Roughly 10,000 years ago raging glacial meltwaters created the broad valley of the Upper Mississippi River that we know today. They also helped form one of the river’s most famous and significant landmarks, Barn Bluff.
As the last ice age came to an end, the glaciers melted. Glacial Lake Agassiz was formed from melt water. From Minnesota, the lake extended far into Canada, was more than 600 feet deep, and covered an area larger than the present-day five Great Lakes combined. As melting continued, the enormous body of water broke free and, joined by other melt waters began racing south and east through central Minnesota as glacial River Warren. This river, and others like it during the Pleistocene, carved the path of the present-day Minnesota River, merging it with another smaller river, the Mississippi.
Over time, the combined water mass eventually carved the broad valley of the Mississippi. As the meltwaters approached the future site of Red Wing, they bulldozed paths around and through the ancient limestone formations of the area. Stronger rock was left behind, including the formation later known as Barn Bluff.
Thousands of years passed. American Indians of the Woodland period lived in communities some five miles from the high limestone bluff. In the late 1600s, Frenchmen exploring their nation’s claims in “New France” traveled along the Upper Mississippi. They encountered the river bluff. To them it appeared like a barn, so they named it “La Grange” (the barn).
Tatankamani, the able Mdewakanton Dakota war leader, brought his small band of followers near the foot of Barn Bluff around 1815. Tatankamani, “Walking Buffalo” in English, was also known as “Red Wing.” He allied himself with the United States during the War of 1812. After the war, Americans moving up the Mississippi stopped at Red Wing’s village. Many visitors climbed to the top of the river bluff to enjoy the view, a broad vista that included the glacial river valley and the Mississippi. Americans anglicized the French name to Barn Bluff.
Following the 1851 Treaty of Mendota, the Red Wing band of Mdewakanton, now led by Wacouta, reluctantly left their homes. They took up residence on a Minnesota River reservation near present-day Morton.
Bluff climbers still scaled the now-well-known promontory, but its heights served another important purpose. Territorial Minnesota was largely cut off from the rest of America when the Mississippi froze each winter. Isolated settlers impatiently awaited the thaw and arrival of riverboats. Lookouts stood atop Barn Bluff each spring watching for steamboat smoke on the horizon. The appearance of the first steamer was an important day.
In the 1870s, the new railroads required stone “rip rap” to protect rail lines from erosion. The main tracks between Chicago and St. Paul ran past Barn Bluff, so it became a source of the rock. Workers blasted tons of stone from the limestone hill. The bluff’s quarries, along with those of other nearby sites, also provided stone for buildings in Red Wing and elsewhere. Kiln operators on the bluff “burned” limestone, reducing it to lime that, when mixed with sand and water, produced a kind of cement. Thanks to Barn Bluff and its neighboring hills, Red Wing became known as Minnesota’s “Lime Center.”
By 1907, some Red Wing citizens worried that the scenic but now scarred Barn Bluff would be blasted to bits. A concerted effort produced enough money to buy the bluff in 1910. Ownership went to the city. In 1929 the local Kiwanis Club built a stairway to the summit to more easily enjoy the view.
Nearly fifty years later, Barn Bluff came under a new threat. U.S. Highway 61 needed to be re-routed and the old 1895 wagon bridge to Wisconsin was to be replaced. These badly needed improvements were made, but at a heavy cost. Barn Bluff lost a large slice from its south-facing side and a significant portion of its northern face adjacent to downtown Red Wing. Blasting destroyed most of the original stairway, but a number of its concrete steps were saved. They were reinstalled and augmented in 1983 when the Kiwanis Noontime Club led a new effort to create a staircase to the bluff top.
A public park since 1910, the ancient bluff serves as an impressive landmark. An old quarry road, the improved stairway, and resting places make the hike to the summit relatively safe and easy.
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Meltwaters from the final stage of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago carve through limestone formations in the future Red Wing area. They create an island in the glacial river that becomes present-day Barn Bluff.