Lake Pepin: From the French Crown to Henry David Thoreau

What is Lake Pepin?

Lake_Pepin

Lake Pepin, MN

Lake Pepin is a 26 mile long naturally occurring lake on the Mississippi River that spans from Frontenac State Park to Wabasha, MN. Lake Pepin is the widest area along the entire length of the Mississippi River. The lake formed because of the backup of water behind sedimentary deposits from the Chippewa River delta. Lake Pepin is famous for being the birthplace of waterskiing, and is home to the only lighthouse on the Mississippi River, found at the Lake City, MN Marina.

Where the Name “Pepin” Came From

 
The name Lake Pepin first appears on a map of New France published in 1703. Presumably the name refers to the Frankish King Pepin who was born in 714. Pepin’s greatest claim to fame is as the father of Charlemagne, the Frankish ruler who united Northern Europe for the first and only time, and attempted with the help of the Pope to revive the Holy Roman Empire. Today the name may only remind this that the entire countryside roundabout was once claimed by, though it had never really been possessed by, the French crown.

 

A Trip down Lake Pepin: A Historical Perspective

As we proceed down the shores of Lake Pepin enjoying the spectacular scenery, perhaps we should spend a few minutes reviewing the period in history when the upper Mississippi was an enticing destination for those seeking scenery and wildness, preferably from a comfortable chair on a passing steamboat. Such journeys find their modern equivalents in treks to the remote reaches of Mongolia, Southeast Asia or the Amazon where the quest for contact with a more primitive way of life is made easier by the encroaching presence of airplanes, jeeps and helicopters.

The Artist George Catlin and the Beginning of Lake Pepin Tourism

Travelers who came upstream by steamboat from Rock Island or St. Louis in the 1830s may have been looking to settle and farm, though most of the land was still unavailable. Then again, more than a few were in search of first-hand experience of the unusual lifestyles of the Dakota tribes and the pristine beauty of the Mississippi river bluffs. Among the first visitors was the famous artist George Catlin, who recommended that a fashionable tour be developed along the upper Mississippi. The ideas took hold, and before long men and women of means were joining the salubrious weather and perhaps a glimpse or two of the fascinating native inhabitants.

Henry David Thoreau and the “New Heroic Age”

Literary transcendentalists who often expressed their virtues of wildness and the corrupting influence of society also made the trek. Once such literary figure was Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, who came to Minnesota twice and spoke on his return of a new heroic age during which simple and obscure men would build a new and different type of castle in the west and throw bridges across a stream of a different kind.

In 1854, a grand excursion of steam boats was organized to visit the upper Mississippi en masse. Twelve hundred people ventured north on that flotilla, more than the population of most of the towns visitors passed along the way. With the opening of the lands west of the Mississippi to settlement in 1853, such tourists were joined by immigrants arriving in ever-increasing numbers. In 1854, 256 steamboats arrived in St. Paul, Four years later that number had quadrupled to 1,068.

Steamboat Revival

Though the expansion of rail lines put an end to most steamboat traffic by 1870, there has been a revival of interest in recent years, and you might catch sight of a steamboat if you make your way along Minnesota’s Great River Road. You’re far more likely to see a caravan of barges carrying coal to one of the power plants upstream, but we’ll leave that story for another time.

Lake Pepin is part of Minnesota’s Great River Road Tour. If you liked this story, please purchase the Great River Road Tour on CD or MP3 and make the journey down Highway 61 in Southeastern Minnesota for yourself.

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Great River Road Audio Tour

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