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The History of Portage, WI

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Today Portage is a town of almost 9,000 people, growing faster every year as the Madison metropolitan area expands out. More and more families are opting for a better life style as they move to Portage and make the daily commute to Madison or other area communities to work. Tourists come every year to hike the famous Ice Age Trail (see useful info), visit the local ski areas: Cascade Mountain and Devil’s Head as well as our historic Indian Agency House and Surgeon’s Quarters.

The city of Portage and its surrounding areas, make up a community rich in natural amenity and history. The Native American tribes that once lived here, and later the European traders and settlers, took advantage of the lowlands between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers as a natural “portage,” which eventually lends itself to the name of the community, taken from the word the French fur traders used to describe the place, “le portage.” As a portage, this community developed as a center of commerce and trade, and later, a canal was constructed to facilitate this trade. When the railroads came through, it continued in this role.

The Portage business district lies along a hillside which overlooks the Portage Canal. The buildings now in the city's downtown were once part of a bustling, urban commercial center serving a large region across north central Wisconsin. The building of the city paralleled its commercial prominence between the Civil War's end and the second decade of the 20th century.

Portage emerged at this place because of its unique position along the one and a half mile strip of marshy floodplain between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. by the end of the 17th century, the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, linked at The Portage, served as the major fur trade thoroughfare between Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. It was not until the 1780s and 1790s that traders built their posts and warehouses at each end of The Portage. In 1828, the federal government recognized the strategic economic importance of The Portage and built Fort Winnebago at the Fox River end.

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