Wabasha dates back to 1830, the year of the 2nd Treaty of Prairie du Chien, the year which conclusively established Wabasha as the oldest town in what was yet to be called Minnesota. The city is named in honor of Indian Chief of the Sioux Nation, Chief Wa-pa-shaw.
Chief Wa-pa-shaw had a nephew, Augustin Rocque, who was the first white settler in this area and yet he was only have white. His father, Joseph Rocque, was a Frenchman and his mother was the sister of the celebrated Chief Wa-pa-shaw. Augustin was born in Prairie du Chien in 1795. Both Augustin and his father Joseph were fur traders and both were indian interpreters in the service of the British. Rocque and government appointee, Long, established his home with Wabasha’s trading posts on the upper Mississippi River, extending his operation from the foot of Lake Pepin.
Prior to 1830, treaties existed with the Northwest Indian tribes. However, in 1830, a second treaty with these tribes was held at Prairie du Chien. It is this treaty and the records maintained by the U.S. Government plus trading posts and shanties established by Augustin Rocque that actually established Wabasha as the oldest town in Minn.
After the treaty, Rocque built a larger trading shanty in 1833, just north of Wabasha’s St. Elizabeth Hospital and near the present residence of Patrick Riley (built 1870). In 1836, Duncan Campbell built a shanty near that of Augustin Rocque and in the fall of 1838, Oliver Cratte was the first white man to settle in the area of the village of Wabasha. Cratte came down a few weeks later and Pierre Hortobese, a nephew of old Chief Wa-pa-shaw, also built a shanty on the south side of the Zumbro River.
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 written the name “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. The American Queen, Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen steamboats still run up and down the Mississippi, but carry passengers.
Clamming was once a major importance to Wabasha. 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 and similar objects. In 1913, there were between 500 and 600 clammers who harvested about 2400 tons of clams and 90 percent of the shells were available for manufacturing purposes. Lake City and Wabasha had button factories, but with the introduction of synthetic materials, the industry came to an end around 1940.
In 1857 the completion of the first state road from Mendota to Wabasha. It was 75 miles long at a cost of $538 per mile totaling $40,000 to build. Ten years later the Minnesota Central Railroad built its line along side the road, running side by side much of the way. In 1871, Chicago and St. Paul Railroad was completed southward giving Wabasha communication with the cities of the east. By 1878, Wabasha had a population of 3000. 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.
In 1915, Wabasha claimed 9 lodges, 2 banks, 5 churches, 2 public school buildings with 88 high school students and 201 grade school students. St. Felix Parochial School had 230 students enrolled in grades 1- 12. Wells Fargo Express Company, Princess Theater, Anderson Hotel, Fire Department with two trucks, Big Jo Flour Mill, health department, St. Elizabeth Hospital, 17 elevators, mercantile company, lumber company, boat yard, Catholic orphanage and a Poor Farm occupied Wabasha.
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 bridge was completed between Wabasha, Minn. and Nelson, Wis. at a cost of $550,000 and was a toll bridge. It was torn down with the construction of the latest bridge. The dedication of the new bridge linking Wisconsin to Minnesota via HWY 25 was July 30, 1988.
Wabasha has two prominent churches. St. Felix Catholic Church was built on land donated by Augustin Rocque in 1862. It was destroyed by a fire in 1893 and nine months later, the new church was completed at a cost of $17,000. Grace Memorial Church was designed in 1899 by Thomas Irvine as a memorial to his wife, Emily Hills Irvine and her parents, Reverend and Mrs. Horace Hills. Rev. Hills was the pastor of the church from 1872 until 1877. Irvine’s only request was that the church be named Grace Memorial.
The rare American Bald Eagle thrives in the Wabasha area. Their nesting ground is the thousands of acres of wildlife area known as the Nelson Bottoms located directly across from the city of Wabasha. During the late fall, winter and early spring, it is common to see them soaring and diving for fish in the open water from the foot of Lake Pepin to the south of Wabasha.