When Peter Cameron, a native of New York, built a log house in 1851 and Thor Halverson, a native of Norway, did the same the following year, they joined a long line of people who were attracted to this small, elevated prairie near the Mississippi River. The future village site was marked by dozens of burial mounds and evidence abounded of ancient peoples who lived here.
Cameron had been trading along the Upper Mississippi since the early 1840s and had business interests in La Crosse. He and his wife Emma were married in 1845 in La Crosse, the first couple to be married in the city. Emma was quite familiar with the marriage ritual; she went through it 11 times; Peter was her fourth husband. Peter had big plans for La Crescent that were hampered by poor access to the Mississippi River; the village was separated from the river by a mile of sloughs and marshes. Cameron figured the best solution was to build a canal that would connect the town to the river (and in the process might have diverted the main channel from La Crosse to La Crescent), but he died in 1855 while building a sawmill in La Crosse, and the canal plan also came to a permanent end.
The village was platted in 1855 by Harvey and William Gillett on part of Cameron’s old claim and renamed from Camerons to Manton. They sold all their lots in a year, most of them to the Kentucky Land Company, then left town, probably for a beach in Mexico. The land company wanted a more appealing name, something with a loftier sound, so they chose La Crescent, which they felt evoked the shape of the bluffs. That’s the tale that has survived, anyway.
The Kentucky Land Company got busy building a village. In short order, they built a dozen homes, all very similar two-story houses decorated with elaborate trim, then built a road across the marsh to connect the town to the ferry landing. For 20 years, the only way for La Crescent residents to cross the Mississippi River was down the muddy road to the ferry. This did not encourage rapid growth.
John Harris arrived in 1854 determined to grow apples. When he planted his first crop, skeptics were plentiful, because they assumed the Minnesota climate was too harsh. The critics were wrong, however, and his apples eventually grew very well. Other growers followed suit and orchards became one of the largest industries in the area. Although the number of orchards has declined from forty in the 1960s to a handful today, the number of acres dedicated to growing apples is about the same.
Like other small towns in the area, La Crescent experienced a housing boom after World War II as it grew into a suburb of La Crosse. In 1940, the village had just 815 residents or about one-fifth of what was counted in the 2000 census.