Washburn, Wisconsin

Lake Superior Shoreline

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Washburn Through The Years

Birdseye View

Named after Cadwallader C. Washburn, Civil War general, congressman, founder of the Washburn Crosby Milling Company (forerunner to General Mills) and governor of Wisconsin from 1873-1874, the largest community in Bayfield County lies on a hillside overlooking Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay.  Founded in 1883 because of its protected harbor, abundant forests and availability of sandstone building materials known as Brownstone, the community became a prosperous commercial and industrial center.

As reported in the 1983 Centennial Celebration publication of the Washburn's Women's Civic Club, Washburn Memories, "There is no romance of Indian lore in the history of the foundation of Washburn - no poetical inspirations can be derived from its early history.  When founded in 1883, it was strictly a business consideration and has remained so ever since."

Town Site

Present day Washburn owes its existence to the need of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad for a lake port.  In the spring of 1883, the Bay Land Improvement Company, the land investment arm of the railroad, staked out the town site and began selling lots.  The town site was named in honor of Washburn, who incidentally was also a stockholder of the railroad.  Having died in 1882, Washburn never set foot in the City.  The Company named the town site as a memorial to Washburn.  The original plat of the city was completed in August of that year and was comprised of 1,230 lots over 366 acres.  Over 150 lots sold in 1883.  The price for a business lot at the time of platting ranged from $150 to $250.  On October 1st of that year, the community's post office opened.

In April, 1885, the first of the three major mills opened at the foot of 8th Avenue West along the lakefront by the Northern Pine Land Company. Under various operators, the 8th Avenue mill operated for 39 years until 1924.  The following year Rood & Maxwell opened a mill on the lakefront at the foot of 10th Avenue West.  Sawing operations ended at this site in 1917.  The last major mill was alleged to have been the 2nd largest mill in Wisconsin by Anson A. Bigelow.  Whether or not the mill was the second largest in Wisconsin may be debatable, but it was the largest sawmill in Washburn.  The Bigelow mill was also opened in 1886 and was on the lakefront at the foot of 6th Avenue West just east of the Northern Pine Land Company property.  The mill closed in 1905 and burned shortly thereafter.  The City also contained auxiliary industries to the lumber mills including lath and shingle mills, an excelsior company, and a box factory.   Finished lumber products were shipped from Washburn via the Omaha and the community's growing maritime industry.

Bigelow Mill

The excelsior company outlasted the operations of the City's sawmills.

In 1896, the community became the seat of government of Bayfield County. 

The railroad established a lake port at Washburn to interchange traffic with Lake Superior steamers.  The port of Washburn consisted of a grain elevator with 1,000,000 bushel capacity for the shipping of wheat, oats, barley, rye and flour from the midwest to eastern destinations.  A merchandise dock with a 500 foot warehouse was constructed at the foot of Central Avenue to receive freight bound for the Twin Cities.  Northwestern Fuel Company established a large coal dock that received hundreds of thousands of tons of coal during its lifetime.  A city dock was established at the foot of Washington Avenue to host the steamship line that made daily trips to the communities of Ashland and Bayfield.   And wharf's were part of the industrial complexes of the City's lumber mills.

The Town of Washburn was the second organized Town in Bayfield County.  The first election in the newly organized Town was held in April, 1884.  The first school was opened in May, 1884 in a building adjacent to the Omaha depot.  In 1885, the four room Pioneer School was constructed on the site of the present day County Courthouse and served the community until the construction of the Walker School in 1893.

Pioneer School

Eventually, logging railroads radiated from the community bringing raw materials from the hinterlands to the community's saw mills.  One such line, the home grown Washburn, Bayfield and Iron River Railroad was purchased by the Northern Pacific Railroad to gain access to the City's lucrative traffic base.  The City's source of raw materials was augmented by the rafting of logs across the bay from surrounding lands as well.

The quarrying of brownstone became an important local industry in the late 1800's with several quarries operating between Washburn and Bayfield along the sandstone outcrops.  At the height of the industry, seven quarries were operating in Bayfield County.  The first brownstone was quarried on Basswood Island in 1869.  By 1871 brownstone was being shipped down the lakes to Chicago to rebuild that city after its devastating fire.  The first of quarry in Bayfield County reportedly was opened by R.D. Pike between the Salmon and Onion Rivers in 1883.  In 1892 the famous brownstone monolith, a 115' obelisk was cut at Houghton Point quarry operated by Frederick Prentice for the Chicago World's Fair.  The industry all but died by 1903, having been replaced by concrete and other building materials

The railroad constructed yards, water tower, roundhouse, and a depot in 1883 that reportedly remained until 1967.  The depot was the site of the first trial in Washburn in 1884.  The depot was unfinished at the time of the trial having a roof and walls but lacking windows and doors.  The present county courthouse was erected in 1894.

The first town hall was constructed on the corner of Bayfield and 2nd Avenue East in 1887 as well as the Washburn Iron Works.


Continue to Part II: The Great Fire and Beyond



Most recent update: October 9, 2011

Please note: information presented is current as of the most recent update shown. For most recent information, please contact the City offices at 715-373-6160.

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