By Clay Riness  

In 1841, 18-year-old Nathan Myrick built a trading post on what would later be called Barron Island. It was located at the confluence of three rivers that were a main source of travel for French fur traders and indigenous people. It was there, on the inhabited island, that Myrick began trading with the “people of the big voice” … known today as the Ho-Chunk. A year later, he moved his post across the river to where the Charmant Hotel stands today.

The island was part of Minnesota, but in 1857, Alonzo and Lucretia Barron began negotiating with Houston County to develop it into “Island City.” Both Buffalo Bill Cody and four-time La Crosse Mayor Frank “White Beaver” Powell also purchased land on the island. After some years, in the late 19th century, when the development never materialized, Houston County took the island back because of unpaid taxes.

In 1901, three-term mayor (1862-1864) and lumber baron Albert Wells Pettibone bought the land for $62,000 to create a park. He soon deeded the land to the Pettibone Park Commission (for $1) and also set up a $50,000 trust fund for upkeep and ongoing development. He then set about trying to get Minnesota to deed the island to Wisconsin. 

It took nearly 20 years of work, and even an act of Congress, but in 1918 Wisconsin traded Pettibone’s island for Latsch Island in Buffalo County near Winona.

In 1903, Pettibone built the sandstone gazebo. In 1904, a frame bathhouse went up. Pettibone himself passed away in 1915. The land was annexed to La Crosse’s 2nd Ward in 1919. A rock memorial was placed near the park’s pavilion in 1922, honoring the man who gave La Crosse one of its most beloved parks. 

A new Mediterranean-style bathhouse was constructed in 1925, replacing the earlier frame building. A warming house was also added in 1930. The following year a lagoon bridge was built, and in 1945 what would later come to be known as The Annual Babe Weigent Fishing Derby, created by the La Crosse Recreation department, began.

Pettibone’s grandsons, John Pettibone and Wilson Pettibone, erected a monument at the entrance of the park in honor of their benevolent grandfather in 1950. Renovation to the bathhouse in 1976 included plastering the interior, including the locker area, restrooms and walls.

In more recent decades, the park has seen more development and more amenities. The park’s beach has always been a popular attraction, but today Pettibone Park has so much more to offer, far more than Albert Pettibone could have ever even imagined. An 18-hole professional disc golf course, canoe and kayak rentals, a beach volleyball court, awesome selfie opportunities … these are some of the things he wouldn’t have seen coming.

However, there is still plenty of opportunity for fishing in all four seasons. There are beautiful hiking trails backdropped by scenic vistas in all directions. Of course, swimming is for the warmer months that are to come, but there is the opportunity for becoming one with the Mighty Mississippi. You’ll also find ample open space to kick back, read a favorite book or just get some time in the sun.

Shelters are available for reunions, family gatherings, cookouts and jam sessions. And, of course, there are restrooms, the iconic bathhouse and ample parking.

Although it is not within the park, Pettibone Resort is on the island (still referred to as Barron Island on Google Maps), making both RV and rustic tent camping possible just a few minutes away.


Pettibone Bathhouse

The iconic Pettibone bathhouse on Pettibone Beach was designed by La Crosse architect Otto Merman, constructed in 1925 and officially opened in 1926. At the time, America was fascinated with Mediterranean styles of architecture, and Merman chose a Spanish colonial design for the structure. Built by Theodore Molzahn Company, it cost about $29,000.

The bathhouse served beachgoers who came to swim, which was one of the country’s favorite pastimes during that era. However, the bathhouse was closed in 1931 due to river pollution. It remained closed for almost a decade, but was reopened in 1939, two years after La Crosse began treating its sewage.

By 2000, the building was in general disrepair and sorely in need of renovation. The following year the city of La Crosse allocated more than a half-million dollars for that purpose.

At one time along the upper Mississippi, bathhouses were commonplace. Today, Pettibone bathhouse is among the few that remain.