Washburn Bayfield & Iron River Railway

Railroads Washburn & Northwestern Engine Roster

The Washburn, Bayfield & Iron River Railway has its beginnings in 1895 when ex-Senator Dwight M. Sabin of Minnesota persuaded the Bayfield County Board and other influential citizens that that the county needed its own railroad. On August 2, 1895 a group of local men incorporated the Washburn, Bayfield & Iron River Railway Company, and petitioned the Bayfield County Board on August 10, 1895 for $240,000 worth of bonds for help in the construction of the railroad. On September 17, 1895, a referendum vote was taken by county residents for providing bonds to the railroad and passed by a large margin. Actual construction however, did not begin until 1897 due to court proceedings by some local citizens who apposed the county spending money on the railroad.

The Articles of Organization called for the railroad to be built from the eastern termini of Washburn to a point near Brinks, and then southwesterly to terminate in Iron River. From Brinks, a spur was to run northeast to the East Fork of the Sand River and then southeast to Bayfield, another eastern termini. This route was divided into six sections, two sections each to run out of the three towns involved.

Bonds were to be issued upon completion of the sections as follows:

Section 1: Starting at Washburn and extending northwesterly 10 miles. ($55,000 in bonds)

Section 2: Extending from the northwest end of Section 1 to the Junction Point. ($42,500 in bonds)

Section 3: Starting at Iron River and extending northeasterly 10 miles. ($45,000 in bonds)

Section 4: Extending from the northeastern end of Section 3 to the Junction Point. (($42,500 in bonds)

Section 5: From near Bayfield and extending northwesterly 12 miles to the East Fork of Sand River ($30,000 in bonds)

Section 6: Extending from the northwest end of Section 5 to the Junction Point. ($25,000 in bonds)

Track was laid from both the Iron River and Washburn ends toward a meeting in the middle. On the Iron River end there were 250 men working under Dell Hobbs. His camps were about seven miles out of town. There were work stations about every 100 feet with contracts let to three to four men per station. Salvo & Mazzie were the grading contractors.  A man named Stone had the contract for building the bridge over the East Fork of the Iron River which was constructed out of 12x12 white pine timbers. The first track was laid from the Iron River end on Dec. 3 1897. (It's interesting to note that the surveyors laid out a line crossing the Iron River, then crossing the NP and DSS&A tracks with the apparent intention of surveying all the way to Sandstone, MN.)

The four sections between Washburn and Iron River were completed, the golden spike being driven at noon on May 1, 1898 and service began on July 8, 1898. Sections 5 and 6 from Brinks to Bayfield were never completed however. On September 19, 1896 the WB&IR sold the rights to the bond money for these sections to the Bayfield Harbor & Great Western. They also agreed to sell the rights to sections 3 and 4  providing that the WB&IR had not completed the construction by July 1, 1898. The BH&GW would build this section using the bond money, and both railroads would have trackage rights upon this section of track. The BH&GW managed to complete the rail from Bayfield to Red Cliff and then under the name of the Bayfield Transfer RR, the track was laid to Raspberry Road, for a total of 10.52 miles of track.  Sabin then formed the Bayfield Western to complete the job and receive the bond money for himself under this railroad. Another six miles of track were laid, section 6 was completed, but time had run out on the agreement for the bond money.  Another spur, the Port Wing spur, was begun in 1899 with the supposed intention of reaching Port Wing from Bena. This was really no more than a logging spur and only twelve miles of track were ever laid. Sabin was serving as manager of both of these lines. The WB&IR also had trackage running rights over the Northern Pacific tracks to both Ashland and Superior. Because the railroad company was frequently unable to pay the workers that were building the track, they offered them chewing tobacco to keep them happy and the brand of Battle Ax was their favorite. They were referred to as the Battle Ax gang and the name stuck, the railroad generally being called the "Battle Ax" from the beginning to this day.

The WB&IR signed many logging contracts while the track was being laid and business was good for a short length of time. In the early years, some of the larger contracts went to Sol Wilkinson, J. O. Grout, W. E. McCord, Cochran Bros. and W. H. Gilbert. Frank Pleas was general manager of the logging department.  Soon though, the money ran out and on December 24, 1898 the railroad was placed in receivership under A. C. Frost of Washburn and Chicago. The company at the time owned four locomotives, had three that were leased and had 367 various cars of rolling stock, mostly flat cars, but at least one coach. Many of these cars were purchased from the Missouri Car & Foundry Company and after defaulting on loans they pressured to have the railroad closed down. The railroad ended up returning these MC&F cars to the company along with fees for their trouble. On June 30, 1900 they reported having 175 logging cars and 89 flat cars in service. The company continued to run at a loss in the hands of the receivers and finally a U. S. District Court ordered the road to be sold. There were no buyers and the U. S. Court then ordered the tracks to be torn up and railroad dismantled. Many citizens opposed the closing of the railroad and the County Board authorized A. W. McLeod, the District Attorney, to fight to stop the dismantling. In the meantime, forty men were busy tearing up the branch tracks of the WB&IR. On January 6, 1902 the last rail was torn up from the Port Wing Branch and on the 7th they tore up the Y track by the Iron River roundhouse. They then proceeded to start tearing up the mainline but only had four tracks up when the sheriff, Lever Lein and his deputies arrived on the scene and proceeded to arrest the whole crew, general manager and superintendent included.  They transported them all to the Washburn jail by train and charged them with contempt of court. The Bayfield County Court had issued an injunction to stop the tearing up of the tracks. Later, McLeod, and a number of others were found guilty of contempt and sentenced to 60 days in the Dane Co. jail, which was never carried out.   Toward the end of the month the WI Supreme court issued a temporary injunction restraining the receiver from tearing up the WB&IR's track. The extra time provided by this injunction allowed A. C. Frost to strike a deal with the Northern Pacific where as Washburn would provide additional facilities and the NP would purchase and continue to operate the railroad. The sale price was $125,673. On December 17, 1901 the WB&IR suspended operations and on July 1, 1902 the NP began operating what then became the Washburn Branch of the Ashland to Superior line. The receiver had sold much of the equipment off and it appears that only two ex Northern Pacific engines and 40 ex Brainerd & Northern Minnesota log cars remained. That fall, the NP was to put in a new depot, freight shed and side tracks in Washburn. During 1903 they had a large crew widening cuts, filling in bridges, and laying heavier rail. In 1905 they were to lay as many as 80,000 new ties. 

The original WB&IR engine facilities were located in what I have heard mentioned as Spring, just south of Fertile Valley on the outskirts of Washburn. Here an engine house and roundhouse were built, along with sidings and a well.  The roundhouse burned down in the spring of 1898 but was immediately re-built. In December of 1898 a water tank was erected between 6th and 7th Avenue West in Washburn. After the NP purchase, the roundhouse was dismantled. A depot was located at the foot of Washington Avenue. A large dock was built just west of the C. C. Thompson mill at the bottom of the present day Wanabo Road to provide a log dump for the logging cars. In early 1899, tracks were laid to both the Thompson mill and the South Shore mill to provide them with logs.  In 1907 an old 8 x 34 foot Northern Pacific box car, number 649?, was placed at Lenawee for use as a depot. Lenawee also had a car repair shop, side tracks and a water tank, the water being pumped one half mile from Lenawee Lake. One of the footings for the water tower was pushed off the road to the west side of the Battle Ax Road some time ago by Paul Truchon, working for the town of Clover, and can still be found there in a depression, the rest remain on the corner of the Battle Ax and Lenawee Road. Ed Puig of Herbster tells of digging up some of the pipe to the water tower and using it for his well. Out at Slowbridge, the grade remains in fairly good shape. It appears the railroad may have had water facilities there as well, as there is somewhat of an earthen dam with a culvert located quite high on it.  Further on, about 4 miles east of Iron River was Port Wing Junction, later changed to Benna.  Here, the Port Wing branch was constructed, terminating about on the present Hessey Road.  M. A. Sprague of  Washburn owned land in the area, and logs from here went to the Akeley & Sprague mill at Washburn.

Some notable accidents over the years are:

  • In January of 1899, logging trains of the WB&IR and the AS&IR collided at the crossing. Both engines and many cars were badly damaged, but no one was killed.
  • In February of 1899, the passenger train from Iron River had a head on with the logging train from the Port Wing branch. Both engines were thrown in reverse and the crews jumped. The engines had just about stopped when the collision occurred but one was damaged considerably.
  •  In August of 1899 a  BW Shay and one of the BW's large engines collided 1 1/2 miles out of Iron River. The Shay was badly damaged.
  • In September of 1899, on the Port Wing Branch, a car being loaded with logs had the brake off and rolled three miles and ran into a BW switch engine, smashing it up quite badly.
  •  In October of 2001, a collision at the junction between the WB&IR and the Ashland St. Paul & Minneapolis occurred causing considerable damage.
  •  In April of 1903 a mixed train derailed at Port Wing Junction, one car smashed and 2 passenger cars were badly damaged. A brakeman was injured. 

The Northern Pacific continued to run the railroad in the red until 1922 when the section from Washburn to Coda was torn up. The remaining section from Coda to Iron River was torn up in 1927.

The Duluth Herald reported in early 1898 that "The Sabin" (WB&IR) is considerable of a mystery to railroad men. Mr. Sabin has said that it was designed as a logging  road exclusively, it is being built as substantially however, as any trunk line, and the belief is becoming prevalent that the road now in course of construction is but a small part of what he has in view." 
This view probably did not set well with the taxpayers of Bayfield County as they were expecting more than a logging road.

It was mentioned that Sabin formed the Bayfield Western to complete the section from the Junction to Bayfield. This of course was never completed, but Sabin used the Bayfield Western to operate this railroad out of Iron River. He had trackage rights on both the NP and WB&IR but was required to have NP pilots when on NP track. A wye connection was put in west of Iron River connecting with the NP. A line was run from Iron River north to the Hokkanen Road with other spurs off of this. Spurs were run off of the Port Wing branch of the WB&IR, with other spurs off the WB&IR just west and north of Lenawee. In October of 1900 a spur was put in off the NP one-half mile west of Poplar. A spur of 45,532 feet of track was also put in at Wentworth for W. H. Gilbert of Ashland. On November 5, 1900 a request was placed with the NP to provide the BW with a connection to the Minneapolis St. Paul & Ashland Railroad east of Moquah. This was a similar railroad to the WB&IR in that the County bonded it, in this case Ashland County. It also went by the nickname of another chewing tobacco of the time, Peerless. The NP reluctantly agreed, only because the BW had a contract to haul 173 million feet of timber out of the area.  Another BW spur came off the NP at Topside, about four and one half miles east of Iron River. This spur also provided rail for W. H. Gilbert.  All the while, Sabin and the BW had run up at least $41,000 in debts to the NP for track. Within a couple of months this had all been paid off but the BW continued to run up bills to the NP. Most of their cars were leased from the NP, the NP apparently happy to provide as long as the BW continued to get contracts for timber. On July 11, 1901 the BW and NP made a new lease agreement covering most of their tracks. The lease also provided that the NP purchase two BW Consolidation locomotives and ninety 24-foot log cars and lease them back to the BW.   Eventually it seems that all BW property, cars and engines were transfered to W. Gilbert of Ashland, including the two Consolidations, probably for collateral. The BW apparently got it all back.  These two Consolidations are like phantoms. Their numbers were 4 and 5 and the WB&IR had at the same time, two Consolidations numbers 14 and 15. It is quite possible that these are the same engines but claimed by one or the other for their net worth when applicable.  Sabin controlled both of these railroads and the BW used the WB&IR tracks as if they were there own. Larry Schrenk, a foremost authority on the Northern Pacific states: "He (Sabin) was always trying to make deals but was slow to keep his commitments or make required payments on time.  The BW was never actually merged with the WB&IR, but records show that NP officials were not always sure which one they were dealing with and often considered them as being the same." The Northern Pacific officials referred to him as "slippery."  A story out of the February 15, 1900 IRON RIVER PIONEER gives an example of just how mysterious the Bayfield Western was. "The Bayfield Western Railway people, (whoever they are) have leased fifteen acres of land from Mary Rowan, about a mile north of town, and the PIONEER understands they will in the near future commence the erection of a round house, machine shop, water tank and other buildings thereon. The plans have not been made public as yet but we learn from one of the many who has been openly accused of being connected with the concern, that the buildings will not cover the entire tract leased. Heretofore the B. W. had not indulged in any of these luxuries. The ground is leased for three years."

About the only official  knowledge I have of the railroad is that Sabin controlled it and F. T. Rolands was their clerk. The BW headquarters were in Iron River, but the general office was in Duluth. The BW eventually did get a small shop and roundhouse in Iron River and at one time they owned at least 6.7 miles of track and had another 36 miles under lease from the Northern Pacific. This does not count the trackage rights between Iron River and Washburn and Ashland and Superior.

The BW ended its operations in the third week of January, 1902. In two years of operation it hauled over 100,000,000 feet of pine from Iron River to Duluth, Superior, Ashland and Washburn. Thirty five to one hundred men were employed on the railroad and another 200 at the logging camps associated with it.

Note: Much of the credit on the BW goes to Tim Sasse who has extensively researched this railroad. Also a great deal of credit goes to Larry Schrenk who has provided information from official NP records and has himself tried to figure out this web of two railroads.

For a complete history on the "BattleAx", Tim Sasse has a very good book detailing the entire history of the Washburn Bayfield & Iron River Railway from it's earliest beginnings to the purchase by the Northern Pacific and beyond. The book is called "Wisconsin's Little Train that Couldn't", and may be purchased through Amazon.com.

Copyright 2008 Kurt Larson--Last updated April 10, 2008