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Little Kaukauna Lock
Located upriver from De Pere, the Little Kaukauna Lock is the sixteenth lock in the historic seventeen Lower Fox River lock system. Constructed between 1848 and the late 1870s, this system connected the Great Lakes with ports on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
For more than a century and a half, the Fox-Wisconsin river system was the only direct waterway from Lake Michigan to western Wisconsin and the Mississippi River. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s the Wisconsin territory began making plans to significantly improve transportation systems throughout the region with the construction of a lock-and-dam system and military road network.
The Little Kaukauna Lock recalls the importance of both land and water transportation systems in the early 19th century. Running south of the lock, visitors will notice a road named “Old Military Road.” This modern automobile route was once part of a 280-mile trail which connected all three military forts along the corridor, at Green Bay, Portage and Prairie du Chien. At the peak of its use, from 1830 to 1860, the Military Road acted as a supplementary transportation route through the state, helping to protect the crucial waterway and lock system from foreign interests.
The Little Kaukauna Lock has operated continuously since the 1850s. A major upgrade was completed in the 1930s when steel gates were added. An unoccupied 1.5 story Dutch Colonial Revival National Historic Register locktender house is located at the site. In 2004, the Fox River Navigational System Authority (FRNSA) was established by the State of Wisconsin to revive the system.
The lock site is located in a rural area. Parking, a boat launch, and portage locations are available near the lock site. Contact FRNSA, for maps and more information.
National Register of Historic Places:
Part of the Little Kaukauna Lock and Dam Historic District: NR #93001332
In 1856, the Aquila became the first steamer to successfully navigate the Fox and Wisconsin Waterway between the Mississippi River and Green Bay. However, the Aquila’s successful journey was only possible during months of high water levels. A report prepared in 1856 for the Wisconsin State Assembly, noted that difficulties negotiating the rapids at Little Kaukauna consistently plagued navigation between Green Bay and Lake Winnebago on the Lower Fox River. Consequently, in 1846, the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company developed a plan to increase the depth of the waterway and to construct a lock and dam at Little Kaukauna Rapids. The lock and dam was completed between 1857 and 1866. In 1866, Major Charles Sutter reported that the Little Kaukauna lock was in good condition. Sutter also reported that the Little Kaukauna Complex included a 1,166 foot canal that bypassed a 550 foot long, 6 foot high dam. However, by 1869, the Little Kaukauna dam was leaking badly and was partially washed out. Following the 1872 federal purchase of the Fox River Lock and Dam system a new survey was conducted. Results indicated that the Little Kaukauna lock needed new plank lining; however, the partially washed out dam had been rebuilt and strengthened. In 1873 Major Houston of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stressed the importance of the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway system to the development of an inexpensive national transportation system. Consequently, Houston devised a five point plan to improve the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway system. As part of Houston’s plan the pile and timber dam at Little Kaukauna was to be replaced by a 587.7 feet long concrete structure. The new dam was finished in 1927 at a cost of $48,299.83.
The crib timbers above the low water line at the Little Kaukauna lock were replaced and the entire lock chamber was relined with double thickness planks in 1875. In addition to these repairs, the upper gates were replaced and the lower gates were replanked. On November 20, 1886 the lock was again closed to navigation in order to undertake a series of extensive repairs. At this time all the planks, two courses, were removed from the sides and floor; the coping timbers and posts above the lower girts were taken out and replaced by new. The gates and hollow quoins were removed, new hollow quoins were framed and placed, and the gates repaired and rehinged. The miter sills were removed, dressed over, replaced and fastened, 6,092 superficial feet of double planking were spiked down in the floor, and 6,099 superficial feet in the chamber walls.
Additional more minor repairs were conducted on the timber-lined lock in 1908, 1909, 1910, and again in 1917. The Little Kaukauna lock was completely rebuilt in 1939. Little Kaukauna was one of the first three locks to be rebuilt with reinforced concrete. Construction on this lock continued for four years at a total cost of $362,426.81. In 1940, the left wall of the original lock was lowered and three cribs were built above the lock on the right side of the canal. The lock gates were cleaned and painted in 1947. Along with improvements to the Little Kaukauna navigational facilities, a new locktenders’s house similar to the one at Little Chute was constructed in 1911.