What is the value of Washburn’s jewel?

Roth Edwards

Washburn Lakefront Trail. Photo by Roth Edwards.

“What is it that makes this priceless to you, and how can you bring your idea for it to the world?,” asked a Washburn, Wisconsin City Council member to a standing room only crowd at the November 14th City Council meeting.

An accessible and ruggedly beautiful area in the heart of our community, the Lake Superior frontage known as Washburn’s jewel, some 16 acres on Holman Lakeview Drive, is a rare resource. What value do we, the people of Washburn, assign to it?

That is the question our community is currently answering. Undervaluing this, our most scenically integral green space would be a mistake. Remember, the original inhabitants of Manhattan Island sold it in 1624 to the Dutch for $24.

To truly see and appreciate the value of Washburn’s jewel requires we lift our sights. We must look beyond the present moment and imagine the land as it appeared to its earliest inhabitants. We must also look at it a relatively short time ago when in 1883 its virgin forest was cleared to make room for lumber mills, train depots, docks, and yards.

The original great northern forest of the American Midwest provided the lumber that built the great cities and towns of the Great Lakes, river valleys, and coasts of the USA. Like many Lake Superior towns, Washburn was founded as a lumber town.

Working in sometimes bitterly harsh weather and hard scrabble conditions, Washburn’s early residents did the physical work for the big lumber and stone companies; on their backs and those of their horses emerged the great timbers and brownstone blocks that built Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Saint Louis, Duluth, Detroit, Omaha, Akron, Columbus, Toledo — and Washburn itself. The raw materials wrested from the virgin forest provided the building blocks of the biggest building boom the world had ever seen.

Washburn’s Lakefront Trail winds through a formerly industrial area where copious board feet of lumber and other wood products were produced and shipped. Relics of infrastructure along Washburn’s shoreline evidence the town’s industrial roots.

Today, there are only a few isolated areas of the Midwest’s old-growth forest remaining. But before the mills and the quarries; prior to the industrial age and America’s “manifest destiny”—there were different voices here; ones of the “silent” wilderness described by the poet Longfellow’s words inscribed on the Lakefront Trail:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.”

On stretches of Washburn’s shoreline where the forest is left undisturbed, the land is gradually recovering its structure, greenery, and integrity. Allowed time, it would return to a semblance of the original forest.

The ancient forest represents much of the promise of the town Washburn was — and falteringly stretches to become again today.

Washburn’s jewel, 16 acres of lake frontage, could be thoughtfully enhanced as the city’s marquee park, an emblem of the great forest that helped build America and made Washburn the industrious and vibrant community it once was. Viewed in the context of Washburn’s storied history, the land takes on greater interest, mystique, possibility, and attraction.

Washburn’s real potential then resides not just in the market but also the emblematic value of its public lands and their beauties of nature. By preserving them, we can set an example for other communities of nature preservation’s role in sustainable economic and business development..

By employing our strength; by learning from and correcting the mistakes of our past, we can establish 2023 as the year marking the re-emergence of Washburn and the rebirth of its foundation and heart, the forest primeval; future generations can proudly speak of Washburn, Wisconsin as a pioneering and prosperous town of America’s Northwoods, the town whose past provided a signature bridge to its future.

Roth Edwards, a carpenter, lives with his family in Washburn. In 2003-2004, he helped save Washburn’s city-owned Lake Superior frontage from proposed condominium development. He continues to speak out regarding the importance of environmental preservation to rural economic and business development.