Burns Park: A Community Legacy

Posted by Scott on June 9, 2021

(written by Anita Taylor Doering, Archives Staff)

Burns Park, donated to the city of La Crosse as part of the Timothy Burns, B. Farnam and Peter Burns addition, was platted as a public square in 1852, five years before La Crosse became a city.  Over the years the park was called Fourth Ward Public Square, Seventh Street Park and Main Street Park (Square).  In 1903 the City Council named the former public square Burns Park in honor of Timothy Burns.


Burns Park, circa 1900, looking northeast from Main to 8th Street. Many of the large old trees were elms that fell to Dutch Elm Disease in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.

Timothy Burns, a native of Dublin, Ireland, moved from Iowa County, Wisconsin, to La Crosse with his young family in 1850 after visiting the city in 1847.  He was an influential early citizen of La Crosse and was a leader in business and government.  Believing that La Crosse was to become an important city and had commercial potential, he invested heavily in land and personally directed the surveying of the first official plat of the town of La Crosse in 1851.  Besides owning nearly one-fourth of the original town site and having been the first La Crosse county judge and a member of the first La Crosse County Board of Supervisors, Burns brought recognition to the city because of his state political ties.  He served in the Wisconsin General Assembly from 1847-1849 (speaker 1848) and was Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin from January 1852 until his death on September 21, 1853, at the age of 33.


Timothy Burns, a native of Dublin, Ireland, was a respected early La Crosse settler.  Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.

His involvement in early La Crosse has prompted some to call Burns the founder of La Crosse, and others to counter that he is the second founder, Nathan Myrick being the first.  The town of Burns in northeast La Crosse County also carries his name.   A plaque was presented by his grandchildren and sponsored by the La Crosse Chapter of the DAR in 1938 commemorating Burns’ contributions to the city and is still located in the park that bears his name.

Maintenance of Burns Park was charged to the Board of Public Works and the Common Council until the city officially adopted an ordinance creating two park districts and a Board of Park Commissioners in 1908.  Burns Park was one of the parks named by John Nolen, landscape engineer, in his 1911 report, The Making of a Park System in La Crosse, as an existing park, which, along with Cameron Park, Myrick Park and Drive, and Losey Boulevard, were available to form a nucleus for the new park system.


Looking east towards Burns Park in 1887 from the book La Crosse Illustrated (1887). Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.

His recommendations for "Main Street Square," were that the other half of the block that Burns Park occupied be purchased and the park be expanded.  He believed that the central location of the property was an opportunity to have a "splendid open space...in the heart of the city, around which public and semi-public buildings could be placed."  The YMCA, the Masonic Temple, the Congregational Church and the La Crosse Public Library already fronted the half-block, and Nolen believed that these sites would be more beautiful and that new sites would be obtained for more of these types of buildings if the park were expanded to the full block.


A colorized postcard of Burns Park, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.

This was not a novel suggestion--the same idea was presented to the Common Council in 1869 in the form of a petition submitted by a number of residents of the fourth ward.  The residents remonstrated the proposal though, when they realized that, according to the city charter, any payment needed for the land would be assessed to those who benefited, namely those in the Fourth Ward.  The petitioners believed that the land should be purchased to improve the park for the whole city, and did not believe that they would be the only ones to benefit.  Action was never taken on the proposal either time it was submitted, and to this day, Burns Park still occupies only the half of the block on Main Street.


Burns Park looking east, 2021. Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.

In 2020, the Park, Recreation & Forestry Department along with the Downtown Neighborhood Association teamed together to revitalize Burns Park.  A program space, updated landscaping and a playscape and art were added to the park to be more family-friendly.


New playscape area, Burns Park, 2021. Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.


New seating area and canopy, Burns Park, 2021. Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Public Library Archives.