The Chequamegon Bay area had a long and colorful history well before the settlement of Bayfield. Before the time of written records, Ojibwe (Chippewa) legends have placed this group and others, including the Huron, Ottawa and Sioux, here sometime prior to European discovery.
The 1850s were a turning point for the Chequamegon Bay region. In 1855, the “Soo” locks at Sault St. Marie opened, allowing for the first large ships to enter Lake Superior. In addition, these years were a time of optimism and available credit. Men began to dream of great inland harbor cities that would rival Chicago as port terminals for Midwest grain and lumber.
Early Bayfield was dependent on lake transportation to provide goods and passage to the outside. Boats stopped running in December or January when the Chequamegon Bay froze over. Ice boats might carry travelers to La Pointe or Ashland over the long winter. Service resumed only after four or five months when the spring thaw melted the icy waters.
When the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railroad finally steamed into Bayfield in 1883, lumbering and fishing were already established. Brownstone quarrying and tourism were just beginning to gather strength. The population reached 500. Bayfield was becoming civilized, boasting schools, churches, lodges, hotels, and boarding houses. An impressive sandstone courthouse was constructed the same year to herald the booming quarry industry and the village’s passage into maturity.
Bayfield’s early economy was based on the sawmills located on the south shore. Within months of the town’s 1856 platting, construction of the first sawmill began. John T. Caho of Virginia had been induced by the Bayfield Land Company to begin construction of a mill at the foot of Fourth Street. The mill burned within two months, was rebuilt and later moved to Ashland, Wisconsin.
Commercial fishing provided Bayfield with a second and generally more stable economic base. Commercial fishing in the region actually began with the 1836 activities of the American Fur Company’s shipment of salted fish in barrels to eastern markets. Hedging against the failing fur trade, it sustained the company for some years.
Quarrying native sandstone around the Bayfield area had a relatively short life. Early efforts began on Basswood Island, one of the Apostle Islands in 1868. The use of brownstone reached its peak during the 1880-1890s when six quarries in the area were supplying eastern markets with the stone. Regional quarries had a much easier time transporting their product with the arrival of the railroad in Bayfield. One of the quarries was located about four miles south of Bayfield, owned by R.D. Pike. The popularity of brownstone peaked in the 1890s and by 1900 changes in architectural styles and building materials spelled the demise of the industry. The quarries had little long-term impact on Bayfield’s economy but the native stone left a lasting heritage to its architecture.
From the early days, Bayfield’s fresh air and spectacular setting attracted tourists, particularly those seeking relief from the pollen-laden humidity of the Midwest. The hotels were generally located in proximity to the passenger dock on the east pier. The Island View Hotel was located on North First and Washington Avenue on a bluff overlooking the lake. It later expanded across Washington Avenue and a bridge connected the two buildings. Other hotels flourished, such as the La Bonte Hotel (119 North First) and the Bayfield Inn (Rittenhouse Avenue and First Street).
Some summer visitors built homes. No doubt the largest and grandest of the summer “cottages” was built by General Allen Fuller (301 Rittenhouse Avenue), a Midwest asthma sufferer. Passenger excursion boats were busy during the short summer. Many excursionists made use of the “waiting” pavilion at the foot of the pier. But by the 1920s the private automobile and post-war depression closed most of the large hotels. None of these early ones exist today. Now the tourist, the sailing enthusiast, and the sightseer are rediscovering Bayfield and the Apostle Islands.