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Fox River Locks: The past and future of the Fox River

Last year, 5,000 boats went through the locks, carrying nearly 20,000 people

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May 17, 2023

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – With summer quickly approaching, the Fox River Navigational System Authority (FRNSA) is busy preparing for another season for the Fox River Locks.

After sitting idle for almost 50 years, 16 of the original 17 locks were completely restored to their original state from 2005-15.

The lock at Rapid Croche remains closed to prevent invasive species that migrate from the Great Lakes and the Fox River from entering Lake Winnebago.

The locks run from Menasha to Green Bay, and in the 39-mile stretch, the Fox River drops in elevation equal to the height of Niagara Falls.

Phil Ramlet, executive director of the Fox River Navigational System Authority, said without the system of locks and dams, the river would not be navigable.

“From a historical standpoint, the locks are what helped build this area,” he said. “The locks are the first public works project done in the State of Wisconsin. So, that was a critical piece for the development along the river that happened, which really is how Wisconsin developed.”

History of the locks
The idea of building the locks, Ramlet said, pre-dates Wisconsin’s statehood.

In 1838, Wisconsin Territorial Governor Henry Dodge asked Congress to approve the sale of 150,000 acres of land to fund improvements to the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.

Citing the military importance of a canal to facilitate the movement of troops from the Great Lakes to the Western frontier, Congress approved the sale, and the Army Corps of Engineers recommended a lock and dam system for the Fox River.

Morgan L. Martin, the congressional delegate for the Wisconsin Territory at the time, is credited with playing an early role in the creation of the Fox River Locks System as he convinced Congress to acquire the land needed to create it, two years before Wisconsin would achieve statehood.

// Fox River Navigational System Authority was established in 2001 and is in charge of managing and sustaining the system. Photo Courtesy of the Fox River Navigational System Authority

Project construction began in 1849 with the construction of dams – prior to the dams, Ramlet said commercial vessels needed to portage around multiple rapids.

In 1866, the project ran into trouble when Wisconsin Improvement Company, the owner of the lock project declared bankruptcy, however, in 1870, the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company took over the management of the locks, with the Army Corp of Engineers taking over supervision of the waterway in 1872.

The engineers worked hard through the late 19th and early 20th century maintaining the waterway and rebuilding some of the older locks.

In 1993, the individual locks were named to the National Register of Historic Places, meaning any repairs and restorations had to stick with the original design.

The Fox River Navigational System Authority was established in 2001 and has been charged with managing and sustaining the system.

A major community-based fundraising effort resulted in the restoration of the locks from 2005-15 at an investment of $14.5 million.

Solely relies on gravity
Ramlet said the locks are unique because they are hand-operated and rely solely on gravity – with no engines running the systems.

He said the only other similar system they’ve been able to find in the country is in Ohio, and it is smaller than the Fox River Locks.

Lock chambers are 35-36 feet wide by 144-146 feet long and the lift varies from seven to 14 feet per lock.

// Sue and Kirk Fromhart wait for the locks in Appleton to open. All locks are hand-operated and rely solely on gravity. Photo Courtesy of the Fox River Navigational System Authority

Ramlet said there are three types of locks on the Fox River – stacked stone rubble, quarried stone and reinforced concrete – each one representing a certain stage of evolution in lock construction.

He said the gates on the rubble and quarry stone are made of wood timbers, whereas the concrete locks have steel gates.

Lock tenders manually operate the valves that control water entering and leaving to change the water level and manually crank open the lock gates.

Proper operation of the locks relies on the large upper and lower gates sealing correctly when closed, which holds back many tons of water.

Each pair of gates comes together, or “miters” right in the middle – which forces the two gates to seal tightly as the water level difference increases from one side of the door compared to the other.

Only one set of lock gates can be opened at a time because of the pressure created by the water level differential.

Even with a single inch of water level differential, the gates can’t be muscled open – so it can be a bit of a waiting game.

A wide impact
Ramlet said the locks have been and continue to be important to the 11 communities in the three counties the Fox River flows through.

“It’s part of our heritage, which is important,” he said. “Now it provides opportunities to recreate along the river, which is important as well.”

// Menasha lock – the southernmost lock – is referred to as the “upriver” lock. Photo Courtesy of the Fox River Navigational System Authority

Since the mid-90s, Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the shorelines of the Fox River have seen a great deal of development with hotels, restaurants and residential developments and the locks played a part in the growth.

Seidl said the locks became part of the overall effort to retake the river and use it for recreation, as opposed to for industry.

“Opening the locks gave that access… and started putting up public amenities and housing,” she said. “I think the positioning of the developments has always been nearby or close to the locks.”

Seidl said the locks fit into the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau’s destination master plan.

“Looking at those quality of life and quality of place pieces will be key,” she said. “The river and the lock system presents us with that great opportunity – the unique historic aspect of it and its recreational potential.”

Seidl said the waterway can be used for all kinds of outdoor recreation.

“(It) will help to set us apart, and is one of the things identified as something you should focus on and make investments in over the next 10-15 years,” she said.

Looking to the future
Ramlet said the locks are becoming increasingly more popular with boaters, kayakers and canoeists.

Last year, 5,000 boats went through the locks carrying nearly 20,000 people on the boats.

// Ramlet

Looking toward the future, Ramlet said the Fox River Navigational System Authority is looking to raise $3 million to help continue operations and fund improvements.

The authority also owns 19 acres of riverfront property and nine lock tender houses – all of which are being looked at for potential development.

The locks opened May 10.

For more information on the locks, including information about day passes, visit

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