The Portage Canal connects the rivers, history and culture of Wisconsin

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PORTAGE – It was a hot, sunny day in early April and one of the first hot spring days when my friend Bob and I went for a run along the Portage Canal, or at least as close as we could get.

Our aim was to get some exercise and soak up a bit of history, explore the area that has attracted visitors for thousands of years, people from Mississippian and Oneota traditions, to Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, to the men who once piloted boats carrying products and goods between the Fox and Mississippi rivers.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Portage Canal – and there are a shocking number of people in Wisconsin who don’t – you should know that the land the canal traversed was once a international crossroads of cultures, world trade and development of Wisconsin and the Midwest.

All of this, for better or worse, is due to a geography quirk: This narrow strip of land is where the Fox River flows closest to the Wisconsin River. And when people used these rivers as highways, this place was a key crossroads for travelers and goods moving through the area.

University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Guillaume Cronon, speaking on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Portage Memories,” summed it up in a way that sparks a wandering imagination.

“One of the things that’s so remarkable about this place,” Cronon said, “is that it’s one of the very few places on the North American continent where you can walk only 2,700 steps, a mile and a quarter on level ground, and in doing so, connect two of the most important watersheds of the eastern part of this continent. “

Now wouldn’t be this be a trip ?!

Bob and I were there for a much more modest trip; we ended up running about 5 miles round trip along the canal. We started at the northeast end of the canal, near the Fox River. Along the way we saw snakes (yes!), Lots of water birds, turtles basking in the sun and some sort of weasel or muskrat (I don’t know, I’m not a zoologist) swimming in the water.

We also saw a dredging barge, a sign that the last page is turning in the Portage Canal book. A new story is being written today as a consortium of government agencies – including the City of Portage, Columbia County, the United States Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation, and the Department American Transportation – are spending or will spend millions of dollars to clean up the raging contamination. the canal, by dredging it to make it deeper and by rehabilitating part of the adjacent lands.

A steamroller tamps the ground along the shore of the Portage Canal on Wednesday, September 22, 2021, in Portage, Wisconsin.  The canal is dredged to remove contaminated sediment that has accumulated over decades from industrial waste.  Tork Mason / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

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Clean up years of contamination

The cleanup that is underway today piqued my interest over a year ago. The DNR sent press releases in 2020 detailing the work, describing a process that is done in segments and takes years. This summer’s dredging was originally scheduled to be done last year, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MNR owns the canal, press releases explain, and is responsible for cleaning up contamination that has built up over the years. In April, crews began dredging near the Canadian Pacific Railway Bridge, raising the water level to allow barges with dredging equipment to settle on the water. Dredging continues today.

This work is a continuation of the clean-up that took place in the summer of 2016 on the western portion of the canal, called Segment 1 by the MRN, which crosses downtown Portage. Work on Segment 1 coincided with the construction of the new Columbia County Administration, Health and Human Services buildings on either side of the canal. The buildings, along with improvements to the canal, which has a paved pedestrian path, give the neighborhood a park-like feel.

The fact that cleaning and renovations take years is very much in keeping with the history of the canal.

Planning for the construction of the canal began in 1834, when a commercial enterprise called the Portage Canal Company was formed, according to the Portage Canal Society website, a group formed in the late 1970s by activists who wanted to see the canal cleaned up and used as a amenity to attract visitors to Portage.

The canal was originally intended to run along what is now Wauona Trail (currently a city street parallel to the eastern half of the canal). Wauona was an ancient Native American route, and when the Wisconsin River was at the high water mark in the spring, the flood waters allowed people to canoe from one river to another.

The company actually started digging in 1838 (slowly, with shovels and wheelbarrows), but quickly gave up the job.

In June 1849, a new route was chosen and the work was resumed and abandoned. The routine was also repeated in 1853. Money problems plagued the development of the canal.

Finally, in 1874, the Army Corps of Engineers took charge of the project and completed the canal in 1876. From 1878 to 1908, the canal was used by ships carrying goods and products between rivers. But the railways became the kings of transport in the early 1900s, and the canal was primarily used for pleasure craft in the first half of the century. The canal and locks were closed permanently in 1951. Ownership of the canal was transferred from the military to the state of Wisconsin in 1961.

The historic home of the Portage Indian Agency features a display of items from the Ho-Chunk Nation, including a canoe of the type that would have been used for thousands of years to ply the Wisconsin and Fox rivers near Portage.

Portage: steeped in history

The closure ushered in the saddest chapter of the canal. Since it was no longer in use, the water in the canal has become stagnant and overgrown with weeds. It dried up into a filthy swamp of a ditch, and businesses along its shore used it to dump their trash there.

“It has always been a devastated part of our community,” said Fred Galley, current president of the Portage Canal Society.

Galley said he was the chairman of the company by attrition because most of the original members are deceased. But they have seen steady – albeit modest – improvements over the years.

This was important, Galley said, when a segment of the Ice Age Trail was developed along the canal in the mid-1980s. The clean-up project will expand the segment further, an improvement that should be implemented. up over the next two years, Galley said.

The goal is to have a walking or paddling route through town that will also provide easy access to downtown shops, restaurants and historic sites scattered around Portage.

One example was developed by Canal Society member Dr. Kathy Taylor, who for years has been a leader in historic preservation in the Portage area. She died in 2007, but not before developing the Sand County Canoe Guide.

It’s an 18-page document that takes paddlers from the Wisconsin Dells to Portage, including through the Portage Canal, while also explaining sites of historical significance and the people who lived in the area. This is an extremely well-researched document that delves into the natural history and geology of the area, tells some of the stories of Native American creation, and shares some of the stories of the influential people who inhabited the area, including Yellow Thunder, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and historian Frederick Jackson Turner.

It makes sense that the past is closely tied to the present and future of Portage, said Steve Sobiek, director of business development and planning at Portage.

“Portage is steeped in this heavy, rich and historical heritage. It’s who we are, we are so proud of it, ”said Sobiek. And, he added, “Portage’s total identity and self-esteem is entirely tied to the Portage channel. It is our most important historical preservation project.

Thousands of years of visitors

It’s like peeling the layers of an onion, diving into cleaning the Portage Canal, and all that entails, all that it represents.

For me, the most intriguing era in the history of the Portage Canal is before Marquette and Joliet crossed the region, and certainly before the expansion of the United States westward pushed the Ho-Chunk people. out of its traditional lands in southern Wisconsin and beyond.

In order to find out more about this, I went to the historic Indian agency house near the northeast end of the trail, a short walk from the Fox River.

The house was built in 1832 as a residence for the Indian Agent of the Ho-Chunk People, who roamed the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers on their seasonal hunting trips.

The Agency House has a small but excellent collection of Indigenous artifacts, including a red pipe stone peace pipe that most likely came from Pipestone, Minnesota. There is a canoe and a bark canoe, tools and jewelry.

Adam Novey, the executive director of the Historic Indian Agency House, explained that it is highly likely that the ancient indigenous peoples of the town of Cahokia, near the Mississippi River in St. Louis, moved up the Mississippi River and then the Wisconsin River, then Fox River. They could have been the predecessors of the Ho-Chunks, who lived on the earth for years and years.

It’s exhilarating to think that the spirit of these elders could be, in a way, a part of this pipe, of this canoe.

Novey nodded when I told him that’s what drew me to the canal, got me to go for a run with my friend Bob. I think somehow it might have connected me to all these people from so long ago.

“If you think about it, we are following in the footsteps of people from thousands of years ago,” Novey said.

Resources for visiting Portage

Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or [email protected] Follow him on @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.


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