Hunting for ghost towns this time of year will give you the shivers in more ways than one. And I know of an example in Grant County where you can earn an extra shriek if you find the lonely cemetery that harbors the victims of a long ago disaster.
Sinipee was built as a point of budding commerce in the Wisconsin territory. The crescendo of lead production convinced a group of Mineral Point investors that money could be had if they constructed a port through which they could ship ore and bring in supplies. Dubuque was only four miles downriver but it was on the wrong side.
The investors formed the Louisiana Company and selected an area a few miles north of Dubuque on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi where a creek empties into the mighty river. They paid a rich sum for the land with the stipulation that the landowner build a splendid hotel, and hired a man named John Plumbe to manage the venture.
The village and port prospered. A constant stream of barges arrived from St. Louis to carry lead. Sometimes five steamships would be moored at the dock. One source stated that there were 25 commercial buildings in the village and another suggested the population reached a high of 1,000 residents.
The hotel was a two-story showplace made of stone with a large room upstairs for gatherings. It was built at the base of big bluff and water from a spring that flowed from the rock would travel right under the hotel.
Folks from all around and miles away came for fun and recreation. One story has it that two American presidents visited Sinipee. Both Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis were stationed with the garrison at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien to the north. (Granted, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States, not United States of America.)
Developer John Plumbe was a visionary with a grand plan that the United States build a railroad across the nation to join the east and west coasts. He worked hard at his proposition and one evening – with a group assembled in the hotel – drafted a petition to the U.S Congress to start with a link between Milwaukee and Sinipee. Although the idea was well received in Washington D.C., the venture never got off the ground. But the seeds of a transcontinental railroad were sown.
Sometime around 1839 Sinipee was struck by a monumental tragedy. Melting snow and spring rains had caused the Mississippi to flood. The waters quickly receded but left shallow pools of stagnant water, perfect breeding areas for mosquitoes. Soon villagers faced an outbreak of malaria that spread rapidly, infecting almost everyone and killing many. Those who survived fled the town.
By the beginning of 1840 all but two families had abandoned Sinipee. Theodore Rodolf, a member of the Louisiana Company, returned to Sinipee and wrote this haunting account:
“When we finally rode down the ravine to the Mississippi River, and the bankrupted city burst upon our view, a singular sensation took hold of me. The buildings were all new, showing no sign of decay or deterioration by usage or the weather, having stood there but a little over a year. I expected momentarily to see the occupants come out to bid us welcome. There, was, however, not a living being to be seen or heard … I think not even a bird gave life to the desolation. The quiet of a church-yard reigned. The houses, all painted white, seemed to loom up as monuments of departed greatness.”
Today, there isn’t much left. It is an uncommonly isolated and quiet spot. Much of the old village is now underwater, a result of permanent flooding caused by the construction of Lock and Dam #11 in 1934. In a 2001 article Clifford Krainik called it “Atlantis on the Mississippi”.
But there is plenty to explore, and almost everything worth seeing is on public land. Now called the Fenley Recreation Area and managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the site was willed to the state by descendents of Payton Vaughn, the guy who sold the land for the village and built the hotel. Almost anyone who knows about the place goes there to fish, but you can go to explore.
In the spring before things start to get green you can see indentations along the path to the river where homes and businesses used to be. A little farther along that same trail you’ll meet the railroad tracks and you can venture north a few yards to the site of the old hotel.
If you’re really adventurous you can head a bit farther north to look for a crevice in the bluff, where it is said an image of the Virgin Mary was found in the rock. Stories have it that thousands of people came to view the image and locals finally placed bars over the niche to protect it. I haven’t found that yet.
The most stunning remainder of Sinipee is the all-but-lost cemetery, a lonely sentinel perched atop the bluff over five hundred feet above the location of the village. It is said that there are 60-70 graves up there but only a few are marked. The walk up the bluff trail is super. I have macabre visions of funeral processions from the village below up the steep bluff trail – it’s quite a haul. The view from the top is extraordinary. If I was going to be dead someplace this would be a good choice, as long as I wasn’t keen on having many visitors.
I like to come here in the spring and fall, when the air has a nip to it and the bugs are gone. The hike keeps you warm against the cool air. When I last visited I sensed that those in the graves appreciated my presence. I got chills thinking that the ghosts of Sinipee knew I had returned. Visit Wisconsin’s Atlantis on the Mississippi and introduce yourself to them. Now you know their story.
Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)