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Experiencing the Fox River's iconic locks

The Fox River's iconic locks are more than 170 years old, but boaters are able to take advantage of this age-old technology to enjoy the Fox River.
Lock tenders are able to adjust the water pressure on both sides of each lock to send boaters on their way.
Posted at 4:00 AM, Jul 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-07 11:50:15-04

KAUKAUNA (NBC 26) — The Fox River's iconic lock system dates back before Wisconsin was even an official state.

"It's an important part of Wisconsin's heritage, and it's our first public works project for the state. It's one of the original lock systems in the Americas," Fox River Navigational System Authority Executive Director Phil Ramlet said.

Fox River Lock system

Ramlet said nearly 5,000 boaters pass through the Fox Locks every year. Some people travel from all across the world, and they're amazed at how it still works.

"They're surprised number one that the system is 170 years old, and it's still operating. That's kind of neat," Ramlet said.

Everything you see predates the Civil War. At each lock, the water drops about 10 feet, making it easy for boaters to navigate themselves up and down the Fox River.

Fox River Lock System near Kaukauna

Fox Locks Director of Operations, Jeremy Cords, shared an up-close look at the 16 restored locks that span about 25 miles. That includes about 39 miles of the entire original system.

"Water was really the key to living and the key to transport things and the key to traveling," Cords said.

"If you look at it from an economic standpoint, when these locks went in, all of a sudden these villages later become towns and cities. It really opened up the transportation system. It's basically like going from a two-rut trail to almost like Highway 41," Cords said.

The lock system is essentially like an elevator system for the water, and each side represents about a 10-foot difference from one side to the next. All you have to do is pull in, the water evens out, and the gate is ready to open.

Touring the Fox River Lock system

Cords and Ramlet say traffic through the locks has been picking up every year after the system was restored, and it's especially improved following the pandemic.

"We try to be as safe as possible and encourage our boaters, to be patient, hold on to the ropes until the ride is over. Then we open the gates up, and you can motor out," Cords said.

Cords said each lock can fit about eight boats or more than 100 canoes and kayaks.

"Going down is the easiest part. When you go up in the chamber, that's when you really want to be holding on to the rope, because there will be more turbulence from the water rushing in from the upper gates," Cords said.

The process takes a few minutes for lock tenders to adjust the water, and then people are sent on their way.

"Typically what you do is you blow your horn four times, and the lock tenders will open it up, and you can motor in. It takes about 12 revolutions around the tripod to open up the door. The whole lockage from tip to tail takes about 15 minutes," Cords said.

One of the locks remains closed due to help avoid invasive species.