I have written before about Appleton's Fox River, and of how much of the city's history corresponds to its river history. The river was both the massive source of power which caused America's early paper industry to locate here, and also a vital transportation link between the Atlantic ocean and the Mississippi river. With the little digging I've done--and admittedly it's not so much--I've been unable to find a good history of the Fox River, or of Appleton with specific reference to the river. But I did learn that as far back as 1857 upwards of 25 large steam ships per week passed through Appleton as part of a bustling trade. Prior to widespread railroads, this is how stuff got into the interior of the country. My imagination runs away with the images of these huge, belching vessels passing through the relative backwater of Wisconsin, pre-statehood. [I have subsequently found a timeline of the locks which shows that the first steam vessles did not use the then-new lock system until 1856, so with statehood coming in 1848, there was no "pre-statehood" steam vessle travel along the length of the Fox River. But OK then, "just post-statehood." It's still fodder for the imagination.]
My house overlooks the river, almost directly across from one of the 18 or so locks which have historically made the river navigable to boat traffic. I've been snooping around now for a couple months looking for information about the history of navigation along the Fox River, and especially this series of locks and dams. Who built them and when? What was along the river before them? Were the previous locks in the same places, or has the course of river navigation altered over the years as locks and dams were relocated? The construction of these, it goes without saying, constituted a gigantic project which must have involved formidable engineering and hundreds of workers and the passage of some years to effect. And naturally, so much else about the city's infrastructure--particularly its roadways and railroads and bridges--was determined by decisions made about river utilization.
These present locks have been out of commission since, I believe, the middle 80s, when the Corps of Engineers abandoned them, and the moving bridges likely a good deal longer; so boat traffic on the river, at least on the Southern end of the river near Lake Winnebago, is confined to whatever can be launched between any two locks. There's a small boat launch near our house, and a mile or two of river is accessible along this stretch by way of it. Further down river, nearer to Green Bay, some locks are still in operation (or perhaps back in operation), but still only a very limited contiguous stretch of river is accessible to anyone by boat. But now, as I may have mentioned, there is a public works project afoot to rehabilitate the locks, with the goal of full navigation along the 30 miles or so between Lake Michigan's Green Bay and Lake Winnebago (what happens beyond that, or what state river navigation is in after Lake Winnebago is unknown to me for the moment).
For those of us living here, especially those of us on the water--and the river is populated along much of its length--this is exciting news. The idea of being able to take a boat from my dock out to the Atlantic Ocean (and beyond!) has an irresistible romantic pull, even if it has little practical utility. I'm told by those old enough to have done it when the locks were last functioning that a day spent working through the locks up or down river is a fantastic way to spend the day. I can believe it! In any case, it brightens everyone's outlook to think of the river as a thriving concern again.
My parents were in town a few weeks back and, my dad being a retired civil engineer (I had to get my interest in this stuff from somewhere), we spent a few hours driving along the river and looking at the state of the locks. Talking briefly to the construction crews working a lock near the house, we learned that four separate locks are slated for restoration this summer, the one in front of my house being the fourth. Work on the three upstream of this is presently underway.
Since I didn't have my camera with me before, today I went and retraced our route of a few weeks ago and hopped some fences to take pictures. I'll get the obligatory apology for my not being a skilled photographer, etc., etc. out of the way now. Here's hoping the subject matter will make up for my lack of skill in portraying it. Many of the locks are difficult to access from land, their facilities off the beaten path and invisible to passing cars--hidden in the midst of the city, in some cases. Others are simply tucked in the woods along the river in stretches relatively uninhabited, or hidden by industry. They follow the course of the river, which wends its way through countryside and community in rude defiance of planning and zoning, answering only to gravity and topography. Virtually all of the locks are gone to seed now, overgrown and dilapidated, huge hulking structures crying out for the rehabilitation that seems finally to be in store for them.
Each lock, or sometimes a combination of two locks if they were close together, had a paid tender, with a house provided in what seems a very WPA detail. Each lock or pair of locks has a corresponding dam, and the dams also needed an operator to raise or lower the various gates depending on water flow to ensure the industrial channels for paper production and electrical power generation were adequately filled, and sometimes the same operator was clearly in charge of a lock and a dam. Other times they seemed separate concerns, separately operated. I took pictures of all of this, and the state of advanced entropy that presently has this all in thrall makes the coming restoration even more exciting. There are a number of pictures of dry river beds approaching these locks. I was told that as the locks deteriorated, it was decided not to send any more water through them than was necessary. So in some pictures a blocking door--like a thick, wooden gate--can be seen stopping the river's flow just prior to the upstream lock gate (this is clearly visible at Lock #5, which is across from my house and looks to be in the best shape of all the locks I looked at). This shuts off water to the entire channel which may involve more than a single lock. In the case of the half lock which leads to the large Combined Lock, the blocking door stops the flow of millions and millions of gallons, drying up a small marshy lake, and this water is diverted over the adjacent dam. Some of this can be seen in the pictures.
Finally, I will note that I do not have a navigational chart of the river, and my numbering of the locks is arbitrary and almost certainly wrong. But for our purposes my numbers will serve to show their order of encounter as you travel downstream. The Fox River is populated along its length with a bunch of different fiefdoms, one of which is named "Combined Locks" in honor of the large double lock of the same name. Prior to stumbling upon this structure buried in the woods a few weeks back, I had no idea there was any such eponymous monstrosity. I was able to get my closest view of this structure, and both its relative size and complexity along with the greater access caused me to give it inordinate attention with the camera. Much of the details of all the other locks can be studied in this one, which is the culmination of an especially long navigation channel with an odd half-lock at its entrance (for what purpose I have not yet deciphered).
(I will also apologize for not figuring out how Flickr works; these should be in numerical order, but their little "organize" tab doesn't seem to work with either browser. Ah, well. Click here to take the photo tour.)
Here is a timeline for the lock system I found in the archives of the local paper (The Appleton Post-Crescent):
Fox River locks timeline
- 1829: Morgan Martin of Green Bay publicly pitches the idea of a locks system. The plan ultimately is to provide locks and a portage to allow boat passage from Green Bay to the Mississippi River, with a crossing from the Fox River to the Wisconsin River at the area now known as Portage.
- 1839: Martin, now territorial delegate for Wisconsin, pitches the idea to U.S. Congress.
- 1840: Construction of the locks on the lower Fox begins.
- 1853: State transfers whole project, including land, to private company, which issues bonds to complete the project.
- 1856: First steam travel from the Mississippi River to Green Bay by way of the Wisconsin River, switching to the Fox at Portage and moving through the Fox’s lock systems above and below Lake Winnebago.
- 1860s: Railroads change area’s dependence on water for transportation. The canal system falls into disuse. Operation is sold to another company, which quickly gets into financial trouble.
- 1870: The United States buys the operation for $145,000 and, two years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes over locks operation. The system continues to serve shipping and traveling needs for the next 100 years and more.
- 1927-1941: Nine of the locks on the Lower Fox are rebuilt.
- 1940s: Sea lampreys decimate Great Lakes trout population.
- 1962: Corps abandons Upper Fox locks (Portage to Lake Winnebago).
- 1982: Corps plans to abandon the lower Fox locks and turn them over to the state. Negotiations begin to transfer ownership. Friends of the Fox forms in response to the corps’ announcement.
- 1983: Tender house in De Pere is closed and the lockmaster is transferred to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
- 1984: Gov. Tony Earl creates Fox River Locks Task Force. State creates Fox River Management Commission to assume responsibility for operation of a limited number of lower Fox locks that had moved into caretaker status. Commission had no authority or funding for maintenance or restoration.
- 1986: Lock system closed, with just three locks remaining in operation — those at De Pere, Lawrence and Menasha.
- 1987: Rapide Croche lock near Wrightstown is sealed to prevent lampreys from getting into Lake Winnebago and other area lakes and streams.
- 1992: Lock system proposed for nomination to National Register of Historic Places.
- 1993: Dorothy Wozniak raises about $1,500 to get artist Randy Smits to paint windows on the tender house in De Pere.
- 2001: Gov. Scott McCallum approves Fox River Navigational System Authority as a replacement for the Fox River Management Commission.
- 2004: On Sept. 16, the federal government turns over lock ownership to the state. Restoration and fund-raising plans are developed, then launched.
- 2005: On May 25, Friends of the Fox River announces first pledge — $250,000 from Neenah’s John Gillen — for naming rights to locks.