I was going write that Trempealeau has an old-fashioned charm and is oddly picturesque, then I realized that I could just call it quaint. So, Trempealeau is quaint.
If you are planning your trip from home, contact the Trempealeau Chamber of Commerce with your questions (24436 Third St.; 608.534.6780). Once you get to town, however, your best bet is to stop in at the Trempealeau Hotel to get the lay of the land (11332 Main St.); you may as well grab a beer while you’re here.
The town was named after a distinctive, conical land mass just upriver that is completely surrounded by water. The Ho Chunk referred it as Hay-nee-ah-chah (mountain soaking in the water), which French explorers translated as la montagne qui trempe a l’eau.
The village of Trempealeau stirred to life in the 1840s as Reed’s Landing (James Reed was an early settler), a small port and fur trading outpost inhabited by a few migrants from Prairie du Chien and French Canada. Platted in 1852 as Montoville, then quickly replatted as Trempealeau, the village was formally called Montoville-Trempealeau but many still called it Reeds Landing. Finally, in 1856 the confusion ended and the village became just Trempealeau. Settlers began arriving in 1856, many coming upriver by steamboat and others overland in covered wagons. A commercial district developed rapidly along the riverfront to serve increasing river commerce and the burgeoning agriculture in surrounding areas.
Land speculators, many of them East coast residents trying to make a quick buck, fueled dramatic inflation in the cost of land. Prices for choice lots that sold for $40 were listed for many times that amount just a few months later. Even with cheaper land available in neighboring areas, Trempealeau land owners continued to demand high prices. As a result, many would-be settlers moved on to other settlements in Red Wing, Winona, and St. Paul.
The waning role of river transportation in favor of rail traffic plus declining wheat production after the Civil War also slowed Trempealeau’s growth. Even with the arrival of a second railroad line in 1887 the village’s economic fortunes changed little. The town’s economic hopes went up in flames in 1888 when a large fire wiped out most of the riverfront commercial district on Front Street (now First Street). When the town rebuilt its commercial district, new construction was concentrated along the current Main Street, two blocks from the riverfront, reflecting the declining importance of river commerce for the village. This two block stretch has remained the center of a stable but small population ever since.
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Lock and Dam 6 (608.534.6774) was completed in 1936 and the latest rehab was finished in 2002. The lock has a maximum lift of 6.5 feet; the dam is 893 feet long.
Perrot State Park (W26247 Sullivan Rd.; 608.534.6409; $7/Wisc resident, $10/non-resident) is another jewel along the Mississippi River and another one we can thank John Latsch for. The river is much narrower along this stretch because the main channel used to run to the north until sand and silt from glacial melt blocked the flow and diverted water into this channel; from Perrot Ridge you can see where the channel used to flow. The park has some good hiking, scenic vistas, camping, and a canoe route through the backwaters. The dramatic vistas are best from Brady’s Bluff; the East Brady’s Bluff trail is a relatively easy hike with switchbacks and a gradual ascent until you reach the top, while the West Brady’s Bluff trail is more vertical and harder work; give yourself at least an hour to get up, enjoy the view, and get back. Oh—you probably won’t see any—but be aware that rattlesnakes live in the area. Trempealeau Mountain is a 390-foot landmark that has long been a place of great spiritual meaning for Native Americans. The mountain is not off-limits but be mindful of its spiritual significance; there are no developed trails, and you can only reach it by boat.
Trempealeau Community Heritage Museum (Village Hall, 24455 3rd St.; 608.534.6780) has exhibits that will interest locals more than visiitors, but the small display of old photos are fun and the applehead dolls (carved from dried apples) are kinda interesting, in a creepy way.
Getting on the River
Perrot State Park (608.534.6409) has a 3.4 mile canoe trail through Trempealeau Bay. The park rents canoes on a first-come, first-served basis; make arrangements through the park office. You can also experience the backwaters on the Long Lake Canoe Trail (608.783.8405), an easy 4.5 mile loop; access is 1.5 miles south of Lock and Dam 6 at the Long Lake Boat Landing.
Entertainment and Events
Trempealeau Catfish Days (608.534.6780) is a good weekend party that includes bicycle tours, a motorcycle run, and a fishing tournament. Yes, it also includes catfish cooked in many forms—just not on a stick. Try a burger made from locally-caught catfish and stick around on Sunday for the parade and fireworks.
The Trempealeau Hotel (11332 Main St.; 608.534.6898) hosts live music, primarily on weekends.
Sports and Recreation
The Great River State Trail passes through Perrot State Park before ending at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. If you didn’t bring a bicycle with you, you can rent one through the Trempealeau Hotel (11332 Main St.).
If you’d rather swim in a pool than the Mississippi River, head to the Trempealeau Village Swimming Pool (23924 4th St.; 608.534.6606).
Eating and Drinking
The historic Trempealeau Hotel (11332 Main St.; 608.534.6898) opened in 1871 and managed to survive the 1888 fire, in spite of its wood construction. Good thing, otherwise you might never have had the chance to try a Walnut Burger. If that’s not your thing, they have plenty of other options like catfish and bluegill fillet sandwiches for lunch or dinner entrées of grilled meats, steaks, pasta, and fish.
The Hungry Point Bar and Grill (W23797 Lake Rd.; 608.534.7771) serves great burgers in quarter-pound, half-pound, and—good God—full pound portions, plus fries that put McDonald’s to shame, all of which you can enjoy from the large riverside patio; it can get loud inside when busy. They also have a dock with transient slips.
At Sullivan’s Supper Club (W25709 Sullivan Rd,; 608.534.7775) you can enjoy an Irish Handshake (tenderloin tips and scallops), the Dublin Delight (shrimp and barbeque pork ribs), or a number of other Irish-named combo entrées, or you can just select a standard steak or seafood entrée and enjoy good food with a great view, especially from the riverside patio.
Perrot State Park (W26247 Sullivan Rd.; 608.534.6409) has 102 sites (38 with electric); if you are into the privacy thing when you camp, sites 87–95 (electricity available only at sites 94,95) are more remote than the rest and heavily shaded. There are a handful of sites on the water ($3 extra for the water view). To camp in the park, you must pay the daily fee ($7/Wisc resident, $10/non-resident), plus the nightly camping fee.
Mulberry Meadows (23828 Lake Rd.; 507.429.1667) is a compact campground near the lock and dam with plenty of shade but geared to RV campers.
The Trempealeau Hotel (11332 Main St.; 608.534.6898) has eight simple rooms above the bar in the space that was the original hotel; the rooms share a bath and a common sitting area (WiFi). The hotel also has four motel-style units in a building near the lock and dam (the Kingfishers) that have good river views, especially from the decks.
The Little Bluff Inn (11451 Main St.; 608.534.6615; WiFi) has 16 rooms in many configurations, including six kitchenettes and a large suite.
Bed and Breakfast
Some B&Bs feel like museums, and some feel like homes; the Lucas House Bed & Breakfast (24616 2nd St.; 608.534.6665; WiFi) feels like a home. The house has several common rooms where you can spread out and relax. The six guest rooms are furnished with comfort in mind and share three bathrooms; some rooms are slightly larger and three have river views.
3 Lakes Cabin (10288 Birch Lane; 608.534.6729) sits on stilts in a quiet spot by the Long Lake boat ramp; there is a screened-in porch below the house; the upstairs has a number of quality touches like the glass block shower wall and generous use of tile, a full kitchen, satellite TV, fireplaces, and a Jacuzzi tub.
The Cabin by the River (W25448 Sullivan Rd.; 608.534.6510; open Apr. 1–Dec. 1) overlooks the main channel of the river; it has two bedrooms, a full bath, and a full kitchen. The cabin is well-maintained and a clean, pleasant place to vacation within walking distance of Perrot State Park; bring your own towels.
The Trempealeau Hotel (11332 Main St.; 608.534.6898) also has three suites on offer, all with WiFi. The Doc West House consists of two beautiful suites in a completely renovated building; each suite has a Jacuzzi tub and good river views. The Pines Cottage, a petite riverside house comes with a Jacuzzi tub, kitchenette, and good river views.
The Inn on the River (11321 Main St.; 608.534.7784; WiFi) has 12 pleasant rooms, all with a view of the river and all with fridge, coffee, and microwave; they also offer a suite with a Jacuzzi tub.
Post Office: 11421 Main St.; 608.534.6571.
Shirley M. Wright Memorial Library: 11455 Fremont St.; 608.534.6197; WiFi.
Heading upriver? Check out Centerville.
Heading downriver? Check out New Amsterdam.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011