Originally known as Twelve Mile Bluff, Alma was named by riverboat pilots for a prominent rock formation located on the bluff which was visible from the mouth of the Chippewa River, twelve miles to the north. Riverboat pilots used the landmark as a guide for navigating their boats and log rafts on the Mississippi River.
In 1848 Victor Probst and John Waecker arrived in the area to cut firewood as fuel for the steamboats that passed their way. These Swiss immigrants were the first settlers in Alma, Wisconsin, soon to be followed by German, Norwegian and other nationalities immigrating to the United States. In the mid-1850s the settlement below Twelve Mile Bluff was named Alma after the battle on the Alma river, in Russia, fought on September 20, 1854 between the English & French on one side and the Russians on the other. Alma, Wisconsin officially became a village in 1868.
Bluffs above the Mississippi River forced the containment of Alma to two blocks wide and seven miles long. From an Indian trail along the river, the settlers built two streets at the base of the bluffs. They were and still are called Main Street and Second Street. A number of short streets connect them but beware, 12 of these "streets" are stairstep streets and only accessible by foot, a unique feature of the present day Alma, Wisconsin. Main Street is also Wisconsin State Highway 35, a part of the Great River Road and Wisconsin's first Scenic Biway.
The first industry in Alma, Wisconsin was a brewery. This is understandable since the river froze in the winter and settlers were isolated, and the Swiss were fond of their special beer. There were a number of cigar factories also intended for relaxation during the winter months. The lumber business prospered at the end of the 19th century when saw logs were sorted here, as well, in Beef Slough.
In 1982, 346 acres and over 200 buildings were included in the designation of the City of Alma as a National Historic District (#82000631) when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The district is roughly bounded by railroad tracks, 2nd Street, Swift Street and Cedar Street. Three periods of significance were recognized: 1850-1874, 1875-1899, 1900-1924.
NRHP is the Nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archeological resources. Properties listed in the Register include districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.