History is not only written by chiefs and conquerors. The mid-Twentieth Century Wabasha was full of “characters” – folks whose unique personalities and passions made them stand out from the crowd. Little did we suspect that two of them, a bar owner named “Slippery” Bach and his fishing buddy retired Chief of Police, “Chuck” Gilbert – would become the inspiration for two major motion pictures. The screenplays, written by Chuck’s grandson who spent his boyhood summers in Wabasha, refer to many local settings – including the protagonists favorite fishing hole in “Indian Slough.”
Wildlife Trails in the Mississippi River Valley are unsurpassed anywhere in the state of Minnesota. The trails provide days upon days of outdoor recreation like hiking or biking while being surrounded by wildlife, streams and rivers, plus rare and distinctive species of native flora and fauna. Within a fifteen minute drive you can enjoy these trails; Kruger, Snake Creek, Trout Valley, Zumbro Bottoms, and Whitewater Wildlife Management Areas.
The Paleozoic Period bedrock around Wabasha consists of layers of Ordovician sandstone and shale, and limestone formed by the living organisms in reefs on the bottom of the warm water seas that covered a large expanse of the Midwest prairie 500 million years ago.
After the seas dried, rampaging run-off from melting glaciers that moved down into Minnesota from Canada carved a 700 foot deep gorge out of the bedrock. The last of these great glacial events occurred some 10,000 years ago. As the waters receded, over hundreds of years, sand and gravel sediment settled out, creating terraces in the valleys. Our city, Wabasha, sits on one of these “remnant terraces,” about 200 feet above the original floor of the rocky gorge, and 500 feet below the surrounding edge of the prairie.
Close-up exploration of these bluffs today will reveal the many layers of lime and sandstone deposits spanning million of years, and even allow discovery of tiny fossilized sea animals and marine plants.
Wabasha is one of the oldest towns in the Mississippi River Valley and has been continuously occupied since 1826 and established by “The 2nd Treaty of Prairie du Chien”(1830) conclusively establishes Wabasha to be the oldest town in Minnesota. Wabasha was named in honor of an Indian Chief of the Medwakanton Sioux Nation, Chief Wa-pa-shaw, who had his principal camping ground along the Mississippi River. Chief Wa-pa-shaw’s nephew, Augustin Rocque, was the first white settler in this area and yet he was only half white. Augustin’s father, Joseph Rocque, was a Frenchman and his mother was the sister of the celebrated Chief Wa-pa-shaw. Both Augustin and Joseph were fur traders and both were Indian interpreters in the service of the British.
In 1833 Augustin Rocque built a large trading shanty just north of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. In 1836, Duncan Campbell built a shanty near that of Augustin’s and in the fall of 1838 Oliver Cratte was the first white to settle in the area – he came sown from Fort Snelling to open a government blacksmith shop on the levee. An elderly man named LaBatte, a skilled carpenter and riverboat pilot, put up a shanty for Alexis Bailly in 1840. All of these men were connected with Indian trade or were employed by the U.S. government to assist the Indians and half-breeds.
The City of Wabasha was not named until 1843 when it was called Wabashaw, after the old chief. The ceremony was performed by digging a hole in the ground on the levee, which is now between Alleghany and Pembroke Streets, a bottle with a piece of paper giving an account of the event was placed in the hole, then a post was set up over it with a board nailed to it upon which was printed “Wabashaw”. The “w” at the end was dropped in 1868 when map makers and published statutes had abandoned it.
Lumber and commerce were the main industries before the turn of the century, when steamboats moved up and down the Mississippi carrying supplies until the railroad replaced the need for them. Clamming was a major industry in the early 1900’s. The first clammers on Lake Pepin were searching for pearls and discarding the shells. Experiments proved that shells could be utilized in the manufacturing of buttons. In 1913 there were between 500 and 600 clammers who harvested 2400 tons of clams and 90 percent of the shells were available for manufacturing. In 1857 the completion of the first of five state roads was the Mendota to Wabasha road at 75 miles long and at a cost of $538 per mile for a total of $40,000 to build. Ten years later the Minnesota Central Railroad built its line alongside the road.
By 1878 Wabasha had a population of 3000 people. They boasted a library, a button factory, parks, tuberculosis sanitarium and six passenger trains each way daily on the main line to Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Railway. Before the bridge was completed, Wabasha had a ferry boat that was pulled by a cable across the river into Wisconsin. In 1931 the first interstate bridge was completed between Wabasha, Minnesota and Nelson, Wisconsin at a cost of $550,000 and it was a toll bridge. The dedication of the new interstate bridge was on July 30, 1988.
Wabasha is the county seat and it is on the National Register of Historic Places boasting 44 buildings of 59 that were built prior to 1900. The majority are two story, constructed of locally produced brick with flat roofs. In architectural terms this is representative of “the vernacular Italianate” commercial style. Ornamentation composed of simple brick relief cornices, stone sills and keystones are features found on the majority of the buildings. The Wabasha you visit today is structurally very similar to the City you would have visited a hundred years ago.
The Wabasha County Museum at Reads Landing was built in 1870 as a school house. The museum holds much of our history from Indian artifacts to logging and clamming equipment to a pioneer kitchen. (open weekends afternoons – May – September)