Winona's Early History
Early Settlement on the River (Anon.)
Winona, Minnesota, founded in October of 1851 had rapid early and sustained growth until the turn of the century. In 1855 there were 813 people living in Winona. On the eve of the Civil War there were 2,462 Winonans, only a hundred less people than lived in Minneapolis. Winona remained the third largest city in Minnesota until the late 1880's. Winona and Gettysburg were almost identical in size according to the 1860 federal census-Gettysburg's population was 2,390. Adams County, Pennsylvania with a population of 28,006 was much larger than Winona county which had a population of 9,208 in 1860.
Winona was part of an urban system that developed during the last half of the 19th century. This urbanization process linked Winona to the other cities and towns in the Upper Mississippi River Valley-places like Chicago, Burlington, Clinton, Davenport, Rock Island, LaCrosse, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. This urban network was supported by a vast hinterland which provided both the natural resources and the markets that were needed to sustain the developing urban system.
Winona's initial economic infrastructure, which laid the foundation for the city's rapid growth, was based on primary industries, an efficient transportation system, wheat milling, and lumber.
In 1856 over 1,300 steamboats stopped at the bustling town of Winona. Thirty years later 2,500 steamboats passed the rivertown which now depended primarily on railroads for transportation and communication with its hinterland and other parts of the nation.
In 1862, local businessmen organized the Winona & St. Peter Railroad. By 1882 this railroad ran across the state of Minnesota and to the James River in Dakota Territory. In 1887 the Winona & Southwestern Railroad was chartered by local entrepreneurs to link the city with Omaha and Kansas City. By the turn of the century Winonan's had daily rail service to Chicago, Kansas City, Green Bay, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. These railroads gave Winona access to a huge market area for its products, as well as a producing area that provided the city with raw materials.
Winona's wheat industry played an important role in the Union's diplomatic victory in the Civil War. The Confederate States of America believed that England and France would have to grant them diplomatic recognition and support in the war because of those nations' dependence on the South for cotton which provided the raw material for those nations' textile mills. As the war dragged on, England realized that while cotton was important for her industries, food in the form of American wheat was essential to feed her people. As a result rebel hopes for recognition and victory waned.
Winona, like other Upper Mississippi River cities, was a lumber town. John Laird started the first lumber mill in 1855; he was later joined by his cousins James and Matthew Norton in founding the Laird-Norton Co. This firm was soon joined by three other lumber companies, Youmans Brothers & Hodgins, the Empire Lumber Co., and the Winona Lumber Co. Each of these organizations built and operated large sawmills as well as planing mills and millwork shops.
The settlement of the hinterland around Winona increased the demand for lumber because there were few trees on the plains that stretched westward from the city. In fact, there was little usable timber around Winona, only hardwoods like oak. There were, however, two great white pine forests north of the city-in Wisconsin along the Chippewa River and the other along the St. Croix River in Minnesota.
The lumber business in Winona continued to expand throughout the last quarter of the 19th century. Winona's lumber companies always ranked in the top fifty in the upper Midwest. The four major lumber companies had over eighty retail outlets in towns along the routes of the Winona & St. Peter and the Winona & Southwestern railroads. The mills at Winona supplied the finished lumber that was used to construct the houses and other buildings across southern Minnesota. The sawmills reached their peak production in 1892 when they produced over 160 million board feet annually and ranked eighth in production of lumber in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.