Site 8 Fox River/Ferry

Site 8 Fox River/Ferry

This site takes you to the Fox River and a place to launch boats, canoes and kayaks. It tells the story of the first ferries, bridges and dredging of the Fox River.

Native Americans had used the Fox River for thousands of years. Then explorers, then fur traders came and used the same waterways for commerce and travel. The fur traders used huge Voyageur canoes.

The Township to the west of the Township of Buffalo is named Moundville for the many Indian mounds that existed there at one time. Some on private property still exist but many were ruined by farming, road building, and people who would dig them up for Sunday afternoon entertainment. Today, of course, the mounds are all protected by law.

From the book Unearthed: evidence of the first people of Marquette County :

There is plenty of evidence that Woodland people lived throughout Marquette County, but no evidence piques people’s interest more than the hundreds of effigy and conical mounds that once surrounded Buffalo Lake and were also found near Germania, Endeavor, Moundville, in Springfield Township and Marquette. Most of the mounds have been destroyed by farming, road and railroad building, housing, and disregard or ignorance of their cultural and archeological significance.

There are, however, detailed reports and descriptions of these mounds that come from the earliest explorers, early settlers, and amateur and professional archaeologists before and after the turn of the 19th century. Perhaps the most well known, objectively written and scientifically presented early record of the mounds is Increase Lapham’s work that was published by the Smithsonian Institute in 1855 entitled The Antiquities of Wisconsin as Surveyed and Described. Lapham describes mounds around the state including those in Marquette County. He writes:

The margins of the Neenah river” (the Fox River as we know it today was once called the Neenah) “are remarkable for numerous Indian remains of this description. Colonel Petitval, of the United States topographical Department, who was engaged during the summer of 1837 in a survey of this river, had the kindness, at my request, to give some attention to these mounds. He describes an immense assemblage of them at a point on the river called the Red Bank…”


The mounds examined by me along the Apuchwa and Buffalo lakes, were entirely of the conical form, or burial mounds. They were observed at the villages of Marquette, Montello, Roxo, and Packwaukee; the same places that formerly were the seats of aboriginal population being now selected as the sites of embryo towns and villages by men of a different race.

There is a fine group on section twelve, township fourteen, range ten, occupying prairie ground near a branch of Grand river.”

At a place known as Moundville, are some structures quite perfect in their shape and outline. They are in the oak-openings, on the west side of the river, in township fourteen, range nine; and consist of several raccoons and bears with oblong an round mounds, and one animal form, whose genus and species could not well be made out.

Below is a 1905 photo of some mounds in Marquette County. Some archeologists believe the conical or cone shaped mounds may date to the Archaic Culture while the effigy, or animal shaped mounds, date to the Woodland Indian Culture. Today, the Ho Chunk recognize the mounds as built by their ancestors.

The first Europeans to travel on the Fox were explorers and fur traders. Some days you might see this Voyageur canoe paddling on the Fox. It is based in Princeton and the fur trader re-enactors often ply these waters.

One of the first things that the new Marquette County Board did as early as 1848, was to license ferries across the Fox River. Minutes of the meetings show that a William Allen applied for such a license and it was granted. He operated the ferry just a short distance south of this point on the river. If you look closely on the 1851 survey map below, you can see Ferry written at the location of this crossing. The shape of the river changed over time as dredging began and curves were straightened. Allen was given approval to charge 6 cents for a team and wagon, 3 cents for a horse, ox or cow or any creature two years old or over and footmen, 3 cents for swine, sheep and all creatures under two years old. He was required to keep the ferry open from 6 o'clock AM to 9 o'clock PM.

It wasn't long before bridges were built and they had to be made so that steamboat and barge traffic could move along the river. When the bridge was built at this point on the river, it would have put Mr. Allen out of business. The large, circular stone balustrade you see here once was the column for a swing bridge. When boats got to this point in the river, they had to send someone out to get the bridge tender. He lived close-by, but there would be a wait until he came with the "key" for the bridge. Then, it took four men to turn the "key" to move the bridge so the ship or barge could go through.

This newspaper article is from 1851.

In June of 1856, an exciting event took place on the Fox River. It wasthe passing of the steamship Aquila. The Aquila was the first ship to travel from Pittsburg, down the Ohio River, to the Mississippi,to the Wisconsin and through the Portage Canalto the Fox River. It continued down the Fox to Oshkosh and then on to Green Bay. The Aquila was a 133 foot paddle steamer that had been built in 1854 in Pennsylvania. She was 16 feet wide and had a woodhull. She weighed 59 ton and was ownedby William B. Ogden. The Aquila only plied the waters for five years. She is listed as a casualty and abandoned in1859 or 1860 in the Fox River nearDePere.

According to various mythologyresources, Aquila was the name of the servantof the Greek God Zeus who held his thunderbolts. Aquila alsowas the bird that carried the mortal Ganymede to the heavens to be Zeus’ cupbearer as well as the great eagle who devours Prometheus’ liver as punishmentfor giving fire to humans. It is alsothe name of a constellation. Aquila was a popular name for ships because to many itmeant eagle.

There are no known photos of theAquila, although a painting mentioned in the History of Brown County may havethe Aquila in the background of a painting ofa prominent figure. The passing of the Aquila up the Fox would have been a historic event. The Muirs had begun work on the Hickory Hillfarm in 1856, but since one of the reasons Daniel Muir chose to settle inWisconsin is because of the promise of a canal being built between theWisconsin and the Fox, there is a possibility that John Muir may have been onthe shores of the Fox to watch the Aquila make its way through Marquette Countyand on to Green Bay. He most certainlysaw many barges and other steam ships at they traveled the busy waterway.

Societies set up home in Marquette County

Early settlers were not always single families seeking new homes or new beginnings. Sometimes, they moved here as part of a larger ideal or because of associations between members of an organized group. Two examples are the Potter’s Emigration Society and the Germania Company. While organized for different reasons, they are examples of the desires of a group of people with similar dreams and goals, banding together to move into and settle in the new lands of Wisconsin in what we know today as Marquette County.

The Potter’s Union formed in England to counter the changing economy and working conditions of craftsmen. A strike on the home front had not yielded results, so they formed the Potter’s Emigration Society to help move members to America, choosing central Wisconsin as their destination. The first group moved south of Portage. The union soon expanded to include other trades besides potters and Moundville in Marquette County soon became home to emigrants of the Potter’s Union. Reverend Isaac Smith and his wife Sarah moved first to the Portage community, then to Fort Winnebago, and finally to Moundville in 1855. He was one of the first preachers in the county.

Before the Smiths, William Scholes and his wife Ann Smith settled in Moundville in 1849. Harold Henderson’s account From the First Industrial City to the Wisconsin Frontier:

William Scholes (1814-1864), Ann Mills Scholes (1814-1875),and Their Family tells the story of the couple’s move to Moundville. Although by 1860, Henderson writes, the Scholes farm was one of the poorest in the township; their first years were what they had dreamed of when they left England. Scholes writes to family across the ocean, “Some people said that [the soil at the settlement] was too sandy to produce anything. but I only wish I had it in my power to send you a sample of some potatoes that have been got up this week, and I think the most prejudiced would admit that finer potatoes were never grown, they have not had one particle of manure, the sets were put under the sod; and that is all they have had, except hoeing up, and the crop is a surprising one . . . .We are ten miles from the post office, and about 120 miles from Milwaukee, about the same from Galena, but in a few years we shall have a market of our own, and every thing requisite to make man comfortable. I expect next year to have 10 acres of wheat with my yoke of oxen and plough, which, together with my labour for others in a few years will render my work much easier, and my family out of the reach of want. How many of our friends in Oldham can say the same? Not many, I think. …For my part, I would not come back for the best shop and two pounds per week in Oldham, for I think I can do much better here; I am only sorry that I did not come sooner, . . . I assure you that the exchange to the back woods, from the stinking factory is greatly in favour of the former, and I often wish that more of our hard working townsmen would leave their sickly toil and come to one of the healthiest spots on the earth.”

William and Ann had 2 young daughters die in 1850. They raised another 9 children in Moundville and in 1864 at 49 years of age, William joined the Union Army and died that same year of disease at Vicksburg.

The historical marker about the Potter’s Immigration Society that can be seen on County Trunk O near County Trunk T reads, “Near Here in 1849 Thomas Twiggs began a settlement of unemployed potters from Staffordshire, England. To help farmers on both sides of the Fox River reach his store and black-smith shop at Twigg's Landing, he operated Emancipation Ferry, named to express his hope that here they would find freedom from the poverty of the Old World.”

In her book Places and Faces in Marquette County, Fran Sprain reports that by 1850 the Potters Society had 60 houses inhabited by nearly 100 families in Moundville. But by the next year, the society failed. Most emigrants were not farmers and the society was managed badly. It disintegrated, but many families stayed in Moundville and many of their descendents still remain.

Just up County Road F is the US Fish and Wildlife Fox River Refuge. It was established in 1979 mostly to protect the Greater Sandhill Crane nesting sites located there. You can park in two different spots on F and although the refuge is closed except to licensed deer hunters during season, the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir host a Fall Hike each October on the refuge. From the parking areas you can view birds and wildlife.You can also participate in the annual Crane County, see link below. Just up County Road F a little farther you will come to the Natural Heritage Land Trust Eggleston/Muir property that links to the refuge. The NHLT Eggleston property is open to the public year round and will stay that way after it is transferred to US Fish and Wildlife.

Come to Marquette County if you want to see Greater Sandhill Cranes. John Muir called them "those long-legged fellows" in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Marquette County is home to hundreds of nesting pairs and thousands of cranes assemble here in fall. From the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge:

Well-known for their elaborate courtship dances, graceful flight and prehistoric calls, Sandhill cranes are the most common cranes in North America. Cranes build their nests on dry land or attached to vegetation above the water line to “float” with rising water levels. Within 24 hours of hatching crane chicks can walk and swim. Families (mother, father, and young) typically stay together for nine to ten months, until early in the spring following the young bird’s hatching.

Approximately 50 cranes use the refuge for nesting habitat during the summer but hundreds use the refuge as a staging (gathering) area during the fall migration.

The book above is available at the Marquette County Tribune office in Montello, B&B Candy Store and Reader's Realm Bookstore in Montello and at the Montello Historic Preservation Society and Marquette County Historical Society. All sales go to the Montello Historic Preservation Society.

Believe it or not, if you were standing here next to the Fox River from about 1860 to 1900, you might have seen this steamboat travelling on the river between Portage and Green Bay or any points in between. Steam boats, barges and smaller craft travelled on the Fox carrying cargo as well as passengers. During the time the river was a main transportation hub for commerce, it was dredged as well as reshaped. Dredging was done constantly to keep the upper Fox River deep enough and wide enough for river traffic. You can see a typical dredge operation in the photo below. The bottom of the river was scooped up and thrown up on the shore with conveyors. Workers typically lived on the dredge for days as it moved up and down the river. Some of the high banks you see were made from dredged materials.

Below is an 1832 survey map. The blue arrow shows the approximate location of this landing on the Fox River.

Below is an 1851 map of the other side of the Fox River, just south of site 8 on the mobile app. You can see Ferry written on the curve in the map. One of the first thing county government did was to license ferried so people could cross the river. Landowners would petition to have a ferry and if it was granted, they had a specific price they could charge for people, animals and goods. Ferries disappeared as bridges were built. This ferry stopped when the river was actually reshaped, and the loop straightened.

It wasn't long before bridges were built and they had to be made so that steamboat and barge traffic could move along the river. When the bridge was built at this point on the river, it would have put Mr. Allen out of business. The large, circular stone balustrade you see here once was the column for a swing bridge. When boats got to this point in the river, they had to send someone out to get the bridge tender. He lived close-by, but there would be a wait until he came with the "key" for the bridge. Then, it took four men to turn the key to open the bridge.

The bridge on what is now County Roads O and F had several transformations over the years. In 1853 Marquette County authorized the building of a toll bridge across the Fox River in Moundville. It’s not for certain, but likely that it was located at the same spot as today’s bridge.

We know from the first photo below that a float bridge was there in 1905 when it was nearly flooded over. The bridge was released to float open, then pulled shut for river traffic.

Sometime after that, a turn or swing bridge was built. You can still see the large circular pillars in the water at this location. The photo below the bridge photo is Charles Solterman, and wife Eliza who lived across the river just to the south. Charles used a large wooden “key” to turn the bridge open for river traffic. Charles was a farmer. River travelers had to blow their horn or come up to his home and ask him to open the bridge. It took four men to turn the large wooden "key" to move the bridge so the ship or barge could go through.