The Grand River Locks area is located on Lower Locks Road south of Montello east of Highway 22. It is already a popular fishing spot and with improvements made by Marquette County, it’s hoped even more families and visitors will find it a pleasant location to fish, hike, bird watch and picnic. Walking trails have been improved and lengthened along the lock channel and Muirland Bird Club placed swallow houses throughout the area. The area has two boat landings. One puts in on the Fox River and the other on the lock channel which leads back to the Fox River. The area borders on the Grand River Marsh Wildlife Area. The shoreline has been cleaned up to allow for more shore fishing locations and the site also includes a handicapped accessible fishing pier. The new trail along the lock channel affords a view of an Eagle’s nest on the marsh. There are two parking areas. At the present time there are no bathrooms, but consideration is being given to adding some next year. The road into the location has been improved by the Marquette County Highway Department, and a historical kiosk that tells the story of the locks and Fox River has been added.
Take time to read the kiosks which are shown below.
The history of the Grand River Locks begins during the time when river traffic was the main way goods got to market. Wheat, hogs, lumber and more were shipped on barges and steamboats on the Fox River from Green Bay all the way to Portage to the Wisconsin River and onto the Mississippi River. All points in between were heavily travelled by boat and barge. The US Government began plans for improving the Fox River for boat traffic as early as 1829. Dredging to make the channel deeper and straighter and a series of locks to move boats up and down along the river were all in the plans to improve the Fox.
The Montello locks were built in 1868. About ten years after that in 1878/79 the Grand River or lower locks were built. It included two lock gates, a lock channel and a dam on the Fox River to make the river deeper before the locks. Both the dam and the locks were removed after the locks were closed. The site also included a house and outbuildings for the lock tender.
M. D. Leonard was the first lock tender at Grand River and Jerry Parkinson took over from Leonard in 1886. In 1919 Harvey Parkinson, Jerry’s son, became lock tender. As railroads were built, they became the transportation of choice for hauling goods and commercial river traffic decreased. The locks continued to be used by recreational watercraft that included pleasure trips as well as transportation to villages along the Fox. The last big steamboats came through the Grand River lock about 1926. Records from 1940 left by Harvey Parkinson show only recreational craft on the river. The only boats going through the locks on this Parkinson record were row boats, 28 of them, over five days. Only five of them had motors.
In the heyday of river traffic, the locks were busy places. Lock Tenders were government employees, and many lived in government houses at the locks. They kept the grounds spotless and equipment running smoothly. They opened the locks when ships, barges and smaller craft were ready to travel through and they worked closely with the dredges and their crews that constantly moved up and down the Fox River to keep a channel deep enough for ships to pass.
Other records of correspondence between Harvey Parkinson and the Government during his time as lock tender paint a picture of his job after big ship traffic disappeared. In one communication Parkinson clarified his hours of work and what qualified as a power boat as at that time he was only required to open the locks after 10:30 PM for power boats. Reading between the lines, we can conjecture that pleasure boaters or anglers were getting him out of bed late at night to return home. He was told that a canoe or other boat not fitted out properly for a motor (giving great detail about how that was to be), did not qualify as a power boat. Harvey was not obligated to get up and let them through after 10:30. But he was supposed to try to be friendly about it.
Contrast that with the earliest lock records of John Lewis in Montello when the Fox River was the highway of commerce. In 1876, for instance, steamers came through daily carrying lumber, stone, cranberries, potatoes, corn, hams, eggs, butter, shingles, rye, and hides.
At Grand River, Lawrence Heller became lock tender in 1948 and moved to Kaukauna when the Grand River locks closed in 1951. In 1962 the US locks properties were transferred to Wisconsin Conservation Department.
You can learn more about the locks on the historical kiosk that have been installed there. Marquette County paid for the lumber for the kiosk, the Montello Lions built the kiosk and Kathleen McGwin donated and designed the three historical panels. The location will be added to the Marquette County John Muir Nature and History mobile app as an additional site.