Once the center of a large commercial fishing operation, Bay City today is primarily a residential community, drawing fewer tourists than some of its neighbors along Lake Pepin.
Mr. A.C. Morton was the first known European to arrive at the future village site; he built a home in 1855. A.J. Dexter believed he had purchased the land before Morton’s arrival, so he got a bit peeved when Mr. Morton’s surveyor, a man named Markle, showed up to plat the village of Saratoga; Dexter killed the surveyor for trespassing. This didn’t create a positive vibe for the new village, so Saratoga was abandoned and the buildings were moved across the ice to neighboring Warrentown. Charles Tyler bought the site in 1856 for $1,700 in back taxes and rebranded the site as Bay City, naming it for the natural bay that was the site’s most distinctive feature. Early 20th century businesses included the predictable saloon, a confectionary, a billiard hall, a grain dealer, and a meat market.
Bay City was once home to a major commercial fishing operation. Around 1910, a school of Scandinavian fishermen relocated from Sevastopol (Minnesota) to Bay City, because it was cheaper to get a fishing license in Wisconsin. Bay City also had a rail station, so the fishermen had access to transportation that could ship their catch across the US. The fish were typically packed in barrels with ice but local hero Capp Tyler invented a box (the Tyler Box) that proved to be a more efficient packing method. He opened a box making factory in Bay City, and supplied fishermen along the eastern shore of Lake Pepin. Early on, most of the commercial fishermen ran small operations, but over time larger companies pushed out or swallowed the smaller ones. Changing tastes in the eating habits of Americans reduced demand for Lake Pepin fish after World War II; the last major fishing operation in Bay City closed in 1952. Bay City today has little industry; most residents commute to jobs in other places.
The 1850s Conlin Log Cabin, filled with period furnishings, is the highlight at the River Bluffs History Center (W6321 E. Main St.; 715.273.0118; call for hours or to schedule a visit). The main building (an old church) has a few historic photos, old farm tools, a buggy, and overview of agriculture in the county.
Saratoga Park (Pepin and Main Streets) has a small playground and places to picnic with a good view of Lake Pepin.
Getting on the River
Bay City Resort (N1202 Wabash; 715.594.3147) has a 14-foot fishing boat available for rent; you’ll need to bring your own motor.
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Entertainment and Events
Bay City Fest (715.594.3168) has events to challenge your skills in wiffle ball, bean bag tossing, and bed racing (2nd Saturday in June).
At Pioneer Day (715.273.6611) immerse yourself in the 19th century and learn how to make butter and cider, listen to old-timey music, and watch an impressive display of corn stripping (no dancing involved).
Sports and Recreation
Pierce County Islands Wildlife Area (715.684.2914) is 860 acres of protected backwaters islands that are nearly adjacent to Bay City and good places to fish or watch wildlife; you’ll need a boat to reach most of it.
There is a small swimming beach at the Bay City Park/Campground.
Get your ice cream fix at the popular Flat Pennies (W6442 State Highway 35; 715.594.3555); look for the caboose.
Bay City Campground (106 Park St.; 715.594.3229; open May–Oct) has 25 cramped sites surrounding a parking lot and next to a busy boat ramp, but the tent sites are on a small peninsula away in a more desirable location; no showers.
Bay City Resort (N1202 Wabash; 715.594.3147; open Apr–Oct) has two basic cabins that are rough around the edges, but they are inexpensive and next to the bay that connects to Lake Pepin. Each cabin has a bathroom with shower, full kitchen with microwave, air conditioning, and satellite TV.
Post Office: W6372 Main St.; 715.594.3862.
Heading upriver? Check out Hager City.
Heading downriver? Check out Maiden Rock.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011,2017