Prairie du Chien's St. Feriole Island, an abundance of history

"St. Feriole Island, where the city began, has the greatest concentration of historic landmark properties in the country." So wrote Mary Bergin in 2004. "The Prairie du Chien terrace derives new interest not only because of the antiquity of its occupence and the variety of its cultural successions, but also because the historical geography of this site, for the two centuries following 1685, epitomizes that of the Upper Mississippi Country." So wrote Glenn T. Trewartha in 1932. "It is the uniqueness of historic buildings that make each place individual. The history and heritage of a city gives it a sense of place. Preservation of historic buildings is changing the face of and actually saving many towns." So wrote Mary Jane Hettinga in 2005. Amen, say we. Our state's dominant strengths reside in towns and places like this.

November 18, 2007


St. Feriole Island is a magnificent area of our country, an area where the Wisconsin River meets the Mighty Mississippi, a place where Wisconsin meets Iowa, and the location of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in the southwest corner of the delightful Crawford County.

Prairie du Chien is French for "Prairie of the dog," the name of the Indian chief.

As you can tell, we are high on this area of the state. We've done several stories about Wisconsin's Crawford County, and have listed those in the right column. We love visiting this section of the state, and have done so several times, and will so many times more.

This was our second visit to St. Feriole Island, the original location of Prairie du Chien city.

Mary Bergin wrote an article back 2004 about the "Grand Excursions 2004" spotlighting the Upper Mississippi Valley. She said something about Prairie du Chien which rings absolutely true to us:

"The city is recreating an 1890 riverfront, complete with gazebo, boat boarding facilities, period lighting, and a paved walkway.
St. Feriole Island, where the city began, has the greatest concentration of historic landmark properties in the country."

In June 1932, the
Annals of the Association of American Geographers published an article by Glenn T. Trewartha, entitled, "The Prairie du Chien Terrace: Geography of a Confluence Site." On page one, Trewartha says this about Prairie du Chien:

"It may well be contended that a geographic study of any area requires no defense since it deals with a portion of the earth's surface. The Prairie du Chien terrace derives new interest not only because of the antiquity of its occupance and the variety of its cultural successions, but also because the historical geography of this site, for the two centuries following 1685, epitomizes that of the Upper Mississippi Country."

In the paragraph before this, Trewartha said this:

"An Indian village, a frontier fur-trading community for nearly a century and a half, a military post under three flags, a bustling river and railroad town of commercial fame during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, each of these successive tenures profited by the river location and the confluence site, and to a degree they all had their origins rooted in these facts of situation. The present town is a quasi dormant community, with the same locational facts that were raison d'être for the earlier forms of settlement, now acting to circumscribe its services and handicap its prosperity."

We'll return to some of these points at the end of this report.

Using the Mapquest satellite image above, we'll zero in on St. Feriole Island a bit more with two consecutive zooms.


The yellow arrow points to the island, to the east (right) is Prairie du Chien, to the west is the Mississippi River dotted with islands and Iowa on the far left, on the western side of the Mississippi. Many people call this area the Upper Mississippi.


Here is a zoom shot getting you closer in. There are a number of historic and meaningful attractions on this island. Some of these attractions are being nicely developed, some are not, and some are languishing. We'll not attempt to delve into why that is. Our approach here will be to highlight the attractions that were obvious to us, and ask you to view them, and the entire island, as a single developmental entity, even though often each falls under the scope of different parties.

To get started, we took the last satellite image and marked it up to show you where things are.


The island is 240 acres and is on the east channel of the Mississippi River. It has a mix of habitats including beaches, floodplain forest and grassland. In the spring, floodwaters create mud flats ideal for migrating shorebirds. The entire area down here is a haven for eagles. Prairie du Chien was originally built on this island, bu repeated floods and fires caused the city to move across the channel.


St. Feriole Island Railroad Bridge, Milwaukee Road Mississippi River Crossing at Prairie du Chien, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Photo credit: John A. Weeks. Presented by The Bridges and Structures of the Upper Mississippi River, a website by John Weeks.

At the southern end of the island (bottom) is the St. Feriole Island Railroad Bridge. Sadly, while visiting the island, we missed this.


Dillman Field, with the concession stand and Isle of Capri Field in the background. Presented by St. Feriole Island Park.

We entered the island just north of the bridge, on West Blackhawk Ave., and immediately saw the St. Feriole Island Baseball Park. The St. Feriole Island Baseball Park is run by the St. Feriole Island Park, Inc., a tax-exempt, non-profit organization formed in 2002. The facility allows for adult baseball, Home Talent Baseball, boys and girls little leagues and other uses. There are one baseball and two softball diamonds there.

We will drive up Water Street as we tour the island. There is a railway track right next to it, the road to the left, the track to the right.


There is a lovely, small, limestone building on the left called "Eagles on the River," also known to the as the Rock Building. It was dedicated in 2002. The windows, which we will show you in a moment, were the gift of Madison Gas and Electric Foundation, Inc. and the Prairie du Chien Eagles Club.


This is the front window, viewed from the outside.


This is a view from the inside. Marvelous. The artist is Jo Van. She also did the next window, which is on the other side of the building facing the Mississippi River.



This is the inside. The balcony view is gorgeous.


It was a drizzling, hazy fall day, fantastic nonetheless. That's the Mighty Mississippi River East Branch, and you are looking at one of the many islands in it in this area.


This is the view looking north along Water Street. You can see some rail cars parked on the track to the right. The small brown building is the Depot Bar, the larger building behind it is the Dousman House. Note the greenery along the wall, on the left side of Water Street, lined by period lighting fixtures. It is also lined with street furniture. This extends roughly from the Brisbois Store on the north to St. Feriole Baseball Park to the south. It is known as Lawler Park. Mississippi River Cruises depart from this area.


Lawler Park is a recently improved riverfront park and was part of the city's "Grand Excursions Legacy Project 2004". Among other things, the park has two large picnic pavilions, playground equipment, restrooms and a public boat ramp. The park has a separate identity from the other recreational facilities on the island. Lawler park is a section close to the river where people can enjoy the sights and sounds of the Mississippi River rolling by. It is operated by the city.

The gazebo shown above happens to be across the tracks from the Depot Bar, which we show next.


This is the Depot Bar, originally built in 1864 and has been fully restored. She sits at St. Feriole Island, Prairie du Chieb, on the Mississippi River not far from where the Wisconsin meets Ol’ Man River.


There is a neat little boardwalk between the Depot Bar and the river, a great place to enjoy the river view. That gazebo you see is the one we showed earlier, in Lawler Park. If you look very carefully, you can also see the railway track. An impressive set-up.


This is the old Dousman House Hotel, built in 1864, once an elegant hotel. It is named after Hercules Dousman, a fur trader credited with bringing that trade to Prairie du Chien. Dousman lived on the island, and legend has it that during the flood of 1828, he saw that the rising water did not flood a large mound area, which is where he would build his home and later this hotel. Buildings put on this mound survived the floods of 1870, 1892, 1920 and 1922, though much of the surrounding land was under, and the waters did come right up to the building, especially in 1920. A flood in 1965 and another in 2001 did cause trouble. Susan Lampert Smith has written a good article about all this, entitled "Born and raised on the river," published in the Summer 2002 edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.


This is another view, from the northern side of the house. We believe the white house is known as the Rolette House. If we are right, then Joseph Rolette started building it in 1840 but died before he could finish it. It was remodeled in the 1870s, became a hotel, and then a boarding house. It looked well restored to us, though we have seen reports the restoration is not quite finished. Love those tracks! We'll mention Rolette a few more times.

In 1869, the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway advertised the Dousman House as a place that "affords ample facilities for accommodation of travelers, and in the best style."

The Dousman House was purchased in 1994 by Blair Dillman, a resident of Prairie du Chien and owner of Prairie Sand & Gravel. He is slowly but surely working to restore it and operate it as a hotel on the island. We understand there are regulatory issues associated with the floodplain and, of course, it's a costly project. Dillman is involved in many restoration projects in the city and on the island.


This is a most interesting drawing of the Dousman House we found on We do not know why this was drawn, but based on everything we saw on the island, this could be an artist's concept of what the Dousman House Hotel and this section of the island could look like.


This is a view eastward from the south side of the Dousman House. You can get a sense for the wonderful park land. It's like this all over the island.


We've zoomed in a bit. Rain and haze, yes, perpetual beauty, you bet.


As we continue on northward on Water Street the next main stop, and quite a stop it is, is Villa Louis. Regrettably, we did not have the time to go inside Villa Louis, where guided tours are offered, but we most certainly were enchanted by the grounds and buildings from the outside. The house is said to contain a magnificent collection of Victorian decorative arts, and we believe it.

Villa Louis is also known as the Dousman Mansion. Ft. Crawford used to be here, but was moved. In 1843, Hercules Dousman had a large brick Greek revival house built atop an Indian mound near what had been Ft. Crawford's southeastern blockhouse. As a result, it is known as the "House on the Mound." Upon his father's death in 1868, son Louis demolished the home and had a more modern Italianate style home built. His mother, Jane, moved in. Over time, the estate hosted stables and a horse racetrack, and has been remodeled. The race track was across the street from the front of the home.

The last of the family left in 1913, but continued to own it and rented the mansion as a boarding school. In the 1930s, two of the Dousman children restored it to its 19th century appearance, named it Villa Louis in honor of Louis, and transferred it to the city to be operated as a museum. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired it in 1952 and expanded the area to include the Brisbois House and Brisbois Store. The site also hosts the Rolette House, and some other buildings operated as part of the estate.

Let's take a walk around the grounds.


This is the rear view, from Water Street.


A closer view of the rear of the house.


The gardens on the south side of the estate are magnificent. We'll show you a series of photos. Remember, rain and haze, and still wondrous beauty.


We believe these are the old stables, to the rear of the home.


Volunteers work at the Villa, dressed in 19th century wardrobes. They present the tours of the grounds and the interior.

The grounds were always intended to create a park-like setting. The grounds host a wide variety of vegetation.





These gardens are breathtaking.

As we mentioned earlier, there are many structures still on the estate. Here are a couple we noticed.

This is the Brisbois Store, now called the Astor Fur Trade Museum, which chronicles the fur trade that flourished here. First the view from the front, then from the rear.



This piece of property had long been used by fur traders and, following the War of 1812, became the US Fur Factory. The American Fur Co. bought the land in the 1820s. Bernard Brisbois was born in Prairie du Chien in 1808, and worked as an agent for the American Fur Company. Bernard bought the land in 1851 and built the Brisbois Store in 1851-52.


This is the Brisbois House, built by Joseph Rolette in 1837, the same Roulette we highlighted earlier. This, like so many other structures here, is built of limestone, which is plentiful in this region to this day.


This is the Museum of Prairie du Chien, housed in what used to be a carriage house serving Villa Louis. It displays the town's early history.


Now, if you are a little boy, like your editor, this is a real fun place. This is a blockhouse, all that is left of the first Fort Crawford on the island. It has a spectacular firing view upstream and downstream the Mississippi River. This was originally Ft. Shelby, set up during the War of 1812 with Britain. The British captured it in 1814 and renamed it Ft. McKay. The British occupied Prairie du Chien until 1815. The British and US signed the Treaty of Ghent that year, restoring the US-British Canada borders, burned the fort, and left the city. In 1816, a new fort was constructed and called Ft. Crawford in honor of William Crawford, the Secretary of War under President James Madison. The fort had two blockhouses, one on the northwest side, which is this one, and one on the south side, which has since been destroyed in favor of Villa Louis. The fort had to be abandoned anyway in 1826 because of a major flood. It moved to another section of town.

Interestingly, the Treaty of Prairie du Chien was signed here in 1825, one of the largest Indian Councils in American history involving over a dozen Indian Nations. The history associated with all the bears careful study.


We mentioned earlier that a horse race track was across the street from the front of Villa Louis. The track is gone, but in its place is a very large open grassland space and, in one corner of that, a growing effort known as the Mississippi River Sculpture Park.

The goal of those building this park is to present over two dozen sculptures that will walk the visitor through that part of human history that shaped the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Three sculptures have already been installed, and we will present photos of them in a moment.

The sculptures are being done by Master Sculptor Florence Bird, a resident of the region. She has said this:

"I believe this area, in our country's midwest, where the peaceful Wisconsin River meets the mighty Mississippi, where people have traveled and worked and traded and fought since time began, is the enriched place which can express the creative identity of our whole nation."

Let's now look at the three sculptures that have been installed. All three sculptures were donated by Patrick and Janet Leamy.


This is a sculpture of Black Hawk, born Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (Black Sparrow Hawk). He was born in 1767 near present-day Rock Island, Illinois, of the Sauk Nation, a nation with roots around the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi River. The history surrounding this man and his nation demands special research. Blackhawk and his nation constantly had to confront US territorial expansions, many of which he opposed. Many confrontations involved considerable carnage. He and his people fought for the British in the War of 1812. Following that war, he came up against the Territories of Michigan and Iowa in what came to be known as the Blackhawk war, much of which was fought in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. He was ultimately captured and sent east. He told his autobiography to a government interpreter, which was edited and became a best-seller: Black Hawk: An Autobiography. He later died in what is now southeast Iowa.


This is a Victorian Lady, circa 1894. There is a plaque next to this sculpture with a poem inscribed, "Victorian/Victorious" by Sherrie Ball. This poem highlights the achievements of several women of the time. It's closing goes like this:

"I am not simply a 'Victorian Lady.' I am a woman who conceives victory. For if I am victorious in my life. The world will be improved an eternity."


This is a sculpture of Dr. William Beaumont and his son, Israel. Dr. Beaumont is widely viewed as the "Father of Gastric Physiology." Born in Connecticut in 1785, he became a medical doctor, and served in the Army during the War of 1812. He was later assigned to Fort Mackinac where he treated an employee of the American Fur Co. suffering from an accidental gunshot wound to the stomach. His experience with this patient enabled him to make important discoveries in the digestive process. Among other places, he served at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien for five years, where he treated malaria and continued his exploration of the digestive process.


We earlier mentioned Lawler Park as a narrow strip of greenery extending along the river with gazebos and picnic areas. It turns out there is another section to Lawler Park opposite Villa Louis and adjacent to the Sculpture Park. This is the large green that once served Villa Louis as a horse race track.

You can see the soccer goals set up in the distance. We shot this photo from inside the Sculpture Park. The fields extend to the left and to the right, so it is quite a large open area. The National Soccer League of Chicago held some of its matches here in 2007.


As you drive to the northern side of St. Feriole Island, you come to an industrial kind of section of the island which belongs to Prairie Sand & Gravel, owned by Blair Dillman. You will recall we mentioned him earlier as the owner of the Dousman House Hotel, a man very involved in restoration projects in Prairie du Chien. We believe this section of the island is known as the Dillman Harbor Dock. If correct, that means the baseball park on the south end of the island and this industrial area on the north end are both named after him.

The Mapquest satellite image we are showing display the industrial area with quite a few river barges berthed along shore. We did not explore this aspect of the area at all, in part because we were in complete awe of the old rail cars parked here, in areas highlighted by the two yellow arrows.

We'll pause for just a moment to say that this area has traditionally been one that receives and stores miscellaneous bulk materials including fertilizer and salt. While there is a rail track going from here straight down the west side of the island and across the old St. Feriole Island Railroad Bridge to the mainland, it is seldom used, leading us to conclude this area is primarily a stopping point for barge traffic with some degree of off-load, upload and storage capabilities. We understand there are a fertilizer storage warehouse and a large open storage area for bulk materials.

Let's take a look at some of the old rail cars parked here. We understand that Blair Dillman owns these. We'll walk you through several shots, and you can let your mind wander.









To the boy in this editor, this is a gold mine of history and wonder. One can only imagine the fantastic things that could be done with these cars and this section of the island. Of course, dreams cost a ton of money.

We wanted to show you one more historical area we found, off the island, on County Highway K. There is a small but quite old French cemetery in the midst of a residential and industrial area of the city's north side. We found it while exploring.


This is the French Town Cemetery, dedicated in 1817, and restored by the Women's Civic Club in 1964. The first recorded burial here was in 1817. Basil Giard, an important landowner in the area, especially across the river in present-day Marquette, Iowa, and Joseph Rolette, about whom we wrote earlier, the man who built the Brisbois House, are buried here. We understand this to have been a Catholic cemetery.


This is the grave of Joseph Rolette, formal name Jean Joseph Rolette.


This is the marker of the grave for Alice Irene Shoemaker, who died in 1862 at the tender age of one year, one month, and one day.

As seems always to be the case, we visit, we photograph, and return home to study the photography and research the history and geography. Such was true here. As we drove around the interior grounds of the island, we saw several interesting old buildings that are in need of public identification and restoration. This island is awash with history, and it hurts to see some parts of it crumble.

Here are some closing photos to show some of these buildings.




Let's go back and revisit some things we highlighted earlier about St. Feriole Island. Mary Bergin wrote in 2004:

"St. Feriole Island, where the city began, has the greatest concentration of historic landmark properties in the country."

Glenn T. Trewartha wrote, in 1932:

"The Prairie du Chien terrace derives new interest not only because of the antiquity of its occupance and the variety of its cultural successions, but also because the historical geography of this site, for the two centuries following 1685, epitomizes that of the Upper Mississippi Country."


There are many people working hard to renovate Prairie du Chien in general, especially the downtown, and St. Feriole Island. Many see the potential of the area. That potential, in our eyes, is enormous. But yes, there's a lot of work to be done. As usual, the biggest challenge is obtaining financial support.

There is an organization in the city known as the Community Development Alternatives (CDA), Inc. that is working the problem hard. Eric Frydenlund, the CDA's tourism coordinator, has addressed the potential well, not only of Prairie du Chien, but all of Crawford County. He has said this:

"(Crawford County offers the first-time visitor places) that soothe the soul, and the seasoned visitor reasons enough to return again and again. Here you will find vistas that inspire your imagination, communities that welcome your coming, and special respites away from the hectic pace of city life."

Again, Amen.

We travel around the state a lot, and see a lot of towns that have unique potential to be bright spots in the state. Arguably, the state's dominant strengths reside in these towns when putting a human face on the state's potential.

We commend a paper to you, written by Jeffrey Winstel, entitled, "The unincorporated hamlet, a vanishing aspect of the rural landscape." His paper is about Everett, Ohio. We want to present some excerpts. We'll offer that you could replace the words "Everett, Ohio" with many, many towns in Wisconsin:

"Indistinct crossroad communities like Everett are found throughout the country, and in many National Park Service units. Although their presence indicates a role in the settlement process, the buildings’ unassuming appearances do not convey historic or cultural importance. Despite this, the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area plans to preserve Everett’s buildings and setting through a phased rehabilitation project.

"Geographer Walter Cristaller used the rural landscape in Germany to develop his Central Place Theory of economic geography. His theory identifies the hamlet as the smallest settlement unit that provides a few primary services to a small local hinterland.

"In 1943, University of Wisconsin climatologist and geographer Glenn T. Trewartha published a study on the rural hamlet. In his article 'The Unincorporated Hamlet: An Overlooked Aspect of the American Landscape,' he stated that, except for the isolated farmstead, the unincorporated hamlet was the second most common settlement type found in rural America. (Ed. note: He was speaking of southwestern Wisconsin)

"Preserving the existing landscape and repairing, rather than replacing, sound historic fabric will prevent Everett from becoming something akin to an enlargement of a model train town. Everett needs to keep the look of a small community where the people made a modest living from the surrounding land."

We'll conclude with some of our favorite words from Mary Jane Hettinga, a former executive director of the Marathon County Historical Society in Wisconsin. We quote her wherever we can, and have been so impressed by her outlook that we highlighted her and the topic in an article, "Historic buildings make towns unique." Mary Jane said this:

"It is the uniqueness of the historic buildings that make each place individual. The history and heritage of a city gives it a sense of place. Preservation of historic buildings is changing the face of and actually saving many towns."

A closing, more Amens.

Editor's note: We'd like to highlight further Glenn T. Trewartha, the author of "The Prairie du Chien Terrace: Geography of a Confluence Site" we mentioned early on in this report. It turns out he has authored a great many most interesting papers. "Google him!" This is a guy worth reading, one very dedicated to the Great Plains in general, the historical significance of our small towns in particular. He was a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin.