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The Portage Canal connects the Fox River with the Wisconsin River at the City of Portage. Named for the historic 1.5 mile “portage” between the two rivers, this piece of land was the only break in the entire Fox-Wisconsin Waterway, which connects the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Constructed between 1849 and 1876, it was the dream of investors that the canal would make the Fox-Wisconsin corridor the greatest water highway through the middle United States.
This divide in land was formed by the outwash of glaciers nearly 11,000 years ago, where the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers curve into opposing horseshoes. The portage is geographically important because it divides the southwest 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.
Used by Indians for thousands of years, the land between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers was known as “wauona,” which means “the place where one takes up his canoe and carries it on his back.”
One of the first mentions of the portage is found in the journals of Jacques Marquette in 1673, on his journey to find the Northwest Passage with Jean Nicolet. From the Fox River, two Miami tribesmen guided the team to the Wisconsin River. He recorded a portage of 2,700 paces, through this marshy divide. 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.
As the region’s population continued to grow throughout the 19th century, the success of modern canal systems in the East prompted investors to begin looking at creating a canal between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. The canal would create a continuous water route, enabling goods to be easily transported through the corridor.
Construction of the canal was slow and marked by difficulty. Planning began in the 1820s, and on March 7, 1837, the Portage Canal Company was formed. However, after months of digging by hand through the muddy terrain a shortage of funds forced the project to close.
In 1838, canal work was handed over to the U.S. Government, and after Wisconsin admitted into the Union in 1848, the state took over the project. In 1849, a new route was chosen for the canal, which is the present one. After misunderstandings between the contractor and the state the project was transferred to the fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company. Work progressed slowly, and the project was finally abandoned.
The Army Corps of Engineers revived construction in 1874, finally declaring the canal complete in 1876. Upon completion, the canal was 75 feet wide, 7 feet deep, 2.5 miles long with a draw of 6 feet.
According to the Fort Winnebago Lock Tenders book, from 1878 – 1908, the canal was used heavily by large boats, some of 300 ton capacity, and pleasure crafts. In 1851, however, declining use forced the closure of the canal. The Fort Winnebago Lock was demolished and the Wisconsin River Locks were welded shut.
In 1981, ownership of the canal was transferred to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Several efforts have been made by the Portage Canal Society and City of Portage to save and revive the canal. The south bank of the canal is now part of the National Ice Age Trail. In 2006, a significant renovation began, which included cleaning up the canal and creating a pedestrian walkway.
Fox River Side: Runs parallel to Agency House Road, begins at the Historic Indian Agency House