Nature gracefully defines our region’s borders, from the towering bluffs to the east, to the mighty Mississippi River to the west. This distinctive land holds stories of the people who have come before us, from the earliest Indigenous people, to our first community builders, to the industrious people who grew our city through their grit and determination. Logging, brewing, river commerce, and the medical community were elementally important to helping our great city flourish. We’re proud to tell these stories, which connect us to our past and point us toward our future.
Ho-Chunk people are the Indigenous people of Wisconsin, and their influence on the county of La Crosse is tied to their continual presence here. Prior to colonization, they were primarily hunters, farmers, and fishermen. The Ho-Chunk people were forcibly removed by the US Government, but many families journeyed back to their homeland of Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk Nation is a sovereign nation, and their people live here yet today.
In 1841, Nathan Myrick arrived in Prairie La Crosse and set up a trading post in what is now known as Riverside Park. He engaged in logging and real estate speculation, purchasing large sections of land he later sold to developers. When Myrick left in 1848, La Crosse was a village of 20 settlers. By 1892, it grew to more than 25,000 as people saw the value in La Crosse as a steamboat landing and ideal site for sawmills. John and Fredericka Levy arrived in 1846. They welcomed travelers, who brought news and goods to trade, to their cabin. Several of the first church services – both Jewish and Christian – were held in their home. John was a three-time mayor. They later opened the Augusta Hotel, with 100 rooms.
Logging the extensive white pine forests of Wisconsin fueled La Crosse’s first large industry. It built fortunes for some and employed over 4,000 people. Some 20 million acres of Wisconsin forests were ceded to the US by Native American land cessions. The first successful logging on the Black River began in 1839. Felled trees were cut into 16-foot lengths and pulled by oxen or horses through snow to the frozen rivers. In spring, logs floated downstream to the 33 sawmills in this area. The forests of the Black River were depleted in 60 years, and this area’s lumber era ended shortly after 1900.
The La Crosse brewing industry was able to stand among giants like Milwaukee during the late 19th and 20th centuries. European immigrants thrived in the local brewing industry. The first breweries were in the 1850s. From 1868 to 1920, there were always at least four breweries running in the city, such as Zeisler and Heileman. With the lumber industry’s decline, the brewing industry took its place to employ large numbers of La Crosse residents. In 1910, breweries employed nearly 1,000 people. After Prohibition, Heileman flourished, becoming the 4th largest brewery in the US.
Steamboats were particularly important to the city of La Crosse. From the 1840s to the 1880s, they brought thousands of immigrant settlers to both sides of the river. The boats delivered manufactured goods and supplies to these recent arrivals and transported the products they produced. 1857 was the peak year for riverboats in La Crosse, with 1,569 boats landing here, more than any other city on the upper river. By 1880, hauling passengers and freight lost much business to the railroads, and few excursions and work for steamboats remained.
Ellen and Gideon Hixon were early settlers who became wealthy through the lumber industry. Their home is now a museum owned and run by the La Crosse County Historical Society. Ellen supported a variety of local charities, helping to build and maintain hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Ellen’s last major contribution was the preservation of Grandad Bluff. When the beauty of the bluff was threatened by quarrying, she raised and contributed funds to protect it. Their son Joseph managed the land sales necessary to create Hixon Forest and Grandad Bluff Park, which were ceded to the city with the stipulation that they forever remain public parks.
Healthcare in early La Crosse was provided by private physicians, some of whom set up clinics with specialties and partners. Dr. Adolf Gundersen arrived in 1891 and founded the first Gundersen Clinic and practiced with his six sons. Skemp Clinic was founded by Dr. Archibald Skemp in 1923. The Skemp family also went on to produce many fine doctors. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) founded St. Francis Hospital in 1883. It fulfilled their mission to tend to the community’s needs in education and healthcare, as well as caring for “rivermen” with communicable diseases. In total, four hospitals remained until the late 1960s, when mergers and closings left only St. Francis and Lutheran Hospital. Each partnered with an associated clinic. Today, St. Francis-Skemp Medical Center has become part of the Mayo Clinic Health System while the Gundersen Health System represents the merger of Lutheran Hospital and Gundersen Clinic.
The city of La Crosse occupies land that was once a wide, flat sand prairie that was home to a band of Ho-Chunk. They called this area Hinukwas Eja (hee-nook-was aja) after the shape of two hills nearby. In 1673, French colonists led by Rev. Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet visited the area. It is unknown why or how, but this is the first known time that the area began to be called Prairie à la Crosse. The name “Prairie La Crosse” continued until the mid 1800s, when locals dropped “Prairie” from the name to distinguish La Crosse From Prairie du Chien.
One legend says that these French colonists witnessed a group of Indigenous peoples playing what they called “The Creator’s Game.” Many Indigenous tribes and clans in the Great Lakes region used this game as a way to determine wealth, land, social status, and prestige. It was also sometimes used as a religious ceremony, to prepare for battle, or for recreation. According to this legend, the wooden sticks reminded the French of a bishop’s staff, la crozier (la crow-zee-ay) hence the name “La Crosse.” However, this legend is not supported by primary source evidence.
The above section written by the La Crosse Public Library Archives. Sources: Wisconsin Historical Society, “Expedition of Marquette and Joliet, 1673;” and 2015 interviews conducted by Calli Niemi and Callie O’Conner with Chloris Lowe Jr. and James Blackdeer.
Special thanks to the following for providing information and photos: