By Nancy Keaton
If it weren’t for the smokestack rising high into the sky above little Carlisle Lake, you would have a hard time believing it was ever a log pond for a lumber mill. Back in 1914 the Carlisle family built a lumber mill, and lumber mills needed ponds where they can store the logs until they are processed. The area was dredged and the Onalaska mill pond was born. Almost everyone in the town of Onalaska worked at the mill, including kids. There was a company store with company money that workers received if they wanted paid on the 15th of the month, or if they waited until the end of the month they could be paid in cash.
Things went well until around 1942. One story is that the Depression caused the loss of work, but elder residents in town say things went bad when the employees went on strike, and rather than give in to the strike the Carlisle family simply closed the mill and moved away. The 29-acre pond sat empty, barren and overgrown for several years.
Then in the 1980s the pond was dredged once again when the Lewis County Soil Conservation District received a grant to clean up the site. But they never had any intention of keeping the site, and offered to donate it to the Onalaska School District since the property sits right next to school property. However, the school district was not in a position to take it over, so it went to a private owner.
Around 2011-2012, the Onalaska Alliance along with Onalaska School Superintendent, Scott Fenter, contacted the private owner. Pete Murphy, an Onalaska Alliance Board member and liaison with the high school STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) program explains that the Onalaska Alliance, a local non-profit group involved in activities such as youth community action and events such as the Apple Harvest Festival, paid the back taxes in return for a quit claim deed of the property.
The lake and recreation area is easy to find. Just look for the iconic smoke stack, a leftover from the mill and an important piece of the history of the area, as well as a symbol of the lake. It can even be seen from a jet flying overhead, serving as a waypoint from the sky.
The lake has a walking trail of about one mile meandering around the lake. It’s a great place to take kids fishing because they can easily catch fish from the bank. A boat launch provides access for small boats out in the lake, which is not very deep at about 20 feet at the south end and going down to eight to ten feet at the north end.
For several years, even before the Onalaska Alliance took over, Onalaska High School science classes had used the lake as a lab and learning experience, including raising salmon in pens within the lake. The high school and the Alliance now have a formal contract for partnership.
Then the Onalaska Science Club Grant Writing Team submitted and won a grant from Trans Alta to perform water quality tests. The students have also received a grant to install exercise stations on the trail around the lake, and the metal shop class will be building and installing the stations. The Onalaska Science Club even wrote and published “A Natural Field Guide to the Plants of Carlisle Lake” which can be found for sale on Amazon.
Onalaska Alliance intends to continue to develop the lake and surrounding area. They have received several grants, paved the old pot-hole-ridden gravel parking lot and are building restrooms which should be open in December or the first part of January. Future plans include a fishing dock with handicap access as soon as grant funds can be obtained.
“It’s like a journey,” explains Murphy. “Everything doesn’t have to be done right now. We’re just committed to making it a place for the community to enjoy. We will keep working with the science program and work on projects that meet with our mission, which is maintaining a natural area and learning experiences for the high school.”
Murphy says the best part of the project is the community usage, particularly of the walking trail. “All kinds of people use the trail, from birdwatchers, to people trying to get in shape, to the cross-country team. The community takes ownership, picking up garbage, calling in potential problems. It’s very rewarding.”
For anyone interested in helping support the Carlisle Lake project, the Onalaska Alliance will be holding its first membership drive and dinner on November 14 at 5:30 p.m. in the Onalaska Elementary School gym.