The History of Black River Falls

The great forest of pines and the attraction of becoming wealthy lumbermen lured the first group of men up the Black River in 1830s to the location that was to become Black River Falls. The village of Black River Falls was founded in 1839 by Jacob Spaulding along with other lumbermen. Early trading help to grow a relationship with local Native American tribe (Winnebago tribe, now Ho-Chunk Nation).

Logging and sawmills became the major industry for Black River Falls and later mining as well. Sawmills became numerous along the river. The first sawmill, built in 1839, was carried away along with most of the mills by a sudden rising of the river in 1847. The prospect of future floods didn’t deter the early settlers. They immediately rebuilt the mill in the same area. Other large rises in the river were experienced in 1857, 1866, 1876, and 1880.

The village grew with several public buildings and by 1850 Water Street and the eastern end of Main Street was a town with a population of 150. In 1853, Black River Falls was designated the county seat and it was incorporated as a city in 1866. A large fire that destroyed many of the buildings in the downtown area in 1860 and another in 1878 didn’t dampen the citizen’s determination to continue to develop their town.

Overcoming Disasters

In its early years, the city faced several major disasters. In 1860, most of the business section of Black River Falls was destroyed by a major fire. The city faced another major disaster in October of 1911 when two upstream dams on the Black River failed. Flood waters destroyed the majority of the downtown business district. The flood waters from this event created the landscape of the existing business core area. In the years following the 1911 flood, the downtown was reconstructed with masonry structures, many of which form the city’s current downtown building stock.

Once more, the downtown buildings were constructed at the same location that attracted the first visionaries in 1839. Today it remains the small town so often written about in the reminiscence of the heartland country. In February of 2021, the Wisconsin Historical Society placed the Black River Falls Commercial Historic District (Black River Falls, Jackson County) on the State Register of Historic Places.

Contact our downtown association at (715) 284-2503 for further details regarding the many historic buildings and business of Black River Falls, Wisconsin.