Wisconsin rivers from the road and sometimes kayak

Portage Canal

An attempt to join the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico

May 16, 2016

It is a treat to see the Portage Canal in the City of Portage, and also a treat to learn about its history. This canal once connected the Fox River with the Wisconsin River offering river transport all the way from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The idea was to enter the Fox River at Green Bay from Lake Michigan, connect to the Wisconsin River through the Portage Canal, and get onto the Mississippi River by taking the Wisconsin River.


The canal is tough to see on this Google Earth satellite view, but if you look carefully, can see the dark line. At present, it no longer connects the two rivers, though you can enter from the Fox River. The Wisconsin River end has been closed with a levee.


The Wisconsin River end of the canal terminates in downtown Portage, blocked from the Wisconsin over by a man-made levee.


The Fox River end terminates northeast of the city. I thought it terminated just short of the Fox River, but if you look at Google Earth, it appears the canal actually intersects the Fox River. I have read a kayak report that said you could enter the canal from the Fox River, so it must be open. Regrettably I did not take the path that far. A close look at my photography later will show you where I think it connects.

So here is an interesting subject. The Wisconsin River had been flowing from north to south, but makes a twist at Portage and eventually flows westward toward the Mississippi. However, the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers are separated by only about 1.5 miles. There is a dive in the land here formed by glaciers 11,000 years ago causing the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers to curve into opposing horseshoes, one going one direction, the other going a completely different direction. The Fox flows north to Green Bay.

Much of the area between the two rivers is wetlands, the area of the town itself is low, and the Wisconsin River floods easily into the wetland area upstream and downstream the town.

A flood control study done in the early 1990s says this about the area:

"The city of Portage is located in the floodplain of the Wisconsin River in central Wisconsin … Topographic conditions at Portage are complicated. High ground is located in the northwest corner of town, and approximately 3,400 feet to the southeast of the town, with a large part of the town located in a low area between the high areas."

It reported that the area of the canal is low and requires must be protected from the Wisconsin River when it rises. It is interesting to note there is a six foot head difference between the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers in the area, so the canal flows from the Wisconsin end to the Fox River. The canal provides drainage from the Wisconsin River to the Fox River.

When explored back in the 17th century, the area between the two rivers was marshy. Explorers had to portage their boats by land from one to the other. By the 19th century, there was interest in connecting the two rivers by a canal. The idea was to move agricultural products and retail merchandise between regions within Wisconsin.


Portage Cana diggers, presented by Shorpy.

There were a couple attempts to get a canal dug, but they failed for one reason or another. An economic depression in the 1830s hurt. The Army Corps of Engineers took the project and began construction in 1874, finishing in 1876. The canal was 75 feet wide, seven feet deep, 2.5 miles long with a draw of six feet. It was built with a lock at each end.


Steamboat passing through the canal beside the feed mill, , presented by Museum at the Portage

The canal was used quite bit by large boats, some of 300 tons capacity, and pleasure boats. The Museum of Portage has said:

"Eventually the canal was reliably navigable and during its heyday, boats and barges on the canal carried logs, boards, sandstone, lime, lead ore, gravel, coal, bricks, butter, wool, wheat, household furnishings, and passengers."


Coast Train & Depot, Portage, presented by Museum at the Portage

The railroad came through in 1857 and that began a long and slow decline in use of the canal. By 1951 it was closed. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took ownership of the canal in 1981 and there is has been an effort underway to revive it. Some renovations have begun.

The restoration of the canal included increasing water flow, dredging, constructing revetment walls, and reconditioning the Wisconsin River Lock. The bicycle trail involved building a 10-foot-wide path along the length of the canal and providing crossings to link the trail with the commercial and residential areas of the city.

So let's take a look at what I saw the day I visited. You are going to quickly learn from my mistakes. There are several things I should have understood a lot better by getting closer for a personal view. I didn't do that and it was not until I came home and started researching all this that I started kicking myself in the butt. Slow down next time and look more closely at what you are seeing and the the near environs. I probably could have done some research before visiting as well, but I'm too lazy!


This is the Portage Canal at its Wisconsin River terminus. It ends at a culvert through the man-made levee between the Wisconsin River and the canal. The Wisconsin River is just a short distance away. You can sort of turn around and walk away from this and get to it.


The Wisconsin River Lock, welded in this position to stay. This allows kayaks and canoes to come and go. The Wisconsin River terminus is just out of the picture off to the left.

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This is an old watchtower that has ben rejuvenated. On the other side is the Wisconsin River.


And there is the Mighty Wisconsin River itself, about 90 yards south of the canal's Wisconsin River terminus.


I got a kick out of this view as we are now moving downstream toward the Fox River, but still in downtown Portage.


I found this old time photo that I think is not quite the same location, but you get the idea. The photo is part of an album presented by the Museum at the Portage.


So here we go, downstream the canal through downtown Portage.


We are still in the downtown area heading downstream but you can see a lot of wetland growth has filled in part of the canal here. The kayak report I saw said you can make your way through that growth when the canal is high. Another kayaker reported that he stopped here, having come upstream from the Fox River. He said, "And here's where I abandoned the trip - too weedy, too shallow."


I believe I took this shot looking upstream and you can see that narrow exit way through the wetland growth shown in the slide before this one, if you can make it through.


We're back to heading downstream. This foot walkway across the canal leads to the Harold LeJeune Snowmobile Park. A marvelous location.


This is the Harold LeJeune Snowmobile Park. There are more than 500 miles of public snowmobile trails in Columbia County. Millions of dollars come to the state through snowmobiling. The Winnebago Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club bought this park in 2003. It is co-hosted by the Columbia County Association of Snowmobile Clubs, which has ten clubs as members. The park was the idea of Harold LeJeune. Each of the clubs maintains its own trails and then connected them to each other.


I took this photo looking downstream from the walkway to the snowmobile park. Beautiful scenery.

There is another bridge about midway the length of the canal known as the Ice Age Trail Bridge. It directs you to the Portage Canal Trail Segment in one direction and the Marquette Trail Segment in the other. I missed that on my tour because I guess I got excited and moved along too quickly.


We are very close to where the canal flows into the Fox River. As you can see, it's a portage area if a kayaker wants to press on. If you look at a zoom of the photo, it looks like the blockage is a lock gate left slightly open with a lot of cement or rock blocks lying there. A kayaker said in his report, "(This is the) confluence of the Fox River and Portage canal looking up at the remnants of a lock. I have seen others say that is the Fox River to the left of the lock gate. Well, as I will mention in a few moments with another photo, I think this lock is just short of the Fox River, just as the Wisconsin River lock was just short of that river at the other end.


Here I zoomed in. I am angry at myself for not hiking down the small incline to get a closer first hand look. Here you can see the metal tops of the lock. The lock appears sealed open in the middle, and you can see water below to the left flowing down. The lock appears broken down off to the right and again you can see water flowing through there almost like a falls just below it slightly to the left, almost center photo. If you look carefully at the lower right quadrant of the photo you will see a concrete structure in place. I am not sure why all those large chunks of concrete-rock are there. The same appears on the other side. My guess is this was demolished some how and left to sit like this.


Now here is where I was thrown for a loop. Standing on the bridge shown in the previous photo, it looked to me like the far end was the terminus that had been filled in and shut off. But as I mentioned earlier, Google Maps shows the canal actually meets the Fox River, I have read reports that say you can kayak into the canal from the Fox, and I now see I did not take the walkway to what would probably have been the meeting place. However, in looking at a kayaker's photo of where the canal actually meets the Fox, I believe that meeting is straight ahead and what you are looking at way down there is the Fox running perpendicular to the canal. I zoomed in for the next shot and will show you what I mean. It's a pretty photo, so I'll show you once without arrows, once with arrows.




And there is the Fox River, about a half mile south of where the canal meets the river. This photo was taken from the bridge crossing the river on Hwy 33.