To access any full length Red Wing Republican Eagle article please click on a headline with black borders.
Once compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, legend says Trenton Island was the carousing grounds for
notorious characters: Jesse James, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd and was a general den of sin for
gunslingers, bootleggers, and prostitutes. This little island boasts history equivalent to such greats as the
Black Hills and Fort Sumner.
In the late 1800’s Red Wing would run a ferry twice a day over to Trenton Island in order to access
Wisconsin. During this time the only thing on Trenton Island was a primitive road that would flood in
high water. This all changed in 1895 when the high bridge connecting Minnesota to Wisconsin was
opened on May 1st. Both Red Wing and Pierce County residents were engaged in quite the celebration.
But by 1908, all the warm and cozy feelings that Red Wing residents had about Trenton Island had truly
dissipated. Shortly after a raid shut down the booze dens and brothels of Trenton Island and put five
women and seven men in jail. It was so bad that the Republican Eagle 1908 article even states:
“Profanity and rank obscenity together with bestiality are the trinity on the Island Saturday nights.”
The article, probably one of the most slanderous pieces of literature ever written about the Island, goes
on to state: “Sodom and Gomorah in their palmist days of licentiousness would have to look to their
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 sent fire to destroy it nor has the public conscience of Red Wing risen in
its might and smitten it, nor has Pierce county felt much uneasiness about this festering ulcer on her
The second article (to read in full click the headline below) was published in 1976, but provides a more
detailed history of what occurred due to the 1908 raid of the Island. A year after the raid, the owner of
most of the Island, May Cook, attempted to reopen her tavern, unfortunately the city of Red Wing had
different ideas and were dead set on seizing her land and turning it over to Red Wing Public Works for
the creation of public parks. And in more physical terms, a gang of men led by the Pierce County
Sheriff confronted Mrs. Cook and literally tore down her buildings.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The most important repercussion from the raid of 1908 was prohibition on
the Island as no more liquor licenses were to be granted. “Trenton has gone dry.” The account pointed
out. “At the election held yesterday, license was buried under an avalanche of good men’s votes.”
As Trenton was often the local watering hole and liquor den for the people of Red Wing and
surrounding areas, the lost of the Island, although, probably proper caused those interested in liquor to
be out of a domicile. The licentiousness of the Island proved to be international as the third article,
which again recaps the raid of 1908 and the liquor interests on both sides of the river, originally, comes
from a 1914 publication entitled “Tidsskrist” and was almost entirely written in Norwegian.
The dry Island, of course, did not stay dry for long, especially when Minnesota, along with the rest of the
United States, established prohibition on January 16, 1920. There was endless trouble with the dry law
violators. Some were fined, others committed to jail, but as fast as one crop was disposed of another
appeared. Over the thirteen years of prohibition, actually fewer in Wisconsin which put the kibosh on
prohibition in 1929, the Island became the new hotbed of illegal liquor production. During prohibition
reduced strength beer, “near beer”, was still being served in a few places, although basically worthless as
booze, it was a great base for cooking up a good moonshine, which just happened to be quite a stinky
process. Where better to brew the smelly moonshine than on the sparsely inhabited Island, because you
could definitely not brew stinky beer in Red Wing, where your priestly neighbor would sniff you out in a
Once prohibition was repealed across the United States in 1933, Trenton Island dropped out of the
spotlight for a while. But that doesn’t mean that the same debaucherous activities were not going on
here. The Island was still filled with divey dens of iniquity and go-go dancers lined every bar. Finally in
the seventies the Island again got the spotlight but this time for the dancers.
Red Wing citizens were not too pleased with the article, but do not seem to make a point to weather
they are upset with the content or the style with which it was written. Or perhaps they just wanted
another venue to preach Jesus’ love, nevertheless, there were a handful of letters to the editor after that
front page article.
Even into the beginning of the eighties the Island, part of Trenton Township, held half-dozen bars and
eating establishments which was the residence of a lot of trouble.
With the Pierce County HMGP project buyout of most of the Trenton Island properties (including the
beloved Gene’s Bait and Tackle), the Island’s watering holes and go-go clubs have been limited. The
Island is now home to two campgrounds, three marinas, and two restaurants/bars. Although no longer is
the Island a hotbed for illegal activity, its infamy will still live on in the stories of gun fights, dodging
prohibition, and all the rest of the immoral activities that the Island used to be residence to.
|Credit: Rasmussen, C.A.
A History of Red Wing Minnesota.
|Credit: Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota A
Narrative History. Goodhue County Historical Society Press,
Red Wing, MN. Pg. 236
|Prohibition makes you
want to cry
into your beer and
denies you the beer
to cry into
|Click on the black
bordered headline links
to read the tawdry
details in full!
|Our most humble appreciation and gratitude to the Red Wing Republican Eagle, for making all of
their past editions available to the public in microfilm and the Red Wing Public Library, whose staff,
particularly the reference librarian, taught a silly girl how to sift through years of microfilms.