

A letter artifact at the Burlington Historical Society describes how the dam was constructed and is described in a newspaper article.“… a drawing of the dam, which was built as weighed logs laid across the stream with a facing upstream of small timbers driven so they slanted downstream. They were covered with stones and dirt. Not only is the drawing a workmanlike achievement, but, the dam was well built.  It is about six feet high.”

Immediately after the dam was constructed, a sawmill was built.  It would prove to be a strategic move since the pioneers were living in log shelters, none of which were very large nor comfortable, and the wood was basically free and plentiful. Sawn wood was easy to work with which allowed for quick construction of living dwellings, merchant buildings, equipment storage, etc..

About a year after the sawmill went operational in 1837, a grist mill was completed just south of the sawmill. Today, it would be in the park at the north end of the current Village Hall. A bronze plaque mounted on a rock gives tribute to the spot.

Waterford village was surveyed into blocks and lots in 1842 with revisions in 1843. However, the Mill Sites were not made part of the survey until 1845.

1845 Mill Sites Clipped
Waterford Mill Sites and Canal- Moses Vilas Survey – 1845, Racine Register of Deeds Map.

Chapman took advantage of the dam elevation and built a diversion canal, called the “Run-a-by”, (see Mill Site No. 4), which supplied waterpower for additional businesses along the river. Chapman sold the water rights to other mills based on square inches of water flow and enforced it rigorously. The canal is clearly shown on the 1845 survey map of the Village, shown above, where it passes from Site No. 5 to the southeast part of Site No. 2.

Waterford Dam Mill Race1920s
Waterford Dam Mill Race ca. 1920, Wisconsin Digital Collection.

Chapman’s brother-in-law, Sam Russ, built a mill, known as Farmers’ Mill, across the dam from Chapman’s, which today, would be on the island side. In 1843, Eli Jones bought water rights from Chapman and built a mill and distillery on the east side of the river where the river flows around the east side of the island.4 It was plotted as Lot 7, Block 21.

As the river flow changed with the weather cycles, mill operators would sometimes find themselves cut off from the water supply. “Each mill was allowed a certain amount of water, per contract. Each mill, in its turn, had to close down if there was not sufficient water for all.”5

In 1856, Chapman’s old mill was torn down, re-built with the latest machinery, and the dam raised.

Photo Courtesy of Burlington Historical Society NONB-WTRF039, Ca. 1920.

Public Notice of Meeting for Waterford Dam Legal Action, Racine Advocate, March 14, 1855.

This action caused the river to flood portions of land above the dam, now owned by landowners,. A meeting was held in Big Bend on March 10, 1855 to discuss the situation which resulted in a lawsuit that ended up in the courts for 15 years.6

1855-3-14 Public Dam Mtg

A Premature Victory Celebration Was Held in 1858 at the Wisconsin House Hotel – Cost $1.25 Per Person. Burlington Historical Society.

1858 Premature Dam Victory Party-BHS

The Dam Judgment Trial results as appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal, March 11, 1869.7

The court action continued through various venues over the years when fifteen years later, on March 19, 1869, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. This meant that the plaintiffs could now tear down the dam or dispose of it as they saw fit. Reparations of nearly $14,000 (approximately $325,000 in 2022 dollars) were to be paid to the plaintiffs with the right to tear down the dam if payment was not satisfied by October 1, 1870.

Dam Judgement Oskosh

Another court hearing as published in the Milwaukee Daily News, June 3, 1870 edition.

Dam Judgement Date 1869-3-19 Mil Dly Nws 6-3-1870

Final court judgement rendered June 3, 1870. Published in the Milwaukee Daily News, June 4, 1870.

As evidenced by the length of the lawsuit and multiple trips to the State Supreme Court, damages claimed by the plaintiffs were not all that clearly defined. It could be considered a landmark law case.

Dam Judgement 1870-6-4 Mil D News

According to the Racine County Advocate January 12,1871, Chapman did not act on the verdict immediately which resulted in a Sheriff’s action to forcibly remove it for him. However, the action occurred in early January, when there is thick ice on the river. While it was broken, it could not be removed. This impeded the destruction and the tear down was terminated for the time being.

A final resolution of the dam was published in the Racine County Argus January 21, 1871 edition10, and is re-printed for readability:

“Many of our readers will remember the long and vexatious litigation concerning the Waterford mill dam which has been in one or another of our State Courts ever since 1858. Sometime last June, the Hon. D. Small, of Milwaukee, rendered a decision that the owners of the dam and mills should pay the plaintiffs in the suit, as damages, nearly $14,000; and failing in this the dam was to be removed. For some reason or other, the defendant neglected to pay the judgement(sic), and Wednesday, the 4th inst., the affair culminated in the appearance of Sheriff Lawrence among the astonished people of Waterford with a writ commanding him to remove and abate the dam in accordance with the judgement(sic) as rendered. After summoning assistance, the dam was broken; but could not be removed because of the season. In spite of the prophecies of croakers, the breaking  of the dam was effected peaceably ; the good people of Waterford not being given to resisting processes of the Courts even where their execution so materially damages their business and prosperity as did this. This dam was built upon the Fox many years ago by S.E. Chapman, Esq. in whose hands it remains today. When it was built, Wisconsin was a territory, and a large proportion of the land in that section was government land. The rapid purchase and settlement of this land was mainly due to the dam and mills at Waterford and its steady increase in value since then is owing as much to the same course as to all others combined. Should this removal be permanent, it will be a serious blow to the prosperity to Waterford and the surrounding country for many miles.”11

Dam destruction

It was written in The History of Racine County, p. 483, that destroying the dam “…would have destroyed the water-power. The villagers raised $2500 and procured the sale of the (grist) mill to the plaintiffs (Park & Smith), they taking it in satisfaction of the judgment and paying him $4000 in addition.”13 However, further research has not corroborated that transaction.

Shortly after the verdict, on March 24th, 1871, the editor of the Burlington Standard wrote:

“We are glad to be able to say to all whom it may concern, that S.E. Chapman’s Mill is running again, Dam or no Dam. Notwithstanding all the maneuvering of his opponents, we think he has out-generalled(sic) them, and has the best end of the stick after all; he is not beaten by pulling down the dam – water he will have even if he has to dig a canal to Lake Tichigan. His greatest enemies say to him “if they cannot approve of his discretion at all times, them must admire his grit.”

“Now bring along your grists; he can grind all that comes, and means to “(un-readable) out on this line if it takes all summer”, aye and winter, too.

“Our village holds its own; notwithstanding the loss of the mills for a time, business is picking up; our merchants are preparing for the summer campaign, and are confident the worst is passed for Waterford, and begin to see the silver lining to the cloud that has overshadowed them for a short time.”

By July, 1871, Chapman had transferred ownership of his grist mill, as evidenced by the Editor of the Burlington Standard,  and stated in the July, 27th edition:

“It was quite a while ago since I looked around the village, so I took a little time to notice things some; looked into S.E. Chapman’s Mill, it was running but there were new faces inside, don’t remember the name of the firm, but found they were putting in a new run of stone and making other improvements preparatory to doing merchant work in the fall.  Saw our old friend S.E. Chapman sitting in the Millinery shop fixing a Sewing Machine for his daughter. While I looked at him, a part of an old ditty I used to hear my father sing came into my mind” – “I thought it appropriate to him, and I don’t think there is another man in town who could pass through such a long and severe ordeal of a lawsuit for so many long years, and show it so little by his countenance, for his face looked “as calm as a summer evening be”;  he fought long and well, and we hold him up a pugilist of the first order”

During August, 1870, shortly after the court verdict, the Farmer’s Mill, then owned by Bronkhorst & Co. burned down. It was not rebuilt. Fires or explosions were common in the old mills due to the fine mist of dust ever present in the building.

The dam survived, ownership transferred, and a year and a half later, Samuel E. Chapman died at age 62, on September 25, 1872.


Damming a river does not always create a permanent structure. With the variation in winter and spring weather activity, flooding occasionally occurred causing water damage in the village, mostly on the east side. The first documented flood was detailed in the Racine Advocate April 11, 1866.

1866 Flood RA 1866-4-11

During late April, 1881, another flood is documented in The Racine Journal (The Waterford Post was in the middle of the flood); “The Fox began to rise and kept rising until Thursday evening when it reached its maximum height which was at least six feet above low water mark, and two feet higher at this point than was ever known before” 14

Wooden bridge looking East pre 1881 wpl00341x
Old Wooden Bridge pre-1881 looking East – Wisconsin Digital Collection.

“Wagon loads of Lannonstone were brought in and stored during the summer of 1880 to be used to shore up the bridge abutments which had deteriorated over the years. As the flood was looming, they hurriedly placed them on the bridge for stabilization. Large quantities of ice had been hitting the abutments for several days further loosening the foundation. About 11 p.m., one end gave way tilting the bridge side in the stream. At that point, a large cake of ice struck it and broke it in two carrying it down stream to the first bend in the river. One half ended up on the Huening property(east side) and the other half on the west side of the river.”15

 There is a tragic incident that accompanies the 1881 flood which tells a detailed story of the drowning of Betsey Olson which is covered on the OLD SETTLERS CEMETERY page.

The village quickly gathered up some of the remnants of the bridge and built a temporary structure large enough to accommodate one lane of traffic.

Old Wooden Bridge Main St
Old Wooden Bridge pre-1881 looking West – Wisconsin Digital Collection.

A wooden bridge was re-built which lasted until the substantial Iron Bridge was constructed in 1889 which lasted until 1938.

Bridge Contract 1938-7-21

Awarding the Bridge Contract Article, Waterford Post, July 21, 1938.

The 1938 concrete bridge, with some modifications along the way, lasted until 2019 when it was replaced with a four lane traffic pattern and walkways.

1938 Concrete Bridge in 1950
1938 Bridge in 1950 – Wisconsin Digital Collection.
1970 DAM -wpl00245l
Current Concrete Dam Ca. 1970 – Wisconsin Digital Collection, wp1002451.

A modern radial gate dam control is used to control the water flow embedded in thick concrete abutments.  Control is operated by the County of Racine.

Lead Researcher: Robert E. Gariepy, Sr.

NOTE: Should the reader have further documentation to enhance the content of this web page, please contact the Lead Researcher through  We are particularly interested in pictures or historic artifacts that may be shared.  Credit will be given.


  1. Waterford: Stories of Waterford and Its Busy Life, Waterford Post, 1923.
  2. Racine Advocate, May 7, 1844.
  3. Old Documents Tell Story of Wisconsin Pioneers, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 1, 1930.
  4. Waterford: Stories of Waterford and Its Busy Life, Waterford Post, 1923.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Waukesha County Democrat, March 14, 1855 edition.
  7. Wisconsin State Journal, March 11, 1869 edition.
  8. Milwaukee Daily News, June 3, 1870 edition.
  9. Daily Milwaukee News, June 4, 1870 edition.
  10. Racine County Argus, January 12, 1871 edition.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The History of Racine County, p483, Waterford Public Library History Room.
  14. Racine Journal Times, April 28, 1881.
  15. Ibid.