Thomas Rowe, a native New Yorker, arrived in the area in 1851, apparently with the idea of opening a tavern to serve the lumberjacks working along the Black River, which seems like it must have been a good idea, given their numbers in the area. Mr. Rowe was a fan of Thomas Campbell whose poem The Pleasures of Hope references a town in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands that provided the inspiration for the town’s name:
Now fore he sweeps, where scarce a summer smiles,
On Behring’s rocks, or Greenland’s naked isles;
Cold on his midnight watch the breezes blow;
From wastes that slumber in eternal snow,
And waft across the waves’ tumultuous roar,
The wolf’s long howl from Oonalaska’s shore.
William Carlisle, a lumberman by trade, was so taken with the name that after he left the area, he used it three more times to establish communities in Arkansas, Texas, and Washington.
Back to lumber. The first sawmill went up around 1853, and by 1856 there were three sawmills in operation and two more under construction. Most of the workers were immigrants from Germany and Norway. From 1855 to 1899, over six billion board feet of lumber floated down the Black River to Onalaska. That’s enough lumber to build two million three-bedroom, 1000-square-foot ranch houses. That’s a lot of lumber. During the early years, the mills kicked out a lot of sawdust as a byproduct; for a while, the sawdust was dumped on roads to make them more passable, which turned out to be not such a good idea, because sawdust is, of course, flammable and, while flaming streets might be really cool effect in a video game, they aren’t so good for a town trying to convince people to stick around. The lumber business peaked in 1892; 10 years later it was essentially done, as the forests had been depleted. Employment at the Black River mills fell from 1785 in 1899 to 39 just six years later.
Now back to Onalaska. Onalaska grew more slowly than its neighbor because La Crosse had a more favorable river port and a railroad station 12 years earlier. After the mills closed, Onalaska dipped into a recession; light manufacturing and agriculture gradually turned the economy around. One of the light manufacturers was the Onalaska Pickle and Canning factory, which occupies 12 pages in the local history book. They packed pickles, cabbage, peas, and corn beginning in 1906, shipping sauerkraut around the world until closing in 1958. Onalaska was a favorite ending point for sleighing expeditions; arriving sleighers would throw a big party, drinking and sometimes fighting, although this activity probably had less of an economic impact than light manufacturing and agriculture.
Onalaska expanded to the north and east in the 1960s but this growth was mostly residential. In 1982, the city annexed land in the Town of Medary around Valley View Mall after a lengthy legal dispute and promptly licensed developers to build the strip mall hell that you see today.
Random Fact: Onalaska is the hometown of the Gullikson brothers (Tom and Tim), professional tennis players who excelled at doubles play in the 1980s. Tim also achieved fame as the coach who helped Pete Sampras to 14 Grand Slam titles before a brain tumor cut his life short in 1996.