Pattison Park’s Big Manitou Falls drops the Black River 165 feet, making it the highest waterfall in the state of Wisconsin and the fourth highest in the United States found east of the Rockies (Little Manitou Falls lowers the river 30 feet). The Ojibwe believed the voice of the Great Spirit, Gitchi Monido, could be heard in the cascading waters of Big Manitou Falls. They called the rapids found below the falls Bohiwum Sasigewon, or “Laughing Waters,” and Little Manitou Falls Cacabeeca Bunghee, “Little Waterfalls.” Big Manitou Falls is the centerpiece of Pattison Park, a 1,436-acre state park that contains Interfalls Lake, nine miles of hiking trails, and, of course, the Black River.
Called Mucudewa Sebee (“black river” or “dark river”) by the Ojibwe, the Black River gets its name from its brownish color, which comes from decaying vegetation along the river. The waterway begins its journey twenty-two miles from the park, at Black Lake on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. After passing through the park and over the two falls, the river joins with the Nemadji, which goes on to feed Lake Superior. Interfalls Lake, found between Little Manitou Falls and Big Manitou Falls, is a twenty-seven-acre flowage just thirteen feet deep at its deepest point; a three-hundred-foot sand beach lines its shore.
Copper has been mined along the Black River since ancient times. As far back as 5,000 B.C., Native Americans of the Old Copper culture lived in and around what is now Pattison Park, mining copper from rocky outcroppings. Surveyor George Stuntz found a broken stone hammer and other evidence of Native American metal working and copper mining near Little Manitou Falls. The first European copper outfit mined the park’s Copper Creek from 1845 to 1847. When the American Civil War created a demand for copper, prospectors swarmed the area, operating mines across the county. But the mines produced mediocre yields, and after the war copper mining was abandoned. Evidence of mining, including a triangular mine opening at the base of Big Manitou Falls, can still be found throughout the park.
From 1879 to 1882 the park area was logged by an outfit managed by Martin Pattison. Portions of Pattison’s logging operation can still be found in the park that bears his name.