Fox Wisconsin Heritage Parkway

A non-profit organization dedicated to the improvement and preservation of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.

Chapter 3: Themes

Introduction to Themes

When early explorers, Marquette and Joliet, paddled up the Fox River in hope of finding the fabled “Route to the Orient” they could not have imagined the myriad opportunities that would be unleashed by their travels. Today, we can see that their historic journey on the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers ultimately led to the opening of the Northwest Territory, and a great expansion of our nation. The Fox River Valley and the Lower Wisconsin waterway share a singular distinction in having played a unique role in shaping our nation’s growth and forming our nation’s history.

Interpretation and preservation efforts on the Parkway began as early as 1991. That year, recognizing the historical significance of this area, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism partnered to form the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway pilot project. The project began by identifying four primary heritage sites along the corridor and highlighting the unique shared history of the rivers. With intent very similar to that of an NHA, the project continued slowly, with a primary goal of obtaining a designation. Several intensive architectural and historical surveys were completed for many river communities. In 1995, plans began to designate the Fox River as a state heritage parkway. However, while support for the project mounted, collaborative interpretation and historic preservation efforts remained to be seen.

From 1995 to 2004, Parkway efforts primarily concentrated on the opening of the waters for navigation. It was not until 2004, with the transfer of ownership of the seventeen Lower Fox lock sites, that plans were made by Friends of the Fox and ECWRPC to rejuvenate the Fox-Wisconsin pilot project. A community executive committee, advisory committee, and three sub-committees were formed to renew the project.

The main theme and reason for the boundary delineations is Marquette and Joliet’s journey to the Orient, the route of discovery that opened up the middle United States for European settlement. This was the focal point eighteen years ago, and through committee and public input, has been reaffirmed as the story which most needs to be told. What has changed is the addition of six concurrent themes which were decided upon by the committee after listening to the advisory committee’s input, as well as numerous municipal and community suggestions. These were then referenced with “Cultural Resource Management in Wisconsin,” a cultural resource publication by the Wisconsin State Historical Society. It was felt that there are also unique stories that can only be told in this place and have not been adequately shared up to this point. Together, they tell a complete story, a multi-layered story with one common element—the rivers that run through them all.

The rivers that helped shape what these peoples did, how they lived, how they found subsistence. The living rivers were an active participant in our history and had great impact. This impact has not been fully realized, acknowledged nor respected. All the history that we share through the Heritage Parkway must illuminate this impact, this partnering with the waterway. It will facilitate us telling the collective stories of our past, it will allow more residents to gain knowledge of how very special this place is that they call home, and it will only encourage better caretaking as we move into the future.

The Parkway represents a multitude of history—stories, people, and events connected throughout time and place and woven into the landscape. Thus, to fully interpret the Parkway’s unique history, it was necessary to remember the American Indian presence, long and proud and prolific. Marquette and Joliet’s travels have garnered little national attention, yet are integral to the settling of the country. The early European settlers and the varied cultures they brought with them still affect the region today. The Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project transformed the environment to better suit the needs of development, paving the way for industry. The hydro-electric power possible from these great rivers combined with the abundant surrounding natural resources allowed for many industrial success stories, most notably paper and pulp. The beauty of the area, combined with the mid-1800s political and cultural social movement of conservation and a growing tradition of activism in the state lead to Wisconsin becoming a center of conservationist thinking and activity in the United States. Increase Lapham, John Muir, Robert La Follette and Aldo Leopold are just a few of the minds that emerged from the area.

For each of these peoples, the rivers held different meanings. The American Indians looked upon the waters and they saw life—the means to grow their food and travel. When European explorers, Marquette and Joliet first navigated the rivers seeking a route to the Orient, the pair saw the adventure of the unknown, and the potential for a new route, a new way to lessen the time of travel. As westward expansion brought white settlers to the region, early industrialists looked at the river and saw wealth and the ability to prosper. And finally, to come full circle, conservationists saw life once again. Life in that the waters must be cared for because they support the entire ecosystem, the web in which we are all entwined. The rivers are constant, and have remained so regardless of the varied view of those partnering with them. What we do with this constant, how we interact with it, is up to us. Looking back at the rivers’ story will help us be engaged and hopefully wise as we move into the future.

The Fox and Wisconsin River corridor has been the most significant resource affecting the development of the region, and is a part of the national expansion story which has yet to be told. Our history dictated that these be the themes we bring forth and tell, our many resources and interpretive sites support and convey these themes, and the support of our community underscores their value and appropriateness.


Summary of Theme

Of all the peoples of the corridor, American Indians have had the longest and deepest connection to the waters. Dating back 12,000 years, native peoples heavily utilized the rivers, fishing, gathering wild rice, hunting, and located their camps and villages along the waters’ edge. Eventually, the region became home to the Menominee and Ho-Chunk tribes. With an estimated population of 20,000, these native peoples were the first to greet the Europeans when they arrived in the 1600s. After the arrival of the Europeans and the introduction of several eastern tribes, life on the corridor changed greatly. A period of warfare, displacement, and deculturalization followed. Today, members of these tribes continue to reside along the waters of their ancestors. Their technology, traditions, and folklore remain a vital aspect of the Fox-Wisconsin corridor.

This theme explores the contributions and cultures of the American Indian tribes that have lived on this land, from prehistory to the present. It examines their connections to the rivers, encounters with other tribes and peoples, and, finally, their contributions to the corridor today.

Sub-themes include:

Wisconsin Indians and the Waters

Native peoples have lived in this place for over 12,000 years. Over that time, these people have cultivated a unique relationship with the rivers, passed down from generation to generation. To them, the waters represented both survival and spirituality. Traversing the rivers in their birch bark canoes, they depended on this water source for transportation and food. Every autumn, the Menominee gathered the wild rice that grew by the shores of the Fox River. In winter and spring, the Ho-Chunk speared fish. These are practices that tribes still retain today.

Their spiritual connection is represented in their many stories and traditions, passed down from generation to generation. An example of this is the Ho-Chunk creation story of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. The story tells of the great serpent, on a journey from the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes. As he slinked across the state, he carved out the landscape of the rivers, shallow and sandy at the Wisconsin and narrow and winding at the Fox. Another powerful mark of these ancient cultures lies in many effigy mounds found here. These large earthen mounds were ceremonial centers, first constructed by the Late Woodland people around 650 AD. Overlooking the water, they symbolize the vast importance the rivers held to these early civilizations.

Native & European Engagements

While native cultures underwent many changes throughout their inhabitance of Wisconsin, nothing compared to the changes they experienced beginning in the 1600s. Tribal warfare pushed eastern tribes into the land of the Ho-Chunk and Menominee throughout the 17th and 18th century. The introduction of the Miami, Potawatomi, Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Oneida, and Stockbridge-Munsee created greater competition for land, food, and furs.

Moreover, in the 1630s, the first French explorers began to file into these Indian lands, exploring and developing the corridor. They established unique relations with the tribes, working to convert them to Catholicism as well as utilizing them as hunters in the fur trade. The influence of the French served to weaken their native traditions and left them dependent upon European goods.

Native life in the corridor was forever changed. As the French, British, and, finally, Americans began to flood into the corridor with greater intensity, many of these tribes were pushed past the Mississippi. Conflicts over native resources continued. Despite several resistance efforts by native groups, a series of treaties took their land and restricted their native settlement to small reservations.

Wisconsin Tribes Today

Despite their difficult history, Wisconsin Indian tribes have retained their strong culture. Today, nine federally recognized tribes reside within the state. Of these, the Oneida and the Ho-Chunk still remain the most visible in the Parkway. In recent years, a cultural revival has led these tribes on a self-proclaimed “journey back to ourselves.” Programming by cultural centers and youth enrichment groups has brought back the popularity of traditional languages and customs. Tribes, such as the Ho-Chunk, have taken increasing measures to protect the places, artifacts, and stories of their ancestors found along the rivers. Cultural events, such as pow-wows at Oneida and Baraboo continue to draw Wisconsin tribes together to celebrate their heritage.

Interpretive Stories and Sites Related to theme:
  • Indian Copper mines of Old Copper Culture, near Lake Winnebago
  • Wauona Trail, Portage
  • Battle of Wisconsin Heights, Black Hawk War
  • Ho-Chunk Education Center, Muscoda
  • Effigy Mounds National Monument


Summary of Theme

For 150 years, Wisconsin was under the control of the French as part of New France. It was during this time, from the early 1600s to 1763, that the first white men entered this part of North America. Coming to explore, exploit, and prophesy, these men had a lasting impact on the history, culture, and landscape of the Fox-Wisconsin corridor. Two of these explorers were Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, commissioned by the governor of New France to find a route to the Northwest Passage. In 1673, they were the first European explorers to navigate the entire length of the Fox and Wisconsin waterway. Their travels, along with those of Nicolet, Allouez, Radisson, and others, paved the way for further development of the American West. The boundaries of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway follow their momentous journey, from Green Bay to the Mississippi River.

This theme provides the opportunity to explore and interpret the corridor’s role in developing the frontier in the New World. It examines what life was like along the corridor—the distinct culture and economy that developed here as a result of French exploration and the fur trade. This is a topic that has been largely forgotten by the public. Yet, the contributions of these early explorers, traders, and missionaries remain vivid on the landscape of the Fox-Wisconsin corridor.

Sub-themes include:

New France

From 1534 to 1763, the corridor was part of the Upper Louisiana region of New France. During this time, France sent many men to explore and exploit the resources of the area. For 150 years, missionaries and voyageurs traversed the corridor, making maps, converting the Indians, and establishing French trading posts throughout the region. Throughout this time, many notable men mapped and recorded the corridor. In 1634, Jean Nicolet was the first white man to step foot on the banks of the Fox River. Throughout the following century, many others followed. In the 1660s, brothers, Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medart Groselliers, and Nicolas Perrot would travel further into the corridor landscape, establishing relations with the Wisconsin Indians. Others, Duluth, Tonty, Louvigny, Lignery, and Langlande, left behind their mark on the corridor.

While relatively little is known about Wisconsin’s history as part of New France, the impact of the French has left an indelible impact on the culture of the corridor. Cities, such as Prairie du Chien, Butte des Morts, and Fond du Lac, abound with French history. Likewise sites, such as Villa Louis, the Red Banks, and the Grignon-Porlier Trading Post signal a time of French influence. In this sub-theme, the sites and stories of the first European occupants can be told along the corridor.

Marquette and Joliet

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet were commissioned by France to seek a route to the Orient. Their travels mark a momentous moment in history, as the first white men to traverse the entire length of the corridor. They recorded their experiences in Marquette’s journal, telling of the unique landscape and of their friendly encounters with the Wisconsin Indians. While they did not find the Orient, they were the first Europeans to discover the corridor’s connection to the Mississippi River. Marquette and Joliet’s explorations opened up the Upper Louisiana region to the world, linking it to French ports in Canada and New Orleans. The boundaries of the Heritage Parkway follow their journey. Today, modern-day voyageurs can traverse the rivers, experiencing the route of Marquette and Joliet.

The Fur Trade

No other practice had such a tremendous impact on the corridor as the fur trade. For nearly 200 years, this trade dictated the commerce and culture of the area. While French explorers and missionaries traveled the land, documenting their findings, most of the French newcomers came as traders, seeking adventure and wealth. Traders erected some of the first commercial centers in the state, with trading posts at modern-day Prairie du Chien, Oshkosh, and Green Bay. They developed unique relations with the Wisconsin Indians, utilizing them as the primary gatherers of furs.

As Wisconsin furs began to circulate the globe, this trade fostered a unique society within the state. During the height of the trade, the population of the corridor primarily consisted of colorful and adventurous young men (coureur des bois) and Wisconsin Indians. As a way to establish business relations, many of these traders began to marry into the tribes. This resulted in a mixing of cultures that was part European and part native.

Eventually, the profitability of this trade made the corridor a place of dispute between nations. The French, British, and, finally, United States all vied for control of the trade and the natural resources along the corridor. Although the fur trade declined in the 19th century, its impact on the history and culture of this region remains.

Interpretive Stories and Sites Related to theme:
  • Nicolet’s landing at Red Banks
  • Colonial French Map Exhibit, Neville Public Museum in Green Bay
  • Marquette’s Cross, Princeton
  • Villa Louis, Prairie du Chien


Summary of Theme

In the 1800s, the frontier continued to move west, bringing American settlers and European immigrants to help settle and develop Wisconsin, particularly areas of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers for much of the remaining century. The new settlers joined the American Indians and French populations, bringing with them a new entrepreneurial spirit. These new settlers came in distinct waves throughout the 18th and early 19th century, seeking wealth, freedom, and family along the shores of Wisconsin’s rivers, making the state one of the most rapidly growing regions in the country.

This theme examines the peoples that settled along the corridor throughout three distinct waves of European immigration, from 1800 to 1920. This theme follows their migration, culture, communities, and conflicts, all while examining the role of the rivers in peopling this segment of North America.

Sub-themes include:

Draw of the Land (1830s-1840s)

The first distinct wave of immigration began in the 1830s. Consisting of land hungry Yankees and Southern Europeans, this group came to take advantage of the newly opened terrain. The corridor abounded with minerals, millions of acres of forests, and fertile soils just waiting to be dug, felled, and developed by these hardy newcomers.

These first groups were important to the development of the corridor. As they established communities and businesses, they laid the foundations for further growth of the Wisconsin frontier. These groups also had a significant impact on the character and early culture of the region. In the southwest, along the Wisconsin River, Cornish miners literally dug their homes into the hills of the Driftless Area, earning the name “badgers.” Along the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, small logging camps began at Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay, bringing young men from Germany, Norway, and New England. As more logs began to float down the rivers to eastern and southern ports, an increasing number of steamships also brought old-stock Americans to farm the newly cutover lands.

Early life on the corridor was tough. Unlike the Indians and the French that had settled there before them, these new inhabitants sought to civilize the wilderness—to establish businesses, urbanized communities, and families. Their stories reflect a time when people had to live off of the land.

Developing Communities, Commerce, and Culture (1850s-1860s)

In the 1850s, immigrants began to pour into the region with greater intensity, from Germany, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, and other western European countries. This period, from the 1850s through the Civil War, was marked by the expanding commerce and culture of the corridor. Immigrants came to both rural and urban locations to take advantage of and to expand upon existing opportunities established by the initial wave of European settlers.

The surge in immigration coincided with the overwhelming growth of industry, technology, and communities. An urban system began to develop. Communities, such as Green Bay, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, and Appleton were among the largest in the state. Increasing job opportunities and the growth of ethnic neighborhoods attracted immigrants to these places. Strong ethnic ties developed as more Polish began to settle in Portage, Dutch came to Little Chute, and Germans congregated near Cassell. So many Germans were attracted to this place, in fact, Wisconsin became known as New Germany. Immigrant groups established distinct religious, social, and political groups, as a way of establishing their new identities as German-Americans, Irish-Americans, or Norwegian-Americans in their new homeland.

The presence of these groups remains evident today. The numerous communities, groups, traditions, and folklore serve as a reminder of the region’s European heritage.

“Cultural Mosaic” (1870s-1920)

The last sub-theme focuses on the cultural diversity of the Wisconsin landscape from the 1870s to 1920. This period was marked by a “filling up process,” in which fresh waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe came to the region to take their place within the already established communities, commerce, and cultures of the corridor.

Czech, Polish, Italians, Slovaks, and Hungarians were among the new immigrants to settle within the already established German, Scandinavian, and other western European ethnic enclaves. By the 20th century, no group dominated the cultural landscape of the corridor. This resulted in a heavy mixing of cultures between “old immigrants” (those that came before the 1870s) and “new immigrants” (those of the final wave). The geographic pattern was like that of a colorful mosaic. Once again, the cultural landscape of the corridor continued to change.

In the midst of the American Industrial Revolution, this wave of immigrants found jobs in the many new mills, tanneries, breweries, and foundries. Others took skilled positions in furniture manufacturing, or opened up businesses to serve the many growing ethnic neighborhoods.

A listing of notable cultural figures from the Parkway is found in Appendix C.

Interpretive Stories and Sites Related to theme:
  • Heritage Hill State Park, Green Bay
  • Irving Church Historic District, Oshkosh
  • Moose Temple, Fond du Lac
  • Free Thinkers Hall, Prairie du Sac


Summary of Theme

In the 1800s, most travelers and goods came to Wisconsin by way of the Mississippi, making a long and expensive journey around the country. However, with the arrival of steamships and the success of eastern canal systems, particularly the Erie Canal in 1825, early planners saw the potential to develop the corridor as a water highway system. Situated between two of the most navigable water routes in the country, the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers would be a direct link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, making the state an important commercial center and stopping place along the water route through the continent. While their plans did not quite come to fruition due to natural and economic factors, this system continues to be an important symbol of our young nation’s quest for control over the environment.

This theme focuses on the changing relationship between man and the rivers. It studies the effect humans have had on the corridor, through transportation and power innovations. In an effort of revitalization, today visitors can experience this water highway and learn about the various ways in which the need for transportation and commerce has altered the landscape.

Sub-themes include:

Glacial Geography

The natural topography of the rivers appeared ideal for a combined water transportation system. A product of glaciation, the rivers were carved out by the outwash of glacial lakes 25,000 years ago. It was then, that the rivers forever formed a link between the terminal moraine which is now Lake Michigan and the outwash plain of the Mississippi River. Glaciers also dictated the unique characteristics of the three river regions. As man attempted to control the riverway, these characteristics, the shallow and sandiness of the Lower Wisconsin, the narrow snaking Upper Fox, and the dramatic elevation drop of the Lower Fox, all proved to be important factors in the rivers’ roles as a transportation and power system.

Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project

The Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project sought to revolutionize travel on the rivers. In this project, the state and private companies embarked on a thirty year quest to create the first industrial water highway of canals, locks, and dams. Not only would this route save time and money, early investors believed this system had the potential to revolutionize travel throughout the bourgeoning nation. The roots of the project lay with the French, who, after the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, hoped to make this water route a primary means of transportation through the continent.

The project garnered a great deal of support, and was eventually completed. Engineers boasted that this was to be the hardest working river system in the world. However, the reign of the Fox-Wisconsin waterway was short lived. The natural topography of the river proved difficult to be controlled, and railroad travel took over by the mid-19th century. The dream ended. However, the improvements had a significant impact on the corridor, laying the groundwork for further industrial development. These improvements still remain, signaling a time when the Fox-Wisconsin waterway was part of the hardest working river system in the world.

Hydroelectric Power

As industry grew along regions of the Fox River, businessmen sought ways to harness the power of this mighty natural resource. On the Lower Fox, in the course of almost 40 miles, the river drops approximately 170 feet—almost the height of Niagara Falls. In the 1830s, the power of the falls and rapids was utilized by the wheel mills. In the 1850s, the Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project harnessed the power of the falls by building dams. Thirty years later, in 1882, the Fox River made history around the world by constructing the world’s first hydroelectric central station in Appleton. Hydroelectric power took off as an efficient power option around the globe, and along the rest of the corridor. This momentous development provided fuel for the region’s rapid industrial growth of the late 19th century, making the Fox River a major industrial belt of Wisconsin. Today, hydroelectric dams remain an important feature on the landscape of the corridor, supplying power to many homes and businesses.

Current River System Efforts

The way in which we view the rivers has changed greatly since the beginning of the Fox-Wisconsin Improvement Project. The waters have gone through periods of intensive and modest use; they have been abused and respected. This has been reflected in the landscape of the corridor. Today, communities, organizations, and businesses are once again looking to the rivers with a renewed state of mind. One example of this is the Water Trail Portage Project, on the Fox River. This project is reviving the efforts of the Fox Wisconsin Improvement Project, promoting the increased utilization and better access to the river by developing water trails and portages for non-motorized watercrafts. Another is the designation of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. Downstream from one of the most industrialized rivers in the world, this river channel is now protected as an important aesthetic and natural resource for future generations to enjoy.

Thus, history continues to unfold on the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. As technology and industries change, so does the way in which the rivers are viewed and utilized. This sub-theme examines the current and evolving efforts and uses of the river by the communities, organizations, and businesses.

Interpretive Stories and Sites Related to theme:
  • Green Bay Harbor Lighthouse
  • Locks and dams of the Fox River
  • Portage Canal
  • Prairie du Sac Hydroelectric Dam
  • Water Trail Portage Project Site


Summary of Theme

Since the coming of the first white settlers, industry has played an important role in shaping the landscape of the Fox and Wisconsin River corridor. Likewise, the rivers have had a significant impact on the industry of the region. Their position as a linkage between two of the United States’ greatest water routes, abundance of natural resources, and potential for power made this region a goldmine for potential investors, willing to take a gamble in the Wisconsin frontier. Thus, industries began to develop along the water route: mining, agriculture, logging, textiles, milling, all taking advantage the corridor’s natural abundance. While some industries rose and fell with changing technology, others, such as the paper industry, made this region a production leader world-wide.

This theme inspects the corridor’s role in developing the American economy throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It examines the many industries along the Fox and Wisconsin, looking at the various ways in which man has utilized the resources of the corridor for profit and survival, and the way in which various industries and businesses have helped to shape its character.

Sub-themes include:

Mining & Quarrying

Mining was one of the first industries to develop along the corridor, beginning with the French in the 1600s. It wasn’t until the 1820s, however, that miners from Great Britain, Missouri and other parts of the south came to the region to mine the abundant lead, iron, and copper deposits of the Driftless Area. Of these, lead was the most profitable. From the 1820s to the 1840s, the Wisconsin lead district was one of the world’s leading mining centers.

The Wisconsin River was vitally important to the industry, acting not only as a transportation route but as a site for processing. There, the lead was turned into shot for ammunition, loaded onto barges and shipped down the Mississippi River or placed onto wagons along the “lead road” to Lake Michigan. While this initial industry was fleeting, mining had a significant impact on the Lower Wisconsin River Valley. Ports and trading posts at Prairie du Sac, Arena, Helena, and Muscoda developed as ore was shipped and traded on its way throughout the country.

As the mining industry declined, quarrying operations began on the Fox River. The rise of the industry was due to the increasing use of granite, sandstone, and limestone in building. From Green Bay to Montello, men, once again, took to the ground, this time in search of stone. By 1890, the state ranked twelfth in the nation in the number of quarries.

Agriculture: From Wheat to Dairy

Wisconsin has become known as the nation’s breadbasket and America’s Dairyland. These names reflect the state’s strong agricultural roots, many of which exist within the boundaries of the corridor. It was along the Wisconsin River that wheat farming began in the 1840s. This crop developed the state’s identity as an “agricultural eden,” bringing more settlers to the fertile lands along the corridor.

Since this time, the corridor has remained the centerpiece of an agricultural heartland. From wheat, the region moved into feed-crop, specialty crop, and vegetable and fruit production (Wisconsin is currently second in the nation in cranberry production). However, no other form of agriculture has such an impact on the landscape of Wisconsin as dairying. This form of agriculture grew out of the fledging wheat industry, and was fueled by the arrival of New York and European dairy farmers. This industry created a unique cultural landscape of red barns and ethnic agricultural traditions that continues to this day.

Logging & Papermaking

The first logging operations began in the 1830s near Prairie du Chien, Portage, and Green Bay. The industry quickly took off, peaking in the 1890s. Wisconsin held many natural advantages, with its thick forests, plentiful riverways, and relative proximity to the treeless prairies of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Throughout this time, the corridor remained vitally important to the trade. The Wisconsin River provided transportation to the Mississippi, where logs floated down to western and southern ports. On the Fox, milling centers developed at several points, from Green Bay to Oshkosh. Entire communities grew up around these early mills, bringing workers and businesses.

This industry also helped to shape the corridor’s industrial landscape. Wood product industries manufactured housewares, caskets, barrels, wagons, furniture, sashes, doors, blinds, and railroad ties. In the 1860s, another lumber related industry also began production on the Fox, papermaking. Due to its location downstream from the nation’s largest timber stands, this region soon became a world leader in paper production, boasting nearly sixty paper mills in less than forty miles of river.

Interpretive Stories and Sites Related to theme:
  • Ice Age National Scenic Trail
  • Helena Shot Tower at Tower Hill State Park
  • Dutch Granary, Little Chute
  • Paper Discovery Center, Appleton


Summary of Theme

As the Fox-Wisconsin River corridor continued to develop throughout the mid-to-late 19th century, a concern of the natural world also began to emerge among newly urbanized Americans. These citizens saw the frontier landscape as an important spiritual and aesthetic resource, to be protected from the destruction of industrialization. On the fringe of the advancing frontier, Wisconsin became a forum for conservationist thought. Throughout the movement, the Fox-Wisconsin River corridor was a source of inspiration and dispute for early environmentalists. It was on the banks of these rivers that John Muir began his work, Aldo Leopold wrote his essays, and Increase Lapham pushed forward his ideas of settlement and industry. As the region developed, the conservation movement had a tremendous impact on the relationship between the rivers and industry. This effort, to balance human uses while protecting the natural world, continues today.

This theme provides a basis for understanding the importance of conservation along the corridor. It explores the people, organizations, and ideas that have influenced environmental perceptions. This theme will encourage the continued protection of natural resources by educating visitors about their impact on this environment and how they can help ensure the future protection of this resource.

Sub-themes include:

Leaders in Conservation

Throughout history, the way in which humans have viewed the landscape of the corridor has changed greatly—to some this place represents sustenance, to others it has become a source of wealth. Beginning in the 1850s, however, a group of men and women saw the corridor as a place of natural beauty to be protected and preserved in its natural state. These conservationists came from different backgrounds and promoted different, and sometimes conflicting, ideologies. These include such people as the father of the Wisconsin conservation movement, Increase Lapham, world-known ecologist, John Muir, progressive leader, Robert M. La Follette, ethicist, Aldo Leopold, founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, and others.

Today, the legacies of these conservationists are found throughout the corridor. These include not only areas of conservationist activity, but also the places of beauty that inspired them, such as John Muir’s Observatory Hill, Aldo Leopold’s wilderness shack, or August Derleth’s, Sac Prairie hiking trails. Their efforts and ideology live on through the continuing work to protect and preserve these places. This sub-theme is an important part of this continued effort.

Environment, Industry, and Conservation

The industrial boom of the mid-1800s had a tremendous impact on the landscape of the corridor. Along the Wisconsin River, forests had been decimated by the ax of the logging industry. Miners had also extracted much of the minerals from the ground. The growing industrial belt of the Fox now contained many factories and mills which polluted the air and water. It was at this time, that concerns began to grow over the public’s health. Increasing illness, contaminated water, and the decline of animal populations worried communities along the corridor.

While Increase Lapham was the first to speak out about humans’ impact on the environment in his 1867 report, Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees, Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that significant efforts were made to lessen industrial impacts. With the logging industry moving northward, a great deal of attention was shifted to the impacts of the paper industry, and thus, the Fox River Valley. Senator Gaylord A. Nelson and Governor Warren Knowles led successful state efforts to curb paper mill urban runoff pollution, organizing resource planning and environmental management. In the past ten years, the paper mills and the state have joined efforts to clean up the Fox. In 2004, sediment dredging began in PCB contaminated areas along the Fox.

While this history is not a pleasant part of the corridor’s past, it is an important one. The industrial clean up along the Fox has brought about a renewed understanding of this delicate environment and a growing appreciation for these beautiful waters. Since the clean up began, the WDNR has witnessed a significant improvement in the quality of life along the river. Many species of wildlife that have not been found in the river since the mid-1900s are now returning. Citizens alike are commenting on the triumphant return of the bald eagle, better fishing conditions, and improved water. Today, the Fox River Valley is not only a means of transportation or power, but is a national symbol of modern industrial and environmental policy at work.

Conservation Today

In the discussion of conservation efforts along the corridor, it is important to highlight the existing measures to ensure the future protection of this place. Many environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, and the Nature Conservancy, have devoted themselves to conserving the environment of the corridor. These organizations, along with state and federal agencies, are responsible for protecting the wetlands, parks, prairies, landmarks, preserves, and other natural areas that lie along the corridor.

Half of the corridor lies within a conservation region. In 1989, the State of Wisconsin designated this region as a state riverway. This designation has had a tremendous impact on this portion of the river. In this plan, members of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, state officials, ecologists, and local landowners work together to maintain the delicate balance between protection and preservation. In the past decade, these groups have helped to preserve and improve this stretch of river that contains seventy threatened species, and the largest examples of natural riverway habitat in the world.

Interpretive Stories and Sites Related to theme:
  • John Muir’s Fountain Lake Farm
  • Aldo Leopold, Sauk County Shack
  • Spring Green Prairie
  • Lower Wisconsin State Riverway