Old man river

Sometimes, when rivers run low and slow, you can get a closer look at the history they hide.

I thought about that yesterday as I took a late afternoon walk along the Fox River. I love that old river because it’s such an excellent testament to both the history and innovation of the cities it helped build.

A goose-stepping guard hissed at me as I neared the Vulcan Hydro-Electric Replica, but I braved the steps anyway.

The Vulcan Replica was commissioned in 1932 to mark the 50th anniversary of hydro-electric power in Appleton. Appleton’s plant began operating just 26 days after Thomas Edison’s first steam plant began operating on Pearl Street in New York, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (I am not a member of this esteemed society. In fact, all I remember frommy college roommates’ mechanical engineering course of study is that I thought Diffy Qs sounded like a hostess snack cake. How hard could it be? So, I felt a little uncomfortable when my friend Google introduced me to ASME last night, but we really hit it off).

Thanks to them, I know this:

On September 30, 1882, an Edison “K” type dynamo produced electricity from a water-powered turbine to light three buildings (two paper mills and the H.J. Rogers home), at rate of about 12 1/2 kilowatts. It is the first Edison hydroelectric central station to serve a system of private and commercial customers in North America. The story of its development provides keen insight into the nation’s first experiences with the electric light.

So, if you do take a walk along Appleton’s Riverfront, you’ll be strolling the same grounds as the risk-takers and innovators who lit the city 140 years ago.

I like to think their spirit lives on.

Four years after the hydro power plant began operating, the Appleton Electric Street Railway Company launched the world’s first commercially successful electric street railway.

And, not coincidentally preceeding all of that cool technology, came the river’s other proud resident, Lawrence University. Founded in 1847 (10 years before the city it raised), Lawrence became the second college in the country to be founded as a co-educational instituion.

Imagine the intellectual conversations those river paths hosted in the 175 since then! And, the music!

And, that dignified old river inspired, absorbed and protected it all.

When the river is this low and slow you can see its history even more clearly. This used to be a train trestle, and now it entertains the pelicans and eagles who flock to the river. Each use of those cement pillars represents progress — one in transportation and the other in a healthy river.
I stopped to see the Vulcan Replica…
But I had a hard time sneaking past this hissing, goose-stepping guard. I did climb up the steps because I will not be intimidated by a goose, but I forgot to take a picture.
It still looks exactly like this and you can picture these dignified (though uncomfortably dressed) people pretty easily as you stroll (or gingerly step so as not to upset the hissing goose) past.
A low, slow river makes an excellent mirror for the institutions it hosts — like Lawrence University.
This restored trestle is historic for two reasons. It was originally built in 1917 and it was the trestle from which my friend, talented photographer Catherine McKenzie, lost and then recovered her camera following a senior photo shoot with Molly. We are waiting for the plaque to mark that historic event.
The views along the Fox never get old, they just get more interesting as the years, and the memories and the lessons roll on.

One thought on “Old man river

  1. This same river runs through the small village where I spent 52 of my 82 years! A lot if history grew along that river from its exit from lake Winnebago to its end in the bay of green bay, (yes know it started someplace else in the state but I am not sure where–i am not a native of Wisconsin and not well versed in Wisconsin history or geography!) When I need some peace and quiet. I often go and sit near the river and just watch it flow by.

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