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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Happy 150th, La Crosse!


This week La Crosse officially turned 150 years old, though like many Wisconsin communities its roots stretch back further than 1856.

The first settler to take up residence there was 19-year-old Nathan Myrick (1822-1903), who arrived on Novermber 9, 1841, and built a log cabin from which he hoped to launch a fur-trading business. Myrick told his own story beginning on page 11 of this 1892 article in the La Crosse Weekly Chronicle.

He'd come out from New York to live on the frontier, and La Crosse soon became too civilized for him. A flood in the spring of 1847 washed away much of his capital so the next year, like Daniel Boone, he pushed further west (to St. Paul). Myrick ultimately ran a successful chain of trading posts among the Sioux in Minnesota and the Dakotas until 1876, and then invested his earnings in St. Paul real estate.

In its first decade, the little frontier town of La Crosse grew prosperous. A post office was established in 1844 and a general store opened in 1846, along with a bowling alley. There were enough settlers that year to warrant a celebration on July 4th during which the chief speaker, an inebriated steamboat captain, managed to... well, read it for yourself.

In 1851 the first attorney opened shop, and by 1853 the town's population had grown to 543. According to a prominent guidebook, it then consisted of "4 stores of general assortment, 1 drug, 1 hardware, 1 furniture, 1 stove and tin, 3 groceries, 1 bakery, 1 livery stable, 1 harness, 4 tailor, 3 shoemaker shops, and mechanics of every description; 6 physicians, 6 lawyers, 4 clergymen, 3 religious societies, a division of the Sons of Temperance, a Free Masons' lodge, 1 church edifice, court house, steam saw mill and grist mill, and 5 hotels."

On March 14, 1856, the frontier village was legally incorporated as a city when its charter was signed, and 50 years later its massive Victorian city hall was built. The opening ceremonies included recollections by many early settlers as well as a guided tour of the new government headquarters.

La Crosse has been home to dozens of important Wisconsin people, from Ho-Chunk chief One-eyed Decorah (ca. 1782-1864) to former governor Patrick Lucey. You can find them in the online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

To read more about La Crosse history, simply type the city's name into the search box at Turning Points in Wisconsin History, where you'll find the reminiscences of a Mississippi riverboat captain, an article on the city's early Jewish settlers, the handwritten diary of an Onalaska girl during the Civil War, an essay by a young Hmong woman on her harrowing trip from Laos, interviews with turn-of-the-century working-class women, and of course much on steamboating, logging, and railroads.

You can also peruse more than 300 articles on the history of La Crosse and browse more than 100 pictures from the city's past elsewhere on our site.

Do you know someone from La Crosse who would enjoy exploring its history during this sesquicentennial year? Email them this page, by clicking the link below.


:: Posted in Curiosities on March 15, 2006

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