When Europeans began exploring the area, they found a prairie that was a popular spot for a game that they had never seen. In 1837, the Reverend Alfred Brunson described the Native American sport this way: “The game was played with a ball, thrown by a stick some four feet in length, the outer end of which was brought round into a ring, say six inches in diameter, to which is attached a bag of network made of strong thongs of some kind of skin. The parties start at a center post. The ball is thrown into the air as perpendicularly as possible, and when it comes down each party strives to catch it in the bag at the end of their stick and throw it as far as possible against the opposite party. The ball is caught up and thrown so back and forth, and the victors are those who drive it eventually and effectually by the center post on to the side of their opponents. It is a very exciting sport, and many a one gets an unlucky blow, sometimes from friends and sometimes from foes; but as no one is supposed to design it, no offense is given or insult imagined.”
Although it is not entirely clear why the French named the sport la crosse, it may be that the game sticks used by the Native Americans bore a strong resemblance to the crook carried by Catholic Bishops that was called la crozier. Regardless, the name stuck and the field where the game was played became known as Prairie la Crosse.
Random Fact: You can watch a game of lacrosse in La Crosse; it is a club sport at UW-La Crosse.
In the autumn of 1841, just six months after leaving a comfortable life in upstate New York, 18-year old Nathan Myrick was on a keelboat heading upriver from Prairie du Chien, eager to open a trading post at Prairie la Crosse. Loaded with supplies he purchased on credit from Fort Crawford, he and his partner, Eben Weld, arrived on November 4 after five days of travel. (You can now drive this stretch in about an hour.) The little village that grew up around him was initially called Prairie la Crosse, but Myrick, as the city’s first postmaster, decided to shorten the name. In October 1844, Myrick acquired some neighbors when a group of Mormons came up from Nauvoo and spent one winter in an area south and east of his trading post (that area is now called Mormon Coulee).
In 1848 when the land was finally available for sale, Myrick bought 100 acres but left town later in the year because of declining business prospects and transferred half his land to Harmon Miller. In 1850, Timothy Burns, who was elected Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin a year later, bought Myrick’s half-share claim, then sold half of that back to Myrick a short time later. Myrick, Burns, and Miller were the original three proprietors who instigated an official town survey in 1851. When Myrick left La Crosse, the village had a handful of houses and a bowling alley where patrons used a ball made from a pine knot.
Settlers began streaming to town around 1850, attracted to its location on a flat, treeless plain high enough to avoid flooding; it also helped that the area was nearly malaria-free. Among the first arrivals was Emfin Emfinson—the area’s first known immigrant from Norway. By the end of 1853, La Crosse had 100 houses and five taverns. (La Crosse may still have one tavern for every 20 households.) A steady stream of covered wagons arrived from the East to cross the river via the ferry at La Crosse; 61 wagons crossed in a single June day in 1856. La Crosse incorporated as a city in 1856 and elected its first mayor, Thomas Stoddard, by a 216-215 vote.
La Crosse rapidly grew into a regional commercial center, fueled by industries like logging, banking, grain milling, and large scale manufacturing. La Crosse was also home to a high concentration of jobbers—wholesale businesses that supplied the retail trade and had an active ship building and repair industry. The railroads, which connected La Crosse to Milwaukee in 1858, were major employers. La Crosse also had a sizeable beer brewing industry, brewing as much product as their counterparts in Milwaukee.
La Crosse also grew through annexation. One of the most controversial moves was the annexation of North La Crosse, an incorporated city that was separated from La Crosse by a mile of swamp (and still is). North La Crosse had a number of sawmills, but the railroads and iron works were also major employers. Nearly one-third of the residents in North La Crosse were foreign-born, many of them Norwegian. The village had incorporated in 1868, but that didn’t stop annexation, which La Crosse pulled off through an act of the Wisconsin legislature on March 22, 1871; there was never a public vote. Annexation added 1494 residents, many of them disgruntled, increasing the city’s population to over 9000.
Settlers coming up the Mississippi found a growing city, with a busy steamboat landing. Among those early arrivals were a small number of blacks who passed through town in search of economic opportunity. Zacharias Louis Moss, who arrived in 1859, was among the few who made La Crosse home; he still has descendents in the area. George Edwin Taylor was another of those early black residents. Taylor was a strong advocate for labor, very active politically, and publisher of The Wisconsin Labor Advocate. He left La Crosse frustrated by racial politics and later became the first black man to receive a major party nomination for President of the US (National Liberty Party in 1904).
By the 1890s, the city’s economic growth had slowed considerably. The steamboat era ended in the 1880s, La Crosse’s grain milling industry was declining, and the last of the lumber mills would close in 1906. In response, the Board of Trade (a group of private businessmen) subsidized the construction of new factories to help transition lumber mill workers into new employment. They didn’t take many chances with their money, showing a strong preference to fund existing businesses such as the La Crosse Rubber Mills.
Anti-German sentiment stirred up by World War I ushered in a number of changes around town: Berlin Street was renamed Liberty Street; sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage”; and the German Society rebranded as the Pioneer Club. Prohibition nearly killed the local brewing industry; only the G. Heileman Company survived, by making soda water, malt extract, and near-beer products with names like Coney Island Beer and King of Clubs. The city generally did well, however, in the 1920s. Jobs from large employers like the La Crosse Rubber Works, Trane Company, La Crosse Plow Works, and auto parts manufacturing helped put enough money in people’s pockets to trigger a boom in housing construction.
As the Great Depression hit, government-sponsored programs through the Works Progress Administration and the construction of Lock and Dam 7 kept many folks afloat. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, pent-up labor-management conflict led to a series of contentious strikes. A decade later, La Crosse lost a quarter of its manufacturing jobs, a national trend that accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. Ethnic Hmong began arriving from Laos in the late 1970s; many fought alongside US soldiers in Vietnam but were left to fend for themselves when the US withdrew. Thousands migrated to the US after months or years in refugee camps.
La Crosse continues to adapt. Healthcare is now a leading employer, and education and tourism have grown in importance. The downtown area has roared back to life, and the riverfront remains a popular place to hang out.