Controversy surrounding a recently proposed housing development on Lake Hallie prompted me to dig back into a time before there were any homes here.
The Eau Claire Leader sent a reporter 125 years ago to a new summer resort located midway between Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire. “On the Green Lawns of Midway Park and the Placid Waters of Lake Hallie” appeared on July 23, 1896, after a writer was hosted by the resort’s “affable proprietor,” John Ure Jr.
Ure owned Badger State Lumber Co., which produced up to 15 million feet of lumber a year, enough to plank a path from Lake Hallie to Lake Jovita, Florida, and back again. When Badger Mills shut down in 1891, Ure’s new vision was to open his unnamed log holding pond to the public.
He declared it “the largest body of spring-fed water in the northwest” and transformed the surrounding area into a 50-acre park.
The first buildings were close to the site of Badger Mills — roughly where Lake Hallie Sportsman’s Club and River Jams (formerly Two Waters Bar) now stand. On the other side of the lake, Ure built a pavilion and dining hall near the current site of the Eau Claire Press Co. on Highway OO. Ninety-nine steps led down to the water. Steamboats cruised passengers up and down the lake on weekends; each Sunday afternoon and evening a 10-piece orchestra played. After the original pavilion burned in 1899, Ure rebuilt it and added a 20-room hotel, a baseball park and drill grounds. Rustic rental cabins dotted the shore. Both sides of the park were accessible from Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls by rail.
Ure owned 1,000 more acres beyond the lake and hoped to continue expanding Midway Park. Just before its grand opening in June of 1896, Ure named the park’s lake in honor of his oldest child, Hallie. He christened his two steamboats after his other children. The Loraine, which held 75 passengers, was so popular that a year later he added the Antoinette, which held 150.
A Leader reporter proclaimed Midway Park the best “pleasure” resort in the state. He wrote, “Giants of the forest seemingly standing guard over the gentle performance of tender foliage kissing the brow of Lake Hallie ... she is the gem of the Chippewa.”
When the Antoinette was commissioned in 1897, Hallie resident William Bean captained Ure’s first excursion boat, the Loraine. Bean saw Midway Park transform into Electric Park when it sold to Northern States Power Co., and he witnessed that park’s closing in 1925. Captain Bean’s love for his boat — what this newspaper dubbed a “jaunty little steamer,” especially when the Eau Claire City Brass Band played upon it — lived on long after it sunk. In 1915 he named his second-born daughter “Loraine.”
Lake Hallie’s current weed harvester driver, Al Larson, called Loraine Bean Anderson “Grandma.” A century after Captain Bean took passengers on leisure trips aboard his steamboat, his great-grandson, Al, motors around this same waterway cutting weeds and skimming the surface to make the lake clearer for kayakers and other boaters. I often contemplate what William Bean or even his boss John Ure might think about the growth in this area: tiny cabins replaced by family homes owned by residents who help preserve the lake.
The Lake Hallie Lake Association secured a grant for the village of Lake Hallie to buy the harvester, which looks like a farm combine mated with a river paddleboat. A diesel engine powers the cutting mechanism as the “wheels” propel the blue beast forward. Its hydraulics run on cooking oil. For many years lake association members drove the harvester and hauled away up to 200 tons of weeds collected each summer month. Now the village provides a budget.
After retiring in May from an Eau Claire paper mill, Al enjoys the outside work as “captain” of the harvester. When he was a kid he swam here nearly every summer day, the fourth generation in his family to enjoy Lake Hallie.
I first met Al last month when he slowed the harvester in front of my house to ask if I wanted to put my weeds on the machine. I use a plastic garden rake to pull snarls of invasive curly-leaf from the water, lay them on my dock to dry out, then pitchfork them to my bushes for mulch. That day my pile was knee-high.
Later I invited Al over to tell me about driving the harvester. He said he finds a few treasures when he’s skimming weeds: uniquely-shaped driftwood and stray bullheads and turtles that get caught in the conveyor belt. Anything that can’t wriggle free he scoops back into the lake. Al walked around my deck to see Lake Hallie from this vantage point, a contrast to his view from atop the harvester.
After supper when I rake curly-leaf I listen to anglers up and down the shore. One plays big band songs while he fishes; live music from the Loraine has been replaced by an iPhone, an evolution no one could have imagined.
That new housing development is just down the highway from where Midway and then Electic Park stood, on land once owned by Ure Jr. “Village Bluffs” will offer 22 twin homes accessible via 116th Street and nearly double the number of houses on Lake Hallie.
At a recent Village Board meeting, lake association members spoke passionately about saving the old growth timbers on the steep shoreline and speculated what more docks might do to the south shore’s vulnerable springs. Understandably, many of my neighbors worry about storm run-off or even loss of a trail still used by locals. Jeanne Morissette begged the trustees to help protect “this gem, Lake Hallie.”
When Ure sold all of his lakeshore land to NSP in 1910, he made sure Lake Hallie remained available to anyone, as it is today. Where he envisioned a public park, new developers may build a gated community. In each century, residents questioned if these lofty plans were really a step toward “progress.”