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Great Lakes Steamships and Canals

In 1834, the federal government opened land offices in Mineral Point and Green Bay, greatly speeding up the settlement of Wisconsin. Steamboats on the Mississippi River connected Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, while immigrants and goods from the East came into the territory on Great Lakes steamships. Bordering these two great waterways, Wisconsin residents faced the problem of how to connect the two transportation systems. With the economic success of the Erie Canal, opened in 1825, the answer for many in Wisconsin seemed to be canals.

The increase in the number of settlements only added to the existing demands for internal transportation improvements. Behind each plan for a canal or a harbor lay a town and its promoters. Shipping agricultural products from lake ports and receiving goods in return offered big financial rewards to Wisconsin's settlers, businessmen, and promoters. Towns on the lakeshore received many of the new immigrants, but unimproved harbors often caused boats to bypass Wisconsin towns and continue on to Chicago instead. The citizens of Racine, Milwaukee, Kenosha, and other towns lobbied Congress for money to build better harbors, but their requests usually went unanswered.

Transporting produce and other products, especially lead, to ports was a primary concern for Wisconsin settlers. Products reached eastern markets by way of the Mississippi, a long and costly route that was often troubled by periods of low water. Increasing the volume of goods shipped east would increase the income of investors. Reducing the time and cost of transport would benefit Wisconsin producers.

Lacking both a railroad and the means to build one, a group from Green Bay proposed the construction of a portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers as an avenue of transport. Overcoming the serious obstacles presented by a portage and the rapids of the Fox River was estimated in a federal survey of 1839 to cost upwards of a half-million dollars. While Congress eventually granted land along the river to be sold by the Fox River Improvement Company to raise money for the canal, the work progressed slowly, and in the end, the route proved too long and winding to be of much use.

In Milwaukee, Byron Kilbourne promoted the construction of a canal to the Rock River to provide a continuous water route from the lead region to Milwaukee's harbor in 1838. The canal did not get farther than some docks on the Milwaukee River, though, and the legislature withdrew all support from the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal Company in 1841. Competition and financial constraints severely limited the capabilities of many harbor improvement and canal construction projects, though steamships on the Mississippi River and Great Lakes continued to play an important role in bringing both settlers and goods to Wisconsin.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 2 and 3 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Nesbit, Robert C. Wisconsin: A History. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973); Wisconsin's Martime Trails (online at http://www.maritimetrails.org/index.cfm); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A woman's memoir of the founding of Sheboygan  A woman's memoir of the founding of Sheboygan
Link to article: Recollections of Old Superior  Recollections of Old Superior
Link to article: The Fate of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers Improvement Company  The Fate of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers Improvement Company
Link to book: The first steamboat trip on the Upper Mississippi, in 1823.  The first steamboat trip on the Upper Mississippi, in 1823.
Link to book: Milwaukee developers try to dig a water route to the Lead Region in the 1830s.  Milwaukee developers try to dig a water route to the Lead Region in the 1830s.
Link to book: Steamboating days, 1854-1863, are recalled by a Wisconsin pilot.  Steamboating days, 1854-1863, are recalled by a Wisconsin pilot.
Link to book: A Boston feminist visits the village of Milwaukee in 1843.  A Boston feminist visits the village of Milwaukee in 1843.
Link to book: A Mississippi Riverboat pilot looks back on his career, 1845-1883  A Mississippi Riverboat pilot looks back on his career, 1845-1883
Link to book: Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948  Descriptions of Wisconsin disasters and catastrophes, 1848-1948
Link to book: Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown  Folklore and folktales collected by Charles E. Brown
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868  Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868
Link to images: Pictures of steamboats on Wisconsin waters, 1832-1931  Pictures of steamboats on Wisconsin waters, 1832-1931
Link to images: An Austrian painter depicts Wisconsin in the 1850s  An Austrian painter depicts Wisconsin in the 1850s
Link to images: An 1832 drawing of a Great Lakes steamboat  An 1832 drawing of a Great Lakes steamboat
Link to manuscript: A government official compares rail and steamboat routes to Wisconsin, 1853.  A government official compares rail and steamboat routes to Wisconsin, 1853.
Link to manuscript: An Austrian painter describes sketches made while traveling Wisconsin, 1856-1860  An Austrian painter describes sketches made while traveling Wisconsin, 1856-1860
Link to manuscript: Papers of a Manitowoc shipbuilder, 1857-1912  Papers of a Manitowoc shipbuilder, 1857-1912
Link to map: Developers try to cut a canal around the worst rapids in the Fox River.  Developers try to cut a canal around the worst rapids in the Fox River.
Link to map: The route of the proposed Milwaukee and Rock River Canal, 1838.  The route of the proposed Milwaukee and Rock River Canal, 1838.
Link to places: The wreck of the Schooner "Lucerne"  The wreck of the Schooner "Lucerne"

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: The Wisconsin Legislature seeks federal support for canals, 1867  The Wisconsin Legislature seeks federal support for canals, 1867
Link to article: An examination of the narratives of four immigrant women  An examination of the narratives of four immigrant women
Link to book: An artist and writer travels Wisconsin's rivers and lakes in 1846  An artist and writer travels Wisconsin's rivers and lakes in 1846
Link to book: An 1874 guide to travel on the Great Lakes and Rivers of America  An 1874 guide to travel on the Great Lakes and Rivers of America
Link to book: An 1858 topographical survey of the northern Great Lakes  An 1858 topographical survey of the northern Great Lakes
Link to book: Travel Guide to Lake Superior in 1872  Travel Guide to Lake Superior in 1872
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: An 1870 proposal to build a canal at Sturgeon Bay  An 1870 proposal to build a canal at Sturgeon Bay
Link to book: An 1858 description of Wisconsin's natural and commercial resources  An 1858 description of Wisconsin's natural and commercial resources
Link to book: Complete text of Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843  Complete text of Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843
Link to book: An 1872 report on a new bridge across the Mississippi  An 1872 report on a new bridge across the Mississippi
Link to images: Art work of the Mississippi Valley in 1899  Art work of the Mississippi Valley in 1899
Link to images: Historic postcards of Milwaukee  Historic postcards of Milwaukee
Link to manuscript: Canal proponents seek President Lincoln's support, 1862  Canal proponents seek President Lincoln's support, 1862

Related Links

Visit the Great Lakes Maritime History Project for hundreds of photos
Watch videos (and more) at the Wisconsin's Maritime Trails site
Visit our archaeology staff's pages about shipwrecks
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Learn more about the Merrimac Ferry

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