in Wisconsin History
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)]