Historic Portage Canal & Waterway

Historic Portage Canal and Waterway

The historic canal in Portage, Wisconsin, just 15 minutes east of Baraboo, is worth a visit for anyone interested in the early history of Wisconsin. The city of Portage is on the site where Native Americans, early explorers and fur trappers would carry their canoes between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. In 1673, the French explorers Marquette and Joliet followed the Fox river to Portage, then made the crossing to the Wisconsin river and continued on to the Mississippi.

By the early 1800s, emotions were running high due to various conflicts with the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) throughout the upper Mississippi River region. Locally in addition to disputes over land, settlers complained that the “Indians” were charging tolls which they didn’t want to pay. In 1828 the US Government sent solders to the area to build a fort to protect white settlers in the area.

It was not long before settlers wanted a better way to cross the marshy’ quarter-mile portage and a decision was made to build the canal between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. Digging began in 1838, but due to a variety of problems along the way, the canal was not completed until 1874. (Interestingly the city of Portage passed an ordinance in 1854 forbidding nude bathing in the canal!)

The portage canal saw a variety of commercial and pleasure boat traffic over the years until it was finally closed in 1951, and the locks were welded shut.

Historic restorations of small sections of the canal began in the mid-1980s. Today visitors can walk, or ride bikes along the city section where the locks have been partially restored.  Hikers can also explore a second section of the canal while hiking along the canal section of the Ice Age Heritage Trail just north-east of the city. (The historic Indian Agency house is also at this location.)  Portage also holds an annual festival each year in June centered around the historic canal called, “Canal Days”.   Scroll down for map and photo gallery.

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