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Fox River (Wisconsin)


Fox River (Wisconsin)

Fox River
The Wisconsin Route 47 bridge over the Lower Fox River in Appleton
Country United States
State Wisconsin
Part of St. Lawrence River system
 - left Wolf River
Source Near Pardeeville
 - coordinates
Mouth Green Bay / Lake Michigan
 - elevation 577 ft (176 m)
 - coordinates
Length 200 mi (322 km)
Basin 6,429 sq mi (16,651 km2)
 - average 4,132 cu ft/s (117 m3/s)
Map of the Fox River watershed showing the Fox and Wolf rivers
Looking west toward Buffalo Lake in Montello
Looking east at the Upper Fox River in Montello
The Upper Fox River emptying into Lake Winnebago at Oshkosh
The US Highway 41 bridge over the Lake Butte Des Morts just north of the river's entry into Lake Winnebago
The bed of the Lower Fox River in Appleton during bridge repairs

The Fox River is a river in eastern and central Wisconsin in the United States. Along the banks is a chain of cities and villages, including Oshkosh, Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Little Chute, Kimberly, Combined Locks, and Kaukauna. Except for Oshkosh, these cities and villages refer to themselves as the Fox Cities. Further north along the river are the cities of Green Bay and De Pere, and the villages of Ashwaubenon and Allouez; although they are in the Fox River Valley, this grouping of cities and villages does not refer to themselves as Fox Cities. Geographers divide the Fox into two distinct sections, the Upper Fox River, flowing from central Wisconsin into Lake Winnebago, and the Lower Fox River, linking Lake Winnebago to Lake Michigan. Together, the two sections give the Fox River a length of 182 miles (293 km).[1] Counting the distance through Lake Winnebago gives a total of 200 miles (322 km).[1]


  • Geography 1
  • History 2
    • Industrial Revolution 2.1
  • Paper industry 3
  • Environmental issues 4
  • Recreation 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7


The Fox River flows from south to north. The Upper Fox River begins as a small stream northeast of Pardeeville. It flows southwest towards Portage and comes within 2 miles (3 km) of the Wisconsin River before turning north. After flowing past Montello, the river goes northeast until reaching Lake Butte des Morts. Here it is joined by the tributary Wolf River before entering Lake Winnebago at Oshkosh. The Upper Fox flows for a total of 142 miles (229 km).[1]

The Lower Fox begins at the north end of Lake Winnebago, where it flows north past Neenah, Menasha, and Appleton as it begins its 40-mile (64 km)[1] course towards Lake Michigan. The river drops around 164 feet (50 m) over this short stretch, and prior to the construction of European-style dams after 1850, the river had many sizable rapids. The Lower Fox ends after flowing through the city of Green Bay and into Lake Michigan through Green Bay. Altogether, the Fox-Wolf watershed drains an area of about 6,429 square miles (16,650 km2), giving the Fox an average discharge rate of 4132 ft3/s (117 m3/s) into the bay.


Since the recession of the glaciers that once covered much of Wisconsin, the Fox River has supported several Native American cultures, with its fisheries, waterfowl, wild rice, forests, and water. Archaeologists have determined that early peoples lived in the Fox River area as early as 7000 BC.[2]

Prior to European settlement in the late 17th century, the shores of the Fox River and Green Bay were home to roughly half the 25,000 Native Americans who lived in what is today Wisconsin. The first Europeans to reach the Fox were the French, beginning with Jean Nicolet in 1634. In 1673 explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet canoed up the river as far as Portage. Here they made the short portage from the Fox to the Wisconsin River and then canoed on towards the Mississippi River, establishing an important water route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River known as the Fox–Wisconsin Waterway. This route was used frequently by fur traders during the French colonization of the Americas. The French-Canadian men who established homes on the Fox River married First Nation women, producing a mixed-blood population similar to the Metis of Canada.[2]

Industrial Revolution

The Fox-Wisconsin Waterway's importance continued into the 1850s, when the Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company built locks and dams on the Fox and a canal to connect it to the Wisconsin River at Portage.[3] The company was hoping to establish Green Bay as a port city to rival Chicago by making the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway into the principal shipping route between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. However, this goal was never reached, largely because the Upper Fox remained too shallow for significant shipping even after damming and dredging, as well as the completely foreseeable fact that the lakes the narrow, winding stream flows through were frozen solid for five months every year.[2]

Instead of developing as a transportation corridor, the Lower Fox became a center of industry.[3] During the mid 19th century, when Wisconsin was a leading producer of wheat, several flour mills sprang up along the river to harness its abundant water power. During the 1860s, as Wisconsin's wheat production declined, these flour mills were replaced by a growing number of paper mills. The Lower Fox proved an ideal location for paper production, owing to its proximity to lumbering areas that could supply wood pulp to make paper. Several well-known paper companies were founded in cities along the river, including Kimberly-Clark, Northern Paper Mills (creator of Quilted Northern), and the Hoberg Paper Company (creator of Charmin).

Paper industry

The Lower Fox remain a major area for paper production. There are currently 24 paper and pulp mills along the Lower Fox River that produce more than five million tons of paper per year and employ around fifty thousand people. The principal cities located in this valley are Green Bay, Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, DePere, and Kaukauna. While Oshkosh is a major city in the chain, active production of paper products is no longer located there.

Environmental issues

The high concentration of paper mills and other industry along the Lower Fox has historically been the source of much pollution of the river. Public debate about this contamination began as early as 1923, but little was done to improve the river until the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Much effort has since been put into cleaning the Fox, but problems still exist. According to some measures of pollution (e.g. dissolved oxygen, pollution-tolerant worm counts), the Lower Fox River is much cleaner than it was before 1972. However, according to other measures of pollution (e.g., phosphorus, estrogenic compounds, discarded pharmaceuticals), the river waters are slightly more contaminated than before 1972. As a result, debate over the river's contamination continues between environmentalists, the paper industry, Indian tribes, and elected officials at the federal, state and local levels.

While not officially designated as a U.S. Superfund site, the Lower Fox River bottom still has some sections contaminated with toxic chemicals. These contaminated sediments are the river's current environmental problem. One contaminant of special concern today is a group of chemicals called Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. PCBs entered the river from many sources, but the largest deposits of contaminated sediments are traceable to the local paper recycling mills which have been part of the region's history, culture and economy, thus making cleanup a difficult issue.

The U.S. government and State of Wisconsin filed suit on October 14, 2010, against nine paper companies and two municipalities for their failure to pay for PCB cleanup actions to date. The government has not obtained long-term agreements from these organizations for sediment cleanup efforts. The companies named in the suit are NCR Corporation, Appleton Papers, CBC Coating, Kimberly-Clark, Menasha Corporation, NewPage Corporation, Glatfelter, U.S. Paper Mills (Sonoco) and WTM (Wisconsin Tissue Mills). The local agencies being sued are the City of Appleton and Neenah-Menasha Sewerage Commission.[4][5] In 2012, a judge upheld the EPA's plan.[6]

Since the late 19th century, dredging of river bottom sediments has been done to allow large ships to enter the Fox River. The contaminated sediment has been used since the 1960s to fill local wetlands and after 1978 to create an off-shore engineered holding area called Renard Isle, also known as Kidney Island.

Among the wildlife in the Fox River Valley are birds such as mallard ducks and Canada geese, and fish such as walleye.

Early on, parts of the Fox River were used for recreational purposes. This only lasted for a short period of time as the water quality deteriorated, and the water was considered unhealthy.[2] Also, fishing was a huge aspect of life on the water as many fisheries were set up along the river. This remained large for a short period of time but also was soon limited by water pollution and the depleted amount of fish. Restrictions were placed on how many and what kind of fish could be caught.

The Fox River region was dominated by dairy farms that benefited from the rich soil and plentiful water supply. Flowing from south to north, between Lake Winnebago and Green Bay, the Fox River falls through a height equal to that of Niagara Falls. As such, the Fox River was an ideal location for constructing powerful saw mills that made the Fox River area famous for its paper industry. A negative side effect of this industrialization was the dumping of hazardous material byproducts of the paper mills. It was soon after this started that dumping became illegal. While evidence of these waste deposits remains to date, the Fox River is being cleaned up.[7] Dredging of the chemicals in the river began on April 28, 2009 [8][9] and capping started soon after during the summer of 2009, and continues in 2013.[10]


The 25-mile (40 km) Fox River State Recreational Trail is part of the Brown County Park System. The trailhead is in the city of Green Bay where 7 miles (11 km) of paved trail follow the Fox River south through the city of De Pere. Biking, walking, jogging, and rollerblading are among the most popular activities on the trail. The trail also has a section of unpaved terrain that permits horseback riding.[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed December 19, 2011
  2. ^ a b c d Clean Water Action Council. Green Bay, WI. "History of the Fox River and Green Bay." Accessed 2010-10-17.
  3. ^ a b Schultz, Gwen M. (2004). Wisconsin's Foundations: A Review of the State's Geology and Its Influence on Geography and Human Activity, pp. 128-29. The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-19874-X.
  4. ^ Richmond, Todd (2010-10-14). "Feds, Wis. file lawsuit over Fox River cleanup". Chicago Tribune. 
  5. ^ Walter, Tony (2010-10-17). "$1B Fox River PCB cleanup: How will money be spent?". Green Bay Press-Gazette. 
  6. ^ Judge upholds costly Fox River PCB cleanup plan
  7. ^ Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Madison, WI. "The Fox River/Green Bay Cleanup Project." 2008-09-24.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Fox River Superfund Site PCB Sediment Removal, Phase 1 Remedial Action, Operable Units 2-5 Remediation
  10. ^ Lower Fox River and Green Bay Site
  11. ^ "Fox River State Recreational Trail." Accessed 2010-10-17.
  • U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Fox River (Wisconsin)
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