Among the best places to go in Wisconsin, Trempealeau is located on in the west central part of the state, on a scenic riverside site at the base of the Trempealeau bluffs on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Native American burial mounds indicate that people lived in the Trempealeau vicinity for hundreds of years before the first French explorers camped in the area in the late 1600’s. The locality was named for the distinctive geological landmark called Trempealeau Mountain, which is located just upriver in Perrot State Park. Area Indians referred to the water-surrounded bluffs as the “Mountain soaking in the water,” which the French translated as “La Montagne qui trempe a l’eau;” hence Trempealeau (pronounced trem-pillow).
Long before the designation of Perrot State Park, Trempealeau was already on the list of places to go in Wisconsin. Trempealeau village began during the early 1840’s as a fur trading center and Mississippi River landing. In 1852 the small village was platted and named Montoville as the surrounding area was settled and farms established. In 1856, the village was renamed Trempealeau and grew rapidly, as numerous warehouses and other businesses grew up along the riverfront creating a booming commercial district served by many Mississippi riverboats. The first rail line was built through Trempealeau in 1871 which temporarily gave Trempealeau two options for shipping flour and other goods, but ultimately led to an end of the dominance of steamboats in the Mississippi River commerce. The reduction of wheat growing activity in the area and the emergence of other area communities now served by the growing rail network led to a slowdown in the commercial growth of Trempealeau. No new industries or economic activity replaced the shipping and milling industries which were rapidly leaving the village. A second rail line was built in 1887, this time along the riverfront, but Trempealeau still lagged far behind the growth of the other Mississippi River towns like Red Wing, Winona and La Crosse.
The big setback came in 1888 with a devastating fire that destroyed most of the buildings along the riverfront commercial district on Front Street (now First Street). Indicative of the reduced importance of shipping in the village economy, businesses were rebuilt away from the river along a two block section of Main Street. Many of the new post-fire buildings were built of brick and were designed for service and retail purposes. This displayed a commitment by several businessmen to fire resistant building construction, to shift away from shipping-related commerce and to be away from the noise and commotion of the riverbank rail line.
Throughout the 20th century the community maintained a stable yet small residential population, but for the most part important commercial, retail and industrial activities bypassed the village. Trempealeau’s Main Street that you see today is significant because of the similarity in scale and design of both the brick and wood frame buildings and the presence of two outstanding buildings: the Queen Anne commercial style EJ Hankey building and the Prairie style Citizens State Bank building. These two buildings combined with the overall continuity of the district, male the two block Main Street district an interesting and mostly intact remnant of a “turn of the century”, small town commercial area that has high architectural integrity and attractiveness. The Trempealeau Main Street Historic District has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.