Known for bald eagles and the Grumpy Old Men movies, Wabasha is a pleasant river town and an enjoyable place to kick back and watch the world float by. Wabasha is also among the few towns where the riverfront is undisturbed by railroad tracks, so you can enjoy the scenery in relative peace.
The Wabasha-Kellogg Convention and Visitors Bureau (137 Main St. West; 651.565.4158) has all the brochures you could possibly want, and more.
Wabasha claims to be Minnesota’s oldest city, and it’s certainly hard to argue the point. Europeans first arrived in 1826. Duncan Campbell and a few other settlers trickled into the area in the 1840s as a small community developed, many of them of mixed Native American/European ancestry. The city was named Wabashaw in 1843 for the Dakota chief who lived in the area; the last “w” was dropped in 1858 when the city incorporated. The village was formally platted in 1854; the early population included a mix of French Canadians, Native Americans, English, and Americans who were later joined by German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants.
Wabasha had a few lumber mills and companies producing finished lumber pieces, but many people also made a living directly from the river through fishing, clamming, ice harvesting, and boat building. Between 1860 and 1870, the city’s population nearly doubled from 894 to 1,739. Wabasha was among the many communities that served as a transit spot for local wheat, at least until wheat farming ended in the 1880s. The St. Paul and Chicago railroad reached Wabasha from St. Paul in 1871; this ensured Wabasha’s future and ended Reads Landing’s.
Wabasha’s first highway bridge opened in 1931, ending nearly 70 years of ferry service. The ramp into town had an s-curve that bent to Pembroke Avenue so traffic would flow through the commercial district. It was replaced in 1989 with one that has a ramp that goes right over the top of the commercial district, so traffic now bypasses it. (You now know better and should detour down to the commercial district.)
Wabasha served the retail needs of the local farming community until the availability of automobiles made it easier for folks to drive to bigger cities to shop. Wabasha also suffered from the general decline in the farm economy. In recent years, the city has had modest growth in light industry and has retained grain mills.
Wabasha is included in these products:
One of the best regional attractions, the National Eagle Center (50 Pembroke Ave.; 877.332.4537/651.565.4989) has exhibits on the special talents of a bald eagle and the symbolic role eagles have played in many cultures. You can also get close to live eagles at the center; these birds were rescued from life-threatening injuries but are not good candidates for release.
The riverfront waterfall was designed by local residents John and Marcia Bouquet and built in 2009. It pumps water from the Mississippi River into the fountain, then sends it cascading back into the river. A statue of Chief Wapashaw was installed in 2010.
Grace Memorial Episcopal Church (205 3rd St. E.; 651.565.4827) is a gem of a church. The parish dates to 1857, but the current English Gothic edifice was completed in 1901 from local limestone with a roof of Vermont blue slate. The Resurrection Window over the altar was made by the Tiffany Company; it was shipped by rail to Wabasha, escorted by four armed guards.
The congregation of St. Felix Catholic Church (117 3rd St. W.; 651.565.3931) dates to 1858; the current church was completed in 1893. The Gothic Revival church still has its original high altar and, just above the sanctuary, an unusual stained glass window in the ceiling.
Getting on the River
Broken Paddling Guiding Company offers guided kayak tours (day trips) along the Mississippi River between Red Wing and Winona, often in backwater areas rich with wildlife.
Culture & Arts
Down by the River Gallery (152 Main St.; 651.565.5414) has rotating exhibits of work by local artists.
Entertainment and Events
Wabasha has a twice weekly Farmers Market: Mondays in the parking lot at St. Elizabeth Medical Center (1200 Grant Blvd. W.) and Thursdays under the bridge downtown in Heritage Square Park.
On Friday nights in summer, the city hosts live concerts in Heritage Square Park.
Check the schedule for the Broadway Theater (611 Broadway Ave.) to catch a movie or a live show.
Wabasha has festivals throughout the year, so you’ll just have to come back. If you only go to one it should be Grumpy Old Men Days (late February; 651.565.4158). Inspired by the movies penned by Minnesota native Mark Steven Johnson, the festival has a host of fun events that will keep you smiling: a hot dish luncheon, minnow races, and the requisite ice fishing contest.
Stick around into March, for SOAR with the Eagles at the National Eagle Center.
The Wabasha Public Library hosts worm races in mid-June (651.565.3927), which is a nice bookend to the minnow races in February.
The big city party is called Riverboat Days (651.565.4158), which has a fishing contest, pancake-eating, and a parade in late July.
If you have one more festival in you, check out the Wabasha County Fair (651.565.4158) in mid-July.
Sports and Recreation
Just west of the river, Kruger Recreation Area (651.345.3401), part of the Richard Dorer Memorial Forest, has a good network of trails for hiking and mountain biking. Follow Minnesota Highway 60 west for five miles, then take County 81 for half a mile.
River Rider (257 Main St. W.; 651.565.4834) is a good source of expert advice about where to ride, as well as for bicycle sales and repairs.
There is a public swimming beach near the Gazebo at the west end of Main Street. The Wabasha Community Pool (888 Hiawatha Dr. East; 651.565.2375) is another option; it has a big waterslide that I’m sure you’ll love.
Another good outdoor option is a hike along the dike to Lock and Dam 4 for great views of the river and Alma, Wisconsin. During my 45-minute hike, I saw Canadian geese, a snake, turtles, ducks, and a bald eagle. To reach the dike from Wabasha, take County Highway 30 south to the second turn for County Highway 24, then 652nd Street to 140th Avenue; park in the small lot with the sign that reads “Public access” (and has the address 64938 140th Ave.).
Eating and Drinking
Slippery’s Bar & Grill (10 Church St.; 866.504.4036/651.565.4748), the bar made famous by the Grumpy Old Men movies, can be a fun place to get a drink, although the mood is occasionally soured by large tour buses that dump scores of drinkers on the scene. If you don’t like crowds, avoid coming here on a summer weekend.
Stacy’s Kitchen (116 Main St.; 651.565.4408) is a small-town diner offering hearty breakfast options of skillets, sandwiches, quesadillas, and omelets.
The Olde Triangle Pub (219 Main St. W.; 651.565.0256) serves up burgers, sandwiches, and salads plus a few Irish specialties like shepherd’s pie and Irish stew, all of which you can enjoy with a pint of Guinness.
Ice cream addicts have three options: the Chocolate Escape (152 W. Main St.; 651.565.0035), where you can wash it down with a cappuccino at the adjacent Big Jo Espresso; The Scoop (Heritage Park), which is under the bridge; and Eagles Nest Coffee House (330 2nd St. West; 651.565.2077), which also includes the option of an espresso.
Kruger Recreation Area (County Road 81; 651.345.3401) has 19 large but primitive sites in a heavily-wooded area with a common water source.
The Big River Resort (1110 Hiawatha Dr. E.; 866.565.9932/651.565.9932; WiFi) has 14 large sites, all with water, electric, and sewer hookups.
The Wabasha Municipal Campground (Main & Church; 651.565.4568) has a few sites available for overnight rental on a first-come, first-served basis in a crowded but shady area.
Pioneer Campsites Resort (64739 140th Ave.; 651.565.2242; WiFi) is a large campground near the backwaters with cramped sites set in deep shade amidst tall pine trees.
The Big River Resort (1110 Hiawatha Dr. E.; 866.565.9932/651.565.9932; WiFi) has 10 clean, bright rooms with cable TV.
The folks at the Big River Resort (1110 Hiawatha Dr. E.; 866.565.9932/651.565.9932) built a cabin in 2010 so you know it’s in great shape. The Park Model home has a full kitchen with grown-up size appliances, a flat screen TV, and a bedroom with a queen bed.
Bed and Breakfast
Turning Waters Bed, Breakfast, and Adventure has 5 lovely rooms in an old Victorian mansion. They actively encourage, even help arrange, a variety of ways to get outdoors and experience the natural wonders of the surrounding area (kayaking, hiking, bicycling, snowshoeing, etc.).
The Coffee Mill Motel & Suites (50 Coulee Way; 877.775.1366/651.565.4561; WiFi is extra) has 21 rooms in a variety of styles and sizes, all with cedar walls and ceilings, cable TV, coffee pot, microwave, and fridge. Standard rooms are downstairs and have lower ceilings; the chalet rooms are basically the same as standard rooms just with higher ceilings; suites have king beds (and two have hot tubs) but aren’t much larger than standard rooms and are decorated in themes that barely register. Unless you really plan on using a hot tub, the best deal is to stick with the standard or chalet rooms; they also rent an apartment that has a fireplace and full kitchen that could comfortably sleep six. Check their website for special package deals, especially in winter.
Lofts on the Mississippi (212 Main St. W.; 507.261.1450; WiFi) are two units that would serve anyone well as a home: a one-bedroom unit on the second floor with a deck that has river views; and a two-bedroom unit on the third floor with features like French doors and a Jacuzzi tub. Each unit has nice touches like wood floors and exposed brick, walk-in showers, fireplaces, full modern kitchens, and cable TV.
America’s Lofts (800.482.8188/651.565.3509; WiFi in most) consists of eight units in recently rehabbed historic buildings in downtown Wabasha; while the amenities vary from unit to unit, most have full kitchens, balconies or patios, a fireplace, and a Jacuzzi tub.
Eagles on the River Vacation Rentals (800.482.8188/651.565.3509; WiFi in most) has six fabulous rental units on the riverfront; most have cable TV, fireplace, full kitchens, grills, washer and dryer, and boat docks.
The local newspaper is the Wabasha County Herald (651.565.3368).
Post Office: 109 Main St. E.; 651.565.3909.
Wabasha Public Library: 168 Alleghany Avenue; 651.565.3927; WiFi.
Limited bus service is available through Hiawathaland Transit (866.623.7505); call to schedule a ride.
Heading upriver? Check out Reads Landing.
Heading downriver? Check out Kellogg.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011