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New Kaukauna trail is a walk through local navigation history

When dignitaries cut the ribbon for a new 1.3-mile section of trail along the Kaukauna Locks on Aug. 17, they were inviting the public to walk in the footsteps of pleasure craft owners, paper company workers, pioneer settlers and native people.

The Kaukauna Locks Trail, which follows the north bank of the Fox River from near Lawe Street to the end of Augustine Street, will be as much a walking history lesson as a means of fitness or transportation. Informational signs on the rich history of the locks are still to be added.

The project was assisted by a $300,000 grant from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region’s David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund, created by a bequest of more than $100 million from the De Pere couple.

Curt Detjen, Community Foundation president and CEO, says the project lines up perfectly with the giving priorities outlined by the couple in their estate gift of more than $100 million.

“David grew up in Kaukauna and history was very important to the Nelsons,” Detjen says. “They also wanted to support parks and waterfronts, so this was perfect.”

The five Kaukauna locks were built in the 1850s by immigrant work crews. They are part of the 17-lock system that opened up boat transportation from Lake Winnebago to the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay. Kaukauna’s five locks tamed a 50-foot drop of roaring rapids. The Fox Locks comprise the nation’s only fully restored, hand-operated locks system.

Retired engineering and construction executive Phil Ramlet, recently named executive director of the locks system, calls it Wisconsin’s first public works project following statehood.

Ron Van De Hey, who chairs the board of the Fox River Navigational System Authority and served as Kaukauna’s mayor in the 1980s, says it took cooperation from the state and federal government, local leaders and tireless volunteers to prevent the locks from being filled in 30 years ago, which was the original plan.

The David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation is a permanent, donor-advised endowment that generates millions of dollars in grants annually to charitable organizations reflecting the philanthropic interests of the late David and Rita Nelson and their family, primarily in the Fox Cities and Green Bay areas. These interests include parks, recreation and waterways; education; health care; community services and community centers; historic preservation and history — including lighthouses, museums and historical societies; and community catalyst opportunities. 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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