When Metis fur trader Augustin Grignon built a Greek Revival-style hotel and trading post near the marshy Fox River at present-day Butte des Mort, Wisconsin in 1848, the waterway hadn’t changed much since early French explorers came across it in the seventeenth century.
Jacques Marquette, in 1673, described the Fox River at Green Bay, as “very beautiful…..full of bustards, ducks, teal and other birds.” Marquette also commented on the Fox’s rapids. “It becomes very difficult of passage, on account of both the currents and the sharp rocks.”
The Fox is one of two major Wisconsin rivers that converge at Butte des Morts, in the form of a shallow, 8,800-acre lake that bears the same name as the village. The Fox flows northward for 200 miles from Pardeeville, channels through lakes Butte des Morts and Winnebago, and finally dumps into Lake Michigan at Green Bay. The Wolf, meanwhile, flows southward for 225 miles from Forest County near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, channels through a series of small lakes and finally terminates into Lake Butte des Morts.
Prior to the arrival of fur traders, missionaries and eventually white settlers, Native Americans had traversed the Fox and Wolf Rivers for millennia, harvesting wild rice, hunting ducks and spearing sturgeon.
But about the time Grignon built his hotel and trading post, everything changed for these waterways.
In 1840 – eight years before Wisconsin became a state – the Territorial Legislature passed the Milldam Act. It allowed for the construction of dams along territorial waterways, and for the resultant flooding of surrounding lands to create lakes and ponds deep enough to generate power for mills. In ensuing decades, water in manmade lakes and ponds powered hydroelectric plants.
In 1850, a dam was built at the northern end of Lake Winnebago at Menasha, about twenty-five miles northeast of Butte des Morts. It impounded the flow of water from Lake Winnebago, backing it up into the Fox River. Soon afterward, a second dam was built at Neenah. Those dams – still in place today, although reconstructed in concrete from their original wood – and others along the Fox raised the water levels in lakes Butte des Morts and Winnebago by about three feet. They’re still shallow lakes, despite the water level rise. Today, maximum depths are nine feet in Butte des Morts and twenty-one feet in Winnebago.
For Grignon, the result was immediate and dramatic. His hotel and trading post, which still stands today and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, was suddenly no longer within walking distance of an expansive marsh. Instead, the waters of a shallow lake lapped just a city block away.
Over time, into the twentieth century, dams continued to be built along Wisconsin’s waterways for power plants, to manipulate the water level for log driving, to control flooding, to power paper plants, and ultimately to create new, valuable lakeshore property on which homes could be built. Boating and other recreational uses soared.
Today, the state Department of Natural Resources, which regulates dams in Wisconsin, counts about 3,900 of them on 15,000 lakes and 84,000 miles of rivers and streams. The DNR classifies about 1,200 of those as large dams. The US Army Corps of Engineers concurs on that number, also listing about 1,200 large dams in Wisconsin today. About one-quarter of those have been in place for at least a century.
Those current numbers don’t include about 900 dams that the DNR says have been removed – or washed out and not replaced – since the 1800s.
The US Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams shows that most large dams operating in Wisconsin today are owned by local government entities or are privately owned, often by power companies. A few are owned by the federal government, public utilities, and the state. Wisconsin data in the National Inventory of Dams also shows that, today, recreational purposes far surpass other reasons for keeping dams in place – such a hydroelectric power, irrigation, and flood control.
By the mid-twentieth century, problems began to arise as many private dam owners, faced with the financial burden of maintaining aging dams, began to abandon them. The state of Wisconsin was left to either spend taxpayer money to keep them up or risk their failure.
At the same time, awareness began to grow about the environmental cost of dams – including the loss of habitat where lake waters rose, the destruction of wild rice beds and other native vegetation, and the warmer waters in lakes and pools that adversely affected trout, sturgeon, and other fish.
In recent years, conservation groups have pushed for the removal of some dams in Wisconsin. The 2015-17 state biennial budget includes $500,000 for dam removal projects, available as grants to dam owners.
That push has been countered by lakeshore property owners, boaters and other who use the lakes recreationally. They argue that removing the dams would result in a water level drop and retreat of waterways back to their original channels, drastically altering the landscape, destroying lakefront property values and making the waterways unusable recreationally. On an environmental level, rather than removing dams, alternatives such as fish passages through the impoundments have been advocated.
To learn more about the history of dams in Wisconsin, their current status, the condition of the waterways they impound, and the debate over removing aging dams, check out the following links:
Butte des Morts Conservation Club: http://bdmcc.org/index.cfm
Dam Removal (River Alliance of Wisconsin): https://www.wisconsinrivers.org/the-dams-that-were-not/
Dam Removal Grant Program (DNR): http://dnr.wi.gov/aid/damremoval.html
Tales of the Undammed: Removing Barriers Doesn’t Automatically Restore River Health (Science News Online): http://www.phschool.com/science/science_news/articles/tales_of_undammed.html
Alternatives to Dam Removal: Wisconsin Fish Passage Project Milwaukee River at Thiensville, Wisconsin (US Geological Survey): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paIXrWG8G4c
Lower Fox River Basin (DNR): http://dnr.wi.gov/water/basin/lowerfox/
Wolf River Basin (DNR): http://dnr.wi.gov/water/basin/wolf/
Wisconsin Dams Overview (DNR): http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Dams/DamsOverview.html
Wisconsin Dams Interactive Map (UW Milwaukee): http://uwmmap.com/dams.html
Locks and Dams on the Mississippi: Wisconsin Great River Road: http://wigrr.com/activities/locks-dams/
The Mississippi Voyage of Joliet and Marquette, 1673 (American Journeys): http://www.americanjourneys.org/aj-051/print/
Trout Unlimited, Wolf River Chapter: http://www.wolfrivertu.org/wolfRiver.html
Lake Winnebago: Fox-Wolf River Basin (US Army Corps of Engineers): http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/Portals/69/docs/GreatLakesInfo/docs/LakeWinnebago/LakeWinnebagoFactsBook.pdf
Floods in Wisconsin Magnitude and Frequency (United States Department of the Interior Geological Survey, 1961): PDF
The Wolf River Basin: (Staff Report to the Water Resources Committee, Wisconsin Legislative Council, 1960): PDF
Problems Relating to Abandonment of Dams (Staff Report to the Water Resources Committee, Wisconsin Legislative Council, 1959): PDF