Chequamegon Bay And Its Communities I
....Bayfield....La Pointe
A Brief History 1659-1883

Full Text of the book available in the
Wisconsin Counties History Collection

Lars Larson, PhD
Emeriti Faculty
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Toward the western end of Lake Superior a verdant peninsula with an attendant archipelago protrudes into the lake, sheltering a large bay on its southeast side. This is Chequamegon Bay, ancient home of Native Americans, whose tranquil beauty has inspired generations of poets and romantics. But it was not a quest for the bay’s beauty, but greed for its resources, which brought the first white men to the shores of Chequamegon Bay in August 1659 and determined the course of its subsequent history. For two and a half centuries thereafter, French, British and Americans, driven by a cold, calculating lust for free riches, struggled with each other and among themselves to dominate the bay and plunder its resources, until finally only its natural beauty remained.

The thesis of this study is that the settlement, development, and decline of the Chequamegon Bay region and its communities were shaped largely by the exploitation of its natural resources by and for the benefit of groups outside the region. The region was always a “resource frontier,” defined as a geographic region, large or small, containing free natural resources that could be economically exploited. Resource frontiers emerged behind the advancing line of agrarian settlement in the 19th century and were established and maintained for the sole purpose of investor enrichment. The investors and others who ultimately controlled what happened in these resource frontiers were located in the large urban areas outside of the region. They were not interested in settling or developing the regions except insofar as it contributed to the primary purpose of exploiting their resources to realize windfall profits. Because such regions were dependent on external financiers, consumers, middlemen, and others, they did not develop the economic and political autonomy and stability that would have enabled them to determine their own destinies, but were continually the victim of decisions and events beyond their control. When the resources were exhausted, the investors withdrew their capital and the regions were left to survive as best they could.

This is exactly what happened to the Chequamegon Bay region as a resource frontier—a succession of resources were exploited for the benefit of outsiders who abandoned the region when the resource in which they had invested was exhausted. The geography of the region facilitated this process of resource exploitation and ultimate decline. First, the Great Lakes waterway system made it possible to economically and rapidly transport the raw material resources out of the region for processing into final products elsewhere. Thus, no important enterprises for manufacturing products from the resources were established, reinforcing and perpetuating the status of the region as a resource frontier. Second, almost all of the land is unsuited to farming, so a viable agriculture economy could not be established. The result was that when the resources were depleted and the capitalists withdrew, there was little or nothing remaining to provide economic support to the communities and their inhabitants.

Within the context of this thesis, the history of Chequamegon Bay and its communities falls naturally into four eras. The first era began with the fur trade and lasted from the mid-1600s to about 1850, when the fur resources were exhausted. The second era began in the mid-1850s, stimulated by the discovery of iron and copper ore deposits in the ranges along the south coast of the western end of Lake Superior and the opening of Sault Ste. Marie Canal. There was a flurry of settlement activity, part of investor interest in the western end of Lake Superior, and Superior, Ashland and Bayfield were founded. This era was brief, lasting only until 1860 when the investors withdrew and settlers departed due to economic and political developments on the national scene. The site of Ashland was abandoned while Bayfield stagnated for the next ten years. The third era began about 1870, during which timber, port sites, and brownstone were the valued resources. Ashland was resettled, Bayfield was revived, Washburn was founded, and the bay region experienced a great boom period that lasted until the early years of the twentieth century. By then the timber supply was all but exhausted and the market for brownstone had collapsed, while Superior and Duluth had become what the Chequamegon Bay communities had aspired to be—the major ports at the western end of the Great Lakes waterway.

Abandoned by the outside interests that had ruthlessly exploited its resources, the bay region and its communities entered the fourth era of their history, a long period of economic and social quiescence. Of the three cities on the bay Ashland remained relatively the most prosperous. It was the shipment point for iron ore from the Gogebic range, a county seat and the market and service center for the region, and boasted a few small industrial establishments. Washburn’s magnificent harbor was abandoned, but it was a county seat and the executives and most of the workers at the nearby Du Pont explosives plant lived there, so it possessed a fragile, albeit a subsistence level, economic base. The town experienced a short-lived boom during World War I because of the expansion of production at the Du Pont plant. Bayfield had little economic activity to support itself other than some commercial fishing. Although the natural beauty of the region remained, tourism and recreation provided little economic benefit to the region. Extensive efforts were made by land companies and state agricultural agencies to settle small farms on the stump lands or “cutover” left by the depredations of the timber companies, but the drop in agricultural prices after World War I put an end to many of these marginal and inefficient farms. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, long anticipated as the salvation of the bay communities, brought them no benefits. Only in recent years, stimulated by the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, have tourism and recreation, plus an influx of new settlers escaping the increasingly crowded conditions farther south, brought renewed growth and development to Chequamegon Bay and its communities. This study examines what happened to the Chequamegon Bay communities during this cycle of prosperity and stagnation, that is, what the consequences were for these communities of their constantly changing economic fortunes from the opening of the fur trade era in 1659 to the beginning of the great boom on the bay in 1883.

Chequamegon Bay And Its Communities I, 306 pages, hard cover, published in 2005. Copies are on deposit at the public libraries and historical museums in Washburn, Bayfield, Ashland and La Pointe, the Northern Great Lake Visitor Center, and the Wisconsin Historical Society Library. For more information contact Lars Larson.