EARLY HISTORY OF OUR CITY

We were working our way through some of our old friend Charlie Wallman’s files in recent weeks and it’s a real treasure trove of Watertown history.

For those of you who knew Charlie, he was extremely detail oriented and his filing system is second to none. We refer to his collection of articles as needed and we find a lot of fascinating information.

One of the articles we spotted gave a really good view of Watertown in its earliest years. The article was written by Julius Bolivar McCabe, a writer for the Sentinel and Gazette in Milwaukee and also the author of community directories of various large cities. The article was written in September of 1846, just a decade after the first settler arrived here.

As many of our readers know, Watertown was first settled in 1836 when Timothy Johnson arrived and set up a camp on the south side of the city, along the banks of the Rock River, in the area of the present Bethesda Lutheran Communities property.

The land was excellent, the area filled with trees, and of course the Rock River had endless potential. Timothy Johnson survived that first winter and the community he founded became known as Johnson Rapids.

One year later, in 1837, as this idyllic location became well known, the population had grown to 70 people. Somewhere in here the name of the community was changed to Watertown.

In 1840 the population grew to 218. In 1843 another count of the population was conducted and it showed there were about 500 people living here.

Then, in 1847, just one year after the article expressing the virtues of Watertown was published, the population stood at 2,362. The community was on a roll! That continued until 1856 when the population stood at 10,000. Imagine that kind of increase — from one person in 1836 to 10,000 just a decade later.

But, that’s when the railroad bond issue failed and that sent our city’s population in a free fall. Just four years later, in 1860, the population was cut in half to 5,302.

It took 70 years before the city again reached a population of 10,000 as was shown in the 1930 census. Since then the population has grown every decade. The gains have been modest amounts, usually around 2,000 a decade.

The railroad bond issue is an interesting one and we’ll get back to that another day. It was the single biggest event in the city’s history and the losses over that bond issue were severely damaging to our city for a long, long time.

But, let’s get back to September of 1846. Here’s what Julius Bolivar MacCabe had to say in the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette. As you read this, remember, the village was a mere 10 years old at this point, and this was two years before Wisconsin became a state. Get comfortable and then let your mind wander a bit as you contemplate how this community came so far in such a small amount of time. If we could only have a time machine and be able to go back there for just a couple days. Watertown had to have a look of quality, with all of the new construction in such a short time. There was a tremendous amount of progress in that decade as you will see.

Here’s what MacCabe wrote:

The village of Watertown is pleasantly situated on the banks of the Rock River in the township of Watertown in Jefferson County and on the edge of Dodge County.

The ground on which the village stands was originally claimed by Timothy Johnson, Griswold and Senton. The claim on the west side, was purchased from Mr. Senton by Mr. James Rogan, for one-half of the Schooner Grampus, a small craft, in 1837 (the year after Timothy Johnson arrived).

The first building within the boundaries of Jefferson County was erected by Timothy Johnson in 1836. It is a log building, yet standing, about three-fourths of a mile below this village.

The first building erected on the site of the village was a rude log cabin, which is still standing on the west side of the river near the bridge (possibly Main Street bridge?).

It was built by Mr. Peter Rogan in 1836 and it is currently occupied by Mr. James Rogan. Mr. Benjamin Labrie, a French Canadian, opened the first tavern on the ground now occupied by the Planters House in 1839. (Most likely this is the current site of Clara’s Antiques and years ago the Merchants National Bank and in early years a hotel by various names. The building was later moved to First and Milwaukee streets where it is now known at M&M Bar, which is listed as the oldest continuously operating tavern in Wisconsin).

That portion of the village which lies on the east side of the river was laid out by Mr. H. Goodhue, a native of Canada, in 1839 and Patrick Rogan, Esq. a native of Ireland, laid out the town plot on the west side in 1844.

A post office was established at this point in 1839 and William Dennis, Esq. was appointed the first postmaster. P. Rogan is the present efficient incumbent. The first store was opened by Luther and J. W. Cole, natives of Vermont, in 1840.

The bridge, which is a substantial structure, was erected by subscription in the winter of 1843 (probably Main Street bridge).

The village already contains a Catholic and an Episcopal church, both with resident ministers. There are six congregations: Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and Universalists.

There is one district school with two teachers and one hundred pupils; five lawyers, two justices of the peace, eight physicians, four notaries public, six Dry-Good stores with a stock of goods valued in the aggregate at about $36,000, an extensive grist mill, two saw mills, one woolen factory and carding machine, one iron foundry; a brewery, one Fanning mill factory, one hardware store, one drug store, four groceries and provisions stores, one rake factory, one shingle factory, three cabinet shops, one chair factory, two couper shops, one wagon maker’s shop, four tailor shops, four shoemaker shops, one milliner and dress maker, four blacksmith shops, one bakery, one meat market, one saddle and harness maker, a fire company and four painters.

The population is 837.

We’ll stop here today with the 1846 view of the village of Watertown by Julius Bolivan MacCabe as it appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette.

Next week we’ll continue with his writing. He’ll start the second section about religion in this early city.

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