Hazelhurst and the Yawkey Lumber Company

Jul 21, 2021

Cyrus Yawkey, founder of the company, town and railroad
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

The town of Hazelhurst, like so many others in the Northwoods, got its start through the logging industry. 

But unlike other Northwoods communities with origins in logging, Hazelhurst’s ties to the Yawkey Lumber Company gave it a slightly different trajectory.

It was a path that shapes the community to this day.  

Cyrus Carpenter Yawkey was a nephew of Michigan lumbering tycoon William Clyman Yawkey and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, where he learned the trade.  In 1888, William, Cyrus, and George E. Lee acquired a sizeable tract of land around Lake Katherine and started the sawmill village of Hazelhurst.  The three men organized the Yawkey and Lee Lumber Company, and immediately commenced timber cutting in the winter of 1888-1889.

Cyrus Yawkey was a teetotaler and did not allow saloons or other disreputable businesses in his new village, and this set Hazelhurst apart from other logging boomtowns.  However, not long after the village was founded, a large barge with a building on top of it appeared in the bay of Lake Katherine.  Some clever entrepreneur worked around Yawkey’s ban by putting up a saloon in the lake.  The owner would send out a launch to the village, pick people up, and bring them back later in the night in various stages of inebriation.  Of course, the launch had to be careful and never touch the shore, which meant that intoxicated guests had to wade through the water to shore at night.  More than one fell and had to be fished out of the cold water.

Yawkey was the sort of man who wanted to control every aspect of his lumbering camp, and the barge was just too much.  To defeat it, he compromised on his teetotaling ways and allowed Frank Bryant to build a single saloon near the bunkhouse at the outside edge of the settlement.  The barge lost its trade and was never heard from again.

Logging remained the primary business and getting the cut timber out of the district remained an issue as floating the logs out of the Hazelhurst area was not possible.  George Lee came from a railroading background, and while the firm became simply the Yawkey Lumber Company after 1893, Lee continued to focus on transportation issues.

In 1896, the Hazelhurst and Southeastern Railway Company filed articles of incorporation with the Wisconsin Secretary of State.  The road was proposed to be twenty miles in length and connect Hazelhurst with the Northwestern Line at McNaughton.  When completed, it gave the company access to transportation links going both north and south.

Naturally, a railroad requires a locomotive, and rather than purchase a new one, the Hazelhurst and Southeastern Railroad purchased Engine No. 5 from the Milwaukee, Lakeshore, and Western Railroad.  The Milwaukee Line was making the transition to coal burners, and Engine No. 5 was an old wood burner that was obsolete.  Yawkey had it rebuilt into a coal burner and renamed it as Engine No. 99.

Tracks were soon laid to Lake Tomahawk, and that station replaced McNaughton as the primary outlet.  At its peak, the railroad had 400 cars and 13 engines.

By 1911, the timber was exhausted, and Hazelhurst started the transition to resort tourism.  But Yawkey Lumber was not done.  In 2018, the Northwoods Land Trust received a gift of 431 acres of pristine land from the Yawkey Lumber Company.  It stands today for all to enjoy as the Yawkey Forest Reserve.