Red Cliff Lumber Companies – Part 1

Red Cliff State Fair Exhibition - Bayfield Heritage Association - RD Pike Archive Center

Red Cliff State Fair Exhibition
Bayfield Heritage Association

An Early Red Cliff Lumber Company   

Prepared by Robert J. Nelson

April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired upon the Union Army at Yankee held Fort Sumpter; thus began the American Civil War. In line with this time frame came the grand scale timber cutting barons to the hinterlands of North Wisconsin & Red Cliff Reservation land holdings.  Prior, diminutive in size lumber mills, like Bayfield Land Company, Elisha Pike, Sam Vaughn, R. D. Pike, along with numerous low production mills [1] was set along the mainland shoreline of then La Pointe County and later Bayfield County in 1866. The role they played mainly was to cut plank, shingles, lathe and rough timbers needed construct the buildings on the waterfront cities and villages whereupon they resided.

Red Cliff tribal reservation lands were targeted shortly thereafter in the early 1870’s.  Located north and northwest of Bayfield these vulnerable, prized and not-so-unnoticed thousands of acres of timberland became the target of the United States government, lumber barons, wheelers and dealers and the deadly crosscut saw.  The Federal government, in hopes to build a viable business opportunity for the Anishinaabeg people at Buffalo Bay, decided to build a mill on the shoreline and employ Native American workers. Indian agent, Colonel John Knight superintended construction.

Located in the snug harbor on the shore of Lake Superior, the saw mill was set up and operational at Buffalo Bay until about 1861. [2] White pine and red cedar prized by the home builder, grey and red oak for the ship hulls and decks, and chunks of maple for the steam fired tugs, were also highly prized commodities. This mill, as well as supplying lumber for tribal homes, found their products way too many a schooner, barge or steam tug consort loaded to the gunnels with plank, timbers and shingles out-bound for lakeside ports.

Years later, speaking at the 50th anniversary of Bayfield in 1906 Harbor City pioneer Nazaire La Bonte recalls of his experience at the newly revamped Red Cliff mill, “In the summer of ’61, I went to work in the Red Cliff saw mill (the property of Uncle Sam), which had just been built under contract with the government by Colonel John Banfield. I worked there for twelve years in the capacity of sawyer, filer, and scaler on a salary of $3.00 per day. My family and I resided there about half of the time and the balance of the time in Bayfield. Six men, including myself, constituted the mill crew and the capacity of the mill was six thousand feet per day, which was measured, marked and piled as fast as it left the saw. My neighbor (Civil War Commodore Bob Inglis) was engineer in the mill part of one season.  Bob was a good mechanic, a trim, good-looking fellow.

The mill was sold to Duluth parties after operating twelve years, after which I built and kept a summer boarding place known as the LaBonte house at Bayfield which house was open to the public for many years. I raised a family of four children (Mrs. N. Bachand and Mrs. Church) who are both here with their families at the present time, and lost a son at the age of six and one half years and also an infant daughter”. Nazaire LaBonte arrived to Bayfield, June 10, 1856. [3]

[1] I found employment here with the Bayfield Land Company [in 1856] on a mill that was building on the site upon which now stands the R. D. Pike Lumber Co. mill. The mill was completed and operating in October of that year and about two months afterwards burned down after which I turned my attention to cutting cord wood which was sold to the steamers for fuel purposes. In the spring of 1857, I with others started to cut out the Bayfield and St. Paul stage road as far as Yellow Lake, a distance of about 140 miles. From this time until about 1880, I cut cord wood, logs and made fish barrel staves of clear white pine that was so plentiful at that time. Nazaire LaBonte, Bayfield County Press, Friday April 6, 1906

[2]  Colonel John Knight, in June, 1869, was appointed by General Grant as Indian agent for the Lake Superior Chippewa and arrived at Bayfield during that month.  Knight started up the saw mill in Red Cliff; his brother William Knight was hired to superintend the sawing in the spring of 1870. Eleanor Knight, Tales of Bayfield Pioneers, p.48-67

[3]  Nazaire LaBonte obituary notice, Duluth News Tribune, October 21, 1906

Anecdotes from the Bayfield Press

October 13, 1870: James Chapman & Company is receiving their lumber at the foot of Washington Avenue for the Reservation Saw Mill, which they will run next season. They bring the lumber by flat boats.

August 12, 1871: The Government saw mill at Red Cliff is cutting about 8000 feet per day.

March 2, 1872:  The Indian agent is having several hundred logs cut this winter at Redcliff. The government sawmill will commence operations soon after the opening of navigation.

September 16, 1872: The government saw mill at Red Cliff is still cutting large quantities of lumber.  The Alice Craig took some 18,000 feet of lumber from Red Cliff to Grand Portage.

January 20, 1872:  A quantity of logs shipped was cut at Red Cliff. During the coming season the government mill at that point will furnish the numbers needed on the various reservations.

Nazaire La Bonte Photo - Bayfield Heritage Association

Nazaire La Bonte
Bayfield Heritage Association

This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing.