How The Town Of Lake Tomahawk Got Its Name

Oct 16, 2019

For over a year, our local historian Gary Entz has uncovered why many towns in the Northwoods are named what they are.

Some previous installments of A Northwoods Moment in History have included how the towns of Phelps, St. Germain, Sayner, and Rhinelander got their names.

In this week’s installment, we hear how the town of Lake Tomahawk got its name.

Today Lake Tomahawk is a popular tourist destination on highway 47.  Nestled in the middle of the American Legion State Forest, Lake Tomahawk is known primarily as the home of Camp American Legion, the McNaughton Correctional Camp, and Snowshoe Baseball.  However, the town’s history goes back further than all of those things.

In 1887 work began on laying rail lines northward toward Lake Tomahawk.  There had been an Ojibwe village along the shore at that time, and railroad contractors forced it to relocate in order to make room for railroad construction, a lumbering operation, and a proposed townsite.  Construction of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad proceeded rapidly, and in 1888 J. Leppla arrived as the first station agent.  Fred Hogstradt arrived a year later to be the first postmaster of a little village that bore the name of Rainbow.  Another early name for the community was Chapman, but most residents simply referred to the settlement as Tomahawk Lake.  Leppla described his first arrival at Tomahawk Lake.  In his words, “it was like a tunnel through heavy timber as the train came to the station.  It took a train crew and a gang of loggers two months to pick up the logs cut for the right of way here.”

Outside of railroads and lumbering, one of the first businesses to open in the town of Rainbow on the shores of Lake Tomahawk was Silver Dan’s saloon, which was run out of a tent.  There were twenty camps located on or near the Wisconsin River in those early days, and plenty more saloons soon opened for business.  As the lumbermen cleared the forest, the land was made available to homesteaders.  Homestead claims started as early as 1890.  A few homesteaders transformed their land claims into tourist resorts in order to take advantage of the tourist trade traveling to the Northwoods for hunting and fishing.  Among the earliest of these was the Two Jacks Resort, which offered lakeside cabins for tourist enjoyment.

A new sawmill came along in 1892, and prospects for the little town were very good.  Then in April 1897, a fire raged through the town and leveled every structure except for the depot and the Hotel Chapman.  Fire was a common occurrence among the flimsy, wood-framed buildings of frontier boomtowns.  Survivors usually just counted their losses and rebuilt for the next boom, which is what the residents of Tomahawk Lake did.  Beyond rebuilding the tourist trade, the residents of Tomahawk Lake got another boost after the turn of the century when Governor Robert La Follette, William J. Starr, and other members of the Wisconsin State Fish Commission visited the town in order to establish a state fish hatchery on the lake.

By the early 1930s, residents of the region reversed the order of the town’s name from Tomahawk Lake to Lake Tomahawk, which is how it remains to this day.

Some music for this commentary came from Podington Bear.