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Fox River Lock Tenders
The Fox and Wisconsin Rivers are situated between two of the most navigable water routes in the country, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Beginning in the 1820s, governmental and private interests began to look at the Fox and Wisconsin rivers as a direct water highway to the west. The strong current and rapids, particularly on the Lower Fox, made boat traffic impossible. The solution was to build a series of locks and canals. Construction began in the 1849 and over 3 decades, 24 locks were constructed on the 162-mile stretch between Portage and Green Bay.
To provide round-the-clock response to boats navigating through the locks, residences were constructed alongside the locks, beginning a long history of men and their families that called these houses home. The lockmaster resided in the house, responsible for all operations of the lock. Locktenders reported to the lockmaster working the shifts outside the lockmaster’s hours. The locks were operated by hand via a turnstile crank that opened and closed the large lock doors.
Many of the men were employed with the Corps for decades. Nepotism was common with many fathers, sons and brothers also employed in the profession. The job required round-the-clock availability, prompted by the whistle of an approaching barge or boat. Government records were required to document the river, recording the tonnage of boats, number of passengers, weather conditions and river levels. The occupation was exceptionally hazardous with many men risking their lives saving boat passengers or others swept away by river torrents. Tragically, many men lost their lives while performing their duties, several drowning in the lock themselves.
Families adjusted to this unique lifestyle of living in a home adjacent to a lock. Some lock houses were located on an island, accessed only by walking across the closed lock gates. The families took care of the house and property, tending to vegetable and flower gardens. In lean times, boarders were taken in to supplement their income. Children learned to swim in the lock ever mindful of the dangerous river currents. Families came to know the pilots of the working boats, barges and tugs and the many passengers on steamboats and other recreational vessels. Families invited friends and family to their lock “resort” for parties, celebrations and weddings.
With a reduction of commercial traffic due to increased competition from railroads and highways most of the lock system was closed by the 1980s, including all of the locktenders’ houses. However, the two locks at DePere and Menasha have remained in continuous operation under the careful watch of locktenders who continue this time-honored profession. In 2004, ownership of the lock system was transferred from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the State of Wisconsin. Since that time, many of the locks have been restored and are again operational allowing for increased river traffic. Restoration work will continue, including finding reuses for the eleven remaining lockhouses.
The Fox River lock system remains one of the only two hand-operated lock systems remaining in continuous operation in the United States.