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Fox Locks keep river flowing as it did 170 years ago

Posted at 10:19 AM, Aug 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-03 00:02:12-04

APPLETON -- Motoring along the Fox River would be impossible if not for some technology as old as the state of Wisconsin.

Jeremy Cords knows this river better than most.

He's executive director of Fox Locks, the group maintaining a system of hand-operated locks history that keeps the Fox River moving.

"And they're all hand-operated, still today. They're fully restored to hand operation the same as they were in the 1840s. Over 170 years ago," Cords said.

The river is held back every few miles by a dam.

Otherwise, the lazy Fox River would be series of unpassable rapids.

Boats slip through on the side through a series of locks that use rushing water to gently raise or lower a boat to the right level to keep moving.

Way back when merchants wanted a way to connect Lake Winnebago -- through the Fox River -- with Green Bay.

From end to end, it's a 39-mile trip.

From top to bottom, a drop in elevation of 168 feet.

It's about as tall as a 16 story building or the entire height of Niagara Falls.

"This is one of the few rivers that flows north in Wisconsin because of the elevation change," Cords said.

By building the locks those early traders tamed the river and made it a place business could thrive.

"In the end, what it really did was let people move into the area. You could bring your industrial goods, your textiles, everything you needed to build homes," he said.

Today -- the industry is all but gone. Now -- it's mostly homes, old and newly built.

Instead of timber and paper moving up and down the river it's pleasure boats and kayaks.

Only the presence of a lock tender remains the same.

Slowly draining or flooding a lock to keep everybody moving.

"People really enjoy it. It's a journey through time when you're in the lock chamber," Cords said.

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