Fox-Wisconsin Waterway

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FOX-WISCONSIN WATERWAY. The Wisconsin River originates in northern Wisconsin near the state's border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It flows south through the northern forests, central sand plains, and picturesque gorges of the Wisconsin Dells. The river then curves around the Baraboo Range before heading west and emptying into the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien. The Fox River originates in south-central Wisconsin, where it passes close to the southerly flowing Wisconsin River before flowing northeast into Lake Winnebago at Oshkosh. This portion of the river is known as the upper Fox. The lower Fox flows north out of Lake Winnebago in a postglacial course, with the old valley buried in glacial drift. As the river crosses the walls of its old valley it descends at a steep grade before eventually emptying into Green Bay. Hence, the two rivers belong to two different continental drainage systems—the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi watershed and the Fox River to the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence watershed—yet are separated by only a swampy, one-and-one-half-mile plain near the present day city of Portage. This geographical arrangement has been called the most important topographic feature of Wisconsin in relation to its history, particularly when water transportation reigned supreme.

Native Americans, European explorers, voyageurs, and early settlers all used the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to travel from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. Sometimes the area separating the two rivers flooded and a small boat could travel from one system to the other. Most of the time, however, boats had to be carried, or portaged. This obstruction, along with the fact that the lower Fox contained a series of rapids, made the waterway unsuitable for large boats and commercial traffic. During the mid-nineteenth century several companies and various levels of government worked to develop the waterway by digging a canal at the portage and building locks along the lower Fox. The chief promoter in its early development was Morgan Martin, a lawyer who moved to Green Bay in 1827 at the encouragement of his cousin and Wisconsin's future territorial governor, James Doty. Martin first proposed the idea of a canal in 1829 and lobbied to bring it to fruition in 1831, when he was elected to the legislative council of the Michigan Territory. His efforts resulted in the founding of the Portage Canal Company, incorporated with a capital stock of $50,000. A crude ditch was dug between the two rivers but additional funding was required.

Beginning in 1836 the Wisconsin territorial legislature requested help from the United States Congress, but the project received little attention until Martin was elected as the territorial delegate to Congress in 1845. He was successful. In 1846 the Fox-Wisconsin bill was passed. It granted the state the right to sell the odd numbered sections of land on each side of the Fox River, the lakes, and the portage canal, with the stipulation that the proceeds be used only for the improvement of the waterway. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848 the legislature accepted the grant and set up the Board of Public Works to oversee the project. Although land sales were high by 1850, the Board's treasury was empty. The canal was completed in 1851, but large boats were still restricted because the lower Fox had not been dredged and locks had not been built. The state's governor became skeptical and urged the project be turned over to private parties. Martin and a group of investors incorporated the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company and received all of the rights of the state in the improvement and all the unsold lands.

Finally, in 1856 the Aquila was the first steamboat to make its way from the Mississippi to Green Bay. By 1866 the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company fell into financial trouble from which it never recovered, and the improvements and remaining lands were sold to the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company. Financial problems continued, however, and in 1872 Congress purchased the improvements and took control of the waterway. The channel was never developed to accommodate the large steamboats initially envisioned because the era of water-powered transportation waned with the arrival of the railroads.


Martin, Lawrence. The Physical Geography of Wisconsin. 3d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965. The original edition was published in 1916.

Martin, Samuel. The Fox-Wisconsin Rivers Improvement: An Historical Study in Legal Institutions and Political Economy. Madison: University Extension Department of Law, University of Wisconsin, 1968.

Wenslaff, Ruth Ann. "The Fox-Wisconsin Waterway." Wisconsin Then and Now 13, no. 1 (1966): 1–3.


See alsoPortages and Water Routes ; Waterways, Inland .