The Fox-Wisconsin Waterway was an important means of travel prior to the railroads. This waterway connected Green Bay with the Mississippi River, with only a short portage at present-day Portage.
The first known European explorers of the region were Father Marquette and Joliet. They traversed this waterway in 1673. This waterway apparently had been a thoroughfare for most of the native tribes. At the time the French arrived, they found that certain parts of the waterway were controlled by different tribes.
The waterway is divided into four parts: Lower Wisconsin, Portage, Upper Fox and Lower Fox.
The Lower Wisconsin is a 116-mile stretch from present-day Prairie du Chien to present-day Portage. It is slightly higher at Portage than at the Mississippi. About 16 miles from the Mississippi, the Wisconsin River meets with the Kickapoo River. Since that is the only confluence, the water stays at a steady flow. For the most part, the water is wide, shallow with a sandy bottom. It has sandbars and tow-head islands which change constantly.
The Portage is roughly a two-mile area between the Wisconsin River and the Fox River. While there are these stretches all over the areas surrounding the Great Lakes, what makes this one unique is that, while the Fox River is small, the Wisconsin River is large, over 300 miles. At times of high water levels, both rivers have run into the watershed of the other. The area between the two is somewhat marshy. In 1829, Morgan Martin founded the Summit Portage Canal Company to build a canal and lock at Portage. Because of a depression in the 1830s, funds weren't available to complete the project by 1838. The Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the waterway and recommended a lock and dam system. In 1846, money was approved for the project. In 1872, Army Corps of Engineers took over management of the waterway.
The Upper Fox runs 110 miles from Portage to Lake Winnebago. Following to the northeast, the river encounters two shallow lakes, Buffalo Lake and Lake Puckaway. Both lakes are shallow. At Big Lake Buttes des Morte, the Fox River gains additional flow from the Wolf River through Lake Poygan. Additional drainage from the Wolf River joins the Fox River after it reaches the Lake Winnebago Pool. Through this passage, the Fox River is a small stream in size at Portage but is a small river in size at Lake Winnebago. The river channel is full of sand, silt and other organic material. It is shallow at the southwestern end, but as it travels north east, it becomes shallower and deeper.
The Lower Fox River extends about 39 miles from the head of Lake Winnebago to Lake Michigan at Green Bay. The elevation at Lake Winnebago is nearly 170 feet higher than the elevation at Green Bay. The Lower Fox has several waterfalls. Some of the better known falls along this stretch are Kaukauna, Little Chute, and Appleton. The drop is about the same as Niagara Falls, but over a much longer stretch.
The Fox-Wisconsin Waterway was the main highway connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River. Traffic near present-day Portage was the heaviest of all portages in the Great Lakes Watershed. From there, a person could travel the Lower Wisconsin to the Mississippi River, the Upper Wisconsin almost to Lake Superior, the Wolf River to north central Wisconsin, the Fox River to Green Bay, or the Rock River into Illinois. In the 17th century and before, areas of the waterway were controlled by the Ho Chunk, Kickapoo, Menominee, and Chippewa tribes. When the Sac/Sauk and Fox tribes arrived in the area after being forced west from their homelands around the St Lawrence Seaway, they noted the importance of the waterway. They established tolls along the waterway at portage areas. The French, resentful of the lost trade, engaged in a series of Fox Wars with the Sac/Sauk and Fox tribes. The Sac/Sauk and Fox tribes were not entirely driven out until the Blackhawk War in 1832.
The French dominated the trade along the waterway for a century. Establishing forts or settlements along the route. Many of the deeds and land records still use the French long lot descriptions throughout this area. The French also left place names: Kaukauna, Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay. These are the oldest communities in the region.
With the lock and canal at Portage, attempts were made to make the waterway more accessible to commercial water traffic. Dredging along the Lower Wisconsin to remove sandbars and tow-head islands was done. Many locks, canals and dams along the Fox River were built. However, before all of them were completed, the railroad came through, dispensing with the need for commercial river travel.
Today, it is unlikely that this waterway will be used for other than pleasure craft. The State of Wisconsin now manages the waterways. The canal at Portage is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as all of the locks on the Lower Fox River. The dams on the Upper Fox have been removed except for the ones at Princeton and Monticello. The dam at Eureka has been converted to allow for fish spawning. The Upper Fox is being reverted back to it's natural state as much as possible.
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