Red Wing & the Island History of Harbor Bar's property


  • RW Republican Eagle story printed 3/26/76            
  •  RW and the Island's "sin"
    Editor's note:  The article below came to the R-E from Mrs. Phyllis Montey of Cannon River Inn at Welch, via Red Wing historianEvelyn Nelson.
    Mrs Montey copied out this article from a magazine-type publication dated 1914  which somebody in Cannon Falls found while tearing down an old house.
    The publication was entitled "Tidsskrist" and was entirely in Norwegian except for this and one other article. The office of publication was listed as 1204 College Ave., Red Wing, Minn.
    This Island, which belongs to Wisconsin, harbored the most immoral places imaginable, and there was probably not a spot in the Northwest that was more wicked.
    Drunkeness and debauchery and grossest immorality there held sway for a generation.
    In the spring dead men were found in the sloughs on the Island. Every night in the week, and all Sunday the places on the Island were crowded by scores and scores of people, many of them young men and boys, and were led to temperal and eternal ruin.
        It so happened that  fearless Oluff Halls was sheriff of Pierce County, Wis., to which the Island belonged, and he offered to undertake the dangerous business of raiding the island dens and dives if Mr. Grondahl and the Daily Republican, together with such other men as could be trusted, would help in the work.
        Sheriff Halls and about 20 deputies armed with guns and revolvers, gathered in the basement of the Republican office one Saturday night and about 1 o"clock in the morning quickly marched over to the Island and placed the evil doers under arrest.
        In the mean time, telephone wires had been cut to keep the Island population ignorant of what was coming, and big electric flashlights had been provided so that the sheriff and his men could do their work when the lights went out, as they always did on the first sign of danger.
        If the people in the houses on the Island had had a moment's notice, or they could have escaped in the darkness into the wood's, the attempt to arrest them would have failed
    The owners and inmates of the evil houses were successfully arrested and taken to jail at Ellsworth. This, however, was only the beginning of the cleaning-out process on the island.
        The lawless element, assisted all along by the liqour interests on both sides of the river, fought for several years to get a foothold again on the Island, and at one time some of the church people of Red Wing, with their own hands,but in strict harmony with the law, tore down the buildings while hundreds of angry brewery adherents looked on from the Red Wing side of the river.
        A barn was left standing and after a while the lawbreakers took possession of that, until the women in charge was again arrested and finally sent to the penitentiary of Wisconsin for a year.
        During this long-drawn fight Mr. Grondahl was repeatedly threatened that he would be killed unless he let up his fight against the lawbreakers. Even when this old barn was the last resort of the wicked element, the brewing interests protected the place and smuggled large quantities of beer and liquor over to the place.

    Excerpts of the Red Wing Republican Eagle July 16, 1979
    The Island: 'No man's land'
    TRENTON  TOWNSHIP - It is a "no-mans land,"between states that share jurisdiction. It ha no official title and is known only as the Island.
    There are a half-dozen bars and eating establishments along less than one mile of roadway between the Mississippi River's main channel and its backwaters. Yet trouble inevitably comes to rest along that muddy stretch of Trenton Township.
    Island history- whether it is true, has been embellished over the years or is outright fiction - lives on in the minds of area oldsters.
    *  *  *
    "PUMPLINS SALOON" stood where the Harbor Bar is now," recalled Mary Gwen Owen Swanson from Hager City. "a Man by the name of Cook owned it and imported 'fancy girls from the Cities."
    Mrs. Swanson was 9 years old when a group of "vigilanties" from Red Wing crossed the Mississippi and Tore down Pumplins Saloon. She recalls the girls working the "House of ill repute" were thrown in Red Wings jail.
    A quick look into Madeline Angel Johnson's Red Wing history book,"Saga of a River Town" proved Mrs. Swanson's memory correct. "Citizens of Red Wing were very unhappy about a business consisting of a disorderly saloon and a "house with wild women." This establishment was located on the Island across from the city," the book reads.
    "MANY WILD PARTIES took place there, some of which involved shooting. On March 20, 1909, The Red Wing Public Works ... took the law into there own hands. With a city crew of workmen, horses and block and takle tore this house down to its foundation." The city officials were later sued for damages.
    Another of the tales, one that Mrs Swanson doubts herself, is that Jesse James and his gang stayed on the Island the night before they robbed the Northfeild bank. Residents of Vasa, Hay Creek and other comunities have been making that claim for years.
    Mrs Swanson admits that the Island "still has a reputation" and that friends ask her why she drives across the area. But she says she doesn't fear the Island and has found remembrances of teaching Island children at the Hager School.

    The Harbor Bar,s scenic location by the Mississippi river has drawn people to it since the beggining of this area being settle by the pioneers and continue’s to draw people today!

    Newspaper accounts reporting Island Events as follows
                                                                Red Wing Minn.
           Progress Edition, 1976 Approximatly Feb. 27         Republican Eagle Page 11
    Island raid part of Pierce County's history
    Six carriages full of men roll over "the high wagon bridge from Red Wing. As they pass the island resorts, echoes are heard of the blasphemy, the maledictions, the ribaldry of earlier hours. there are subdued groans and curses.
    "The carriages pass well beyond the saloons. Leaving the teams in charge of the drivers, the others walk quietly down to Cook's saloon and resort.
    "In a shorter time than it takes to tell it Sheriff Oluff O. Halls of Pierce County and his 14 men have surrounded and raided one of the most notorious brothels in the Northwest and taken its habitues and a number of their patrons into custody."
    The date was Sept 27, 1908, and the article was part of a newspaper account by the Red Wing Republican in what was believed to be the only special Sunday edition ever published.
    According to other newspaper clippings in a collection from the Archives Library at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, the brothel and several saloons had been operating on the island for over 25 years.
    Charles and May Cook, the proprietors of the brothel and two taverns, were arrested in their room in the saloon building, the front page article relates.
    "While The Cooks were being arrested, the officers not there engaged raided the resort a hundred yards or so further upstream, a place which has had a most unsavory reputation. Five women were gathered in, also six young men ( it was later reported that six women and four men were arrested).
    "They pleaded for mercy but the strong arm of the law was relentless and they were arrested..."
    "As The Entrance was made some of the men took to the tall timber,"the reporter, who had accompanied the posse recounted. "Those remaining were meek as lambs."
    "The "girls" thought the arrest was a joke at first but they soon realized it was the real thing." One attempted to call the Cooks and warn them, the story points out, but she was stopped.
    This description of the island establishments was in a separate newspaper account: "For a quarter of a century, the resorts on the island have swallowed up the manhood, the morality, the money and even the lives of men who have to within their zone, without ever being molested and with only an occasional faint voice raised against them. "Soddom and Gomarrah in thier palliest days of licentiousness would have to look to there laurels were they to be compared with the island over which sounds the peals of Red Wing's church bells, and yet Heaven has not set fire to destroy it nor has the public consience of Red Wing risen in its might and smitten it, nor has Pierce County felt much uneasiness about this festering ulcer on her body."
    The article points out that a quarter of a century earlier enough pressure was brought on island bar owners that the establishments were burned. As one account put it:
    "The Whole Filthy mess was consigned to the flames but it was freely charged that some interested individual fired the place to hide forever the evidence of a hundred unpunished crimes."
    The newspaper later in the same article lashed out at both Pierce County and Red Wing for allowing the brothel and bars to operate there for 25 years before closing them:
    "Is depravity so pronounced, corruption so general and cowedice so great that the County of Pierce and the city of Red Wing should pass this unnoticed? Heaven forbid!...
    "Granted that Pierce County is the legally responsible for conditions on the island. It need not be taken for granted that Red Wing furnishes nine-tenths of the sacrifices which the island claims on the alters of vice and corruption for that is an indisputable fact.
    "Although in Wisconsin and beyond our jurisdiction, there has never been a time when the right kind of public sentiment in Red Wing could not have morally controlled the island..."
    Sheriff Halls promised legal immunity for those Red Wingites who would testify at the Cook trial.

    May Cook and Maggy Murhy, who ran the house of ill repute for the Cooks, remained in jail from the time of their arrest until their trial while  Charles Cook was out on bail. The exact date of the trial wasn't available.
    The three were fined a total of $516. And the four acres of island property owned by Cooks was deeded over to RedWings Public Works to be converted over to a park and picnic grounds. The city planned at theat time to acquire about 60 to 70 acres adjacent the Cook property and owned by the LaGrange Mills as part of the park.
    When completed the park featured a "tourist camp, bathing beach, baseball park and athletic field," and summer homes were later built on one section.
    On March 25th, 1909, May Cook went back to one of the Cook Taverns and attempted to reopen it, according to a story in the Spring Valley, Wis., newspaper. Then Sheriff James Gilmore "went down to get her out but she stood him off with a revolver.
    "Later he went again and arrested her, taking her and her barkeeper to jail in Ellsworth. Mrs Cook and her fellow sinner were fined small sums and let go."
    However, the reports points out, a gang of men along with former Sheriff Halls who made the raid, went out in the meantime and pulled the buildings down.
    On April 6, 1909, according to the Red Wing Republican, Trenton Township voters overwhelmingly chose not ot renew any liqour license in that township. The vote was 122 to 51.
    :Trenton has gone dry," the account pointed out. "At the election held yesterday, license was buried under an avalanche of good mens votes."
    A Move began then to cede the island to Minnesota. Pierce Countians favoring the move claimed it was just too far from Ellsworth for county authorities to control it.
    Four Years earlier a similar attempt was made, but a Maiden Rock attorney W. C. Owen, representing Trenton Township, defeated the move. Owen later represented the Cooks in their trial.
    "It is not unlikely," a Red Wing newspaper account pointed out, that the question with regard to the transfer of the island opposite this city, from Wisconsin to Minnesota, will come up in the legislatures of both states during the coming winter."
    There aren't any accounts available, however, as to whether the issue ever came before either or both legislatures.
    On Jan. 5, 1927, while serving as Ellsworth Village clerk, former Sheriff IOluff Halls suffered a heart attack and died.
    His son Jay who planned much of the raid with his father back in 1908 when he was a law student at the University of Wisconsin, was reported to be a "prominent attorney in Chicago" in 1927.
    Accounts of the raid and Halls second trip to the island to destroy the buildings, also ran in a Swedish newspaper, The Skandinavian." Reproductions of the Swedish articles were included in the collection from the archives.
    That was just couple of the official stories reported on in the before mentioned newspapers. Many more stories were to be heard about that infamous island between the two midwest states. Though many of these stories can never be verified as true stories as you know dead men tell no tales, I believe many of them are true it seems as though stories like these have to come out sooner or later
    The following accounts have been heard about over the last 40 years, since the beginning of the Harbor Bar on July 1, 1964 . By Marilyn and Dick Graw who purchased the tavern and some cabins from "Crazy Frank" Burner that were on the very same spot as this story about the Cooks and is now presently owned by their son Brad Smith.
    He heard about 20 years ago from an old timer who ran moonshine from the island,he told about how all the "Artisian" wells in the backwaters were put there to produce moonshine. His name was Bob McCusker and he told Brad many stories of those wicked times of the island before he died. "The real reason they finally shut the whorehouse down was because of the bad case of clap spreading through the area and it was before the time of penacillin and people were dying."he said. "If it wern't for that it probably would have lasted another 25 years." Bob had said how he used to fill his gas tank up with shine and drive off the island to a meeting spot to unload the precious cargo from his tank so they could avoid the revenuers watching the island.
    Brad and his parents also heard of a man by the last name of Pucket who also ran a house of ill repute on the same spot as the Cooks. They burned down the place, put the women on a boxcar with a note do not open until New Orleans and locked it up, he was tarred and feathered put him on a raft and nobody ever heard of him again except for a  Land transfer from a Mr. David Pucket to Ernest Sempf recorded April 8th 1868 at the Goodhue County Register of deeds office. and another land transfer of a parcel of land recorded the 6th day of Feb. 1867 From David Pucket to Frank and Helen Ives.
    Red Wing was a busling rivertown back then, it was a grain capital, many brewery interests were here along with the Red Wing pottery.


    It was a known fact that the Island had whorehouses for over 50 years. Getting between the states was not an easy drive across a bridge back then. it meant you had to take a ferryboat on the Wisconsin channel then a stagecoach or walk the dangerous mile and a half to the north side where you then had to take another ferry across to Minnesota. The Red Wing and Trenton Transit Company would be the enterprise that ran the stagecoach and ferry business.

    After they built the highwagon bridge they had a toll bridge. It was said that was started by the gangters in their attempt to control the border crossing and was one of the first tollways in the country according to some accounts.
    Prohibition started and thats when the Island became a hangout for the gangsters like Al Capone, John Dilinger,and Pretty Boy Floyd. The islands between Red Wing and Hager City were notorious for moonshine operations. Its often been heard that more moonshine was made on these islands than the whole southern half of the United States. (One reason Red Wing Pottery Jugs are found throughout the U.S.) Red Wing was also one of the biggest moonshine capitols of the whole country It was a perfect place back then for running a still because all of the protection the Mississippi river would give the moonshiners. Any government revenuers could not get close they had to come by steamship which was very noisy or by canoe. They were either shot at and run off or killed. Or there arrival would come and the still site would be empty and the BATF would dismantel or blow up the stills. Winter logging provided cover for the the moonshiners with many ways, it provided them with wood to cook the shine and a reason for having fires in the swamps. The logging operations were also a way they could transport the illicit goods off the island.
    Transporting the moonshine was also a real challenge because of the pressure looking for runners all of which used to hang out on the island. It is known that many different gangsters men were all known to hang out there. Fights would break out between card games and they would have shootouts which would end up with someone getting killed. it is said that many members of the different gangsters are said to be dumped in the swamps nearby. Bonanos, Lucianos, Gambinos, Al Capones men,even John Dillingers gang all would lose some men to the island. Its said that even the prostitutes were hired to kill people. After they would seduce the person they were hired to kill they would slit there throats. They say this is where they learned to rap log chains around the victom and toss them in the swamp never to be seen again, the mud would just let them sink away making it impossible to find or recover for proof.
    It is said that many a outlaws would use the island as a hideout. I was told of how Jesse and Frank James hid out here for two weeks after the Northfield raid that caught the Unger boys. Jesse and Frank slipped out of town after hiding for two weeks in a canoe they were later captured in Missouri.
    John Dillinger was well known to the area it is a known fact that locals used to play poker in the island brothels with him. he would stop off here while his crew would go on to St. Paul 
    Pretty Boy Floyd hid out here for 4 days and healed his gunshot wounds after the raid to capture Dillinger in Wisconsin.


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