You are here
La Crosse - The River City
by Michael J. Goc
Michael J. Goc is the author/editor of more than seventy books on Wisconsin history, eight of which have received Awards of Merit from the Wisconsin Historical Society. He is the author of numerous historical articles for the print, radio and electronic media. His company, the New Past Press is dedicated to producing fine, limited edition history books. It is the largest publishing company in Friendship, Wis.
As the real estate agents say, it's "location, location, location." La Crosse was able to develop into one of Wisconsin’s largest cities because of a favorable conjunction of geographical facts. First is the breadth of fairly level ground between the river channel and the bluffs. It is wider here than in most places on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi and, although divided by the La Crosse River and extensive wetlands, the prairie had room for a city to grow.
Rivers flowing into the Mississippi also helped. The Black River, with its pine-laden banks winding one-hundred-fifty miles into the state, entered the Mississippi a few miles upstream and ran in a side channel parallel to the main river. Logs could be easily floated down to mills built on the Black River channel, especially after 1865, when lumberman Cadwallader Washburn and his partners diverted the Black away from its ancient marshy outlet and into the cleared channel that flowed past La Crosse.
A few years before Washburn "improved" the Black, in 1857-58, the builders of one of the first two railroads to cross Wisconsin used the reasonably flat La Crosse River Valley to skirt the hills and vales of the Driftless Zone to reach the Mississippi. Had the La Crosse River not flowed to La Crosse city, neither would the tracks and all the development they brought with them.
The prairie, the Mississippi, the Black and the La Crosse, all came together to create a favorable location, location, location, for a city.
Prairie La Crosse
The name of the city is derived from the traditional Native American ball and stick game we know as lacrosse. Since it was not unusual for hundreds of players and spectators to participate, the wide prairie at La Crosse was a favorite playing field for the Sioux and other tribes. French visitors saw the game and called it la crosse because the bent stick with webbing attached used to catch and hurl the ball resembled le crozier, the stylized shepherd's staff of the Roman Catholic bishop. The wide field on the river became known as Prairie La Crosse and more than one pre-settlement river traveler reported on its popularity as a playing field.
The prairie prefix was dropped by the first American settler and postmaster, Nathan Myrick.
A New York native, eighteen-year-old Myrick came west to Galena, Illinois in 1841. He traveled to Prairie du Chien, where he formed a partnership with a frontiersman named Eben Weld who had recently returned from a horseback trip upriver. Weld thought that prairie la crosse would be a good place for a post to trade with the Indians. The partners acquired trade goods, borrowed a United States government keelboat, poled upstream and, after five days, arrived at prairie la crosse. Since the prairie was devoid of trees, Myrick and Weld crossed over to wooded Barron's Island, built a log shack and set up a trading bench. They were ready when the Indians returned from a treaty annuity payment session in Minnesota, pouches filled with silver coins. The traders did well and decided to spend the winter, but in better quarters and on the mainland.
They felled trees on the island, skidded them across the ice, and built a trading post and dwellings. They were able to obtain milled boards from a lumber raft headed downstream to fashion a roof and furnishings. Sited on what became the corner of State and Front Streets, the Myrick-Weld cabins were the first American buildings in La Crosse.
Lumbering Makes A City
Although no more than 800 non-Indians lived there, by 1853, La Crosse was on its way to becoming one of Wisconsin's largest cities. About one hundred dwellings were spread out along the Mississippi and La Crosse rivers. They housed merchants, professionals and tradesmen, including four grocers, four blacksmiths, four joiners, four attorneys and five tavern keepers. The village was the county seat, and the site of the federal land office. John Levy, the village's first merchant, built a dock for river steamers, and the partnership of Burns, Rublee, Simonton and Smith was operating the city's first steam powered sawmill. All helped lay the foundation for development, none more so than the sawmill.
Lumbering spurred the growth of other industries. The abundance of lumber in town and the need to move wood to market stimulated the birth of Wisconsin’s largest river boat building industry. The manufacture and maintenance of tools and equipment for the lumber industry fostered more growth. The lumbermen also needed work animals, leather made from cow hides, and provisions—wheat, potatoes, bacon--that created markets for area farmers who traveled many miles to trade in La Crosse.
Finally, lumbering created the jobs—directly and indirectly—that brought people to the city. In the 1890s, more than three thousand people worked in lumbering at La Crosse, out of a total city population of 25,000-29,000
When it was over in about 1900, it was over. The logs stopped coming down river as abruptly as if a faucet were turned shut. Growth stopped in La Crosse. The city's economy was diversified enough, and that of the state and nation expanding, so there was no surge in unemployment, but new jobs were hard to find. As a result, in the opening decades of the twentieth century, when the population of other Wisconsin cities—Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha – was increasing dramatically, La Crosse stagnated, with little change from about 29,000 in 1895 to about 31,000 in 1920. It had dropped out of the running to be Wisconsin's second-largest city. Not until the boom years of the 1920s would La Crosse significantly grow again.
Twentieth Century Industry
The development of the internal combustion engine and automotive transportation led to an industrial resurgence at La Crosse.
One person who took advantage of the new automotive industry was Philo M. Gelatt. His Northern Engraving Company was already a successful producer of printing equipment when he purchased the Hans Motor Co. in 1913 and renamed it the National Gauge and Equipment Company to more accurately reflect its products, i.e. gauges and instruments for autos. When the economy boomed in the 1920s, Gelatt sold National Gauge. Later acquired by the Autolite Company, the company grew into one of the largest manufacturers in La Crosse. Autolite remained in town until1958 and took twenty percent of the city’s manufacturing jobs when it left.
Albert Hirshheimer founded the La Crosse Plow Works shortly after the Civil War and the company continued to make farm implements in the city for a century. Allis-Chalmers acquired the company in the 1920s and stayed in business there until 1969.
Hirshheimer also founded the La Crosse Rubber Mills. With its raw material imported from overseas, the company turned a profit producing waterproof coats, ponchos and footwear. During the 1920s boom the company made up to 40,000 pairs of shoes a year and employed over two thousand people. Its fortunes dipped in the 1930s, but World War II brought a comeback and by the mid-1970s, La Crosse Rubber was the second largest employer in the city.
The largest employer in the 1970s and for many years previous was the Trane Company. Reuben Trane was born in La Crosse in 1886. He graduated from UW-Madison in 1910 and came home to work in the plumbing shop owned by his father John. They incorporated the Trane Co. in 1913 and prospered as manufacturers of steam valves and other plumbing equipment. In 1925, Reuben introduced his fin and tube convection radiator, which proved to be a great improvement over the standard iron radiator. Growth continued as, in the midst of the depression, Trane adapted his convection heater for air conditioning. Now a manufacturer of interior climate control systems, Trane grew to a company of world wide stature by the 1950s. In 1983, the pride of La Crosse industries was purchased by American Standard which retains ownership of the company today.
Birth of the ‘Fest
The Oktoberfest started at a time when La Crosse had lost about one-quarter of its manufacturing jobs, the downtown commercial center was declining and population growth had halted. The concept of a community using a festival to encourage home town pride and boost the local economy was largely untried in 1961. Oktoberfest was an attempt to turn the city around, to help it feel good about itself as it made the rough passage into the post-industrial economy, and it has succeeded.
In its drive to become one of the largest breweries in the United States, Heileman used images of the magnificent scenery of the Upper Mississippi Valley in print and video ads accompanied by a script declaring that Heileman’s beer had to be good because it came from “God’s Country.”
The phrase has long been used to identify beautiful landscape and the countryside at La Crosse certainly belongs in that category. In the 1880s, a circuit-riding clergyman who made his home a few miles north of La Crosse in the Trempeleau County city of Galesville, presented Scriptural reinforcement to Heileman’s claim for divine ownership of its environs.
The Reverend D. O. Van Slyke, who condemned all intoxicating beverages as Satan’s brew, looked at the lovely territory he traveled through on his ministrations and concluded it was the Biblical Garden of Eden. Its glorious rivers, bluffs terraced like hanging gardens, farms rich with “milk and honey,” even the timber rattlers who sheltered in its caves, matched the description of Paradise found in Genesis. Doubters need only open their eyes to believe.
In other words, God’s Country.
Buttons and Pearls
La Crosse has been home to at least two businesses not found in many other places. First is the shell button industry, in which the Wisconsin Pearl Button Company was a leader between 1890 and 1920. Clams were harvested in the Mississippi and other rivers, the meat processed for animal feed and the shells sorted, graded and cut into buttons. The industry survived until cheaper plastic buttons cut into the market and the supply of shells was destroyed by pollution in the rivers. (See The Story of My Life by Billie Button on line in the Digitized Resources of the Murphy Library, UW-La Crosse.)
Power To The People
La Crosse is also the headquarters of the Dairyland Power Cooperative. Organized as part of the New Deal’s rural electrification program in the late 1930s, Dairyland is the only electric cooperate in the United States that generates its own power. The Rural Electric Cooperatives were chartered to purchase power from investor-owned utilities, but many of the new cooperatives in Wisconsin could not find an investor-owned utility willing to sell power to them. In response they organized Dairyland to own an operate power plants for them. From its first generating station in Polk County, Dairyland grew to serve rural areas in roughly one-half of Wisconsin, and substantial portions of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. Located roughly in the middle of its service area, La Crosse was the logical site for the cooperative’s headquarters
A Learning Center
Although not purely businesses, La Crosse’s two universities have had a significant economic impact on the city. Both UW-La Crosse and Viterbo University. were founded to train teachers.
The teachers college remained fairly small until the late 1940s when G.I Bill students pushed enrollment past 1,000. Twenty years later, when the children of the veterans reached college age, 7,000 of them flooded the campus of what had become a full-fledged arts and science university. As a major employer and purchaser of goods and services, the university is currently one of the most important economic forces in La Crosse, as well as a source of political, social, cultural and demographic diversity.
Viterbo University started life as St. Rose (of Viterbo) College in 1890 to train Catholic nuns to teach in parochial schools. The Catholic population of the United States was soaring and the quality of education in church schools had been come under discussion. Teaching orders like the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who founded St. Rose, acted to imrove the skills of the sisters they were sending to schools.
On The River
The chief cargo of the early river trade was grain and, in 1861, only a few years after the railroad arrived, La Crosse saw its first grain elevator. It is difficult to find a structure less exciting to contemplate than a grain elevator, yet these oversized, mechanized storage bins were the link between the farms of the prairie states and worldwide markets. “Elevated” grain could be marketed faster, more economically and with less labor than grain in the traditional sack. Millions of bushels of grain moved through “terminal” elevators at La Crosse. The W.W. Cargill operation was typical. After running a string of smaller elevators in Iowa and Minnesota, Cargill came to La Crosse in 1878, leased a 250,000-bushel capacity elevator and transferred grain from riverboats to railcars for shipment to Green Bay and beyond. By 1880, the company was shipping nearly three million bushels, most of it through La Crosse.
Despite the grain trade, commercial river transportation declined by the 1890s, already replaced by the railroads. The La Crosse and Milwaukee became the first railroad to reach La Crosse in 1858 where the river forced it to stop. Bridging the Mississippi was more of a political than an engineering challenge and until the railroad could overcome the opposition of lumbermen like C.C. Washburn, it had to transfer cargo to riverboats, or when the river froze, cross on tracks temporarily laid on the ice. The railroad bridge was completed in 1876 and the Milwaukee Road used it to become a transcontinental carrier. A bridge for non-railroad traffic was completed in 1891.
On The Rails
The Green Bay and Western entered La Crosse in 1876 and the Chicago and North Western in 1885. The last of the major lines to arrive was the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy in 1886. The Cargill family sponsored the construction of what can be called a vanity railroad to Viroqua in the 1900s. By then, La Crosse was the greatest railroad center in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee and together, the railroads were the largest source of employment in the city. Once home to most of the city’s lumber mills, North La Crosse became the center of railroading.
The course of railroading in La Crosse has followed that of the rest of the United States: decline of passenger service since the 1930s; alterations in freight handling from crate to bulk; increase in the volume of traffic in recent decades.
In The Air
In the wake of World War I, business and government looked for a peaceful use for aviation. In 1919, the federal government launched a number of exploratory flights to chart routes for air lines and air mail. La Crosse was selected as the key link between Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. Army Air Service and other aircraft landed at the landing strip Salzer had laid out on the south edge of town. In the brief, first life of the air mail service, 1919-1921, La Crosse was a regular stop.
In 1926, when Congress established the contract air mail system the only landing sites selected in Wisconsin were Milwaukee and La Crosse. As such La Crosse became one of two airports in the state with regularly scheduled commercial and air mail service. Northwest Airways, predecessor of today’s Northwest Airlines, was the first airline company here.
As in most small cities, air service has sputtered along in the years since, but La Crosse developed a new airport on French Island. Historically, it has been the only airport in the region capable of handling the largest commercial aircraft, which, among other things, has made it possible for just about every presidential candidate (and president) since the 1960s to visit the city.
On The Road
Following the route of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad, Interstate Highway 90 reached La Crosse in the mid-1960s. The consequences have been similar to those seen in other communities. The ongoing process of residential and commercial development beyond the city limits accelerated, accompanied by the decline of in-city commercial districts and, to a lesser extent, residential development. On the other hand, improved highway transportation has expanded the city’s market area. This has been a boon to its advertising-based media, which can claim a three-state audience, and to service industries, most notably health care. The growth of La Crosse’s two health care facilities in the last forty years can be directly attributed to the development of highway transportation, especially the Interstate.
The Riverfront Downtown and City Parks
Until 1900, the La Crosse riverfront was a workplace, the home of lumber mills, boat docks and freight yards. When commercial river traffic and the lumber industry died, the riverfront decayed. By the 1940s much of it was a damp, seedy, and dilapidated.
It wasn’t all bad. To the contrary, La Crosse was an enthusiastic participant in the “city beautiful” movement of the 1890s-1910s. Led by business leaders, many of whom owned riverfront property, La Crosse set up a park commission and hired the nationally known landscape architect John Nolen to draw up a park plan
Lumberman A.W. Pettibone had already donated 200-acre Barron’s Island, known for its dives and dens of ill repute, to the city for a park. Using spoil dredged from the river bottom, the city then constructed Spence and Levee Parks which Nolen expanded into today’s Riverside Park. F.A. Copeland and Albert Hirshheimer then donated their old industrial property on the north side to create Copeland Park. Nolen’s plan also called for additional parks and playgrounds in the city, a boulevard system, a rehab of the La Crosse River shoreline and a “coulee park” to include Grandad’s Bluff. In the 1930s, the park system was expanded with aid from New Deal work programs and a 1962 plan called for additional improvements.
The process was stimulated in 1965, when the Mississippi rose nearly six feet above flood stage. The water backed up as far as 4th St/Hwy 53, flooding nearly the entire central business district. The area was already in decline. As one city leader said at the time, “the flood dramatized an area that doesn’t have a future.”
In consequence the city launched the Harborview Project, which occupied the public stage for at least fifteen years. When it was finished in the early 1980s, Harborview had a new hotel, office building, exhibition hall and 8,000 seat arena, all fronting on Riverside Park and the river.
Harborview preceded the rediscovery of downtowns that occurred throughout the country in the 1990s. In the years since, La Crosse, like other cities has used the historic remains of its downtown—along with additional new developments—to promote tourism. Currently the Commercial Historic District has 96 buildings on the National Register.
Mrs. Hixon and Granddad's Bluff
As part of the national women’s club movement and on their own, women like Ellen Hixon were taking an interest in the world beyond their homes. Some became politically active and worked for temperance, women’s suffrage and more radical causes. Others focused on education and public health in their own communities. Many more promoted “beautification” through community gardens and parks. The work of these women has often been dismissed as frivolous but their accomplishments are as real and their legacy as solid as the stone of Grandad’s Bluff.
North Side, South Side
Hemmed in by the river bend and the bluffs, La Crosse scribes a vertical wedge on the map. The La Crosse River bottoms, aka the Slough, bisects the city and made for a natural division into north and south sides. The pioneers of the place settled on the south side and the major commercial district developed there. With more convenient access to the Black River and the railroad lines, the north side became the industrial district. It came to be assumed that the North Side was the home of the hardy working folk, while the swells inhabited the South Side. There was some element of truth in these generalizations. The North Side was the manufacturing and railroad center and there are far fewer stately homes there than on the South Side but the division by class was never as distinct as it was often made out to be.
Politics was also involved in the North-South tension. A separate village of North La Crosse was chartered in 1868. After a rancorous struggle whose outcome was—the North Siders believed—determined by subterfuge and chicanery, the city of La Crosse annexed North La Crosse in 1871. For decades, North Siders voiced complaints about high taxes paid for a low level of services.
The complaints gained legitimacy in 1907 when La Crosse built its first stand-alone high school building on the South Side at 15th and Cass St, but nonetheless called it La Crosse Central. It was “central” for the South Side, but quite a hike away from the northern ward. The North Side got its own high school, Logan, in 1923, thereby perpetuating the cross town rivalry while making it easier for local students to attend class.
The school conflict rose again in the 1960s, when a new Central High was located farther south and simmered until a new Logan was built in 1977. Since the city was now part of a regional school district that extended well beyond the borders of the city, a “central” location was harder to locate than in the 1900s.
The river island communities are of more recent origin, although 19th century French settlers gave their name to the biggest island off La Crosse. Historically, French Island was home to a hunting, fishing, clamming and trapping community that relied directly on the river for its livelihood. Market hunting and fishing, legal and non-, has played a larger role in La Crosse’s economy than in other places with more limited opportunities.
Like much of the rest of Wisconsin, La Crosse’s leading ethnic heritage is German, followed by Norwegian, with the familiar mix of Irish, Poles, Bohemians, Swedes, Swiss and other Europeans. The city was large enough to host a German Jewish community who members lived in the downtown area and whose most prominent members were merchant John Levy and industrialist Albert Hirscheimer. Jews from Eastern Europe arrived near the turn of the 19th century and settled in Goosetown. La Crosse was also home to a small Syrian Christian community, identified as Assyrians in the 1800s, on the city’s north side. In more recent times, and like other Wisconsin cities, Laotian Hmong immigrants call the city home. They comprise the majority of the 2,400 people who identified themselves as Asian for the 2000 census. The census also reported nearly 600 people who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino.
Cadwallader C. Washburn
The man with the exquisite Victorian-era name was of the American-born Anglo-Saxon stock that filled the ranks of Wisconsin’s political and business class in the19th century. C.C., as he preferred, came west from Maine in the 1840s and set up at La Crosse in 1854. He invested in the Black River lumber trade, but did not at first prosper. A serious Republican (his brother Elihu was an influential Congressman from Illinois), he was elected to Congress in 1854, ’56 and ’58.
He answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers by raising a company of men for the Second Wisconsin Cavalry and served honorably in the Vicksburg campaign. A political general, he was promoted to Major General and served as competently as many a West Point Regular. While in the army he retained his interest in the Black River and, in 1864, obtained a legislative charter for the Black River Improvement Company. The charter empowered the Improvement Company to modify the river to aid the passage of logs downstream and to exact a toll for every log floating by its works. Washburn’s La Crosse Lumber Company opened “the big mill” in 1872. It could cut 200,000 board feet, or thirty-eight miles, of lumber a day.
He was re-elected to Congress in 1866 and served as governor of Wisconsin for one term. He fell victim to the populist Granger movement and lost the election of 1873 to William Taylor. Although maintaining his home in La Crosse and building the city’s first public library, Washburn focused on his flour milling interests at Minneapolis. The company he founded eventually developed into General Mills. He died in 1882. His final project was to develop the largest grain shipping port on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin at the place he called Washburn.
Marcus “Brick” Pomeroy
Pomeroy supported the Union effort early in the war, but as Union losses piled up, he started to question the value of the struggle. He argued that western states like Wisconsin had more in common with the South than with the Northeast and that slavery should be allowed to spread to the territories farther west. In La Crosse, all Pomeroy had to do to see the link between the Upper Midwest and the South was stroll down to the steamboat docks.
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Pomeroy aimed the full force of his scornful eloquence at the war and, especially the president. In August 1864 he published a cartoon with Lincoln identified as “The Widow Maker of the 19th Century,” along with an editorial urging that someone use dagger to prevent the president’s re-election.
When Lincoln was assassinated the following April, a crowd gathered in La Crosse and threatened to burn down the offices of the Democrat and to lynch Pomeroy. Friends urged the editor to leave town, but Pomeroy would not hear of it. He purchased a stock of firearms, distributed them to his employees and barricaded his office, as if to say, “Bring ‘em on.”
The crowd dispersed and Pomeroy continued to publish for a national audience from La Crosse. He moved to New York in 1866, but came back to La Crosse to open the La Crosse Opera House in 1867. The Opera House remained the city’s leading theater for the rest of the century.
Pomeroy returned to New York and published a paper called the New York Democrat, which he sold to the notorious William H. “Boss” Tweed in 1870. He continued to write and publish in journals devoted to small-d democratic principles until his death in New York in 1896.
William W. Cargill had already established his commodity storage and trading company by the time he moved to La Crosse in 1878. He leased a terminal elevator on the river where he stored grain from smaller country sites prior to shipping to his facilities at Green Bay but did not have to live in town to run it. He and his wife Ella had decided that La Crosse was a better place to live than the small towns they had known in Iowa and Minnesota. They built a “massive house” and Ella became the grande dame of La Crosse society. The city provided a number of suitable marriage candidates for the Cargill children. Son Will married May McMillan and daughter Edna married John H. MacMillan, scion of La Crosse’s leading banking family. Will and MacMillan, along with other Cargills, shared management of the company’s far-flung operations and none of the younger generation lived in La Crosse as adults.
The MacMillans moved to Minneapolis and John worked out of what became the company’s main office. William W. Cargill was disabled by a stroke in1904 and died in 1909. Ella passed in 1910, the same year that the Cargill companies closed their operations in La Crosse.
George Poage grew up in La Crosse’s African-American community in the 1890s, the son of a railroad porter and domestic worker. An excellent student, he graduated from La Crosse Central and was admitted to the University of Wisconsin where he combined athletic ability and scholarship. He graduated in 1904 and, as a representative of the Milwaukee Athletic Club participated in the International Olympic Games, which were held in St. Louis as part of the World’s Fair.
Poage won two bronze medals in track, thereby becoming the first black American to win an Olympic medal. He then moved to Chicago and pursued a career in teaching.
George Edwin Taylor
Born in Arkansas in 1857, George Taylor came up river to La Crosse and learned the trades of newpaper production here. In the 1880s, working people in La Crosse participated in the national movement to establish the eight-hour day in industries like the lumber mills that were the leading employers here. The river city had at least four newpapers devoted to working people, including the Labor Advocate, edited by George Edwin Taylor.
Like many publications of its kind the Advocate was short-lived, appearing for about a year in 1886-‘87. After the demise of the Advocate, Taylor left La Crosse but maintained his interest in politics. In 1904, he campaigned for president of the United States under the banner of the National Liberty Party. It was a political party organized to give African-Americans a voice in American politics, where their rights as citizens had been eroding for decades. The platform Taylor ran on called for and end to lynching, truly universal suffrage, recognition of the voting rights of the predominately black citizens of the District of Columbia, and pensions for former slaves.