Remembering Our Past
By Ina Curtis, Author and Historian (1973-1979)
The historical distinction of Portage lies in its unique geographical location between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. Here, the two rivers, one flowing north to the St. Lawrence, the other south to the Mississippi, are separated by a narrow neck of land over which, for two centuries, Indians, missionaries, trappers, traders, adventurers and settlers traveling the waterway had to portage their canoes and heavy packs from one stream to another. The settlement, which grew here because of the resulting traffic, was first known as “Wau-wau-onah,” Winnebago for “carry on the shoulder.” During the French occupation, it was simply “le portage” (from porter: to carry). This was eventually anglicized to Portage.
With the end of the Blackhawk War, European immigration brought to Wisconsin a flood of settlers eager for cheap land. The portage point continued in importance for trade and transportation, and Portage itself grew rapidly as a thriving farm community. The lumber industry brought a tide of hardy woodsmen and rivermen to Portage during its heyday. Agriculture and industry soon took over the lumbering days.
Today the city is a progressive community treasuring the story of its past and anxious and willing to share it with visitors and guests. You will find that while visiting Portage many of our historic sites have been placed on the Historic Register of Places. A self-guided tour of downtown Portage, which includes a map and building description, is available at the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce office.