Chequamegon Bay And Its Communities II
Washburn
....The City To Be
A Historical Memoir 1883-1947

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


Lars Larson, PhD
Emeriti Faculty
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Whitewater
..Wisconsin 2007

When the early settlers came to Chequamegon Bay, they were awed, as the explorers and fur traders before them had been, by its great natural beauty. They praised its carpet of pine forests, the vast expanse of crystalline blue water, and the necklace of green islands that encircled its entrance. But in fact they had two contradictory views of this natural beauty. While praising and extolling it, on the one hand, on the other they saw the material fabric of the beauty as an obstacle to progress that had to be overcome—in short, the wilderness had to be civilized. This attitude was deeply embedded in the American consciousness, serving as justification both for ordinary people and for those with money and power, for an unthinking, frenzied exploitation of the wilderness and its resources. That this compulsion to civilize the wilderness, to convert its forests, lands, and other resources to human use for profit was shared by people on Chequamegon Bay is suggested by a “prophecy” published by the Ashland Weekly Press in the fall of 1883: “the day will come when every available foot of this splendid shore frontage from Redcliff to Ashland will be utilized by docks, elevators, manufacturing establishments, etc.” The occasion for the effusive prediction was the construction of large coal, grain, and freight docks by the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad Company on the shores across the bay from Ashland. To accommodate the workers who would operate these facilities and the sawmills that it was anticipated would surely follow, and who would eventually become the victims of these enterprises, the townsite of Washburn was laid out by the Bay Land and Improvement Company in the fall of 1883. Washburn was a speculative business undertaking by this company, intended to profit from the sale of lots to settlers attracted by the economic opportunities provided by these large harbor installations and by the prospect of the exploitation of the pine forests in the surrounding area.

And settlers did come, most of them from elsewhere in Wisconsin or from other states, but many from various European countries and from Canada. But regardless of where they came from, these people shared a common personal objective: to take advantage of the opportunities on this booming frontier to improve themselves economically. Here the rich hoped to become richer and the merely well-to-do, rich, while the poor hoped to become at least better off. They shared a common dream: that Washburn would become and remain a large and prosperous community in which their hopes would be realized so that they and their children could live happy and economically secure lives. This dream of Washburn the city to be was affirmed by the Washburn Itemizer in early 1885:
We predict that in the next five years Washburn will have a population larger than any city on the bay...
At first it appeared that their dream would be realized, for Washburn did grow rapidly in size and prosperity after its founding in the fall of 1883. By 1885, the population was already 741, and by 1890 it had increased four-fold to 3,039. In 1895, some twelve years after its founding, the population had grown by an additional 70% to 5,178. The village boasted three sawmills, a merchandise warehouse and wharf, and a grain elevator and coal dock, an opera house, a town hall, two banks, several churches, a fine hotel, three school buildings, and it had become the county seat with a “magnificent courthouse.”

Unfortunately, the foundations of this booming growth proved to be short-lived. Much of the town’s prosperity depended on the harvesting and processing of locally available timber, particularly from the Bayfield peninsula, but the rapacious logging practices of the timber companies quickly depleted this resource. A second basis of its prosperity was as a port linking the railroad from the Twin Cities through northwestern Wisconsin to the Great Lakes shipping routes. But the development of ports at Ashland and Superior, the expansion of the rail network in the north country, and changes in the technology as well as the pattern of Great Lakes shipping, eventually put an end to this business. A third, if lesser, basis of its prosperity was the quarrying of brownstone for railroad and building construction, but changes in building technology, architectural style, and the decline of railroad expansion led to the collapse of the market for this stone. With the flight of the mill companies when the timber supply was exhausted, its demise as a port, and the failure of brownstone quarrying, Washburn’s brief period of prosperity and growth gradually came to an end.

For many years after the great boom ended, the dream of Washburn as a prosperous and growing community, endured. People looked back on the early days, when the dream briefly became a reality, nourishing the hope that somehow it would finally be realized, that some day Washburn would rise, Phoenix-like, from the remains of its glorious past. This dream of old Washburn was passed on by the settlers to their children and grandchildren, sustained by stories and pictures of the past; and by the ubiquitous material remains—buildings and the foundations, where buildings had once stood; and by the remains of wharves on the waterfront—from that time. But the dream became increasingly fanciful as it was passed down through the generations. Eventually people came to realize that with no resources, a tenuous agricultural base, no inducements to industry, and geographically isolated as it was, there was no realistic possibility that Washburn would ever regain the level of growth and prosperity it had enjoyed during its boom years, so the dream gradually faded. The death of the dream of Washburn, the city to be, was symbolized by the destruction by fire of the Walker High School, in February 1947. Dedicated during the a special “education week” in May 1894, during the glory days of the town, the school was situated on a hill beyond the boundary of settlement, on the grand north-south thoroughfare, a monument both to what Washburn was and what it was to become. Some 45 years after its symbolic death in the destruction of the high school, the dream of old Washburn was memorialized by the resurrection of another building from those early times. Built in 1890, the old bank building towers over what had once been the commercial center of Washburn. Abandoned in 1966 and falling into ruin, the building was saved from demolition and restored as a museum devoted to the history of old Washburn under the leadership of a descendent of one of the prominent early families of the community. With their capacious dimensions, grandiose architecture, and unique locations, these two buildings expressed, the one by the preparation of enlightened citizens for the community and the other by fostering its economic development, both the achievements of the people of Washburn and their hopes and expectations—their dream—for its future. While the destruction of the one symbolized that the dream of Washburn, the city to be, would never be realized, the resurrection of the other was a recognition that the dream and the people who pursued it were worthy of remembrance. The tragedy of Washburn is that from the day of its founding it was always the city to be, never becoming the great shining metropolis on the shores of Chequamegon Bay envisioned by that dream.

Chequamegon Bay And Its Communities II, 700 pages, hard cover, published in 2007. Copies are on deposit at the public libraries and historical museums in Washburn, Bayfield, Ashland, and La Pointe; the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center; and the Wisconsin Historical Society Library. For more information contact Lars Larson.