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Chapter 2: Area History & Contributions
A Tale of Two Rivers
The Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, stretching 280 miles spanning the State of Wisconsin, are blessed with a complex cultural and environmental history. They were born out of a glacial landscape nearly 20,000 years ago. The once free-flowing watershed of shallow marshes and woodland areas began as life and shelter to the many indigenous plants and animals of the Wisconsin lowlands, uplands, and central plain. With the coming of the American Indians, the corridor became an important cultural center and travel route. In the 1600s, the rivers were at the center of France’s power in the New World. During the American Industrial Revolution, they became a national symbol of water power and transportation.
Today, these two rivers carry stories from prehistory to the present, of man and the environment, of conflicting cultures and ideals, and of survival and progress. These are found in the cave paintings of the Ho-Chunk Indians, in the journals of Jacques Marquette, the boyhood home of John Muir, and many more. This chapter explores these accounts and the people of these rivers and describes their contributions to the national story.
The Fox and Wisconsin Rivers derive their unique topography from the varying geology of the mid-Wisconsin region. Many of the features found along this landscape, including the rivers themselves, are ancient products of glaciation, occurring 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. The rivers cut through distinct landscapes, of glaciated and unglaciated areas, from the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands, to the Central Plain and Driftless Area in the west. This varied physical landscape elicits different cultural responses resulting in the different degrees of settlement and development we see today. Nowhere else in the country is the mark of glaciations so impressive on the landscape.
The Lower Wisconsin flows through the Driftless Area. This region was untouched by glaciers, but contains many glacial deposits, or drift, producing a geologically unique landscape. The glacial lobes were diverted around this region by the Wisconsin dome, an area of ancient Cambrian uplift. The river cuts through a broad floodplain between wide, sandy outwash plains deposited by melt water from the Green Bay lobe. It extends 116 river miles from Portage to the Mississippi River, falling 170 feet, from an elevation of 782 at Portage to 611 feet at the Wisconsin River’s confluence with the Mississippi River. With no major tributaries, the Wisconsin River’s discharge is relatively consistent. Known for its slow and wide topography, natural sandbars form to create multiple channels in some areas. The region contains portions of forest, farmland, grasslands, and wetlands, and remains largely rural in character. However, it is most known for its scenery. Impressive cliffs line the Lower Wisconsin to Sauk City, exposing Cambrian formations.
A 1.5-mile portage separates the Wisconsin River from the Fox River. About 18,000 years ago, this region was covered by glaciers. After the retreat of the Green Bay lobe 11,000 years ago, this divide in land, where the two rivers curve into opposing horseshoes, was formed by the outwash of this large sheet of ice. The divide is marshy, whereas the Wisconsin occasionally has overflowed its banks across the land. The remaining outwash makes the region a fertile agricultural area. This portion of land is historically important because it divides the southwestward draining Lower Wisconsin River, which eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and the headwaters of the northeastern draining Fox River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It is also straddles two very different bodies of water, at the portage the Wisconsin River, already 300 miles long, is wide and sandy, while the Fox River begins here as only a small stream.
During the Ice Age, the eastern portion of the state was entirely covered by glaciers. As these glaciers retreated, the Fox River Valley was carved out by the draining of Glacial Lake Oshkosh. In this region, glaciers have left many unique landscape features, such as drumlins, eskers, and outwash plains. The Fox River corridor is further divided into two distinct geographical portions, the Upper and Lower Fox. The Upper Fox, which flows northwest from its headwaters, extends 110 river miles from Portage to Lake Winnebago (at Oshkosh). It drops 36 feet, from an elevation of 782 feet to 746 feet. The channel is relatively shallow and windy, deepening as it reaches Lake Winnebago. Along the way, Buffalo Lake, Lake Puckaway, and Green Lake grow out of the channel. The Lower Fox, which trends along the baseline of the Niagara Escarpment, flows northward from the natural impoundment of Lake Winnebago to Lake Michigan, extends thirty-nine river miles. Lake Butte des Morts, Lake Winneconne, Lake Poygan, and Little Lake Butte des Morts connect as pool lakes and extensions of Lake Winnebago. The reach has a very steep and changing grade, falling approximately 170 feet, from an elevation of about 746 feet at Lake Winnebago to 577 feet at Green Bay. The steep elevation of this river has made it a prime location for industry and transportation. Today, the Fox River Valley is one of the most urbanized and fastest growing regions in the state.
This landscape has had a tremendous impact on the history of the region. The strategic location of these rivers as a link between two important watersheds, their capacity to transport people and goods, and their distinct topography, which provides both beauty and might, has made this an important waterway throughout history.
First Peoples of the Rivers
The first inhabitants of the Fox-Wisconsin corridor were the American Indians. The corridor shows evidence of native culture dating back 12,000 years, with a rich history evident from the past 300 years. These peoples have the longest and closest connection to the waters. The first native group, known as the Paleo-Indians hunted, fished, and gathered after the retreat of the glaciers. Around 800 BCE, the Woodland cultures began to make pottery and to build conical mounds for their dead. The legacy of the Woodland cultures, from 800 AD to 1200 AD, remains visible on the corridor’s landscape. This group displayed their connection to the earth throughout the southern portion of the state through effigy mounds. These earthen mounds were constructed in the shape of animals, spirit figures, and humans, and served as ceremonial centers and burial grounds. Often, they were built overlooking the water, which was believed to be sacred. Over 15,000 mounds were originally found in Wisconsin. Today, only some 4,000 remain, primarily along Lake Winnebago and both banks of the Lower Wisconsin River.
By the 1600s, these peoples had divided themselves into distinct tribes. Two of these tribes primarily inhabited the shores of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, the Ho-Chunk and the Menominee. The Menominee occupied a vast territory in the state, stretching from the Lower Fox to Upper Michigan. Having lived in the region for thousands of years, the tribe was well adapted at utilizing the river as a source food and transportation. Neighboring tribes commonly referred to the tribe as the “wild rice people,” due to their heavy dependence on the crop that grows along the banks and marshes of the Fox River. This reliable source of food allowed the Menominee to live in sedentary communities along the river.
The Ho-Chunk resided along the Upper Fox. Neighboring tribes called them Winnebago, which means “people of the smelly waters.” This name is derived from their time spent near Green Bay. Early Europeans translated this to mean, people of saltwater or ocean. Some believe this is why the first Europeans to the area believed that the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers would provide a route to the Orient. The Ho-Chunk also inhabited the west, along the Wisconsin River. In the ways of their ancestors, they lived in large communities as hunter-gatherers, residing along the waters that provided them with food. They were known for their large gardens, which they grew along the fertile soils of the rivers.
The 1600s signaled a time of great change for the Wisconsin tribes living within the corridor. Between 1640 and 1680, European contact and Indian wars had forced many eastern tribes to migrate to Wisconsin. During this time, the Dutch prompted the Iroquois to invade fur-supplying territories and to suppress the Indians allied with the French. The Iroquois invaded neighboring tribes in modern Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario, pushing the Fox, Sauk, Mascouten, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Miami, and Ottawa tribes into the corridor.
The Potawatomi, Fox, Sauk, and Ottawa tribes came first, from the 1630s and 1651, settling in the Green Bay area. They adjusted to their new surroundings by farming, collecting wild rice, and fishing. The final three groups to settle along the corridor were the Miami, Mascouten, and Kickapoo, around 1660. It is believed that these tribes never fully adjusted to this new land, unaccustomed to the harsh winters. Several Jesuit accounts, including that of Marquette and Joliet, tell of the elusive village of the Mascoutens. Believed to be located along a stream just west of Berlin, this village consisted of the Miami, Mascouten, and Kickapoo. It is estimated that the village consisted of 1,000 to 20,000 inhabitants.
The introduction of these new tribes, coupled with the increasing importance of the fur trade had a massive restructuring effect on native communities along the corridor. These tribes continually competed for food and furs, prompting a century of intertribal warfare among these nations and the already present Menominee and Ho-Chunk. By the 1700s, European influence was also taking its toll on Wisconsin tribes. Years of cultural mixing and forced relocation sent the tribes into a state of cultural trauma. Increasing poverty, disease, and discrimination gave way to alcohol abuse, fighting, and community disintegration. It was at this time that Midewiwin Society became popular among the tribes. This religious revival drew upon lore and the power of song and dance, reaffirming the values of tradition and spirituality. This revival came by way of the rivers. Along the corridor, communication from the Ojibwe to the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Fox, Potawatomi, and Miami proliferated this society. Midewiwin, or Medicine Lodge, became a powerful uniting force in the face of disintegration.
French Exploration: Marquette and Joliet
France began to colonize North America in 1534, with the explorations of Jacques Cartier. Calling the region Nouvelle-France, or New France, the colony extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. During this time, Wisconsin was part of the Upper Louisiana region and remained largely unexplored.
It was not until 1634 that the first white man, a French voyageur named Jean Nicolet, landed at Red Banks on the shore of Green Bay. While the exact details of his journey remain unknown, it is widely accepted that Nicolet was charged by Samuel de Champlain to find a route to Asia through the New France. An image of Nicolet’s landing has been developed of the voyageur, adorned with a colorful Chinese robe and holding thundering pistols in each hand. Many believe this was his attempt to establish authority, possibly in an Asian land. While Nicolet did not reach the Orient, he did meet the Ho-Chunk, staying with the tribe in Green Bay. During his fourteen month expedition, he attempted to bring peace between the Huron and the Ho-Chunk and secured the region for future fur trading and missionary work throughout the next century. Most importantly, what Nicolet’s exploration represents, is the meeting of two worlds, of the American Indians and the French. Over the next century these two groups combined to form a distinct place in American history.
In the decades that followed, France would continue to send voyageurs, interpreters, coureur des bois (unlicensed fur traders), and Jesuit priests to develop the area as a foothold for France in the New World. As the first groups of pilgrims were arriving in boatloads to settle in Plymouth, these men traveled throughout the Fox-Wisconsin riverway in birch bark canoes. Unlike the British in the East, the French did not emphasize colonization. Instead, notable explorers, such as Nicolet, Radisson, Perrot, Joliet, Marquette, Duluth, Tonty, Louvigny, Lignery, and Langlade, traversed the Wisconsin landscape, recording their findings, making claims for France, and building relations with the native tribes.
Of all these explorers, perhaps the most renowned were Marquette and Joliet. For many years, explorers had heard of a great river that would connect New France with the riches of the Orient. In 1673, Jean Talon, the intendant of New France under King Louis XIV, commissioned explorer Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette to find out. While they did not reach their intended destination, they were the first white men to travel the entire length of the corridor. Their four month journey opened up the North American interior to white settlement, brought Christianity into wilderness, altered traditional Indian cultures, and left a permanent French influence from Wisconsin to New Orleans.
While much of the specific details of their journey are unknown, accounts of their travels, from Green Bay to the Mississippi River, were recorded in Marquette’s journal. Beginning in Quebec in May of 1673, Marquette and Joliet traveled along with two canoes and five voyageurs to La Baye, or Green Bay, at the mouth of the Fox River. There, they stopped, just as Nicolet and Allouez had years before, meeting the Ho-Chunk who described the various sites and rivers they would encounter. Throughout the rest of their expedition, the explorers would continually rely on the guidance of the Wisconsin tribes to lead them to their destination. Traveling the brown water of the gently rolling Fox, Marquette states that they eventually came upon a large and mysterious Indian village of the Mascoutins. Believed to be located near modern-day Berlin, the village had first been recorded by Allouez in 1670. It is said that Marquette also planted a wooden cross in the region, near Princeton.
From there, two Miami tribesmen guided the team to the Wisconsin River. They came to modern-day Portage, a marshy area that the Indians had traveled for centuries. Called the Wauona Trail, Marquette recorded a portage of 2,700 paces, from the Fox to the Wisconsin River. In his journal, he provides the first use of “Wisconsin,” which he transcribes as “Mescousing,” which means “gathering waters.” In the end, Marquette would remark that this was the only stretch of land they would have to cross, from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River, making it one of the most famous and historically important portages in the entire country.
In his journal, Marquette recorded that the Wisconsin River was slow and sandy. He also notes the presence of Indian lead mines and lush vegetation along the river. Finally, on July 17th, they reached the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is important to note that Marquette and Joliet did not discover the Mississippi; Indians had traveled to its shores for centuries, and Spanish explorer De Soto had crossed the mighty river 100 years before. They did, however, verify that it was possible to travel from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico by water, that the native peoples along the route were friendly to French explorers, and that the natural resources located along the corridor were plentiful. With this information, French officials began a system of trading posts along the proposed Heritage Parkway route to exploit the natural resources over the next 150 years.
The Arch of New France
Aside from exploration, the French left an important legacy with the fur trade. From 1650 to 1850, Wisconsin’s economy depended on this trade. Furs from the Wisconsin wilderness were highly sought after throughout Europe. Waterproof beaver skins were pressed into fur hats, keeping people warm and dry. Anyone who could supply these pelts could become very rich in Europe. As part of New France, the French controlled this trade.
Beginning in the mid-1600s, fur traders, also known as coureur des bois or “runners of the woods,” began pouring into the region from France and Canada. They quickly fostered partnerships with the Indians in Wisconsin. The Indians, with an extensive knowledge of the land, were instrumental to the fur trade. In autumn, the traders advanced the Indians with guns, ammunition, and other supplies. Indians hunted for furs throughout the winter. In the spring, they returned to settle their accounts with beaver pelts—a system that kept traders wealthy and many Indians in debt.
The Fox-Wisconsin corridor remained of vital importance to the fur trade and the exploration of the American West. In actuality, this is when the corridor first became a “river highway.” During this time, the American Indians and traders utilized the rivers as a link to European markets in the East, and as a route to the unexplored riches of the West. Wisconsin quickly became a seat of the French empire in the New World. By 1720, a chain of French trading posts developed along the shores of the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers, at Prairie du Chien, Lake Winnebago, and Green Bay. From Lake Winnebago and Green Bay, furs floated toward French settlements in Quebec, and from there to Paris and Rome. From Prairie du Chien, furs traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
The fur trade fostered a unique society in the western frontier, involving traders, missionaries, and Indians. In order to establish business and trust, the coureur des bois began marrying into the tribes. The traders then lived among the tribe, partaking in many of the native ways. This custom formed a distinct group of interracial peoples known as the Metis. Part European and part Indian, this group blended cultures and customs to form a society that was unique to the region. At the same time, Jesuit missionaries were also trying to convert the Indians to Catholicism and to eradicate tribal religions. This mixing of cultures was so common that in 1824, 60 percent of Green Bay’s population belonged to this cultural group.
In 1763, however, France’s long reign over the region came to an end with the conclusion of the French and Indian War. After twelve years of fighting, Britain took control of New France and the fur trade. A new era of British rule ensued. Many of the French fur traders left the area and went back to France, while others continued to work and live in the area despite Britain’s attempts to control the trade.
War of 1812
Another historical turning point occurred with the War of 1812. After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the United States now controlled the region. Inhabitants of Wisconsin, however, did not seem to care. The population remained mostly native, with a few French fur traders scattered throughout the region. Their loyalties lay not with the United States, but with France. Thus, when the War of 1812 broke out between Britain and the United States, French residents and Indians sided with the British. Only a few American traders residing in the region supported the United States.
In 1814, a group of American supporters, led by American Explorer, William Clark, built Fort Shelby at Prairie du Chien. It was their hope to keep the Upper Mississippi fur trade out of British control. British supporters in the area, however, quickly tipped off the British of Americans’ efforts. On July 17th, 150 British soldiers and 400 Indians attacked the fort with 60 American soldiers inside. After a few days of fighting, the British captured the American’s only gunboat and took over the fort. After a few months, the British retreated, burning the fort upon their leave.
While this was Wisconsin’s only participation in the War of 1812, this event had a significant impact on the fur trade and development of the Upper Mississippi region. Americans realized the importance of the waterway within the northwest frontier and rallied for the protection of the fur trade. The United States constructed a series of military outposts, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Three American forts were established at strategic points along the corridor: Fort Howard (1816-1853) at Green Bay, Fort Winnebago (1828-1853) at Portage, and Fort Crawford (1816-1856) at Prairie du Chien.
While the fur trade continued to dwindle in the area with diminishing game, these forts became crucial to the development of the northwest. Not only did they serve as government outposts, but as trading centers, treaty negotiation sites, and military road connection points (constructed 1835-1838). For incoming settlers, the forts provided social, legal, medical, and educational services. For the Indians, the forts brought increased commercial opportunities, as well as military oppression. The frontier French were the only group to see these structures as entirely unwelcome intrusions. To them, the loss of the British in the War of 1812 symbolized the end of French dominance in the area and a new era of United States domination.
Opening the Land
In the early 1820s, a Mohawk missionary, Eleazer Williams, began making plans to transport the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee Indians from New York State to Wisconsin. Williams, who later claimed to be the Lost Dauphin (the son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), struggled for ten years to obtain enough land for the tribes from the Menominee and Ho-Chunk. It was his dream that all the Indian tribes of New York, Canada, and Sandusky move to Green Bay to form a vast community of tribes, where the “savage tribes might be won over to civilization and Christianity by intercourse with their already civilized brethren.” While this story is still told today, his vision never came to fruition. The United States took a different approach to “Indian control”—the treaty period was about to begin.
From 1825 to the 1850s, a series of treaties were negotiated with Indian tribes in Wisconsin. The first of these took place in 1825. That August, thousands of Indians representing all Wisconsin tribes gathered on the banks of the Wisconsin River, where territorial governors William Clark and Lewis Cass facilitated talks and negotiated peace among the tribes. Although this treaty granted no land to the United States, it opened the door for further land negotiations. A new era of United States and native relations began.
The new government wanted this land to develop industry and to bring new settlers. As an important transportation source, the land along the corridor was among the first to be taken from the Indians. Between 1825 and 1833, four treaties transferred the land along the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to the United States. These included the treaties of 1829, 1831, 1832, and 1833. Other treaties, such as the 1827 and 1836 treaty took place along the Fox River, a central meeting place, at Butte des Mort and Cedar Point. Over the next fifteen years, seventy treaties would extinguish remaining Indian lands in Wisconsin. In these negotiations, the United States Government obtained this land from their Indian counterparts, who had little authority or knowledge of their rights. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, which called for the transfer of all eastern Indian tribes west of the Mississippi River, further served to push tribes out of the corridor.
The consequences of these unjust treaties are exemplified in the Black Hawk War, which took place in 1832. It was named for Black Hawk, a Sauk leader that led the last major native resistance in Wisconsin against the United States. Black Hawk led a group of Fox, Sauk, and Kickapoo in an effort to resettle his tribal lands in east of the Mississippi River. Throughout that spring and summer, the state militia and the Indians traveled throughout the territory engaging in a series of attacks, including the Battle of Wisconsin Heights at Sauk City and other skirmishes along the Wisconsin River. Black Hawk finally surrendered at Fort Crawford on August 21, 1832.
As part of the treaty negotiations, Wisconsin tribes were now confined to small portions of land throughout the state. From 1831 to 1854, roughly nine Indian reservations were established throughout the state for the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Menominee, Iroquois, Brotherton, and Stockbridge-Munsee.
Settling the Land
In the past 200 years, the French, English, Americans, and American Indians who had previously settled in the region had explored and developed the ample land and water resources that would bring thousands of settlers into Wisconsin throughout the 19th century. The American victory in the War of 1812, the urbanization of the East, and the improvement of transportation routes further served to bring migrants to the banks of the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers. Treaty negotiations and the conclusion of the Black Hawk War prompted the first sizable waves of settlers to come to the corridor.
Early settlement relied heavily on the availability of rich natural resources, resembling that of many other states bordering the Mississippi River. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s, the lure of lead minerals and the abundance of white pine triggered the first stream of immigration that would last twenty years. While mining occurred predominantly along the Wisconsin River, logging centers were established at Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay. Early miners and loggers came from the South, New England, and Great Britain, and were heavily involved in the formation of the state.
These early industries were important precursors to larger settlement by improving water routes and clearing large sums of land. By 1833, the Federal Land Survey was completed in Wisconsin. In 1834, land offices were opened at several points throughout the state, including one in Green Bay, leaving entrepreneurs and politicians to anxiously await the arrival of westward pioneers.
After Wisconsin was admitted into the Union in 1848, immigrants began to filter into the corridor with greater intensity, coming from the East and the West. This was an important period in the formation of the state, as commerce and culture began to flourish. Primarily, immigrants came to work in the many factories developing along the Fox River or to begin farming on the fertile lands near Portage. The emergence of railroads, which began to link key ports, such as Fond du Lac, Portage, and Berlin, also served to accelerate immigration. By 1850, the Wisconsin frontier had reached a distinct line of settlement, running southwest to northeast along the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. The population topped over 300,000 (up from 3,000 in 1830), with one-third of the inhabitants being foreign born. Primary nationalities in the state were English, German, Irish, Norwegian, and Swiss.
Of all the European nationalities, German immigrants were perhaps the most visible in Wisconsin. The first wave of these immigrants began coming in the 1840s, after the failed German revolutions of 1848. By the 1890s, German immigrants constituted 35 percent of the population, earning Wisconsin the nickname “New Germany.” They were diverse in their regional, spiritual, and socio-economic backgrounds. Their culture in Wisconsin often centered around their religious and community groups, such as the Free Thinkers or the Turner Society. Along the corridor, Germans worked as craftsmen, factory workers, and farmers, settling in large groups along the Upper Fox and in pockets along the Wisconsin River.
As Wisconsin continued to develop, portions of the corridor began to form distinct identities. The Wisconsin River remained relatively rural, attracting Czech, German, Irish, Swiss, and Norwegian farmers. Norwegians, in particular, were attracted to this place, immigrating to the area with their entire valley or fjord, forming cohesive settlements. In 1860, Crawford County contained over a quarter of all Norwegians in the United States. To the northeast, the Fox River became largely urban. This region was home to many German, Dutch, Yankees, Irish, and English, who found jobs working at an Appleton flour mill or one of Oshkosh’s many lumber related factories.
By the end of the Civil War, the industries and trades that had initially fueled immigration were now essentially fully developed. Logging had cleared most of the land along the corridor and had moved northward. In the 1870s, wheat farming had dwindled, replaced by dairy, sheep and swine, and other cash crop farming. The result was a “filling up” process, which lasted from the 1870s to the 1920s. Fresh waves of immigrants came from new countries in Southern and Eastern Europe to make a living amongst the already established settlements and industries along the corridor.
This latest wave of settlement is characterized by the peopling of urban centers. While many new immigrants came to settle in these industrial cities, a large number of established settlers began to quit the land and move into the city. They came to work low paying jobs in factories, mills, breweries, and tanneries. Others took skilled positions in lighter industry or in the service economy to open businesses for the growing ethnic consumers. Germans still dominated the landscape along the Fox River. Despite this, no place consisted of only one group. Instead, immigrants in Wisconsin became involved in heavy mixing. This created an unusual blend of cultures, working and living near each other. The Fox River industrial belt remained highly populated by immigrants of previous waves, such as Norwegian, Dutch, Welsh, Belgian, and Czech. Pockets of Austrians and Polish, as well as mixtures of Hungarians, Greeks, Slovaks, Lithuanians, and Latvians, began to settle in urban areas.
Ethnic restructuring occurred along the Wisconsin River as well, as many farmers began to move northward, into the cutover, in hopes of better agricultural opportunities. Scandinavians, a group that had dominated the ethnic landscape, began to decline. With no dominant group in the area, the region also became an area of heavy mixing. Many Germans, Scandinavians, Czech, Irish, and Polish, lived in the region, working in the ship building trade or continuing to farm.
Dreaming of a River Highway
As the United States’ economy began to develop in the 1800s, goods moved around the country via major waterways. In the Midwest, most products traveled the long journey down the Mississippi and eastward from New Orleans. For industrialists and farmers, this method was costly and time consuming. Beginning in the 1820s, however, governmental and private interests began to look into the possibility of developing the Fox and Wisconsin River corridor as a direct water highway to the west. Engineers predicted that the success of this project would make Green Bay a major United States port, rivaling Chicago.
Their first goal was to create a canal that would replace the 1.5-mile portage between the two rivers. This marshy divide was the only land that stood between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Early engineers believed that opening up this land, creating a continuous line of travel between these two great water routes, would make Wisconsin a western leader in water travel. In 1837, a private company, the Portage Canal Company was formed. However, after months of digging through the muddy terrain, a shortage of funds forced the project to close.
In 1838, the project was handed over to the U.S. Government. A survey by the U.S. Corps of Engineers not only recommended the continuation of the canal, but a complete “slack water” or lock-and-dam system to be built along the corridor. In 1846, Congress authorized a land grant. After Wisconsin was admitted into the Union in 1848, the state took over the project. Once again, work began with contractors hired for different sections of the corridor. A completion date was set for 1853. While the Portage Canal was opened in 1851, the rest of the project was in jeopardy. Construction costs exceeded income from land sales. As debt mounted, the state turned over the remainder of the project to private companies.
In 1853, Wisconsin legislature incorporated the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company. From 1853 to 1859, the company conducted substantial improvements along the Fox River. They began dredging the Portage Canal, allowing boats better passage from the Wisconsin to the Upper Fox. By 1856, nine locks were completed along the Fox River. To commemorate the event, the first steamboat, the Aquila, traveled the entire distance of the Fox-Wisconsin System. Despite this, low water tides prevented high steamboat traffic. Instead of improving its capacity the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company turned to the development and leasing of waterpower produced at its dams. Eventually low profits caused the company to foreclose.
In 1872, the Corps, once again, assumed supervision of the waterway. The organization took to dredging the channels and repairing locks. By the mid-1880s, the Corps completed the slack water system. To deepen the Fox River, they finished constructing pools and dams and continued to dredge the water. Despite these efforts, another survey of the area deemed the water unnavigable for deep draft vessels. The decision was made to abandon hopes to establish this waterway as a national water route; instead the corridor would serve as a regional highway for local shipping and industrial efforts.
Despite this long and disappointing venture, the waterway had a significant impact on the development of agriculture and industry in Wisconsin’s post-Civil War economy. By 1858, fifty-three commodities shipped along the river to markets along the Fox. In the 1860s, steamboat travel became common along the Fox, with numerous steamboat companies holding regular schedules. Thirteen dams were constructed on the Fox River and one on the Lower Wisconsin, enabling water transportation and supplying power for the many homes, businesses, and sixty paper mills that lined the Fox Valley.
The ultimate decline of the Fox-Wisconsin River improvements occurred with the birth of railroads. By the time the waterway gained sufficient improvements in the 1870s, this new travel system was quickly taking over water travel. In 1951, after a decade of use, the Portage Canal, the Fort Winnebago Lock, and the Wisconsin River locks were closed. Due to declining local industrial and commercial usage, the Corps of Engineers closed the Lower Fox in 1983, shutting down the entire system.
The Fox River’s steep topography, falling approximately 200 feet from Portage and Green Bay, made it a likely place to develop water power. For centuries, humans had been using falling water to provide power for grain and sawmills. In the 1880s, however, new power technology was being developed. After Thomas Edison unveiled the first incandescent light bulb in 1880, he began constructing an electricity-producing station in New York. Inspired by this idea, Appleton paper manufacturer, H.F. Rogers, persuaded Edison that the falls of the Fox River would be the perfect place to test his plan.
Unlike the New York plant which utilized steam, the plant in Appleton would derive energy from the waters of the Fox River. The generator would be operated at 110 volts and was driven through gears and belts by a water wheel under a ten foot fall of water. On September 30, 1882, Appleton became the first city in the world to operate a hydroelectric power plant. Known as the Vulcan Street Power Plant, the plant produced enough electricity to light Roger’s home, his paper plant, and a nearby building.
By the 20th century, this renewable form of energy had a dramatic impact on industry throughout the world. The success of Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant in 1896 further proved the importance of rivers as a potential power source. Water power on the Fox River provided the fuel for the region’s industrial boom. Soon, all of the factories relied on this form of power.
On the Wisconsin River, another notable hydroelectric project began in 1905. It was going to be one of the most ambitious water projects west of the Erie Canal. The project was spearheaded by a Norwegian immigrant, Magnus Swenson, who soon created the Southern Wisconsin Power Company. Construction began in 1911 and was completed in 1914, supplying power to homes and businesses in the surrounding areas. Three, twenty-five cycle generators supplied power from Prairie du Sac to Milwaukee.
Since the 1700s, industry has played a major role in transforming the character of the corridor, bringing people and altering the landscape. As previously stated, Wisconsin’s fertile soils, thick forests, and wealth of minerals lured the first major wave of settlers to the banks of the rivers. Lead mining was the first to develop in the southwest portion of the state. For hundreds of years, the Ho-Chunk, Fox, and Sauk had mined the easily accessible lead. After the treaties opened up the land to white settlers, miners from Missouri and southwestern England came by way of the Mississippi and the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers seeking quick wealth.
As early as the 1820s, the first wave of miners quickly established small mining communities around the mines. Primarily single men in a hurry to begin mining, many constructed quick shelters. Some simply burrowed into hillsides, earning the nickname “badgers,” which is why Wisconsin is now known as the Badger State. The tools and techniques involved in early surface mining operations were inexpensive and simple, enabling these men to strike it rich with little investment.
Lead mining peaked in the 1840s, bringing in more capital and people and allowed Wisconsin to acquire the title of one of the world’s leading mining centers. While the bulk of mining activity was located to the south of the Wisconsin River, mining had a significant impact on the development of the Wisconsin River Valley. Ports, mining centers, and trading posts at Prairie du Sac, Arena, Helena, and Muscoda developed as ore was shipped and traded on its way throughout the country. A diminishing supply and the western gold rush of the 1850s, however, resulted in the decline of lead mining in the state.
In the late 1800s, another form of mineral extraction, quarrying, became a profitable industry. The Fox-Wisconsin corridor is located along a distinct geologic boundary, consisting of limestone beds to the south and sandstone deposits to the north. This made it a prime location for granite, sandstone, and limestone quarries. By 1890, Wisconsin was twelfth in the nation for quarrying. Several limestone quarries were established from Green Bay to Lake Winnebago, and on the Wisconsin River, near modern day Bridgeport. This stone was used primarily for building purposes. It was granite, however, that made Wisconsin famous. Large granite quarries in Berlin, Montello, Utley, and Marquette emerged. While most granite was used in construction for buildings, some was made into monuments and transported around the world. In the 1880s, it was claimed that this region, consisting primarily of Marquette and Green Lake counties, contained the hardest granite in the world.
Beginning in the 1840s, wheat began as the most important cash crop for white settlers in the region. It required little capital and was fairly easy to grow, allowing farmers to harvest twice a year. Production took place throughout the corridor, particularly in the Central Plain and in the counties south of the corridor. These regions were attractive to early famers because of the fertile soils, clear land, and easily accessible water sources. The first agricultural settlements were located throughout the Upper Mississippi Valley, after the decline of the mining industry. In the mid-1800s, the clearing of land by logging and increased immigration enabled wheat agriculture to spread throughout the region. By the 1860s, a large sum of the nation’s wheat production came from farmland along the corridor, particularly in the central counties, such as Dane, Columbia, Green Lake, Fond du Lac, and Calumet. As a result, several milling centers developed along the Lower Fox, where farmers sent their products to be shipped around the country.
From 1840 to 1880, one-sixth of the wheat grown in the nation came from Wisconsin. This high production established Wisconsin as “America’s Breadbasket.” The early success of wheat farming had an important impact on the development of the state’s economy, helping Wisconsin agriculture to grow more quickly than it did in any other region of the country.
Beginning in the 1870s, a downturn in profits and quality caused a decline in wheat production. As a result, many farmers turned to dairying as a new method of agriculture. Several influences spurred the rapid spread of dairy: (1) the settlement of many skilled New York dairy farmers from the 1830s to the 1850s; (2) the research undertaken by the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture; and (3) the acceptance of this industry by many German and Scandinavian immigrant families.
Many of the first dairy farmers, especially those from New York, turned to cheese making as well. As a result, many neighborhood cheese factories began to dot the Wisconsin landscape, with large concentrations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, along the Wisconsin River, and in the Fox Valley region. The first of these was located in Lagoda, near Lake Winnebago. It was established in 1864 by New York dairyman, Chester Hazen.
The geography of cheese production is distinct. Not only did settlement patterns depend on farmland quality and proximity to urban markets, but also ethnic settlement. Cheese makers settled within their ethnic groups. Many were descendents of dairy farms from England, Switzerland, and Germany, and specialized in cheese from their homelands. In the northeast, along the Upper Fox, German cheese makers made brick and Muenster. In the southeast, English specialized in cheddar and the Swiss made limburger and Swiss cheese.
By the 1870s, dairy farming grew to incorporate larger dairy operations. Running a large dairy farm was expensive and an around the clock undertaking. Nevertheless, by 1890, over 17 percent of Wisconsin’s farms were dairy, and 90 percent contained dairy cows. This growth can be attributed to advances in dairying technology. The specialized breeding of a “single purpose” dairy cow, along with the invention of better quality testing and preservation methods, increased the profitability of dairying. By 1907, Wisconsin, the thirteenth largest state, produced nearly half of all the nation’s cheese and a tenth of the butter.
Lumber, the Rivers, and Mills
The logging industry of the 18th and 19th century transformed the landscape of the Fox River, as well as central and northern Wisconsin. It brought settlers, established urban networks, and most importantly, laid the foundation for the prosperous paper industry of the Lower Fox. From the 1830s to 1900, Wisconsin led the nation in lumber production, and from 1890 to 1910, forest products led Wisconsin’s developing economy.
Logging in Wisconsin began on the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers in the 1830s, after small operations were established near Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay. In 1836, the Red Cedar Treaty opened four million acres of land, from Green Bay to Oshkosh, to the United States. Attracted by the region’s abundance of white pine forests, early settler began to actively develop the lumber industry.
Water routes played a crucial role in the development of logging. Rivers provided easily accessible transportation for logs, from the forest to the mill, and then water power for the mills. As a central location, with easy access to extended water routes, the Fox and Wisconsin riverway was the first region to sprout logging centers. The hardwood forests along the Wisconsin River were the first to fall. As the logging industry developed, entire cities along the Fox grew up around the mills. Places such as Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Portage developed as settlers came to work at mills and paper related industries. General stores, grocers, and banks opened to support the growing pool of workers.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, railroads transformed the lumber industry by establishing transportation linkages to and from major water routes. This, coupled with the industry’s unsustainable logging practices, forced operations to move northward, up the Wisconsin and the Wolf Rivers and along the Black and Chippewa River watersheds. Fortunately, the old milling centers located along the Fox survived and flourished due to their locations along the corridor. At this time, there were still many transportation and trade possibilities on the corridor. Logs continued to pass through the rivers—from the Wisconsin they moved to markets along the Mississippi, while the Fox shipped logs to eastern urban areas, such as Chicago and New York. Perhaps the most important advantage, however, was the ability of these centers to diversify. Originally known for flour milling and meat packing, places like Neenah and Green Bay began to establish paper mills. In 1866, one of the first Fox Valley paper mills was established, the Neenah Paper Company.
In the 1870s, the forest products industry intensified, with improved transportation routes—including railroads—and new technology. The Fox River Valley remained ideally situated downstream from the country’s largest timber stands. At that time pulp paper milling became an important practice. In 1900, lumberman, John A. Kimberly, established the now world-known pulp paper company, Kimberly, Clark, & Company, in Neenah. The company added to the thirty-five other mills that lined the reaches of the Lower Fox, making this forty-mile stretch of river the paper capital of the world.
While paper is the most known, it was not the only industry to develop as a result of logging. Many other wooden goods were manufactured along the Fox, such as furniture, barrels, carriages, and housewares. These industries worked alongside mills and paper centers, such as Green Bay, Fond du Lac, and Appleton. These products were often shipped up the Fox, to urban areas in the eastern manufacturing belt.
Conservation on the Corridor
Between 1850 and 1920, conservation emerged as a broad political and cultural movement. Citizens were becoming increasingly aware of the aesthetic, spiritual, and economic importance of the natural world, and began pushing forward initiatives to ensure conservationist and preservationist activity. Throughout this movement, Wisconsin remained a national leader of conservationists thinking and practice. Located in the heart of the state, the corridor became a place of contest and triumph for the Wisconsin conservation movement.
Increase Lapham is credited with beginning the conservation movement in Wisconsin in the 1850s. Joining the ranks of eastern ecologists, such as George Perkins Marsh and Henry David Thoreau, Lapham was one of the first to advocate the importance of conservation in the western frontier. He spoke out against the devastation of the logging industry, which decimated over 100 billion board feet of timber in less than eighty years. In 1855, he called for a natural history survey to be conducted in Wisconsin. In 1867, he wrote Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin. In the 100 page report, Lapham investigated the sustainability of the lumber industry. He explained that the trees were linked to animal habitats, climate, agriculture, and river systems. In his conclusion, he recommended that the state intervene and begin investigating methods for replanting. Although he was fifty years ahead of his time, Lapham’s report was an important first step toward conservation in Wisconsin and in the rest of the nation.
At the same time, another environmentalist was forming his ideas on his family’s farm near Portage. John Muir, one of the greatest American ecologists grew up on the banks of the Upper Fox. An emigrant from Scotland, he worked dawn to dusk on his family’s Fountain Lake Farm, roaming the woods of the central plains. It was his experiences there, he later wrote, that prepared him for his later wilderness explorations. Championing the idea of preservation, Muir believed that nature should be left completely undisturbed and uncompromised. In 1868, Muir left his Wisconsin homeland to explore the vast wilderness of the West. It was there that Muir spent the rest of his life; continually prophesying his vision of environmentalism in many letters, essays, and books. In his later life, he became known as the father of the National Park System and the founder of the Sierra Club. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement.
By the turn of the century, the corridor, along with the rest of the United States, changed greatly. Industry was expanding; developing and utilizing the environment in new ways. On the corridor, the paper industry was transforming the economy and the landscape of the Fox River. By 1901, eighteen mills lined the Lower Fox. In 1935, over thirty mills utilized forty miles of the river. This expanding industry relied heavily on clean water for production; however, it was also the number one polluter of the river. It was at this time, that citizens began to take notice of industry’s effect on the environment and public health.
The conservation movement finally took off, as environmentalism and politics began to merge. Notable politicians, such as Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt, combined efforts to promote conservation. At the state level, Wisconsin politician, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., was at the forefront of this movement. He was considered a pioneer of the progressive movement, a new wave of political and social thought that was sweeping the country in the early part of the 20th century. La Follette fought “big industry,” and began to establish many regulatory boards to control private interests. Throughout his time as Wisconsin governor and senator, he helped to establish the first comprehensive forestry law, the state park system, and formed the Wisconsin Conservation Commission to oversee all conservation issues within the state. La Follette was also known for his progressive approach to environmentalism, spearheading the “Wisconsin Idea,” which called for a political alliance between politicians and experts. His administration worked closely with researchers from the state universities to develop various studies. La Follette is most known for his close relations with University of Wisconsin president, Charles Van Hise, who wrote the first textbook on conservation in 1910 and was an environmental consultant to Theodore Roosevelt.
In the 1920s, another environmentalist took up the cause of the state. Aldo Leopold, a former United States Forest Serviceman came to Wisconsin in 1924, to work at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. In 1933, he obtained a position as a professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. Known as the father of wildlife management, Leopold founded the Wilderness Society in 1935.
In 1949, the release of Leopold’s book, A Sand Count Almanac, redefined the modern conservationist movement, cementing his status as the most renowned conservationist of his day. Written at his home in Sauk County, the book chronicles the natural happenings on his property over a twelve year period. The goal of the book was to reach a wide audience with the idea of conservation. The book, however, did much more than that; serving as one of the foundations for modern science, policy, and ethics. In the book, he expressed his view on conservation, which he called “a state of harmony between men and the land.” He coined the term “land ethic” in one of the chapters, in which he spoke of an enlarged “community,” which should include non-human elements, such as soils, waters, plants, and animals, “or collectively: the land.” In his work, he challenges John Muir’s environmental ideals of complete preservation of the land.
These early conservationist leaders and activities in Wisconsin would inspire future efforts around the nation. On the corridor, other notable ecologists, such as Carl Schurz, August Derleth, Gaylord Nelson, Raymond T. Zilmer, and George Archibald, would also take up the cause to ensure the future of these rivers. Well into the 20th century, the paper industry would remain the most pressing issue, accounting for 80 percent of the industrial waste in state waters. However, in the 1990s, clean up efforts began, making this section of river a national example of industrial water clean up efforts.