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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Port of Madison?

Before Wisconsin was a state, some leading citizens of the hamlet called Milwaukee suggested a canal be dug between Lake Michigan and the Lead Region. The canal's proposed route would have passed roughly through Menomonee Falls, Pewaukee, Delafield, and Fort Atkinson, where it would have joined the Rock River. Lead from Mineral Point, New Diggings, Platteville, and other southwest Wisconsin towns would have floated down the Galena or Fever River and up the Rock, and then through the canal and the lakes of Waukesha County to Milwaukee. By damming the Yahara at the outlet of Lake Kegonsa near Stoughton, boats could also come up through the Four Lakes region to Madison, which was chosen to be the capital of Wisconsin in 1836.

Or so thought developer Byron Kilbourn and his chief of staff, Increase Lapham. They and their supporters petitioned the U.S. Congress for financial backing to get the project underway, and when that approach failed they turned to the fledgling territorial legislature. With typical thoroughness and accuracy, Lapham documented the effort of the development company in his Documentary History of the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal... issued in 1840.

Financial and technical difficulties delayed the project long enough for a new technology, the railroad, to make the canal unnecessary, and the project quietly slipped into oblivion. Its story is told in this 1919 article by Madison historian David Atwood.

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.

:: Posted in Madison on April 2, 2006

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