The Fox-Wisconsin Waterway
A navigable water route between Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, Wis., utilizing the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, had been advocated since 1829. One supporter was Morgan L. Martin, who arrived in Green Bay in 1827. Perhaps under Martin's influence, the Michigan Territorial Legislature, which controlled the Wisconsin vicinity in the early 1830s, tried in 1829, 1834 and 1835 to promote the development of a waterway. Wisconsin's Territorial Governor Henry Dodge next urged Congress in the fall of 1838 to sell 150,000 acres of land in the territory, the proceeds from which would be used to improve the Wisconsin, Fox and Rock rivers. The federal government agreed to help the Fox-Wisconsin project, noting that it needed a waterway to provide troop movement along the frontier. Two surveys were completed as part of this endeavor, the second of which was led by Captain Thomas Cram, a politically savvy engineer. He reported that the improved system would be important for the entire country in general and the area west of the Mississippi in particular. Cram argued that interior regions would benefit from the improved waterway because they would be able to ship and receive goods using the Upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes if ever the Gulf of Mexico was blockaded.
Funding the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway was a problem to be resolved between the federal government, the Territory of Wisconsin and private interests. Finally the U.S. appeared to take the lead in the debate by making a land grant available to the territory in 1846. But the debate engulfing Wisconsin's first constitutional convention that same year overshadowed further action on the land grant. The grant was still available when the state's constitution was passed in 1848, however. Thus the grant was accepted and formal planning for the Fox-Wisconsin started.
Work on the waterway was initially controlled by the Board of Public Works and supervised by Condy R. Alton, the project's chief engineer. Alton's first job was to survey the proposed route and suggest specific improvements. Among his general recommendations were that all canals be 40 feet wide at the bottom and at least four feet deep at low water. Noting that steamboats could be 110 feet long, he recommended that the locks be 125 feet long and 30 feet wide. Alton then suggested that the construction of the Portage Canal, dredging of the Upper Fox and creation of the locks at DePere and Rapide Croche be the first projects undertaken since they would make the greatest portion of the river navigable the quickest. Indeed, almost 20 years after Morgan Martin called that first meeting in Green Bay to advocate an improved waterway between Green bay and the Mississippi, work was ready to begin.
Construction on the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway started in 1849. Contracts were awarded for the facilities at DePere and Rapide Croche in May. Delivery of the dredge, designed and built for work on the Upper Fox, was taken in October. In 1851, Morgan Martin received a contract to construct locks at Little Chute and Kaukauna. Martin's contract called for all new locks to be 160 feet long, five feet deep and 35 feet wide. Work on the Wisconsin River focused on the construction of wing dams. They were small structures built out into a river and were designed to cut off side channels and constrict river flow, thereby increasing the depth of a river's main channel. Construction progressed slowly and monetary problems were ever present, a fact, no doubt, that induced the State of Wisconsin to pass ownership of the evolving waterway to the new Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company, a private entity formed to complete the waterway. Finally, in 1856, the steamboat Aquila successfully navigated the Fox and Wisconsin between the Mississippi River and Green Bay. But work was not done. The canal was deepened and locks were enlarged to make the waterway more consistently navigable, even during periods of low water. As well, maintaining the facilities was a constant and costly need.
The demands of the system drove the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company into bankruptcy in 1866. It was followed by the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company, which focused more on developing waterpower than operating the canal. By 1870 the new company had successfully interested the U.S. in acquiring the navigation component of the waterway. The deal was finalized in October 1872. The system at that time consisted of 22 locks, 11 dams and seven and one-half miles of canal. An issue confronting Major D.C. Houston, the Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of the waterway, was whether the system should be used as a through Fox/Wisconsin, or a terminal Fox River system.
Although it was the government's intent to operate the complete Prairie du Chien to Green bay system, the elusive dream of through navigation ended in 1866 when the Wisconsin River portion of the system was vacated after spending almost $600,000 to improve it. Despite that fact, the Corps worked diligently throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century to rebuild locks and dams on the Lower Fox River. They are the locks and dams that remain today.
New locks notwithstanding, the system never saw its traffic increase appreciably in the first 30 years of the century – a period in which industry was growing rapidly along the river. Indeed, the system was in a losing battle with the railroad, which provided year round shipping, since ice rendered the canal unusable during winter months. Occasional commercial shipping on the canal continued until 1959 and recreational boating activities were pursued until 1984, after which the waterway was shut down. The locks at Menasha, Little Kaukauna and DePere were later operated by the state for small craft.
Despite the waterway's inability to achieve economic success, it remains an interesting chapter in the history of economic development and internal improvements in Wisconsin. More significantly, the facilities on the Lower Fox remain a complete, hand operated lock and canal system, a system that makes a significant contribution to Wisconsin's historic landscape, both for what it tried to be, a means to facilitate economic development, and for what it is today, a unique technological artifact.