History of River Falls

In the summer of 1848, Joel Foster, a Mexican War veteran heard about the beautiful area of the Kinnickinnic River with the cascade falls while he was visiting in St. Croix County near Hudson. At that time, St. Croix County was comprised of the present counties of Polk, St. Croix and Pierce. The population of the area in 1849 was less than 2,000.

The next day Foster set about exploring the region. Hunting and fishing along the way, he moved up the river until he reached the falls at the junction of the South Fork and the Kinnickinnic. Foster wrote about the two American Indian tribes inhabiting the region - the Sioux and the Chippewa. He noted that both place such value on the St. Croix Valley that neither claimed it for themselves.

Foster returned to St. Louis but soon decided to spend the winter in River Falls before some other explorer staked a claim. Along with his 20-year-old black indentured servant, Dick, Foster returned to the St. Croix Valley. They spent the winter under a rock shelf along the banks of the Kinnickinnic River, about a half-mile south of the falls.

Using split logs, they dug a pit into the floor, put down a carpet of grass, fastened hooks to hold their rifles and started a fire at the entrance. They heated water to make mud so they could finish the cabin and chimney, but the structure was not completed that first winter. They got supplies in Hudson every 10 days or so.

That winter of 1848-49 became the first official year of the settlement of River Falls. The next spring, Foster and Dick completed the log structure and added a root cellar. They called it "Fort Foster".

Two brothers, Nathaniel N. and Oliver Stanley Powell, also claimed land in 1848. They built the first commercial structure in 1852. Two years later the building was converted into a store known as the Pioneer Store. It was located at the corner of Main and Maple Streets and rapidly developed into a hotel, post office and community headquarters. Stock for the store was unloaded at Prescott and hauled in by horse and wagon.

In 1854, the Powell brothers laid out and platted the first section in the village - 60 acres on the east side of the town they named the village of Kinnickinnic. They were later said to be instrumental in convincing State officials to establish the 4th State Normal School in River Falls.

Foster built a sawmill in 1854. It was later expanded to include a feed stores and was located on the south bank of the Kinnickinnic River. Later that year, the firm of Crossman and Hart constructed a brickyard on the southern edge of the growing community. G. R. Griffin set up a blacksmith shop. A hotel was constructed in 1855 by G. W Cairns, who was also a surveyor, contractor and justice of the peace. It was called the Greenwood House and W J. Winchester was the proprietor.

Four flour mills were established. The first was built in 1855 by C. B. Cox, who later build another mill known as Prairie Mill, located on the west side of North Main Street. S D. Dodge opened a tin and sheet iron shop, located on the northeast corner of Main and Elm Streets in 1855.

River Falls reached the epitome of its early industrial growth between 1872-1885. The beginning of the railroad insured its continued existence, although the City was not on a main line of the railroad. Growth was curtailed only by the decline of the wheat market in 1882 and the City's location, which was not along a navigable river.

Article taken from the 2008-2009 River Falls Community Guide published by the River Falls Journal.

Historic Story Maps of River Falls

The Historic Story Maps of River Falls, Wisconsin, are a great way to explore “The City on the Kinni.” Whether you prefer to do your exploring from the comfort of your home or while walking around on your mobile device, these will make your experience enjoyable. There are two versions entitled “The City on the Kinni” and "A Walk Through Time".

“The City on the Kinni” offers a comprehensive history of the River Falls starting in 1848 when Joel Foster first came to the area taking you through the development of the City. It is ideally enjoyed on a desktop computer. While using "A Walk Through Time", the optimal experience is on your mobile device (e.g. phone or tablet) allowing you to travel to and learn about different locations and buildings around River Falls. You may be surprised what you find out about the history of this beautiful City.