Home » History » Portage History

The History of Portage, WI

Portage Wisconsin Logo

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.

Development of the state's resources necessitated the movement of bulk cargo to the Great Lakes. Navigated by canoes for over 100 years, the Fox-Wisconsin waterway underwent improvement for steamboat traffic beginning in the late 1830s. The improvement linking Portage and its canal to the lower Fox industrial cities of Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Fond du Lac and Green Bay were sufficient to carry barges of lumber and bulk farm goods be the 1850s. The building of the 26 lift locks along the entire Fox was not completed until 1876. Increasingly serving as pleasure crafts, steamboats plied the Fox system until will after 1900s. shifting sand bars defeated efforts to improve navigation of the Wisconsin through a system of wing dams. These efforts were abandoned after 1886.

In 1857 and 1858, the railroad linked Portage to the major commercial centers of Milwaukee and LaCrosse. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul constructed a regional railroad center in north Portage in the 1860s. In 1877, the Wisconsin Central connected south Portage to Ashland and Milwaukee. these connections assured Portage its role in the commercial development of the state and eventually absorbed the bulk cargo carried along the canal.

Two small communities emerged along The Portage in the 1830s: one at the fort and another near The Portage west end. The third settlement, on the hill, became Portage City awaited the 1851 purchase of Menominee lands ceded in 1848. the business district began as several stored and dwellings at juncture of Cook, Main, and Dewitt in the late 1840s. With land surveys completed in 1851, citizens under the leadership of Joshua Guppey had the business district platted in 1852. After 15 years of controversy, Winnebago settlement (now Portage) won the county seat in 1851. The community incorporated as Portage City in 1854.

With these achievements, Portage citizens began to build their city. Its role as a supply center for logging operations along the upper Wisconsin River supported its construction boom. On February 2, 1850, Portage's "River Times" reported construction of 200 buildings in a year's time. "Among them are stores of all description, mechanics, shops, taverns, offices, etc... The building at Portage continued until the depression of 1857.

As late as the 1860s, Portage stood as an urban place and seat of government at the center of a lightly settled agricultural area. Historian Fredrick Jackson Turner described Portage of the 1870s as "little town" emerging into a city from a frontier society. His boyhood memories recalled the raftsmen who came to Portage from the northern pineries, and the many immigrants who composed the city's population.

By 1865, much of Portage's agricultural hinterlands were settled, and Portage grew to serve them. the city expanded rapidly along its main streets: east and west Cook, and north and south along adjacent Main, DeWitt, and Wisconsin. The two and three story, long, narrow brick business blocks towered above many portions of Cook Street by the late 1860s and 1870s.

Between this period and the early 1900s, these enterprises included mercantile stores which sold everything from local farm products and foods arriving by railroad to cloth, small farm implements, and wholesale goods to northern Wisconsin. Several large retail and wholesale drugstores and groceries, hardware stores with tinsmiths and implement sales, hotels with their dining and meeting rooms, inevitable saloons, liveries, meat markets, bakeries, jewelry stores, clothing & shoe shops, banks, and English and German newspaper offices all lined the streets of Portage downtown. Founded and published under the leadership of Andrew Jackson Turner in 1861, the Wisconsin State Register, now the Portage Daily Register, chronicled the development of the city and region. Its craft shops, including several large cobbler and harness shops, cabinetmaking and furniture retail shops, wagon shops, and blacksmiths produced the goods needed by local consumers. Portage became the center for several large merchant tailor shops. These skilled craftsmen produced custom-made clothing for customers across northern Wisconsin. Several industries also located near Cook Street including a brewery, a stone monument company, cigar factories, and clothing and rug manufactures.

A small industrial and commercial area developed along the couth bank of the canal by the 1840s. In the 1850s and 1860s, a lumber mill, tannery, foundry, and grain mill prospered along the its banks. By 1867, the Portage & Green Bay Transportation Company's steamboats and barges carried the city's goods along the canal and into the Fox. Mid-sized industries such and Wentworth grain elevator, and Portage Hosiery Company, and portage Iron Works replaced the earlier industries along E. Mullet St. The canal and Wisconsin Central RRs, as well as the Milwaukee & St Paul, also served the city's wholesale dealers. Flour and grain, grocery, produce, fruit, coal, implement, and lumber warehouses clustered along Mullet St.

A nationwide depression beginning 1857, lasted intermittently well beyond the Civil War. Prolonged elsewhere because of restricted access to markets, in Portage the depression was less sever because of the canal and river connections for regional trade. During the 1870s, for example, no businesses on Cook Street are known to have failed. Following the 1873 depression a new business cycle again brought rapid expansion to the city.

As the Portage business district flourished in the 1880s, the city developed municipal improvements. It built its first waterworks to provide city water in 1887. The year before, the American Gas Company of Beloit introduced gas lighting along the streets, in public buildings, and in 40 dwellings. Portage was an early Wisconsin community to receive this amenity. Limited telephone service was first established in the city in 1883. " Electricity generated by battery by Henry Forbes was turned on for the first time in his fathers jewelry store before a crowd of breathlessly awed spectators standing ankle deep in dust on DeWitt St., No 316, about 1885. the tiny gleam from this on carbon lamp was a sensation."(Wisconsin State Register & Maltby, L Interview)

The community congregated in its many meeting and lodge halls above the commercial buildings. These organizations fulfilled a wide range of vital community functions. They entertained, organized sports, provided welfare, assisted the workingman and farmer, and furthered civil betterment. Portage gathered to enjoy theatrical performances, minstrel shows, and lectures at its opera house.

Courtesy of the Portage Historical Society

< < Back