Europeans moved into the area in 1848, just as the Ho Chunk were leaving. Among the first settlers was William Garrison, who hailed from Lansing, Michigan. He did not stick around, but his name for the town did. The following year, Galena transplants John Haney and his son, James, arrived, followed in short order by H.H. Houghton. They built a few mills in Lansing and prospered. Houghton used part of his fortune to build a stone mansion on the side of Mt. Hosmer in 1863 (it is still there).
Lansing was a remote outpost in those early years. Boats passed town just a few times a month and rarely stopped. Communication with the outside world was sporadic in the winter with mail arriving only once a week. Residents had to travel across the frozen Mississippi to Prairie du Chien, which had the nearest railroad. When the ice was not thick enough to walk across, Lansing residents were on their own. The town had a good spot for steamboats to land and eventually became a key supply point for the region; the town grew five-fold in 20 years—from 440 residents in 1854 to 2,280 in 1875.
Just south of nascent Lansing, the town of Columbus also had a bustling boat landing. Columbus was chosen as the first county seat in 1851. When the town was platted in 1852, two acres were set aside for county buildings; nothing was ever built and, when the county seat was moved, Columbus essentially disappeared. A name change in 1857—to Capoli, in honor of the bluff of the same name above town (this bluff was called Cap-a-l’ail by Henry Schoolcraft)—did not save the town.
Lansing residents have been resilient in the face of changing economic fortunes. The town’s initial growth was fueled by a booming trade in shipping grain and the Kerndt brothers (Gustav, Moritz, William, Julius) were part of the reason. They built a warehouse in 1859 and an elevator in 1861; both riverfront structures are still are standing. Fortunes slumped for a while as the wheat harvest declined, but farmers eventually switched to dairy, livestock, and other crops. Local industry received a boost when the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad arrived in 1872; townsfolk threw an exuberant party on May 8 to celebrate the arrival of the first train.
Lansing also profited from the lumber business in the late 1800s; during the peak years of the lumber trade, log rafts floated continuously downriver. As the great northern forests were depleted around the turn of the 20th century, Lansing developed an industry producing pearl buttons from Mississippi River mussels. As the pearl button industry declined in the 1920s, commercial fishing took up the slack. Lansing’s economy today is closely tied to farming, with a boost from the tourist trade.