History of the Fox River & Green Bay 

How YOU Can
Help Clean The
River and Bay!

Fox River Home
Index to Site
Recent Additions

Frequent Questions
Media Coverage

PCB Chemistry
Human Health
Wildlife Health
Economic Damage
Corporate Profiles

Sediment Cleanup
Cleanup Technologies

State Government
Federal Government
Local Government
Native Nations

International & Great Lakes
Technical Assistance
Other PCB Sites

Photo Gallery
Political Cartoons

Message Board


Since the time of the glaciers, which receded roughly 10,000 years ago, the Fox River and Green Bay region has supported several Native American cultures with its rich fisheries, waterfowl, wild rice, forests and water. Archeological evidence shows these early people inhabited the Red Banks area on Green Bay’s east shore as far back as 7000 BC.

The first white man, explorer Jean Nicolet, arrived in Green Bay in 1634, only 14 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. He was looking for a new route to the Orient.

He was followed shortly by other explorers, missionaries and fur traders who harvested beaver, otter, and mink for the European and eastern markets. Because of its ideal location, Green Bay was a center for the fur trade for nearly two centuries. The fur trading business peaked as the area’s primary industry in 1834. 

From the mid-1700s to mid-1800s the area was rapidly developed, changing from French, to British and, finally, to American hands.

In 1836, when the land and the region were surveyed and land sales were opened by the United States government, significant changes began to occur --- the development of settlements, population increases, and the expanded use of the land and water. When European immigrants settled in the area around 1848, the Fox River Valley’s agricultural business was established. In the 1880s, three steamboats a week and a steady stream of sailboats docked at the port.

Early settlers concentrated their farming efforts on grain, hay, and subsistence crops until dairying became popular. Today, agriculture is still an important economic factor in the area.

Until the 1860s, residents relied on boats and slow land travel, but then railroads and trains arrived which further speeded development of the region.


In 1927, the Wisconsin State Board of Health reported that raw sewage, oil slicks, wastes from canning factories and paper mills, and dead fish floated along the river’s surface and lower Green Bay. Starting in 1930, Bay Beach, an immensely popular public swimming beach (on the bay just east of the river mouth), was closed several times due to pollution. In 1943, the Green Bay Board of Public Health permanently closed the beach to swimming, one of the earliest beach closings in the country. Today, the beach is still closed.


In 1955, when groundwater supplies were depleted, the City of Green Bay built a pipeline 31 miles (50 km) long to obtain adequate drinking water supplies from Lake Michigan proper off Kewaunee County. Pollution concerns prevented the city from tapping the nearby river and bay for domestic use.

Today, several Brown County towns surrounding the City of Green Bay are considering whether to follow Green Bay’s example and build a second pipeline to Lake Michigan, because their groundwater supplies are also depleted now. The engineering consultant for the Village of Howard confirms that the Bay could be tapped now, due to overall water quality improvements, but treatment to remove PCBs would make this cost-prohibitive. The second pipeline could cost $150 million, plus substantially more in financing costs.

Commercial fishing stocks were once far larger 
and more diverse than at present. At one time, 
Green Bay supported the largest commercial fishery in Wisconsin. Herring and whitefish inhabited the shoals throughout the bay. Trout occurred in the deeper, colder waters of the northern bay. Walleyed pike, pickerel, sturgeon, suckers, bass, perch and catfish swam the shallow marshy waters at the heads of bays and mouths of rivers. This distribution began to undergo changes as early as 1850, when whitefish showed noticeable declines in parts of the bay.

Fishermen who located a large population of fish would simply fish until the stock was used up. The Lake Herring catch peaked in 1905 and never regained its former abundance. Around 1912 the lake trout catch had also begun a slow downward trend. The walleye catch similarly fell off while the sucker harvest began a decline in 1920.  During the peak years, thousands of pounds of fish were packed and smoked or salted to be sent to markets in the East. Hundreds of jobs were provided at the many packing houses.

Sportfishing was also popular early on. One 1856 newspaper article recounts a 2-day sport fishing expedition to Menominee. The fishermen returned with almost 800 lake trout, all between 20 and 30 pounds.

Some fish species were sadly undervalued. At an 1872 price of 25 cents a fish, sturgeon were hardly worth hauling away. So fishermen stacked them on the shore like cordwood and burned them. But the sturgeon soon became valuable for its oil, caviar and air bladders --- used to produce isinglass, a gelatinous material contained in a variety of products including jams and jellies. As stocks were depleted, the sturgeon catch plummeted from over three and a half million pounds in 1880 to about 1,000 pounds in 1900. Today, a sturgeon is a rarity in the bay.


Catches of yellow perch peaked about 1900 with a 
harvest of 6 million pounds.
Pollution was also an early factor in the decline of the fishery. In 1880, a writer noted a large mass of sawdust, two miles broad and many miles long, floating about in the bay. Perch catches were on the decline after 1900.  And when, in the early 1900s, the economic focus of the region shifted from lumber cutting to papermaking, there followed fish die-offs as pulp waste reduced oxygen levels in the lower Fox River and Green Bay.

In the late 1930s, severe oxygen depletion caused by paper mill discharges of oxygen-demanding sulfite liquors (chemical residues of pulping operations) extended 18.6 miles (30 km) up the bay from the mouth of the Fox River.

Up until the 1920s the depletion of fish stocks was a story of pollution and removal of habitat, overfishing and the vagaries of the physical environment. But another factor was added in the 1920s --- introduction of exotic species. The first troublesome newcomer was the German carp, planted throughout the state in the 1880s and 1890s. Today it is well established. Following the carp came the adaptable ocean smelt; then came invasions of the sea lamprey and the alewife through the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the fisheries could only be described as ailing. Lamprey control and introduction of salmon and trout have since given a base for sports fishing in the states bordering Lake Michigan, but most of this activity is out on Lake Michigan proper. As of 1974, lake trout were still not reproducing themselves. Both salmon and lake trout populations remain dependent on yearly restocking programs --- they are there only by the grace of state and federal revenues. Today the Green Bay commercial fishery depends largely on the harvest of alewife for fish meal and other purposes, and on the whitefish harvest in the northernmost reaches of the bay.

More recently, the zebra mussel, spiny water flea, ruffe, white perch, and other new invaders have introduced even more stress into the system.

Because of pollution, overfishing and competition from exotics, several species may be out of the picture: the lake sturgeon and the deepwater ciscoes. The lake sturgeon, sometimes exceeding seven feet and 300 pounds, has been nearly exterminated. It does now receive limited protection under the Endangered and Threatened Species Act of 1973. In addition, the diversity of deepwater cisco (or chub) species that once inhabited the bay has now been essentially reduced to a single species, the bloater chub.

In 1976, commercial catches of yellow perch sold for almost a dollar a pound and, although it wasn’t a very good year, perch from Green Bay still contributed half a million dollars to Wisconsin’s economy. Today, the state is considering closing the yellow perch commercial and sport fishery on Green Bay due to recent severe population declines in the fish.

As the forests were logged off, farmers moved in to plant wheat, oats and vegetables. Early agriculture in the region was dominated by wheat farming. In 1855, 168,000 barrels of flour were shipped out of Green Bay. After wheat, farmers turned to raising livestock. By the turn of the 20th century, the Fox River Valley and the lower Wolf had become major dairy and cheese-producing areas. In 1883, just one cheese company made 80,000 pounds of cheese, and by 1885, they produced nearly a million pounds. 

The valley also had good agricultural soils to support vegetable production and corn. Poor soils of the northern areas of the basin make agriculture more difficult. There is now a trend toward reversion of this land to forest. The decline of farm acreage is probably a fairly permanent net loss of farmland. Farms are now, however, practicing a more intensive agriculture which depends heavily on fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization.

Agriculture in the watershed has a number of impacts on the bay itself. For example, as the number of cows per dairy herd increases, there is an increased concentration of animal wastes on the land. Rural runoff is the major phosphorus contributor to the Fox River during the spring. Most of it comes from animal waste washed off the frozen fields during a few weeks of spring rain and snowmelt.

Even minor soil erosion in such a large watershed has a significant impact on the sediment sink area, that is, the bay. Thus, rapid filling of the lower bay has occurred. 


Research started in 1969 uncovered major manganese deposits in the form of small pellets in the upper bay. The deposits have a relatively low percentage of manganese compared to other freshwater deposits, and they are lacking in other trace elements that have commercial value. Present foreign sources of manganese are less expensive, but the Green Bay deposits can be considered a reserve and underwater mining is not out of the question. The special value of this deposit is that the manganese occurs in a pellet form, making it an ideal catalyst.   [However, mining the bay bottom could disturb the buried PCBs, and other chemicals, and recontaminate the bay.]

In the northwest portion of the Green Bay drainage basin lies a large region of metallic sulfide bearing bedrock, rich in many valuable minerals and metals. Several mining operations have been proposed, with the biggest being the Crandon Mine proposal near Mole Lake at the headwaters of the Wolf River, which flows into Lake Winnebago and finally the Fox River and Green Bay. Citizen concerns have halted this project for more than 20 years, due to the potential for catastrophic acid mine drainage, wastewater discharges, wetland and forest destruction, groundwater contamination and depletion, dried lakes, and severe cultural impacts. For more information on this issue, please visit these sites:

Go to History of Fox River and Green Bay - page 2

Back to History

Back to top

Fox River Watch is a project of

Clean Water Action Council
1270 Main Street, Suite 120, Green Bay, WI 54302 
Phone: 920-437-7304, Fax: 920-437-7326 
E-mail:  CleanWater@cwac.net

CONTENT BY: Rebecca Leighton Katers
WEB DESIGN BY:  DataScouts