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Odd Wisconsin Archive

If Nautical Nonsense Be Something You Wish...*

...then consider the first attempt to run a steamboat up the Fox River. This occured in the summer of 1843, when Capt. Peter Hotaling piloted the stern-wheeler Black Hawk across the Great Lakes from Buffalo in the hope of starting commercial service from Green Bay to Lake Winnebago.

The Fox River falls about 160 feet as it rushes down from Lake Winnebago to spill into Green Bay. Its major rapids were at Appleton, where it fell 30 feet in a mile and a half, at Little Chute, where it dropped a little further over roughly the same distance, and especially at Kaukauna, where it plummeted 44 feet over a mile and a half. Here's a map (the green arrow is at Little Chute).

Capt. Hotaling arrived in the summer of 1843 and assembled a small crew of Indian pilots and French-speaking sailors. They ascended past a crowd of supporters at Wrightstown, put in for the night at DePere, and on the second day resumed their voyage. The Indians and voyageurs spent much of that second day leaping into the rapids to dislodge the bow when it snagged and plunging into the forest on shore to cut poles with which to leverage it over rocks. By the time the Black Hawk reached Kaukauna at the end of the second day, Capt. Hotaling was probably reconsidering his plans.

He nevertheless made several runs between Kaukauna and Green Bay that summer and fall and remained determined to somehow get his craft into Lake Winnebago. He thought he could make a profit carrying goods among the new towns of Neenah, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, and Stockbridge, as well as to the villages on Lakes Butte des Morts, Winneconne, and Poygan. So as winter set in, he took out all the steamer's engines and other machinery, hauled them by Durham boat up the rapids, loaded them on sleds, and dragged them overland to Stockbridge on the east shore of Lake Winnebago, where Daniel Whitney had constructed a sawmill. That winter he built a larger hull to house the machinery, and in the spring he launched a new craft, the Manchester.

Hotaling's Manchester was the first steamboat on Lake Winnebago. She was a 75-foot long side-wheeler, and the Black Hawk's single boiler and engine enabled her to creep along at a snail's pace. The locals joked that if a passenger fell overboard, he'd have to swim two miles to catch up with her. It took an entire week to circumnavigate the lake.

This didn't discourage Capt. Hotaling, who supplied all the shipping above Neenah for the next decade. In 1850 the Manchester was made over and re-christened the Badger State, and under this name she sunk in 1853 on the upper Wolf River. Once again her innards were salvaged, however, to be used in a steamboat on the Mississippi until the Civil War.

Throughout those years Wisconsin politicans succeeded in channeling vast sums of federal money to build locks and dams that would improve navigation on the Fox. They even proposed a canal at one point, to bypass the rapids altogether. In the end, railroads proved to be a cheaper and easier way to transport goods through eastern Wisconsin.

* For readers who don't have young children in the house, this is a memorable line from the theme song to the immensely popular SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon show.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on December 11, 2006

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