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And a River Still Runs Through Us

The Fox River, our great pride and challenge, continues a quiet resurgence.

In May 1997, we asked writer Jim Pinkham, a river enthusiast, to pen a seven-part series on our Fox River. Now, as the Fox River Natigational System Authority works to raise the last portion in community contributions for the final part of the Fox Locks Restoration Project, we thought it timely to have him revisit, in abridged form, some of the themes from that series about what makes the river so special. What follows is not just a look back, but also a hopeful look forward.

From Untrammeled Change to Gradual Gain

Gradual transformation for the waterway that defines our home and heritage should not greatly surprise us.

After all, it took a century to thoroughly despoil the Fox River. Calls to stop sullying the river were sounded as early as the 1930s, but it took decades—and the Clean Water Act—for those voices to be heard, then accepted, and, finally, prevail.

Meanwhile, as so often chronicled in the pages of FOX CITIES Magazine and the original installments of this series, those years of development came as bustling times for a young, rambunctious region.

First, nearly half a millennium ago, came the explorers and missionaries who soon realized the importance of the Fox River and put it on some of the earliest European maps of the North American continent.

Then came the settlers, waves of them, throughout the 1800s. They brought with them all the attainments and foibles of that time and place. They carved homes here in the wilderness, tamed wild lands, built homes and churches, schools and roads, enterprises and industries.

They quickly built a navigational masterpiece of locks and dams and canals that, in its heyday, connected our communities to one other and to the larger world. They did so at a time when this was the best available tool for the task; when, in fact, nothing else could.

They survived fire, fear and fierce weather, and they boldly amassed and lost fortunes. They built hospitals and mansions and company towns while welcoming immigrants from all over the world. They ventured quickly, lustily, intrepidly into new technologies that could have ruined them (and, no doubt, sometimes did) but in many cases paved the way for rapid growth and innovation.

These same ancestors, whether it took barrels of rum or barrels of guns, were also willing and able to conquer and displace the peoples who had arrived here before them. They could be profligate in the slashing of forests, reckless in their consumption of native species of fish and wildlife, careless as to how they left the river for future generations to remedy as they built up and tore down flour mills, saw mills, paper mills and more.

With five centuries of steady change—including massive use, and sometimes misuse, of our riparian natural resources from the 1850s to the 1970s—it is no wonder it is taking us more than a little time to remember, celebrate and preserve the many things our predecessors did well and to fix what they did not.

Communities Combat Pollution

Signs of progress are all around us. Communities across the state are looking to get better at storm water management, even though the effort can be challenging and contentious.

In Kimberly, Combined Locks, Little Chute, Kaukauna and the towns that make up the Darboy Sanitary District, a concerted, multi-year effort began several years ago and is now making systematic gains in getting rid of untainted water headed for their common treatment plant.

It is proving a costlier, more arduous undertaking than the communities first thought it would be. The reward ahead is local tax dollars will ultimately be focused on treating water that needs a cleansing touch before it enters the river instead of wasting scarce resources on clean water that has seeped and slipped into the system through sources such as cracked pipes or illegal hook-ups.

As part of this effort, the communities are pinpointing and concentrating their work with the aid of state-of-the-art computer modeling. Again, the goal is to invest taxpayer money only where it is needed most.

Natural Resource Restoration

Elsewhere, the Fox River Superfund cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) continues. The Green Bay Press-Gazette recently reported the effort may have a final price tag of $700 million to $1 billion and could stretch on for another seven years.

Not surprisingly, a project of such scale and cost is a messy, litigious affair. Deciding to dredge out the PCBs took years, and actual work didn’t begin until 2004—more than three decades after the last PCBs were put in.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, settlements with paper companies thus far have funded more than $40 million in natural resource restoration work “to restore and protect thousands of acres of endangered wetlands in northeastern Wisconsin and to improve fish habitat and enhance the health and diversity of fish populations in the Fox River/Green Bay watershed.”

Trail Network

On the recreational side, local trail systems have flourished over the past decade, including the CE Trail involving Appleton and its Heart of the Valley neighbors, the CB Trail connecting Appleton and Neenah and more than 13 miles of trail in the city and town of Menasha. That joint effort includes the vaunted Friendship Trail and has been featured as part of the Fox Cities Marathon course.

Further north, the Fox River State Recreation Trail currently connects Green Bay with the Brown County communities of Allouez, De Pere, Rockland, Wrightstown and Holland.

Trail organizers continue to work quietly, but steadily, on future expansions. Last year, for example, Fox Cities Greenways, among several notable endeavors, granted $1,800 to the Friends of the Fox for a structural study of the trestle in the Appleton locks area for a future trail.

The Locks: Halfway There

The Fox Locks themselves prove another case in point for those prone to believe not much has changed along the river. After their heyday of industrial relevance had largely passed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hard-pressed for funds in the early 1980s, put the locks in caretaker status, worked out an agreement with the state to operate them.

Since 1988, only the locks at Menasha, Little Kaukauna and DePere have stayed in continuous operation.

As the other locks showed the ravages of age and time, the Corps developed plans to abandon them. Ultimately, they faced dismantling. Dedicated local efforts prevailed, however, and the Corps eventually turned the locks over to the state for restoration. That came with a hefty price tag of $28.8 million to complete the project, according to Friends of the Fox estimates. The sum includes about $23 million to restore the locks and $5.8 million to keep them staffed and in good working order for the next three decades.

The locks transfer agreement hinged on raising $2.8 million locally to obtain state and federal matches. (The locks restoration has come under the oversight of the Fox River Navigational System Authority).

The Kaukauna and Little Chute locks were stabilized in 2005. The following year, an aquatic, invasive species-monitoring program began at and near the Rapid Croche Sea Lamprey barrier in Wrightstown, according to Friends of the Fox.

The Authority rebuilt Appleton’s four locks in 2006 as the City of Appleton replaced the Olde Oneida Street Bridge. Nearly a year later, the Lawe Street Bridge and the  Canadian National Railroad Bridge at Appleton Lock No. 4 were rebuilt. In 2008, the Cedars Lock and the remaining Little Chute locks were refurbished.

Last fall, design work began on Kaukauna’s Lock No. 5 and current plans call for rebuilding a lock each year, beginning with Lock No. 5 in 2011. Stimulus funds last year also helped with stabilization and exterior work for eight of the historic lock tender’s houses that were part of the Fox Locks system.

New Stature for Our Heritage

Drive along the Valley’s river roads and it is easy to see the changes of the recent past. If the restored locks and rebuilt bridges or new landmarks—such as the span traversing the river on the Friendship Trail or the makeover of the College Avenue Bridge—are not sufficient proof, then look elsewhere. Wander through the Appleton Flats neighborhood and you’ll notice a variety of restaurants, the Paper Discovery Center and Vulcan Park. None of these establishments existed in the late ‘90s.

The Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway also seems on the verge of moving from dream to reality after years of discussion, consensus building and lobbying. The proposed route would be Wisconsin’s first National Heritage Parkway, according to the Friends of the Fox, and it would traverse parts of 15 counties as it retraces the path of Marquette and Joliet’s exploration through Wisconsin to the Mississippi River.

It includes about 1,400 square miles of land in 15 central and southeastern Wisconsin counties, including Brown, Calumet, Columbia, Crawford, Dane, Fond du Lac, Grant, Green Lake, Iowa, Marquette, Outagamie, Richland, Sauk, Waushara and Winnebago.

Sen. Herb Kohl and Rep. Steve Kagen co-sponsored the enabling legislation last July. Since then the Friends of the Fox and their allies have been in talks with Reps. Tom Petri, Reid Ribble and Ron Johnson about ongoing sponsorship or co-sponsorship, according to the group’s latest newsletter. The group is also asking state lawmakers to show their support by backing the measure.

Renewed Purpose

In this highly partisan era, the river remains a place where we can all meet; a treasure in our common best interest to care about. One measure, one structure, one repair, renovation or replacement at a time, the face of the Fox River and the communities of its namesake valley are changing. The transformation may not be as immediate or as thorough as we would like. But look and listen all around: change is afoot and more is coming.

This change is cause for celebration, hope and renewed purpose to make the most of the Fox Cities’ most defining natural resource—the river that runs through us.

—By Jim Pinkham

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