The La Crosse landscape is described as a prairie with surrounding bluffs and coulees, or in geographical terms -- uplands and valleys. La Crosse County is located in the driftless area and was not covered by glaciers during the last ice age. The term "coulee" is a French word and is described as a deep ravine or steep-walled valley.
The Mississippi River valley lies to the west while a line of bluffs extends across the area from north to south. The city of La Crosse is situated where three rivers meet: the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse.
The origins of permanent white settlement in La Crosse began with the arrival of fur trader Nathan Myrick in 1841. Myrick, originally from Westport, New York, and only eighteen years of age, set up a fur trading post with Eben Weld across the Mississippi River on what was then called Barron's Island. The following year, Myrick and his new partner Harmon J. B. Miller moved their post to the shores of Prairie La Crosse. Trade between Myrick, Miller and the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) peoples was heavy in those first years, trading muskrats, raccoon, mink and other furs and silver coins for goods Myrick & Weld had purchased on credit at Prairie du Chien, some 80 miles south of La Crosse. Myrick also cut wood during the winter months to sell as fuel for the steamboats traversing the waters of the Mississippi River.
The pine forests of the Black River some thirty miles above La Crosse were soon to overshadow the economic benefits of the fur trade. Already in 1848, Myrick noted 11 sawmills on the Black and its tributaries. Since the Mississippi River boats could not navigate the Black River, cargo boats were unloaded at La Crosse. As a result, merchants in La Crosse became middlemen, storing and forwarding goods for a commission, while others bought supplies from towns south of La Crosse and resold them to the Black River lumbermen. Other industries also began as a result of the connection of the town site to the river, and repairing and renovating older boats and building new ones became a thriving industry. All of these factors, including migration and immigration, helped to spur growth of the village.
La Crosse relied heavily upon water transportation for its contacts with others. The earliest road to the village was originally a Native American trail from Prairie du Chien along the Mississippi River. Slowly the town site grew from "six or eight houses" in 1850 to an astonishing population of 745 just three years later, according to an unofficial census taken by Rev. Carr in 1853. In 1851, La Crosse County was formed from Crawford County by the state legislature. As early as 1854 a seven-person committee was formed to draft a charter for applying for city status, skipping over the village status. Nothing was accomplished at that time, and the state census of 1855 indicated that the population of the community now totalled 1637
While lumber was being forested from the Black River pine forests near Black River Falls as early as 1839, the height of the lumber boom in northern Wisconsin occurred in 1899. By this turn of the twentieth century, it was the beginning of the end of the lumbering trade in La Crosse.
Cadwallader Washburn, one of many of La Crosse’s lumbermen and entrepreneurs, “improved” the Black River thereby making it much easier to float logs down the Black to awaiting sawmills in 1865. Many sawmills had been constructed along the shoreline in a stretch from Onalaska north of La Crosse south to Isle la Plume on La Crosse's south side. However, most were located on the north side of the city near the confluence of the Black and Mississippi rivers. North La Crosse remained a separate village until 1871 when it was annexed into the city under what some North Side residents considered a hostile takeover.
Many New Englanders became rich from the seemingly endless supply of pine, but when the Wisconsin supply did run out near the end of the nineteenth century, these lumber barons moved further west or south to pursue lumbering as a source of capital.
Lumber greatly fueled the economy of both the city of La Crosse and the village of Onalaska. It was not uncommon for new immigrants to arrive in La Crosse and then to go and work for one of the large lumber mills, earning eventually enough money to buy his own property or farm. It was dangerous, long and hard work, and the newspapers are full of accounts of industrial accidents.
The lumber industry also helped to encourage railroads to build in and near La Crosse. These seemed to concentrate again on the north side of the city, and each line had their own set of tracks. In October of 1858, the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad was completed, thus people and goods could travel from the east to La Crosse without having to make a steamer connection from farther down river. A more direct route from the Lake Michigan port city of Milwaukee to La Crosse afforded a much faster trip. Securing rail connections into the city was an important factor to the survival of the community. On November 18, 1870, La Crosse formally celebrated the completion of the Southern Minnesota Railroad from Wells, Minnesota, to the Mississippi River, thus connecting La Crosse with the west. A railroad bridge was completed in 1876 across the Mississippi River at North La Crosse. Until that time, car ferries and winter ice bridges were used to cross the river. A swing bridge for both wagon and foot traffic was completed from Mount Vernon street to Barron's Island (later renamed Pettibone Island) in 1891, and this connection to Minnesota essentially put an end to the ferry business. By 1886, six rail lines came into La Crosse. Today rail travel into and out of La Crosse was limited to freight, and passenger service is provided by Amtrak daily.
Other industry and businesses in La Crosse included those focused on agricultural and industrial concerns, such as plow, carriage and implement manufacture, pearl buttons, rubber boots & shoes, and beer production. The Trane Company grew from a small plumbing outfit in the late nineteenth century to a national industry starting in the early twentieth century.
Prohibition squashed many of the La Crosse breweries, while some were able to make malt and soda products to survive the lean years. The G. Heileman Brewery was one of two survivors of this industry in La Crosse by the 1950s, whereas there were eight breweries operating simultaneously in 1900. Today Heileman’s is called City Brewery and is owned by a group of workers.
Early on in the century, service businesses began to spring up beyond liveries, taverns, grocery store, hotels and restaurants. The Wisconsin Business University, the La Crosse Vocational College, and in 1909 the State Normal School all were competing for adult students wanting to learn in some capacity.
During the late 1950s, early 1960s, several of La Crosse’s larger industries, no longer owned locally, were shut down. This included Northern Engraving and Manufacturing moved out of La Crosse in 1961; and Electric Auto Lite (formerly the Moto Meter & Gauge Co.) and Allis Chalmers (formerly the La Crosse Plow Co.) in 1969.
The loss of major industries and a seminal event – the 1965 Mississippi River flood – affected La Crosse in many ways. The North side and French Island residences and businesses were greatly affected, as was the old downtown industrial and business district along Front Street. All of these factors helped push through funding for Harborview Plaza – an urban blight project funded by the federal government. Six and half blocks of the Front Street buildings – some of the oldest in the city – were demolished to clean up the riverfront.
La Crosse began to refocus on historic preservation in the downtown area after Harborview and the loss of several other major public buildings – the library, courthouse, city hall and finally the post office.
To read more about La Crosse’s history, check out La Crosse History Unbound, a collection of digitized historical resources about La Crosse’s past.