Rock River History – The Milwaukee and Rock River Canal

Have you ever heard of the the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal? That’s because it never happened!

In 1836 the Milwaukee & Rock River Canal company envisioned creating a canal that would connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River by way of the Rock River. Until the railroad was established and built in Wisconsin, water transportation was the primary way to transport people and goods between the new territory to the rest of the settled world.An estimate made in detail by Increase A. Lapham placed the entire cost of constructing the canal, including locks, at about $725,000.

Lapham surveyed the land and planned the canal. One of Lapham’s survey drawings in 1837 shows the proposed canal would enter the Rock River at Jefferson and a later one in 1878 shows the final location as Fort Atkinson. Building began, but in 1844, after only one mile of digging and the construction of a dam across the Milwaukee River (East of where the Humboldt Ave. bridge is today), the project failed. Why? The railroad was deemed a more economical way to move goods and would soon be coming to Wisconsin. This was the chief influence in deciding to abandon the canal project.

By 1857, the first railroad from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi was complete. Soon after, a line from Milwaukee to La Crosse opened, and other lines were extended into it north from Chicago.

The Rock River and its communities has a fascinating history. Plan a historical adventure on the Rock River History Trail! 

1837 Map
1838 Map
History of WI Railroad: