La Crosse was incorporated as a city in 1856, but its history dates further. The first Europeans to see the site of La Crosse were French fur traders who traveled the Mississippi River in the late 17th century. There is no written record, however, of any visit to the site until 1805, when Lt. Zebulon Pike mounted an expedition up the Mississippi River for the United States. Pike recorded the location’s name as “Prairie La Crosse”. The name originated when he saw the Native Americans playing a game with sticks that resembled a bishop’s crozier or la crosse in French.
The first white settlement at La Crosse occurred in 1841 when Nathan Myrick, a New York native, moved to the village at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to work in the fur trade. Myrick was disappointed to find that because many fur traders were already well-entrenched there, there were no openings for him in the trade. As a result, he decided to establish a trading post upriver at the then still unsettled site of Prairie La Crosse. In 1841, he built a temporary trading post on Barron Island (now called Pettibone Park), which lies just west of La Crosse’s present downtown. The following year, Myrick relocated the post to the mainland prairie, partnering with H.J.B. Miller to run the outfit.
The spot Myrick chose to build his trading post proved ideal for settlement. It was near the junction of the Black, La Crosse, and Mississippi Rivers. In addition, the post was built at one of the few points along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River where a broad plain ideal for development existed between the river’s bank and the tall bluffs that line the river valley. Because of these advantages, a small village grew around Myrick’s trading post in the 1840s.
A small Mormon community settled at La Crosse in 1844, building several dozen cabins a few miles south of Myrick’s post. Although these settlers relocated away from the Midwest after just a year, the land they occupied near La Crosse continues to bear the name Mormon Coulee.
On June 23, 1850, Father James Lloyd Breck of the Episcopal Church said the first Christian liturgy (Episcopalian liturgy) on top of Grandad Bluff. Today a monument to that event stands atop the bluff, near the parking lot at a scenic overlook.
More permanent development took place closer to Myrick’s trading post, where stores, a hotel, and a post office were constructed during the 1840s. Under the direction of Timothy Burnss, lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, surveyor William Hood platted the village in 1851. This opened it up for further settlement, which was achieved rapidly as a result of promotion of the city in eastern newspapers. By 1855, La Crosse had grown in population to nearly two thousand residents, leading to its incorporation in 1856. The city grew even more rapidly after 1858 with the completion of the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad, the second railroad connecting Milwaukee to the Mississippi River.
During the second half of the 19th century, La Crosse grew to become one of the largest cities in Wisconsin. At that time, it was a major economic center in the state, especially of the lumber industry, for logs cut in the interior of the state could be rafted down the Black River toward sawmills built in the city. La Crosse also became a center for the brewing industry and other manufacturers that saw advantages in the city’s location adjacent to major transportation arteries, such as the Mississippi River and the railroad between Milwaukee and St. Paul, Minnesota. Around the turn of the 20th century, the city also became a center for education, with three colleges and universities established in the city between 1890 and 1912.
La Crosse remains the largest city on Wisconsin’s western border, and the educational institutions in the city have recently led it toward becoming a regional technology and medical hub.