La Crosse is a city in and the county seat of La Crosse County, Wisconsin, United States. The city lies alongside the Mississippi River.
La Crosse History
La Crosse was incorporated as a city in 1856, but its history goes back somewhat further. The first Europeans to see the site of La Crosse were French fur traders who traveled up and down the Mississippi River beginning in the late 17th century. Despite this, there is no written record of any visit to the site until 1765, when Lt. Zebulon Pike mounted an expedition up the Mississippi River for the United States. Pike recorded the location’s name as “Prairie La Crosse”. The name originated when he saw the Native Americans playing a game with sticks that resembled a bishop’s crozier or la crosse in French.
The first white settlement at La Crosse came in 1841. That year, a New York native named Nathan Myrick had moved to the village at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to work in the fur trade. However, Myrick was disappointed to find that many fur traders were already well-entrenched in Prairie du Chien, and that there were no openings for him to become involved there. As a result, Myrick decided to establish a trading post upriver at the then still unsettled site of Prairie La Crosse. In 1841 Myrick built a temporary trading post on Barron Island (which is now called Pettibone Park), which lies just west of La Crosse’s present downtown. In 1842 Myrick relocated the post to the mainland prairie, partnering with H.J.B Miller to run the outfit.
The spot Myrick chose to build his trading post proved ideal for settlement. It was near the junction of the Black, La Crosse, and Mississippi Rivers. In addition, the post was built at one of the very few points along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River where a broad plain ideal for development exist between the river’s bank and the tall bluffs that line the river valley. As such, a small village grew around Myrick’s trading post through the 1840s.
A small Mormon community settled at La Crosse in 1844, and built several dozen cabins a few miles south of Myrick’s post. Although these settlers relocated away from the Midwest after just a year, the land they occupied near La Crosse continues to bear the name Mormon Coulee.
On June 23, Father James Lloyd Breck of the Episcopal Church said the first Christian liturgy (Episcopalian liturgy) on top of Grandad Bluff. Today there is a monument to that event. It stands atop Grandad Bluff, near the parking lot at a scenic overlook.
More permanent development took place closer to Myrick’s trading post, where stores, a hotel, and a post office were constructed during the 1840s. Under the direction of Timothy Burns, lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, surveyor William Hood platted the village in 1851. This opened it up for further settlement, which was achieved rapidly thanks to promotion of the city in eastern newspapers. By 1855, La Crosse had grown in population to nearly two thousand residents, leading to its incorporation in 1856. The city grew even more rapidly after 1858 with the completion of the Milwaukee & La Crosse Railroad, the second railroad connecting Milwaukee to the Mississippi River.
During the second half of the 19th century, La Crosse grew to become one of the largest cities in Wisconsin. At that time, it was a major economic center in the state, especially of the lumber industry, for logs cut in the interior of the state could be rafted down the Black River toward sawmills built in the city. La Crosse also became a center for the brewing industry and other manufacturers that saw advantages in the city’s location adjacent to major transportation arteries such as the Mississippi River and the railroad between Milwaukee and St. Paul, Minnesota. Around the turn of the 20th century, the city also became a center for education. Three colleges and universities were established in the city between 1890 and 1912.
La Crosse remains the largest city on Wisconsin’s western border, and the educational institutions in the city have recently led it toward becoming a regional technology and medical hub.