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Fox River Lock System will soon sport a new visitor center

A new Fox Locks Visitor Center will be built next year along Lawe Street in Appleton, giving visitors a hands-on opportunity to learn about the history of the Fox River’s 17 lock systems. 


By Jeremy Cords, CEO, Fox River Navigation System Authority

We are thrilled to have received a $300,000 lead gift from the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation to help underwrite the construction of a visitor center for the Fox River Lock System.

Jeremy Cords

The visitor center will be an interactive place designed to preserve the historic importance of the lock system, the cultural heritage of the region, enhance future tourism, and contribute to the economic development of the entire area.

The project has been in development for several years, but we are close to finalizing design and starting a more broad fundraising effort. The Board of the Fox River Navigation System Authority has set aside $750,000 of the authority’s funds for the project, and we are hoping to raise the remainder of the funding from past donors and supporters in the community. The total cost of the project is estimated at $3 million.

Artist’s conception of the Fox Locks Visitor Center.

The Fox River lock system is the only fully restored, hand-operated lock system in the United States and it is a true gem of Northeast Wisconsin. We decided to build the visitor center at Appleton’s Lock 3 because of the proximity to downtown Appleton and other riverfront attractions. The site also provides us with enough room for a multi-use building.

One of the Fox River’s 17 lock and dam systems. Photo courtesy of Fox River Navigation System Authority.

The visitor center will be a three-story building with exhibits on the main floor and commercial space on upper floors. Exhibits will show Wisconsin’s native peoples and their settlements along the Fox River, how explorers and fur traders established settlements, how settlers used cargo boats to portage the river rapids, and how a system of dams, locks and channels were created to improve navigation on the lower Fox River. The center will highlight the immigrants who built the lock system in the 1850s and the growth of industries along the river.

Central to the experience will be learning how the locks work. A system of valves and gears operates the giant lock doors and gravity fills the lock chambers with water. Not many people realize that the river drops 168 feet in elevation over 39 miles—that’s a little more than the height of Niagara Falls!  The only way to travel the river was to create a series of locks and dams first constructed when Wisconsin became a state. Now, the 17 locks are fully restored for public use at a cost of close to $15 million.

We anticipate breaking ground in late 2019 or in 2020. If you’re interested in supporting this community effort, please visit our website.


Who were the Nelsons? Learn more about the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund and find out more about this couple here.

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