Historic Structures

History Dousman Hotel and Railroad Station, Prairie du Chien Wisconsin

The Euro-American history of Prairie du Chien is traceable to at least 1685, when French-Canadian fur trader Nicholas Perrot built a post on St. Feriole Island from which to trade with the Mesquakie Indians. Perrot's post was not long occupied, however, and a permanent post was not built until 1781. That post, established by traders Augustine Ange, Pierre Antaya, Basil Giard, Michael Brisbois, and Pierre la Pointe, became the nucleus of a small island village inhabited chiefly by the French-Canadians and their Native American wives.

During the War of 1812, Prairie du Chien became a focal point in the struggle between British and American forces for control of the upper Mississippi-Great Lakes region, its fur trade, and the allegiance of its native inhabitants. In June 1814, American troops erected a log fort, named Ft. Shelby, near the village. Ft. Shelby was captured by the British with assistance from numerous fur traders the following month and renamed Ft. McKay after a leader of the expedition. With the ultimate American victory in the war, Ft. McKay was abandoned and subsequently burned.

The United States established a firm military presence, however, with construction of Ft. Crawford on St. Feriole Island in 1816. During the following years, the inhabitants of Prairie du Chien, still largely French-Canadian, were confirmed in their land titles, and the American Fur Company established a major fur trade post near Ft. Crawford, with Hercules Dousman as agent beginning in 1826.

By the early 1840s, however, the focus of the fur trade had moved to the upper Missouri and Rocky Mountain regions, and the need for a military presence at Prairie du Chien began to decline as the upper Mississippi region around Prairie du Chien became settled. The village entered a period of economic stagnation which lasted until 1857. That year, Wisconsin's first railroad, the Milwaukee & Mississippi, completed its line to Prairie du Chien. The terminus, including a depot and yards, was in Prairie du Chien's "Lowertown," a portion of the village located on the mainland below St. Feriole Island, that had been laid out by Alexander McGregor in 1836.

The coming of the railroad produced Prairie du Chien's greatest sustained economic boom, which lasted until about 1885. it began somewhat shakily, as the Milwaukee & Mississippi in 1859 defaulted on payment of interest on bonds and went bankrupt. In 1861, however, a new company, the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien, was organized to take over the Milwaukee & Mississippi's operations, and the activity at Prairie du Chien resumed. The town became a major center for transshipment. Emigrants arrived here by train, then took ferries and steam packet lines north or south to settle in Iowa and Minnesota. Gradually, as lands west of the Mississippi were brought under cultivation, steamboats and barges brought agricultural products to Prairie du Chien for shipment via rail to the East.

The principal beneficiaries of this activity were the inhabitants, businessmen, and landowners of Prairie du Chien's Lowertown, to the growing consternation of those who lived and held property on St. Feriole Island and the "upper town," located on the mainland opposite the island. In an attempt to move the center of economic activity north, inhabitants of St. Feriole and the upper town offered money subscriptions to the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien Railway Company, to persuade the line to build a new depot on the island. Coincidentally, there occurred in 1863 and early 1864 a period of very low water in the Mississippi - so low, in fact, that many of the larger steamboats were unable to reach the warehouse docks in Lowertown.

By the late summer of 1863, the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien had begun a major relocation of its facilities from Lowertown to St. Feriole Island. The program included first the construction of a new shipyard, where steamboats and barges operating in connection with the railroad could be built or repaired. By spring of 1864, a "mammoth" freight depot and a grain elevator, "largest on the Mississippi," were in operation on St. Feriole Island as well. Following the railroad's lead, a number of local entrepreneurs arranged to move not only their businesses but their buildings to St. Feriole Island and the upper town.

To complete the relocation project, the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien re-routed its rail line to the newly developed upper levee. To accommodate passengers, the railroad built a small complex of buildings in the block of Water Street below Fisher Street, directly opposite the ferry and packet landings. This complex included a small "emigrant depot," with attendant "baggage house" and express office, and a much larger "general passenger depot," all connected by a wooden platform extended along the railroad tracks.

The "general passenger depot" was much more than the designation suggested. It was, rather, an establishment that included not only a waiting room and ticket office, but also a news depot, a fully-equipped "eating houses-over 50 hotel rooms, a women's parlor, and a card room and saloon for male patrons. Construction of this all-purpose facility was well underway by the spring of 1864. It was completed in the spring of 1865, and was formally inaugurated on May 4 with a "grand opening ball." Although the grouping of so many different functions in a single building appears to have been somewhat unusual, the concept of a hotel catering primarily, though by no means exclusively, to railroad travelers, was not. More than a few nineteenth century railroads and local entrepreneurs took advantage of the inevitable demand for eating and sleeping accommodations that developed, as railroads expanded across the country, particularly in communities that served as transshipment points and embarkation centers.

The Milwaukee's Prairie du Chien Railroad's new hotel/depot appears to have begun operations without a formal name, as none was given in newspaper accounts even at the opening. Subsequently, however, the establishment was named the Dousman Hotel, by which it was known ever after. The name may have been bestowed around 1868, in honor of Hercules L. Dousman who died that year.

Although the steamer trade began to decline in the 1880s due to improved rail service to St. Paul, Minnesota and the West, the Dousman Hotel remained a popular and successful operation for many years. During the 1880s and 1890s, the Dousman Hotel maintained its status as a well-known stopping place for tourists and honeymooners, chiefly due to the efforts of its then, proprietor, Charles Hufschmidt. Hufschmidt, originally from Lansing, Iowa, began his career as an hotelier after suffering financial reverses as a wheat broker and shipper. In addition to the Dousman, Hufschmidt also operated the Hufschmidt House at McGregor, Iowa. One of Dousman's strongest features was its "table," at which duck was the specialty offered to favored guests of the management.

With Hufschmidt's death, around 1900, the popularity of the Dousman gradually declined, and most of its patrons were drawn from traveling salesmen and "train gangs" and other railroad employees. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which had acquired the Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien and its assets in 1874, went into receivership in the 1920s. The hotel and several nearby structures were sold in 1926, although the land remained in railroad ownership. By that time, the hotel was no longer in operation, as a Sanborn map from 1924 shows the first floor vacant and the upper floors used as apartments. During the early 1930s, these became tenements for local inhabitants on relief or otherwise too poor to afford better quarters.

In 1937 William D. Carroll, a former mayor of Prairie du Chien and state legislator, purchased both the hotel and the lots on which it was located. In January 1939 he incorporated the Carroll Packing Company and began a major conversion of the old hotel into a cold storage and meat packing plant. in April of that year, the Armour Company of Chicago agreed to lease the facility and operate it for five years. Under the terms of the agreement, the Carroll Packing Company completed the remodeling effort, which included construction of a large kill room, freight elevator, rendering plant, and tank house, plus conversion of the first floor to a cold storage facility.

After five years of operation, Armour decided not to renew its lease, and in 1946 the plant was sold to Oscar Mayer & Company. However, by 1952 Oscar Mayer was unable to obtain sufficient livestock to keep the operation profitable, and was forced to lay off over 100 employees. In 1955, Oscar Mayer sold the property to the Wisconsin Farmco Service Cooperative. Under this and subsequent owners, the former hotel was used principally for storage.