Portage Canal - Wisconsin

While living in Wausau, traveling south on I-39 and then on I-90, I passed signs for Portage many times. Honestly, I never thought much about it. Then one day, I decided to stop and see the town. I then learned the city is named Portage for a reason: a canal connects the Wisconsin River to the Fox River. You might ask, “So what?”

Get out your atlas. The net effect is one could travel by water from the North Atlantic Ocean, through the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes to Lake Michigan, then up the Fox River to the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico! That is huge!

The Portage Canal website provides some excellent background,

“The ‘portage’ between the Wisconsin and the Fox Rivers was used by Indians, early and unknown French explorers and fur trappers … The land lying between the Fox River and the Wisconsin River was known as in the early days as a ‘portage.’ A portage is the act of transporting boats and supplies from one waterway to another. It is unique as it is part of a natural water-shed or is called a ‘continental divide.’

“The Indians called the ‘portage’ Wau-wau-o-nah, now more commonly known as ‘Wauona’ which means ‘the place where one takes up his canoe and carries it on his back.’ The one and four-tenths mile trail through this marshy area was very difficult. Sometimes during high water boats could paddle from one river to the other.”

Multiple efforts were made to construct a canal joining the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. The first three failed. The final one, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, succeeded in 1876. The Portage Canal website says,

“In 1874, the Corps of Engineers, Department of Army started at the Fox River end and completed the canal in 1876, which was 75ft. wide, 7 ft. deep, 2 1/2 miles long with a draw of 6 ft., a right of way on the Northside of 45 ft. and 75 ft. on the Southside. The first boat through the completed canal was the Boscobel, on June 30, 1876. According to the Fort Winnebago Lock Tenders book dated 1878-1908, there were many big boats through the canal, some of 300 ton capacity, as well as pleasure craft. The canal was used until 1951 when the Fort Winnebago Lock was bulldozed in and the Wisconsin River Locks welded shut. In 1961, the ownership of the canal was transferred from the Department of Army to the State Of Wisconsin.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural resources is the governing authority but has done little to maintain it, though it has worked to decontaminate it.

I said at the outset I visited the city of Portage. I explored the canal.

Columbia County published a “Portage Canal Background and Project Summary” in June 2013. This summary tells us,

“In 2001 the City of Portage received federal Transportation & Community & Systems Preservation program funding to rehabilitate the historic Portage Canal and to establish an adjacent pedestrian/bicycle trail.”

A design project began in 2002. It identified four segments to the 2.5 miles of the canal, shown by different colors on the above map. I present this map to show the geography of the canal. I will walk you through what I saw and photographed on my visit, starting with the Wisconsin River segment.

Out yonder is the Wisconsin River. Toward the bottom of the photo, you can see a stream of water from the Wisconsin River. I do not believe that is part of the canal. I’ll show you why.

In 1951 the canal was bulldozed shut on the Wisconsin River end of the canal. Note the two gates near where the canal was bulldozed.

This photo shows those two gates. In the foreground, you see the water at the bulldozed Wisconsin River end ion the canal. You can also see the canal beyond the two gates.

I believe this old stone building was part of the lock at the Wisconsin end of the canal.

The canal travels through the city of Portage toward the Fox River. I’ll show you photos I took as I tried to stay close to the canal by car.

I drove along the Agency House Road, which goes alongside the canal. Note the Harold LeJeune Snowmobile Park, lower left. It’s a pretty little park. I’ll show it in a moment. The arrow at the top points to where the road ends, and the canal meets up with the Fox River.

You can see the canal has widened a bit. The walking bridge you see crossing the canal meets the Harold LeJeune Snowmobile park on the other side.

There’s the park. It’s dedicated to the Snowmobile Volunteers of Columbia County. It is an association established in 1972 to develop and maintain a system of public snowmobile trails.

Next, I drove to the end of Agency House Road. I found there was a lot to do and see here.

I often embarrass myself by being too busy to note everything I should mention. My mind was focused entirely on seeing where the canal met the Fox River and getting a good photo of that.

The next result of my haste was I missed the Historic Indian Agency House at Fort Winnebago. This is a photo of it taken by William J. Roman in 2011. Please note the white building to its rear. I’ll come back to it in a moment.

The Historic Indian Agency House at Fort Winnebago website tells us,

“ In 1832, a house was constructed at a dynamic crossroads of geography, culture, and history. It was a time of pivotal change, uncertainty, and critical decisions as decades of accumulating tensions came to a head — the consequences of which have reverberated through nearly two centuries. The house erected at the ancient travel corridor of the Fox-Wisconsin portage was the Fort Winnebago Indian Agency built for John H. Kinzie, Indian sub-agent to the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Nation. It exists today as one of the few surviving reminders of that weighty period of the past. The powerful stories embodied by this historic site are ones we cannot afford to forget. The house was opened as a nonprofit museum in 1932 by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Wisconsin. “

You can tour the house and expose yourself to some of the “surviving reminders of that weighty period of the past.”

The white structure I mentioned previously is the Indian Agency House museum.

I noted the Portage Canal Segment and the Marquette Trail Segment intersect here. The Portage Canal Segment originates in downtown Portage and runs up to this location, after which it takes over, following the Fox River.

This photo is interesting. I need to examine this spot more closely next visit. In retrospect, I should have crossed the bridge. You’ll note there seems to be a rock jam here. It turns out there is a gate under the bridge.

Here is a closer look. You can see the top of the gates, which are partially open. I do not understand why there is a buildup of rock-cement blocks there. I need a closer look. It looks like the canal to the right is at a lower elevation than the canal to the left.

Believe it or not, that’s the Fox River in the distance, center photo, perpendicular to the canal in the foreground. It was not apparent to me how to get over there. I might have been too tied to using my car. A more aggressive person would have figured it out. Let me blow this photo up to show the Fox River more clearly.

Here’s the Fox River. And that’s the name of that tune, the portage Canal, start to finish!