THE STORY OF THE FOX-WlSCONSlN RIVERS
JOHN BELL SANBORN, PH. D.
From Proceedings of The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, IS99 1
State Historical Society of Wisconsin
THE STORY OF THE FOX-WISCONSIN RIVERS
JOHN BELL SANBORN, PH. D.
( rroiii I'Kiceediiigs <»f Tho State Historical Society of Wisconsin. iSug 1
Sl-ATK IIlSlOlilCAI. SOCIKTY or WISCONSIN
THE STORY OF THE FOX WISCONSIN RIVERS
T'.Y .TOIIX BELL SANBOKN^ PH. D.
Before an audience in the city of Green Bay it will probably
be considered snperflnons to more than refer to the character-
istics of the water ronte between the Great Lakes and the Mis-
sissippi, formed by the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. To the In-
dian and the explorer, it seemed the one especially marked by
nature for passage from Lake Michigan to the Father of Waters.
The portages around the rapids and across the plain at Fort Win-
nebago were of small moment to the navigators of light canoes,
and the natural state of the rivers sufficed for the needs of early
travel and transportation."
But advancing civilization demanded larger vessels for the
carrying of the heavier freights from the interior of Wisconsin
and the states west of the Mississippi. And the route \vhich at
once suggested itself, Avhen a connection between the Mississippi
and the Lakes was desired, was the Fox-Wisconsin. To make
the route available for this new^ commerce, it was necessary tliat
extensive improvements be carried on, and I wish to give this
morning a brief account of the efforts made by this State and the
United States to render the rivers navigal)le for the 2:)urposes of
^Address delivered before the Wisconsin State Historical Conven-
tion at Green Bay, September 7, 1899.
^Ascending Fox River from Lake Michigan to Lake Winneljago, there
is a rise of about 170 feet; from Lake Winnebago to Portage, a further
rise of about 65 feet, the navigation below Lake Winnebago being in-
terrupted by rapids. After a portage of about a mile, to the Wiscon-
sin River, the descent to the Mississippi is about 200 feet.
FOX- WISCONSIN IMPROVEMENT. 187
modern transportation ; efforts extending" over three-quarters of a
century and crowned with very small success. The story of this
improvement has, I think, an interest both general and special.
General, because it is an important example in American indus-
trial history, showing attempts to carry on an enterprise first by
a state, then by a corporation, and then by the general govern-
ment. Special, because the prosperity of the country adjacent
to the Fox and Wisconsin rivers has been in a large measure af-
fected by this project.
The Wisconsin of territorial days had no capital to invest in
the improvement of its rivers and so looked to Congress for aid
in this enterprise. In 1829 a meeting was held in this city for
the purpose of arousing interest in the matter and a memorial
was sent to Congress asking that a canal be constructed at the
portage between the rivers.^ Congress was very slow to respond
to this request and to requests for the improvement of the whole
length of the Fox-Wisconsin route, but the territory continued
to invoke public aid rather than move in the matter itself. We
do, indeed, catch a glimpse of private enterprise in an act of
1834 by which the territorial council of Michigan incorporated
the Portage Canal Company, with a capital stock of $50,000.
But this company seems to have begun and ended its existence
with this act.
In 1839 the first evidence of national interest in the improve-
ment plan appeared in the form of a survey made under the di-
rection of the war department by Captain Cram.^ This was fol-
lowed by the more substantial aid of la gTant of lands, made in
1846. This grant was for the specific purpose of improving the
rivers and constructing a canal between them, and consisted of
one-half of the land for three miles on each side of the canal,
the Fox River and the lakes through which it passed.^ The
^Wis. Hist. Colls., xi, p. 414.
' I have been unable to find the original report of Captain Cram, and
so have used the abstracts from it in the report of the committee on
internal improvements, Assemb. Journ., Wis., 1848, p. 65-69.
' Statutes at Large, ix, p. 83.
188 WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
grant was made in alternate sections, according to the principle
universally adopted by our government in its grants in aid of
canals and railways, with the price of the land remaining to the
government doubled so that there would be no loss to the treas-
^Vhen the State government was organized a bill was intro-
duced in the legislature accepting the grant. The assembly
committee on Internal Improvements, to which the bill was re-
ferred, made a report which is a curious example of financial
reasoning. They wished to show that the value of the lands was
enough to enable the State to carry out the improvement without
the appropriation of money. They did it in this manner : The
estimate of the cost by Captain Cram was $448,470. This was
too high for the committee's purposes so they reduced it by 30
per cent on account of the more settled condition of the country,,
and because it was well known that it was too high. This made
the estimate $313,920. But Captain Cram had based his esti-
mate on an assumed length of the Fox River of 166 miles. The
committee, however, after reducing his estimate of the cost, in-
creased his estimate of the length of the river to 200 miles, which
would make the grant 384,000 acres, worth $480,000 at the reg-
ular price of $1.25 an acre." From the above convincing reas-
oning they found that the grant was much more than ample for
the proposed work. This optimism concerning the ability of
the State to do this work is the more peculiar when we remember
the recent failures of the other western states to construct in-
ternal improvements, and that the State constitution just adopted
prohibited the incurring of any debt on such behalf.
The State law accepting the grant provided for a board of five
members, elected by the legislature for one year, and called the
Board of Public Works. They were directed to build the canal
^ See Sanborn, "Congressional Grants of Land in Aid of Railways,"
Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin (Economics, Political Science
and History series), ii. No. 3, pp. 348, 349.
^ Assemb. Jotirn., Wis., 1848, pp. 65-69.
FOX- WISCONSIN IMPROVEMENT. ^gQ
first and then to proceed with the improvement of both rivers at
once, except that the work on the rapids below Lake Winnebago
might begin at any time.^
For a couple of years the prospects for the speedy completion
of the contemplated work seemed bright. A steam dredge was
constructed and put to w^ork on the Upper Fox. Contracts were
let for the canal and locks at Portage, and for the improvement
at Rapide Croche. At De Pere it was found that Joshua F. Cox
was so anxious that the work should be done on the east side of
the river that he was willing to undertake it for one dollar ; while
Curtis Reed was to pay five thousand dollars for the privilege
of building the northern channel at Winnebago Rapids. Sales
of land had in 1849 amounted to $59,500 and in 1850 to
But the next year told a different story. The land sales
seemed to have reached their limit and as this was the only source
of revenue from which the board could meet its expenses the
work at Grand Chute and Cedar Rapids had to stop for lack of
funds. With liabilities of $75,000 and only $8,000 in the
treasury affairs may well be termed in bad shape. This much
we learn from the report of the Board.'^
Rumors of mismanagement of the trust reposed in the Board
of Public Works were probably rife throughout the State, and
the legislature requested a statement from Caleb Croswell, a
member of the Board, of his reasons for withholding his signature
from the report. His reply showed that he had not agreed with
the way affairs had been conducted, and, finding himself out-
voted, had not wished to approve the acts of the majority.'* The
legislature agreed with Croswell's view of the case and elected
a new^ board in which he seems to have had practical control.
The next year an investigating committee found that the affairs
^Laws of Wis., 1848, pp. 58-68.
^Assemb. Journ., Wis., 1850, pp. 551, 559.
Ud., 1851, pp. 1005-1015.
*Ibid., pp. 1035-1046.
190 WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
of the Board had been poorly managed but attributed this to the
lack of experience of its members and political pressure brought
on them to have work done in certain districts.-^
But the problem which presented itself was not how the work
had been done in the past but how should it be done in the fu-
ture. There was land in large quantities but no money could
be obtained from it. At this juncture Morgan L. Martin came
forward with a proposition by which the improvement could
soon be finished. His offer was as follows : He would do the
remainder of the work at the same rate as the contract price for
that at Cedar Rapids, to be paid for out of the sales of the lands^
or if these proved insufficient, the deficit was to remain as a
debt against the improvement, bearing interest at twelve per
cent, to be paid whenever the State wished." This plan was ap-
proved by the legislature and a contract entered into with Mar-
When Governor Farwell came into office the next year he
stopped the issue of scrip to Martin, some $26,000 of which had
been paid, giving as his opinion that the contract was both con-
trary to the granting act, because it anticipated the sales of the
lands, and contrary to the State constitution, because it created a
debt for an internal improvement.'* As he refused to issue
further scrip to Martin the legislature passed an act directing
the secretary of state to do so.° This Governor F-arwell refused
to sign^ but the legislature, with the support of a favorable opin-
ion from the attorney general. Experience Estabrook,^ passed
the act over the veto.
Governor Farwell was not over-fond of the whole improve-
ment scheme, and in a special message to the legislature in 1853
'^Report of Joint Select Committee (Madison, 1852), pp. 4-6.
' Senate Journ., Wis., 1851, pp. 77-83.
^ Laics of Wis., 1851, p. 191.
* Senate Journ., Wis., 1852, pp. 15-16.
° Gen. Laws of Wis., 1852, ch. 340.
* Senate Journ., Wis., 1852, pp. 591-99.
'' Assemb. Journ, Wis., 1852, App. pp. 47-50.
FOX-WISCONSIN IMPKOVEMENT. iQl
he advised that it be turned over to private parties.^ The show-
ing of the results up to that time was certainly such as to call for
some action, with the estimated cost of the completion of the im-
provement $500,000 and the estimated value of the unsold
lands only $230,000.^ In accordance with the Governor's ad-
vice the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company was incor-
porated and all of the rights of the State in the improvement
and all unsold lands were conferred on it. The State, however,
retained the right to purchase the improvement at any time after
twenty years at its actual cost over the value of the lands.^
The State had not received the entire amount of land contem-
plated in the original act as many of the alternate sections cov-
ered by the grant had been previously disposed of by the gov-
ernment. So in 1854 the passage of an act was secured au-
thorizing the selection from any public lands in the State then
subject to entry at $1.25 an acre, of enough to make good this
deficiency. The selection was to be made on the same principle
as under the grant to Indiana for the Wabash and Erie canal.*
Xow the grant for this canal had been for five miles on each
side and the claim was at once set up that the intention of Con-
gress had been to increase the Fox-Wisconsin grant to an equal
amount. It is difficult to see such an intention in the act but
the next year CongTess declared by a resolution that the act of
1854 had given Wisconsin land "equal mile for mile of its im-
provement" to that granted Indiana.^
To whom did this increase in the gTant belong? It was, of
course, claimed by the Fox and Wisconsin company under the
act of incorj)oration. But the State also set up a claim to it
on the ground that only the lands then granted to the State had
^ Assemb. Joitrn., Wis., 1853, pp. 188-201.
= Gen. Laws of Wis , 1853, pp. 92-98.
* Statutes at Large, x, p. 345.
'IMd., p. 724.
WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
been conferred on tlie company.^ In a controversy of this sort
the State had the upper hand and in 1856 the company was re-
quired to reconstruct a portion of the improvement, and the im-
provement itself, as well as the lands then unsold, was placed
in the hands of trustees who were to pay the indebtedness which
the^tate had already incurred, and after that the bonds of the
Under these conditions, and with its capital stock increased to
$250,000, the company went on with the work. But the avail-
able capital in the young State was insufficient to carry on the
enterprise. xlssistance from Xew York was requested, and
prominent capitalists, including Horatio Seymour, Erastus
Corning, and Hiram Barney, gave their support to the work.
This aid, however, proved too much for our native financiers.
The affairs of the company were soon in such a condition that
the trustees were forced to sell the improvement and the remain-
ing lands, which passed into the hands of the iSTew York capital-
ists.^ The sum received from the sale was sufficient to pay the
expense which had been incurred in the execution of the trust,
the indebtedness which was then outstanding against the State,
and to leave an amount equal to the estimated cost of the re-
mainder of the improvement."' The State thus retired from the
field without financial loss, even if it had but little to show for
twenty years of effort.
Those who had purchased at the sale organized as the Green
Bay and Mississippi Canal Company. The sincerity of their in-
tentions to carry on the improvement may well be doubted. At
any rate the work did not long remain in the hands of the com-
pany. The interposition of Congress was secured and an ap-
praisal ordered of the improvement, water power and lands of
^Report of Select Committee (Madison, 1856), pp. 37-44. See also
communication of Theodore Conkey, Assemb , Journ., Wis., 1856, pp. 179-
- Gen. Laws of Wis.. 1856, pp. 123-31.
' See statement of Mr. Martin, Wis. Hist. Colls., xi, p. 413.
* Blue Book, Wis., 1870, p. 385.
FOX- WISCONSIN IMPEOVEMENT. ^93
the company. The board appointed for this purpose found that
there had been expended on the work in the twenty-five years
since the land grant had been made, over two million dollars.
The value of the property of the company was fixed at
$1,048,070, and the law directed that there be deducted from
that the amount raised from the sale, of lands, or $723,000, leav-
ing $325,000 to be paid the company. But it was further pro-
vided that the secretary of war might elect to purchase the whole
property, or either the water power, the improvement or the per-
sonal property. The secretary decided that only the improve-
ment should be bought and for this $145,000, the sum fixed by
the appraisers, was appropriated by Congress.^
The Fox-Wisconsin improvement thus passed into the hands
of the federal government, and since that time has been treated
as any other piece of river improvement. Very considerable
sums have been appropriated for the work, the greater part of
which seems to have gone for damages to the property holders
along the river. Work on the Fox River, particularly the part
below Lake Winnebago, still continues, and additional appropri-
ations have recently been made by Congress. But the particular
interest in the story of the improvement has ceased.
Six hundred and eighty thousand acres of land, nearly two
million dollars of private capital and as much more in public
money expended on the two rivers, and with what result ? Much
has indeed been accomplished, particularly on the Lower Fox,
where great water powers have been developed. But the result
is hardly commensurate with the expenditure. That three sep-
arate agencies have tried their hand at the work, suggests that
perhaps the forces of nature are here much more powerful than
the originators of the scheme ever dreamed, and that we should
be slow in blaming those who have had the work in charge.
Such is the story of the Fox-Wisconsin improvement. The
route of the fur-trader was also to be that of modern commerce ;
^House Exec. Docs., 2nd sess., 42nd cong., No. 185.
;1^94: WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
the waters which had carried the canoe were to bear the steam-
boat. But the task of effecting this change proved far greater
than the early settlers had anticipated ; and before further re-
sources could be summoned to the work, the conditions had
changed. The railroad superseded the canal, and transportation
by water fell into abeyance. ISTow the conditions seem to be
again changing, and perhaps the future may see the revival and
continuance of the old Fox and Wisconsin improvement.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
016 091 080 P