The river has played an important transportation role from the time that Native Americans lived in the area (now occupied by downtown) and hunted and fished in the river and its backwaters. In the 19th century, Red Wing businessmen erected a low dam across the Wisconsin Channel because early commercial river traffic bypassed Red Wing preferring the shorter Wisconsin Channel to the longer Red Wing one. Although the dam is not visible, it successfully established the Red Wing Channel as the only channel and led to the growth of Red Wing as an important port city in Minnesota.
In the 19th century, steamboats brought white settlers, travelers, and cargo to Minnesota. They stopped in Red Wing for firewood, other supplies, and local products while letting off and picking up passengers. Red Wing was one time the world’s largest wheat port.
Red Wing has been a destination for riverboats since the mid 19th century. These include both cargo and passenger boats.
Today the United States Corps of Engineers is responsible for the river’s navigation system. It sets the buoys and shore markers that mark the channel and periodically dredges the channel to maintain its 9 1/2 feet depth required by towboats pushing large fleets of barges. The Works Progress Administration built a series of lock and dams in the Upper Mississippi during the mid-1930’s. One is upstream from Red Wing.
Today the Red Wing Port Authority runs the port. Each year, 600,000 to 750,000 tons of grain (21 to 26.2 million bushels) are shipped from the Red Wing Grain Company and 50,000 to 60,000 short tons of corn, soy beans, and vegetable oil from the Archer Daniels Midland Company. During the navigation season many empty barges are stored along the shore across from Colvill Park waiting to move up river to the port to be loaded with cargo.