With its abundance of springs and timbered hills, the site of Decorah had been the location of Indian occupation. In 1857 it was noted that a number of mounds “had been leveled [in 1854] to prepare the site for the erection of the Winneshiek House, then building.” 5Europeans entered onto the site for settlement in 1849, and it was platted in 1853. The basis for the settlers' selection of the site matches that of many early Iowa communities; primarily there was the presence of water to provide power for milling operations. The first primitive log mill was built in 1849 by William Painter, and a few years later he constructed the larger store and wool mill, which still exists. By 1875 there were ten of these mills in existence, supplemented by several that utilized steam power.
The community was missed at first by the principal lines of the railroad, but in 1869 it was connected to the Milwaukee and Saint Paul line by a spur coming from Conover in the southwest. Later, a spur of the Rock Island Line reached Decorah from the southeast. The town's principal assets were its milling and shipping activities (via the railroad), its selection as a county seat (1851), and its location as the home of Luther College (1861), founded by Norwegians.
The grid imposed on the town site was the traditional one with a northsouth, east-west pattern. A square block was set aside for the courthouse, and eventually sites were provided for the public schools. Because of the floodplain of the river, the far northern section of town remained open, but eventually dikes were built along sections of the riverbanks. To the north and west across the Upper Iowa River, a new grid section was laid out south of Luther College. The one distinguishing feature of this second grid was the provision of a circle (with a small park within) at the junction of Iowa and Center streets. The scale of Decorah together with its surrounding wooded hills conveys an image of a village in a forest. The city has enhanced this rural quality through the development of Palisade Park north of the river (take College Drive to Quarry Street, then go northeast to Ice Cave Road).
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