Fur Trade Era
Prairie du Chien’s recorded history was ushered on June 17, 1673, when Marquette and Jolliet came down the Wisconsin River and were the first Europeans to enter the upper Mississippi River. Traditionally, the name of Prairie du Chien came from the French for Prairie of the Dog, an early Fox chief who lived on the prairie.
French Canadians engaged in the fur trade settled on the island by the river, and the fur trade made the first major economic impact on the settlement. Each spring fur trader and Native American met on the prairie to exchange furs for guns and other goods. Prairie du Chien was neutral territory: conflicting tribes set down their arms before attending the rendezvous.
Gradually the British took over much of the fur trade centered in Prairie du Chien. In the early 1800s the Americans asserted their presence with the building of Fort Shelby. During the War of 1812, the British and Americans skirmished for control of the fort and the prairie. In July of 1814, the only battle of the war fought in Wisconsin happened here and is known as The Battle of Prairie du Chien. The fort was burned.
Fort Crawford Years
In 1816 Fort Crawford was built on the Indian mound now occupied by the Villa Louis. Hercules Dousman brought the American influence to the fur trade. His impact on the territory and Prairie du Chien is hard to overestimate. In 1825, 1829, and 1830 important treaties were signed with the area tribes at Fort Crawford. During the winters of 1829 and 1830, army surgeon Dr. William Beaumont, conducted experiments that are still the basis of understanding the digestive process. A series of bad floods in the 1820s destroyed the wooden fort leaving it uninhabitable.
The second Fort Crawford was built of stone on higher ground that occupied the site where Wyalusing Academy stands. In 1832 a Sauk warrior named Black Hawk surrendered to Colonel Zachary Taylor at the fort ending the four month Black Hawk War. The fort was abandoned and troops were removed in 1856, but the fort was used again during the Civil War for recruiting and for an overflow hospital. Some immigrant families lived there until they could find or build other housing.
Development of Prairie du Chien
In April 1857 the railroad came to Prairie du Chien and determined the economic and social life of the community for a century. That summer a young John Lawler came as the station agent. The lower portion of town grew as a boomtown around the depot just west of Fort Crawford Museum in the area south of the fort. The upper side of town grew along Main Street north of the fort.
In 1864 the depot was moved to St. Feriole Island: the center of the town shifted and the lower town began a decline from which it never recovered. The railroad built a hotel on the Upper Mississippi known as the Railroad House, and later renamed Dousman House.
About the same time, John Lawler bought much of Fort Crawford and donated a block to Catholic nuns for St. Mary’s Academy. St. Mary’s became a respected school until the late 1960s. Lawler was also instrumental in building the first high school in 1875 and is credited with being the founder of Sacred Heart College in the 1880s. Sacred Heart became the famed Campion College and Campion Jesuit High School, which closed in 1975. Lawler made his money transferring railroad cars and passengers across the river by ferry. In 1874 he launched the pontoon railroad bridge that operated until 1961, which was dismantled in the early 1960s. Lawler Park was named after John Lawler, Prairie du Chien’s greatest philanthropist.
The city was incorporated in 1872, and in 1873 a disastrous fire took the Kane Hotel and the Traner Carriage Factory. The Kane was built in 1855 as the Phoenix and was the anchor of the upper part of town. The Kane and the factory faced each other on what is the intersection of Main and Wisconsin Street. In the aftermath of the fire the business district moved up Bluff Street, which is now Blackhawk Avenue. In 1876 a group of citizens drilled the artesian well on the corner of Wisconsin Street and Minnesota Street (now Wacouta Avenue), paving the way for the development of the sanitarium industry.
Turn of the Century Activities
From 1890-1910 railroad excursions became the rage, and Prairie du Chien became a popular destination. In the summer of 1900 over 30,000 people came on the train for three events; the Great Railroad Excursion on May 27, The Ringling Circus in July, and the infamous stay of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on August 20. A small riot broke out between Buffalo Bill’s entertainers and some local people. Shots were fired and considerable property damage was done before William Cody came riding down the street on his impressive horse calling his entertainers back to order.
In 1892 the Woolen Mill was organized and survived three fires. It became Prairie du Chien's most important employer until the late 1940s when the advent of synthetic fabrics reduced the demand for wool.
Around 1895 the clamming and pearl button industry became important. Thousands of people dug clams and sold shells to the button factories. Two large factories and several small ones operated in Prairie du Chien. Only blanks were cut here and then shipped to Lansing or Muscatine for finishing. Clammers kept looking for the big pearl that would make them rich. The Cardin family sold a 54-grain, perfect pearl for $2,000 in 1901 and built the family home with the money.
In 1912 the Prairie City Canning Company was formed. Farmers were contracted to grow cabbage and tomatoes for the princely sum of $5-7 a ton. A careful farmer could get 20-25 tons per acre. Supposedly the sandy soil made the sweetest tomatoes. Today a successful gift shop, The Cannery, has rejuvenated the old building on North Marquette Road.
Since 1785, records state at least 40 major floods. The record flood in 1965 is the only one to surpass the two-crest flood of 2001.
Historical Sites in Prairie du Chien
1. St. Feriole Island
The island is the site of the city’s earliest activities: the center of the fur trade, home of the first Fort Crawford, site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien in 1814, and three important Indian treaties. From the middle 1860s until early 1900, it held the depot for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. St. Feriole Island was Prairie du Chien’s Fourth Ward until the Corp of Engineers spent $500,000 to relocate the residents after the record Flood of 1965. Today St. Feriole Island hosts several major annual attractions and many small family outings. The third week in June is when the Prairie Villa Rendezvous is held. In July the Chamber of Commerce Fireworks, War of 1812, and the Prairie Dog Blues Fest draws crowds. The Carriage Classic brings an elegant equestrian style to the island in September.
2. Villa Louis
(St. Feriole Island) Villa Road and Bolvin Street - This Victorian estate was home to three generations of the Dousmans. The estate was first developed in the 1840s by fur trader and frontier entrepreneur Hercules Dousman. The prominent mound was first built by Indians and later modified by several military installations. The estate offered both an elegant and a flood-proof setting. The present residence was built in 1870 by Dousman’s son, H. Louis Dousman. After living in St. Louis for more than a decade, Louis and his wife Nina Sturgis Dousman returned in the mid-1880s. Louis established the Artesian Stock Farm to breed and race trotting horses. Nina directed a major remodeling of the residence. After a brief illness, Louis died in 1886. Life for the Dousmans changed. The horses were sold, paddocks became fields, and the estate was dubbed Villa Louis as a memorial to young Dousman. The family closed the estate in 1913 but returned 20 years later to establish the home as one of the first historic house museums in the midwest. The property became Wisconsin’s first State Historic Site in 1952. it is open as a museum every daily from May to October. The site retains its original furnishings, and since 1995 it has been extensively restored to its 1890s elegance as a National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places.
3. Brisbois Store - Fur Trade Museum
(St. Feriole Island) Water Street - Built in 1851-52 by fur trader and merchant, B.W. Brisbois, this stone building sits on land having a long association with the North American fur trade. Prior to the War of 1812, the property was owned by a number of prominent traders and companies. During the war, a log structure on the property was used by U.S. soldiers for housing while nearby Fort Shelby was under construction. After the war, the property became the site of a U.S. Fur Factory. In the 1820s the land was sold to the American Fur Company who held it until its sale to Brisbois in 1850. Through much of the twentieth century the building was known as the Riverside Boat Repair. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired the building in the 1970s and established the Fur Trade Museum. Operated in conjunction with the Villa Louis, the building is open May through October as a National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places.
4. Brisbois House
(St. Feriole Island) Water Street - As part of a separation contract negotiated in 1836, Joseph Rolette agreed to build this stone residence for his estranged wife Jane Fisher Rolette. Built from surplus limestone sold by the government after the construction of Fort Crawford, the house was erected on property owned by Jane’s maternal relatives, the Brisbois. After Joseph Rolette’s death, Jane married his business partner, Hercules Dousman, and moved to the famed House on the Mound. Jane transferred the property to her cousin, B.W. Brisbois, and the house remained in his family until the end of the 1900s. In the 1950s the Cornelius family restored the residence and gave the property to the State Historical Society. Today it is operated in conjunction with the Villa Louis as a National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places.
5. Rolette House
(St. Feriole Island) Water & Fisher Streets - In December 1840, Joseph Rolette began construction of this frame house. Unfinished upon Rolette’s death in 1842, the house was purchased by its builder, Henry Brandes. In the 1870s it was extensively remodeled, becoming a hotel, then a boarding house. Restoration of the house to its 1840s character is not complete. National Register of Historic Places.
6. The Dousman House Hotel
(St. Feriole Island) Fisher Sreet - The Railroad House was touted as the premier hotel on the Upper Mississippi when it was built by the railroad in 1864. Since Hercules Dousman owned so much of the railroad stock, the hotel was renamed after him in 1867. In the 1940s it was converted to a meat packing plant and later served as a warehouse. The property is undergoing redevelopment. National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places.
7. Lawler Park
(St. Feriole Island) Water Street - In the early fur trading days, canoes landed on this beach. In the 1930s the WPA constructed the stone retaining wall and filled the shoreline with dirt. This favorite park was named for John Lawler, the builder of the famed pontoon railroad bridge. Visitors can enjoy the Walk of History, a series of 10 marble etchings telling highlights of Prairie du Chien’s past.
8. Old French Cemetery
Located several miles north on Frenchtown Road (County K) is the old burial ground. The first recorded burial was 1817. Basil Giard and Joseph Rolette are buried here. Records are at St. Gabriel’s.
9. Calvary Cemetery
Located several miles north on Frenchtown Road (County Hwy K) across from Old French Cemetery. Hercules Dousman deeded the land to St. Gabriel’s before the Civil War. The prominent Dousman plot is near the center of the cemetery.
10. Francois Vertefeuille House
Hwy K - Designated as the oldest structure in Wisconsin on its original site, it was built by the voyager Francois Vertefeuille. The house is built in the French-Canadian manner. It is now privately owned. National Register of Historic Places.
11. Strange Powers House
338 North Main Street – Built between 1818-1824, the house is privately owned. National Register of Historic Places.
12. St. Gabriel’s Church, School, and Cemetery
506 North Beaumont Road - The parish dates back to the 1820s and the stone church to 1836. The early settlers met in a log cabin on the banks of St. Feriole Slough. In 1908 the church was modernized when the twin spires and the new front were added. Father Galtier, early priest and the founder of St. Paul, is buried in front of the church. The cemetery behind the church holds the graves of most of Prairie du Chien’s early Catholics. St. Gabriel’s is the oldest operating parish in Wisconsin.
13. LaRiviere-Ravoux House
316 North Beaumont Road - Pierre LaRiviere, a prosperous farmer, built this home. Pere’ Augustin Ravoux, first pastor of St. Gabriel, lived in this house in 1843 while translating the Catholic catechism into the Sioux language. This property is privately owned.
14. German School
202 North Wacouta Street, across from the Courthouse - Built in 1868 to serve the educational needs of Prairie du Chien’s German-American community, the school flourished until 1876. In 1885 the building was converted to a house by Major Edward Whaley, a disabled veteran of Wisconsin’s famed Iron Brigade, who served as Prairie du Chien’s postmaster. This house is privately owned.
15. Crawford County Courthouse
220 North Beaumont Road - The courthouse as it stands today was built in several stages. The oldest central section dates back to 1867. An earlier courthouse on this site was built in 1836 when Wisconsin became a territory. The Territorial Prison, referred to as the "Dungeons", are located in the basement . The Territorial Prison, or more practical word, jail, since its function was to hold felons for only a short time, is believed to have been constructed in 1843, five years before Wisconsin became a state. The jail was operational from that point on until the present jail was erected in 1896. A monument to Robert Lester, the Sheriff of Crawford County killed in the line of duty in 1844 when Wisconsin was still a territory, is located at the entrance to the Sheriff's Department headquarters at the Courthouse. National Register of Historic Places.
16. Cornelius Family Park & Prairie du Chien Regional Tourism Center
Located on U.S. Highway 18 at the base of the Marquette-Jolliet Bridge, this structure houses the Prairie du Chien Area Chamber of Commerce/Tourism office and Regional Tourism Center . The grounds feature the 1910 statue of Father Marquette, which was relocated from St. Mary’s Academy. Today the statue points to the river remembering the 1673 voyage of Marquette and Jolliet.
17. W.H.C. Folsom House
109 Blackhawk Avenue - Folsom, a businessman, built this residence in 1842. Captain Wiram Knowlton, a prominent attorney, recruited local militiamen from his office in this building during the Mexican War and naturalist John Muir, worked here briefly as a printer. In the 1920s the house was acquired by the League of Women’s Voters who renovated the structure and used it for their headquarters. In 1960 the League deeded the house, known locally as the Knowlton House, to the State Historical Society. National Register of Historic Places.
18. The Joseph & Emma Linzenmeyer Wachute Memorial Library
125 Wacouta Avenue - In 1876 an artesian well drilled on the site shot water in the air almost 1,000 feet. The water was used for fire protection, for the nearby sanitarium, and bottled for sale. In 1907 the city bought the property and turned it into the Artesian Park. In the early 1960s Joseph and Emma Wachute left money for a library which was built on this site. In 1976 his brother Charles left money to the city if they would rename the street where he lived after him. Since he spelled his name differently from his brother, the Wachute Library is on Wacouta Avenue.
19. Post Office
120 South Beaumont Road - Today’s post office building was constructed in 1936 as part of the Works Projects Administration Program. Inside is a relief sculpture of Marquette and Louis Jolliet. National Register of Historic Places.
20. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
220 South Michigan Street - The Little Brown Church was built in 1856 by grain merchant H. Baldwin. Originally, services were held at the second Fort Crawford.
21. Evergreen Cemetery
South 15th Street - The land was set aside for burials in the late 1840s by James H. Lockwood, one of the city’s earliest settlers. Many founders of modern Prairie du Chien are buried here.
22. The Old Rock School
South Marquette Road at Parrish Street - Originally constructed in 1857, the school served elementary students until the school consolidation movement in the mid 1900s. During the late 1980s, the American Legion, with the city’s support, added the Veteran’s Memorial. It honors local soldiers who fought in wars from the Black Hawk War through WWII. National Register of Historic Places.
23. Prairie du Chien Correctional Facility
500 East Parrish Street - The Wisconsin prison for young offenders occupies a historic site. Dating from the 1880s, Sacred Heart College (then Campion College and High School) were dedicated to the education of young men. After Campion closed in 1975, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans operated Martin Luther Preparatory School for 15 years.
24. The Fort Crawford Military Cemetery
As one of the nation’s smallest cemeteries, it has 64 internments: 18 known, 46 unknown. Originally only officers serving at Fort Crawford and their families were buried here. Later soldiers were moved from the enlisted man’s plot and from Evergreen to this cemetery. Unfortunately, their names were lost. Most years Memorial Day services have been celebrated here.
25. O.E. Satter County Building
111 West Dunn Street- Once part of the second Fort Crawford, this land was bought by John Lawler in the late 1860s and served as his estate where he planted hundreds of evergreens, many of which still stand. In 1902 the family estate was sold. In 1903 the Prairie du Chien Sanitarium was erected. In the early 1930s O.E. Satter came as a young doctor to work for the Sanitarium. Sometime later the sanitarium became a general hospital with Satter as its director. In 1976 he sold the building to Crawford County, which has used it for offices since. Now at the turn of a new century, another generation is deciding the fate of this old building.
26. Wyalusing Academy
601 South Beaumont Road - John Lawler gave this site, once part of the second Fort Crawford, to Catholic nuns for a girl’s school in 1870. St. Mary’s Academy educated young women for almost a century before it closed in 1968. Wyalusing Academy, a private institution, is dedicated to helping students who have had difficulty in traditional schools to learn life and job skills.
27. Fort Crawford Museum
717 South Beaumont Road - The second Fort Crawford Hospital was first occupied in 1831, with Dr. William Beaumont as the first surgeon. Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, and Chief Black Hawk are also associated with the second Fort Crawford. Some tireless DAR women bought the site in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it was reconstructed as a WPA project. Until 1995 the site was known as The Museum of Medical Progress and was owned by the State Medical Society of Wisconsin. Since 1995 the museum has been owned and operated by the non-profit Prairie du Chien Historical Society. Today it is open daily as a museum from May through October. National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places.
- Fort Crawford Museum 608-326-6960
- Villa Louis Historic Site 608-326-2721
- Prairie du Chien Public Library 608-326-6211
- Crawford County Clerk 608-326-0200
- Wisconsin Room - University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Karrmann Library, Platteville
- Lower Wisconsin River Genealogical & Historical Research Center, PO Box 202 Wauzeka, WI 53826-0202