Fox River Improvements

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The Fox River is a major river in eastern Wisconsin. it is long the banks of cities and villages of eastern Wisconsin. the Cities included are; Oshkosh, Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Little Chute, Kimberly, Combined Locks, and Kaukauna. The cities that are along the fox River are grouped together and called the Fox Cites. the Fox divides into two sections, the Upper Fox River, wich flows into central Wisconsin and into Lake Winnebago. the other section is the Lower Fox River, this flows from Lake Winnebago north and east to Lake Michigan. with both parts of the river, it gives the Fox River a length of 182 miles. Counting the part after Lake Winnebago gives a new total of 200 miles.

Fox River Improvements Summary

1849 Construction begins on Fox & Wisconsin River improvements

1851 Contracts awarded for lock construction at Kaukauna and Little Chute

1866 Wisconsin Improvement Company, owner of the lock project, declared bankruptcy

1870 Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company takes over management of the locks

1872 United States Army Corps of Engineers acquires navigational control of the waterway

1886 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers abandons Wisconsin River portion of locks system

1922 Dredging for commercial traffic on the Fox River halts

1959 Last vessel navigates the full length of the Fox River

1982 Army Corps of Engineers recommends the lock system is dismantled

1984 Local citizens and elected officials start a campaign to fund and keep the locks open

1993 Individual locks named to the National Register of Historic Places

2001 State statute 237 creates the Fox River Navigational System Authority

2004 Ownership of the lock system is transferred from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the State of Wisconsin

2005 Repair and renovation begins on the lock system

2015 All locks are restored to full operational functionality [1]

Improvements in the 18th century

The Portage Canal

As early as 1829 the building of a canal and with improving the Fox it made navigating the eater ways from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi river a lot easier. in 1846 congress approved to make a grant of land. "grant was accepted and a board of public works was appointed. Work begun, contracts being let for different sections of it. Dredges were in operation on the Upper Fox river; a canal with locks was constructed between the rivers at Portage." [2]

With The arrival of steamships and the success of eastern canal systems, especially more specifically the Erie Canal, this prompted groups to look for improvements and updates to the Waterway. In fact, there was great pressure to extentend the Erie Canal to the Mississippi river and even beyond that. Transitioning to the 1850's, most products coming from the Midwest would travel the long and arduous journey directly down the Mississippi and East from New Orleans. Because this shipment is very expensive this made a strong case for the construction of the Portage Canal, allowing this to be a direct waterway to the Great Lakes to the Mississippi.

The earliest improvements along the Fox River Waterway began with a canal and lock at Portage. In 1829, plans to start the Portage canal began. Due to low funds and a depression in the 1830s, the canal was failed to be complete in 1838. It was recognized that the work would not only include a canal at Portage but improvements along the length of the Fox River and the Wisconsin River between their mouths and the canal. In 1837 and 1839, after examining the waterway's, it was decided to put in a lock and dam system. Congress authorized a land grant for the waterway project in 1846. The various companies to build the Waterway were; Summit Portage company, Fox and Wisconsin Improvement and the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Companies. Construction started along the Portage Canal in 1849 and finished in 1851. The first steamship from Mississippi, the Aquila, managed to pass through Portage on the way to Green Bay in 1856, signifying the opening of the commercial waterway.[3]

Other improvements

Locks and canals were built and improved multiple times. A lifting lock was an added to lower boats in the Fox River. Along the Upper Fox Over time several dams and locks were added. In the end, 7 stone locks were constructed. By 1899, [4] channel between Berlin and Montello, and a 3-foot deep channel to Portage. Along the Lower Fox, several groups were orginized to work on the task of building dams, locks, and canals to bypass the numerous falls. The chief technical difficulty was the construction of locks and dams to lift vessels to Lake Winnebago. The dams began at DePere and continued to Lake Winnebago at Menasha. The place were the most locks was in the reach between Kaukauna to the Cedars. Landscape painting of The Cedars Lock and Dam were drawn in 1856. The men responsible for these drawings were Samuel M. Brookes and Thomas H. Stevenson. They were part of a group paintings of river town sites. The Lower Fox locks and dams were completed by 1856, with the completion of the Little Chute and Menasha Locks. Over time, the dams and locks were improved, combined and updated. In the end, 17 locks were constructed. By the mid 1850s, there were three dams and locks constructed and the taming of the mighty Fox River was underway. In 1872 the Corps assumed supervision of the waterway. [5]

Improvements In The 19th century


As the 1800's was for the creation of channels, locks, dams and others, the 1900s seemed to focus more on shutting down what systems. In 1959, most of the locks in the Winnebago were closed of and shut down and some even dismantled to create a waste weir for water-level control. there were a very limited number of changes made, that the Portage Lock was converted to a water control structure. In 1922 dredging halted. That same year, there were recommendations for closing the Upper Fox, but it failed by Congress. the Upper Fox was eventually closed to between Portage and Eureka in 1951. It was eventually transferred it to the state for them to look over as a recreational waterway. Dams were still kept up to date and modified to maintain water levels appropriate for wildlife preservation. The most money seemed to come from the Lower Fox of all reaches. Boats carried all sorts of things like passengers, mail and a lot of goods and products. The total tonnage along the Fox Waterway remained between 150,000 and 300,000 tons through the 1930s. In 1983, the entire system was put into what they called a caretaker status, and the Federal government stopped all maintenance of locks. The state of Wisconsin operated the locks through the 1987 . After the 1987, canals were drained and lock gates were permanently sealed. The lock at Rapide Croche was sealed shut to prevent sea lampreys from reaching Lake Winnebago.[6]

Situation Today

All of the locks along the Lower Fox have been placed on the National and State Register of Historic Places. Since 1983 people raised money and signed petitions in the efforts to save the locks from permanent closure. In 2001, the Army Corps of Engineers transferred ownership of the 17 locks that make up the Lower Fox River, to the State of Wisconsin. By doing this The Fox River Navigational System Authority was created and a cost-sharing agreement was made. from efforts and funds from the Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Wisconsin, and private donations from companies and the people they have combined to again modify, update, reopen, and maintain the locks to working order. [7] By 2017, the entire Lower Fox, is expected to reopen. As most locks are modified and upadted for reopening, the Rapid Croche Lock will remain sealed, but there will be a boat lift and transfer station that will be installed there. This will again allow navigation through the entire Lower Fox River Navigational System. [8]


  1. "Fox Locks" in "FOX RIVER NAVIGATION SYSTEM AUTHORITY" accessed on December 1st 2017.
  2. "Fox and Wisconsin River Improvement" in Wisconsin historical society"accessed on December 1st, 2017
  3. "History" by "the portage canal society" accessed on November 30th, 2017.
  4. "Fox Locks" in "FOX RIVER NAVIGATION SYSTEM AUTHORITY" accessed on December 1st 2017.
  5. "Fox and Wisconsin River Improvement" in Wisconsin historical society"accessed on December 1st, 2017
  6. "Fox Locks" in "FOX RIVER NAVIGATION SYSTEM AUTHORITY" accessed on December 1st 2017.
  7. "Fox Locks" in "FOX RIVER NAVIGATION SYSTEM AUTHORITY" accessed on December 1st 2017.
  8. S. Watson "Fox Locks Parkway Package" in "fox Wisconsin Heritage Parkway" Accessed on December 5th, 2017.

Archival Resources for Further Research

"Fox and Wisconsin River Improvement" in Wisconsin historical society"accessed on December 1st, 2017

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