Take A Virtual Tour of Washburn's Historic Buildings!
Through The Years
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."
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
The excelsior company outlasted the operations of the City's
In 1896, the community became the seat of government of Bayfield
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
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.
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