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Diamond Bluff park offers secluded place to play close to home

Folks in Diamond Bluff don't see a lot of strangers at Sea Wing Park except for boaters who pull ashore -- usually to go up the hill to the Nauti Hawg, a popular bar.

There's also a boat ramp three blocks east of the park.

If it were a theater, Sea Wing Park would be termed "an intimate setting." It's not very big or very fancy, but it's just the right size for this community of about 500 residents and fewer than 200 households.

Diamond Bluff is an unincorporated village on Highway 35, the Great River Road, northwest of Hager City and 13 miles south of Prescott. It offers spectacular views of the Mississippi River on one side and limestone bluffs on the other.

Towboats and barges pass within spitting distance of the beach at Sea Wing Park.

The village was named Monte Diamond by an early French settler, but the name was changed to Diamond Bluff in 1854.

The park gets its name from the small Pierce County community's historical association with the riverboat industry. Diamond Bluff was a natural port for steamboats that stopped here to replenish their supplies of wood fuel.

In addition, three steamboats -- the Sea Wing in 1888, the Twin City in 1900, and the J.M. in 1907 -- were built in Diamond Bluff.

The Sea Wing, which gave its name to the park, is the boat that capsized on Lake Pepin in 1890, taking the lives of 98 area residents.

The boat was captained and partly owned by David Wethern, 37, of Diamond Bluff. The Sea Wing was a stern-wheel rafter, 135 feet long, 22 feet high and weighing about 110 tons. Powered by a six-piston steam engine, it hauled lumber and other commodities on the river.

Early the morning of July 13, 1890, the Sea Wing left Diamond Bluff on a pleasure excursion. A tow barge was attached to it to carry passengers. It stopped at Trenton and Red Wing to take on passengers until about 250 were on board for the trip to Lake City to view a National Guard camp.

On the return trip late that afternoon, a storm broke. Some say it was a cyclone; others cite strong winds. The steamer capsized and sank.

Among the 98 victims were eight Diamond Bluff residents, including Wethern's wife, Nellie, and 8-year-old son, Perley. Wethern rebuilt the Sea Wing and the boat continued in service for a number of years.

But the historic tragedy is the furthest thing from the minds of most local folks who fish, play and relax in the park.

"I come over here all the time with my brother, Shane (Auger)," said Amanda Auger of Red Wing, who had just pulled in a 3-pound smallmouth bass. "It's good fishing."

Her mother, Debra Auger of Diamond Bluff, relaxed on the sand nearby with her fishing pole; her boyfriend, David Schoeppner, cast his line just down the shore.

"We come down here at least twice a week," Debra Auger said. A couple of weeks ago she caught two walleye, about 18 inches long, but there are also a lot of sheepshead in the river.

While the adults relaxed, two little guys raced up and down the sand looking for turtle eggs, dashing into the water and working off excess energy -- Slaiden, a nephew, and Cole, Amanda's son.

"We like to sit on the beach and let the boys be boys," Debra Auger said.

"It's a real quiet little area," she added, although plenty of boaters know about it. "I like that -- and the fact that I can stand here and catch fish."

It could use a few things, the family agreed, like another picnic table and a trash can -- and a portable restroom.

The Sea Wing Park is slowly being improved. Most of the work is done by volunteers, so there's no imminent timetable.