The Mighty Fox: A River Reconsidered

denis gullickson | talking titletown | april 2018

Part One of a Two-Part Series

This section of the '1835 Tourist's Pocket Map of Michigan' indicates the Lower Fox River from the Bay of Green Bay to Lake Winnebago and the various Native American villages that could be found along the stretch. By 1836, the Wisconsin Territory had been carved out of the Michigan Territory and Wisconsin was just a dozen-plus years from statehood.Recent discussion on a Green Bay history Facebook page triggered a frightening flashback for this writer. No, not the kind from my college days. This flashback was of a recurring nightmare as a kid traveling by car over the old Walnut Street Bridge across the Fox River.

That bridge was spooky: a matrix of steel girders that formed a foreboding, gauntlet-like tunnel — not a reassuring, functional span across a body of water. Under the car wheels, an open-grated bridge deck made a rumbling noise as you passed — amping up the anxiety. Out the car window, you could look down and see the brownish, brackish Fox River churning below.

Rather than making it uneventfully across the river, the car I was traveling in always ended up careening crazily off that bridge, busting through the metal side rails and plunging to the murky bottom of the river.

The dirty water flooded the car as it sank. It was now my frantic task to escape this would-be coffin and flail to the surface.

I always made it out, but I don't recall the rest of the passengers ever breaking surface. It was every man, woman and child for themselves. (Not to worry, I see most of them at holiday gatherings.)

Don't even bring up walking across that bridge — an experience scarier than negotiating a high wire across the Grand Canyon. I can conjure up the vertigo and anxiety to this day.

The bridge in question is long gone — replaced by a more user-friendly version. Hard, cold facts about that old bridge do not stave off the trauma. A “Warren pony truss bascule bridge," the span was a mere 99 feet but seemed endless in my nightmare.

A 1908-“Diagrammatic Sketch" found online delineates the parts of a standard truss bridge — all the fancy nomenclature boiling down, for me, to “nerve-wracking contraption."

Dirty Water

My psychiatrist or bartender — I can't tell the two apart — suggests that my fear wasn't so much the bridge as it was the river below. What I was really scared silly by was the thought of being swallowed up in that junky, mucky morass.

I had a lot to learn to appreciate that river down there. So, too, for that matter, did this town.

This month and next, we will take a look at the history of the Mighty Fox River, its decline and its re-emergence as an aesthetic center of Titletown.

Really, two rivers in one, the “Upper Fox" starts a 142-mile trek as a puny stream northeast of Pardeeville, Wis., while the “Lower Fox" runs 40 miles between Lake Winnebago and the Bay of Green Bay. A bit confusing, really — since the river runs northward — that the “Lower" Fox is actually the northernmost part which runs through the City of Green Bay.

Archaeologists figure that indigenous folks have lived in the area along and around the Fox River for as many as 9000 years — realizing the bounty of its waters, shoreline and forested stretches reaching into the area's deep interior.

By 1634, white guys started traipsing through the area with increasing frequency until the first permanent European settlement appeared later that century. Given its strategic location, a fort at the mouth of the Fox proved valuable to the French, British and U.S. in succession.

The Fox-Wisconsin Waterway — with a relatively-short interchange near Portage, Wis., and wending all the way to the Mississippi River — represented a virtual interstate highway system of its day. Commerce and social interaction occurred all along its corridor where furs were taken and traded and cultures interacted.

By then, as many as 12,500 Native people lived along the Fox River and Green Bay.

The Waterway's significance grew in the mid-19th century as the Fox and Wisconsin Company constructed a series of locks and dams on the Fox and a canal at Portage to link the two river systems.

At Green Bay — now the mouth of its superhighway — the forward-thinking company was hoping to establish a port to rival Chicago by converting the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway into the principal shipping route between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

Unfortunately, the Upper Fox wasn't up to the task. Too shallow, too narrow and too twisted, it was frozen from November through March.

By default, the Lower Fox became a hub of riverfront industry.

Hitting the Wall

Over its length, the Lower Fox descends a height about equal to the drop of Niagara Falls. Not bad for harnessing some serious power over a subtantial stretch. Accordingly, it became the ideal location for an industrial revolution all its own. Eventually, every burgh and bustling city — from Oshkosh to Green Bay — burst at the seams with activity.

Accordingly, the 1800s boomed in Wisconsin and the waterpower of the north-flowing Fox, its tributaries and neighboring waterways were put to full use.

Lumbering pressed saw mills along the rivers to full capacity and the boards turned out spawned a growth spurt across the Midwest. As the leading producer of wheat, Wisconsin farms kept flour mills churning. Wooden shingles represented a thriving industry for a time.

Eventually, paper mills took over as more and more of Wisconsin's northern forests came down. Great companies like Kimberly-Clark, Northern Paper Mills and Hoberg Paper began operations along the Fox, harnessing its power for every facet of operations from intake to output.

To the point where, today, 24 paper and pulp mills operate along the Lower Fox River producing more than five million tons of paper per year and employing around 50,000 people.

Great ships were also frequent visitors, lading and unlading cargo that found its way into the industrial supply chain. The synergy was sometimes dizzying and fortunes were made — the Fox giving more of itself to the humanity that buzzed around it.

To a dwindling degree, the Fox continued to provide recreation in the form of boating and fishing. That, because the river had begun to pay a price for all that activity.

Indeed, the river had, quite frankly, become a convenient conduit — a sewer system to wash the residual wastes — for industry, for most everyone — out into Lake Michigan. As early as 1923, public debate flared up about the contamination of the river. It was about this same time that the water at the confluence of the Fox and East Rivers in downtown Green Bay was declared “oxygen dead."

Green Bay's celebrated public swimming area at Bay Beach would also mark the toll. As early as 1927, Wisconsin's Board of Health put the park's beach under the microscope for water pollution and general conditions. In June 1933, the city park department recognized the Health Board's concerns. Warnings signs were posted. In 1943, the City Board of Health closed the beach permanently — one of the earliest such closings in the country.

For some, it was mere “collateral damage" — the cost of doing business. That attitude seemed to prevail during the 1950s and '60s as downtown commerce and industry enjoyed their heyday.

As this writer and other baby boomers came of age, the Fox River did little more than serve as an ugly line of demarcation underscoring the cross-town rivalries between they city's east and west sides. It was unattractive and it reeked of dead fish, pollutants and human disinterest.

Meanwhile, the city itself hummed along — for the time being at least. Along both sides of the river, busy thoroughfares — Washington Street on the east side and Broadway on the west — featured bars, stores, restaurants and all other manner of enterprise and folks flooded the sidewalks.

Most everyone had turned their back to the river.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A side effect of the boom was the dumping of hazardous materials by the paper mills into the river. While such dumping quickly became illegal, the damage was done and contaminents settled to the river's bottom.

Dredging of the river bottom had commenced in the late-19th century to allow the passage of larger ships and that sediment was often deposited in wetlands along the bay shore creating further environmental damage.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act passed, marking a decided turning point for the river.

Ironically, 1972 also marked a turning point in Green Bay history as the Gregby Renewal Project kicked into high gear and downtown businesses were knocked to the ground in an oddball effort to re-stimulate commerce.

While both developments were meant to trigger comebacks, their overall success would be spotty and oft-questioned. Even today, their results continue to unfold.

Next issue: Good News for the city and the Mighty Fox.


Spring finds author, educator, historian, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson working with various entities and the Green Bay Theatre Company to convert the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings into an arts and performance facility. Your input on this project is welcome at gbtheatrecompany@aol.com.

More from Category

I Keep Flipping Channels by Kasey Schumacher

Stay up-to-date

Sign up for a monthly digest of everything new in GB.