Lake Superior Brownstone


  Ashland Press/Washburn Itemizer Article

Lake Superior Sandstone belongs to the Bayfield Group of Cambrian or Upper Proterozoic sandstones. It consists of three formations, the Chequamegon, Devils Island and Orienta. The Chequamegon Sandstone is a red, brown, and white feldspathic sandstone, generally thick-bedded and commonly crossbedded.  It has rare interbeds of red shale and conglomerate. The Devils Island Sandstone is a white to tan quartz sandstone, generally thin-bedded.  Crossbeddng and ripple marks are common. The Orienta Sandstone is red, brown, and white feldspathic sandstone, crossbedded in part.  The Chequamegon formation is exposed from around the mouth of Fish Creek northward and underlies all the Apostle Islands. It ends at around Sand Point. The Orienta runs west from Sand Point and into Minnesota.  Devils Island sandstone is exposed on the north half of Devils Island and is said by some to overlay the Orienta sandstone. All are made up of predominately quartz sand. The Orienta and Chequamegon formations are colored red by small quantities of iron oxide.

Brownstone held up better than other stone building materials in fires, giving it an edge until concrete and bricks became a fashion. Concrete was cheaper and bricks had color appeal.

"Between 1868 and 1910, twenty-four companies extracted sandstone from fifteen quarries in the Bayfield group. Nine quarries were clustered in the vicinity of Bayfield and Washburn and on three of the Apostle Island in the Chequamegon formation; six were scattered along the south shore of Lake superior in the Orienta formation on the Cranberry, Flag, Iron and Amnicon Rivers."*




The above pictures are of the old Washburn State Bank. It presently houses the Historical Society.

Top picture is a postcard I purchased. For some reason the photographer masked out the big stone with BANK carved in it. Bottom photo is one I took recently.

The Washburn State Bank was opened in 1890 by Washburn's colorful character A. C. Probert. It closed in 1893 and Probert whs charged with embezzlement and sent to prison. I believe it became the Bank of Washburn after Probert's short stint. The back entry led to the offices of Chicago lumber barren A. A. Bigelow back in the late 1800's. The brownstone in the bank is typical of what was quarried locally. Some veins of the stone had beautiful variegated coloring but most was a reddish brown.

Brownstone Industry of the Washburn Area

The first brownstone quarry in the area was opened in 1870 on Basswood Island, one of the Apostle Islands. Others soon were opened on Wilson and Stockton Island.  In the spring of 1885 the first quarry was opened at Houghton which was just outside of Washburn to the north. Houghton had actually been platted at least by 1857. In I believe the Historical Society in Madison, a map exits of the plat of Houghton. It was a square mile and had all the streets including names laid out. Apparently not much became of this for many years until the quarries were developed. The now named Houghton Point was called Point Prospect then.

Babcock & Smith who also owned a quarry in Kasota, Minnesota were the proprietors of this first quarry. The first year all quarry work was done by hand and they shipped less than 100 cars of brownstone. In 1887 they shipped 375 cars and had done away with most of the hand work, having one double Wardwell Channeler, one double Ingersol Channeler, one Buckeye hoisting engine, one steam pump, three steam derricks and two horsepower derricks employing about forty men with a having a daily capacity of eight cars. In 1888 they shipped 540 carloads of brownstone and expended $15,000 in construction and improvements on the quarry and boarding houses. W. H. Smith was the manager.

The Hartley Brothers of Minneapolis opened their quarry at Houghton soon after Babcock & Smith. The had two steam channelers, one steam pump, five stream derricks and a steam saw mill for cutting the stone after it was taken from the quarry. Daily capacity was ten cars and the output for 1888 was 306 cars. H. H. Hartley was the manager.

Next to the north near the present Bodin home was the Prentice Brownstone Quarry which was built in 1887 and began operations late in 1888. When opened they had thee double channelers, three steam derricks and other equipment being run by a crew of seventy-five men. Daily output was expected to be at least twenty-five cars a day. Output for 1888 was 330 cars. F. C. Bailey was the manager. In 1892 the Prentice quarry cut an obelisk 115 feet high with a base of 10 feet 11 inches to be exhibited at the World's fair. The obelisk was cut but proved to be to expensive of an undertaking so it was eventually cut up as building blocks. In 1893 they quarried 750,000 cubic feet of brownstone. This became the premier quarry of the area. At peak production they had eleven chanellers, 12 derricks and a large sawmill.

Way further to the north and west was the Port Wing Quarry, close to what is now Jardine's. The Port Wing Quarry was the last to operate.

Further north past Onion River at a place called Van Tassellís Point was the quarry of Pike and Drake. They shipped 391 cars in 1888. Remnants of this quarry can be seen along side WI Highway 13.

Houghton had a population of about 250 people, a school house and a sawmill with 25,000 foot capacity in 1888.

In 1892, total production for all the Chequamegon Bay quarries was 2,313,000 cubic feet of stone.

Notable brownstone buildings in the area include the Bayfield County Court house, Washburn Library, Catholic Church, Washburn Union block, Bank of Washburn, Old Ashland Post Office, Wisconsin Central (Soo LIne) Depot and many more plus the foundations and fronts of many others. It is said that the increased use of concrete and brick was the downfall of brownstone.

List of local quarries and major owners:

Ashland Brown Stone Co.--Stockton Island--John H. Knight, William Knight and D. S. Kennedy of Bayfield and Ashland.
Ashland Brown Stone Co.--Stockton Island--Bodenschatz, Bodenschatz and Brown of Chicago
Bass Island Brown Stone Co.--Basswood Island--Sweet & Wells, prominent Milwaukee businessmen
Bass Island Brown Stone Co.--Basswood Island--French, Lee, Strong & Wells, Chicago and Milwaukee
Bass Island Brown Stone Co.--Basswood Island--Brooks Leach, & Ritchie, Superior, WI
Bayfield Brownstone Development Co.--Stockton Island & Tassel Point (Just N. of Onion River)--Denison, Pike & Quayle. Pike and Quayle were on the WB&IR Ry board.
Borgeault Stone Co.--On the Iron River
Breckenridge Quarry--Basswood Island--John Breckenridge--Kentucky
Cook & Hyde--Basswood Island--Cook & Hyde Milwaukee and Minneapolis
Cranberry River Quarry--Herbster--Omeis & Quinby
Iron River Brownstone Co.--On Iron River--Badgley, Roberts & Titus--Superior
Pikes Quarry-Van Tassell's Point--R.D.Pike--Bayfield lumberman and businessman.
Port Wing Quarry Co.--Port Wing--Miller Bros & Johnson--Duluth
Prentice Brownstone Co.--Houghton Point and Hermit Island--Barr, Ellis, Hamilton, Prentice & Shores of Ashland
Superior Brownstone Co--Basswood Island--Bailey, Barr & Rogers--Ashland
Washburn Stone Co.--Houghton--Babcock & Smith of Kasota MN.
Wieland Bros. Quarry--Houghton Falls

*From "The Sandstone Architecture of the Lake Superior Region" by Kathryn Bishop Eckert. Anyone interested in the complete history of sandstone quarrying in the region should read this book. It is available at

See Washburn Itemizer/Ashland Press article.

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