The Fox and Wisconsin Rivers had been used to travel between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for hundreds of years. Native Americans, French fur traders and the other early settlers used the rivers as a highway. The Fox empties into the Great Lakes at Green Bay and the Wisconsin meets the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien. The two rivers do not meet, however, with their closest point being a mile and a half piece of land at Portage, Wisconsin.
The waterways were not suited to large shipping due to the obstruction at the portage and the rapids in the lower Fox River between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay. The river drops 170 feet between these points.
In 1829, Morgan L. Martin of Green Bay, a New Yorker lured west by his cousin James Doty proposed the construction of a canal at Portage. His Portage Canal Company did little more than dig a small ditch between the two rivers. The project picked up steam in 1846 when Martin, then the delegate to Congress from the Wisconsin Territory, lobbied that body for financial support for the canal.
The Congressional authorization allocated the proceeds of the sale of certain lands in Wisconsin to the project. Upon achieving statehood in 1848, Wisconsin accepted the terms of the appropriation and the state Board of Public Works took it over.
The canal at Portage was completed in 1851 but commercial traffic was still impeded by shoaling on the Wisconsin, shallow depths in the upper Fox and the rapids of the lower Fox. The increasing expense and slack land sales led the state to privatize the project. In 1853, the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company was chartered by the state which assumed the rights and obligations associated with the project.
In 1854 Congress made an additional land grant to assist in financing the project. Money continued to be a problem and work on the improvements was slow. In 1856, enough work had been completed to allow the steamer Aquila to complete the all-water journey from the Mississippi to Green Bay. Despite this success, the development of railroads and the American Civil War combined to make the Fox and Wisconsin project unprofitable.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 1866 and its assets were bought by the eastern investors of the company in the form of the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company. By 1872, this company sold the lock system to the Federal Government and the Army Corps of Engineers became responsible for navigation on the rivers. The Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company kept the dams in an effort to make money from hydroelectric power.
The Corps of Engineers only maintained the lock systems on the Fox River below Lake Winnebago in aid of commerce along the river from Menasha north to Green Bay. In the 1980s, commercial shipping south of Green Bay had ceased and the Corps of Engineers recommended the lock system be dismantled. Local and state officials were able to secure a transfer of the system to the State of Wisconsin which was completed in 2004. Most of the lock system remains in operation for recreational boating.