NWS La Crosse Station Digest and History

NWS La Crosse Station History (1872 - 1995)

In 1869 Congressman H. E. Paine of Wisconsin introduced a bill to establish a National Weather Service under the Secretary of War. It became effective February 9, 1870 and the U.S. Army Signal Corps (USASC) began collecting weather data on a national basis.

The first weather observation was taken in La Crosse, Wisconsin on October 15, 1872 by Sergeant Rick Williams of the USASC. Observations were taken three times daily and disseminated to the public by displaying weather and temperature flags. A year later a river gage was constructed on the La Crosse Wagon Bridge and a network of river stage observations were established. Soon after, weather forecasts (then called "probabilities"), were issued once daily and also shown by a display of flags. In the late 1870s, the forecasts, river stages, and observations were not only shown by a display of flags but also posted in the post office, several other public places, and published in the local newspapers.

In the early 1880s, warnings of frost, heavy snow, cold waves, and high water were being issued. The warnings were written on cards and mailed to nearby towns so that flags could be raised. In the 1890s, a weather chart and forecasts of river crests and stages were put on one sheet and distributed by mail, messenger, newspapers, flags, and posted in public places. This method was gradually changed and the mailing of forecasts was discontinued in the 1950s. Weather information is now distributed mainly by computer, through internet- and satellite-based communications.

The first weather station in La Crosse was in the Anderson Building on 2nd and Main. In the 1880s, the station was moved into the Opera Building on 4th and Main and later across the street into the McMillan Building. In 1890, it moved into the Post Office Building and in 1907, into the Weather Bureau Building on 5th and Cass. In 1952, the Weather Bureau Building was turned over to the La Crosse Board of Education. Forecasts and observations were then made at the Municipal Airport. Hourly observations were also taken at Brice Prairie from 1939 to 1950. The National Weather Service Office was moved from the Municipal Airport into the Post Office Building, 425 State Street, in February 1969.

Pictures of the La Crosse Weather Service's various locations through history.
(click on picture to enlarge)

Mons Anderson Buld.
The Mons Anderson Building (1872-1881).
MacMillan Buld.
The MacMillan Building (1887-1890).
WX Bureau Buld.
The Weather Bureau Building (1907-1952).
WX Bureau Buld.
Weather Bureau frontage.
Post Office
Post Office.
Airport Tower
Airport Tower.
Airport
The La Crosse Airport.
ARX Office
Current office.

During the summer of 1963, the government was considering closure of the Weather Office in La Crosse. A group of individuals, including the Airport Manager at the time, engaged in a petition drive to keep the facility open. Petitions were in every bar, store and gas station in La Crosse, and gathered thousands of signatures. Perhaps as a result of this grassroots effort, the government reconsidered their proposal and the Weather Service Station remained in La Crosse.

Over the years, staff size at the NWS La Crosse office has changed considerably. As late as the 1980s, there were times when only 1 staff member ran a part-time office in La Crosse. In the early 1990s, the hours were increased to 6 am - 10 pm, and the staff grew in size to 5.

The Modern NWS La Crosse Office

As part of the modernization of the National Weather Service in the 1990s, the La Crosse office moved to a new location on County Road FA. On the ridge overlooking the city of La Crosse, just north of Grandad Bluff, in August 1995. The staff enjoys a wonderful view of the Mississippi River valley and the city of La Crosse as they look to the west from the office. Many visitors have noted that WFO La Crosse may be "the most picturesque WFO in the Central Region".

The Doppler radar (the first weather radar in La Crosse) was installed in early 1996. Today, the office maintains full forecast and warning responsibility for 28 counties across a three-state area. The office went to 24-hour operations on February 20, 1996 and now maintains a staff of 23 people.

Office Activities

The WFO La Crosse staff provides a full suite of NWS forecast products and services for a 28-county area in southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin. Terrain in the WFO La Crosse CWA ranges from areas with rapid 600-foot falls into deep coulees, leading to rapidly responding rivers, to marshland. As a result, the area has active hydrologic and fire weather program needs, due to the widely varying terrain and horticultural features.

Severe weather readiness is important during all seasons, with active warm season convection and cold season winter storms. The weather provides challenges in all seasons. Generally, severe convection is possible from March through October, and winter weather from late October into April. River valley fog can be a challenge and flash flooding is always a potential issue with the terrain and river systems in the area. Overall, there is a wide variety of seasonal weather which adds interest and variety to the work responsibilities.

WFO La Crosse has a creative staff that has been involved in many innovative projects, some of which have been implemented nationally (i.e., GHG and enhanced Volume Browser capabilities). Other contributions to regional and national programs have also been cited by various program managers, including contributions which led to national drought program directives.

WFO La Crosse has established a legacy of excellent work and customer service for many years. The staff has a strong scientific acumen and has developed strong relationships with the area media and Emergency Management community. Employees are encouraged to demonstrate skills, interest and initiative, working with other staff members and the community to enhance our scientific and service-related capabilities in innovative and creative ways, and applying the science in ways that move our programs forward to meet both customer needs and mission goals.

Community Description

La Crosse is located on the Mississippi River in the hilly, unglaciated area of southwest Wisconsin and neighboring southeast Minnesota. The city is surrounded by steep bluffs, which rise as much as 600 feet above the river valley. The greater La Crosse area is one with tremendous natural beauty - an attractive metropolitan area surrounded by forested bluffs, farmland and river systems.

arial view of La Crosse

La Crosse, WI is a medium-sized city of just over 50,000 residents. Public recognition for the City of La Crosse includes the following:

  • Listed as one of the Top Ten Best Places to Live in the United States in the 2009 review by U.S. News and World Report (available at http://money.usnews.com/money/personal-finance/real-estate/articles/2009/06/08/best-places-to-live-2009).
  • Recognized by the Morgan Quitno Awards as the 4th safest metro area in the United States (see http://www.morganquitno.com/cit04pop.htm#METRO).
  • Listed as the 12th best “green” city in America by Country Home magazine in 2008 (see http://www.countryhome.com/greencities/top25.html).
  • Ranked the 16th smartest place to live by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine in 2006.

The greater community includes the "suburban" cities of Onalaska, Holmen, West Salem and La Crescent, MN. Overall, the population of the urban area approaches 100,000. There are many shops and restaurants in the area, and new franchises are added every year.

La Crosse Center

Since La Crosse is the largest metro area within a 1-hour radius from La Crosse, the city is a hub for many services to neighboring towns and cities. This benefits the overall local economy, which has been growing in concert with the overall growth of the metro area. Though there is considerable business development in the cities surrounding La Crosse, downtown La Crosse remains vibrant, including a 5000-seat indoor arena for sporting and entertainment events, hotels, restaurants and a beautiful riverside park.

Riverside park in La Crosse

Major employers in the La Crosse area include the Trane Company, two large health care systems (Gunderson Lutheran Hospital/Clinics and Franciscan Skemp Hospital/Clinics), Kwik Trip Convenience Stores, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, La Crosse Brewery, and Gateway Foods. Overall, a wide variety of employment options is available for area residents.

There is a Hmong (Laotian) community of 3000-4000 people in the La Crosse area. Most of the Hmong residents have been in the area since the late 1980s or early 1990s, so they are well integrated into the community. Other minority groups make up less than 2% of the area population.

La Crosse is about a 2 1/2 hour drive to Minneapolis/St. Paul and a 3-hour drive to Milwaukee.

Climate

La Crosse has a continental climate with warm, humid summers and long, cold winters. High temperatures average around 85°F in July and 24°F in January. Minimum temperatures average 63°F in July and 6°F in January. Annual precipitation (averaging 31") is usually sufficient to produce good crops in this agricultural area, though dry periods and droughts, or excess moisture, can impact production during some years. Average snowfall during the winter season is around 43".

Summertime temperatures have reached 108°F in the past, though during some summer seasons, 90 degree temperatures are rare. Similarly, the record minimum temperature is -42°F, though most winter seasons do not see temperatures below -20°F.

More information is available on our Climate web page.

Recreation

Fishing and recreational boating are extremely popular activities in the La Crosse area because of the Mississippi River and backwater areas. There are also many trout streams within 50 miles of La Crosse. It is about a 3-hour drive to northwest Wisconsin, where there are numerous lake resorts and cabins.

fishing around La Crosse boating on the rivers around La Crosse

Hunting is also very popular, with large populations of deer, turkeys and ducks that live in or migrate through the area. About 50,000 deer are taken annually from a 4-county area surrounding La Crosse.

Mount La Crosse, on the south end of the city, offers 19 ski slopes and trails, with a vertical drop of 516 feet. There are 3 double chair lifts and one rope tow, with lighted trails. Cross country skiing is also popular, with trails available on many local golf courses as well in state parks. There are many nearby state and local parks for camping and other outdoor recreational activities.

Skiing in La Crosse the bluffs in winter

Large community festivals take place in June (Sunfish Days; Onalaska), July (La Crosse; Riverfest), August (Kornfest; Holmen), September (Applefest; La Crescent), and October (La Crosse; Oktoberfest). The community is also host to a premier air show (the Deke Slayton Airfest) each summer, which often includes the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds.

There are quite of few options for sporting activities for both participation and attendance. At this time, professional sports are limited to Northwoods League baseball, though many area residents make the 2- to 3-hour trips to take in professional or college sports in the Twin Cities, Madison or Milwaukee.

Educational Facilities

As most people are aware, education in this part of the country is considered to be excellent. There are two 4-year colleges and a technical college in La Crosse. Wisconsin students average well above the national average score on college entrance exams, and students attending the public and private schools in the La Crosse area average above the Wisconsin mean. There are extensive parochial school systems (K-12) throughout the area surrounding La Crosse, most of which are run by the Lutheran and Catholic churches. There are also Montessori school options.

Cost of Living

Overall cost of living is very reasonable in La Crosse and the suburban area in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The high housing costs in the eastern and western parts of the country, and in some of the larger midwestern cities, have not reached the La Crosse area. Small, older homes are available for $65,000. The largest estates are locations with the best views can run over $1,000,000. Most 3-bedroom/2-bath homes run from $130,000-200,000. There are also opportunities to build in new suburban developments and country lots. It is very possible for employees to live in a rural location and still have a short commute to the office.

There are many apartments and rental properties in the La Crosse area as well. Many 2-bedroom apartments cost around $500/month, with 3-bedroom rentals running around $700/month.

Taxes tend to be high in both Minnesota and Wisconsin (top 5 in the country), but they come with an otherwise reasonable cost of living, quality community services and excellent educational facilities.

Transportation

Commutes to the office generally range from 20-30 minutes. Rush hour is usually quite mild, and can add an additional 5 to 15 minutes to the commute when accidents or weather interfere with the traffic flow. In general, travel around the La Crosse area is very manageable 24 hours a day.

Public transportation connects the City of La Crosse to Onalaska, French Island, and La Crescent, MN through an area-wide busing service. Because of the WFO's location on the outskirts of the city, there is no busing service that connects to the WFO office site. The La Crosse Airport is a commuter hub that connects to Minneapolis and Chicago. There are around 10 flights per day in and out of La Crosse.

Special note for those moving to the La Crosse area

Anyone who would require temporary quarters during their move to La Crosse will want to make reservations as soon as possible. Due to tourism and the area festivals, there are periods of the year where hotels are booked to capacity. This is especially true on weekends and during the festival season.

For More Information

Any additional information on these topics can be obtained by calling the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce at 608-784-4880.

 


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