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Portage, Wisconsin
Downtown Portage
Downtown Portage
“Where the North Begins”
Location of Portage in Columbia County, Wisconsin.
Location of Portage in Columbia County, Wisconsin.
Country  United States
State  Wisconsin
County Columbia
Settled 1851
 • Total 9.71 sq mi (25.14 km2)
 • Land 8.91 sq mi (23.07 km2)
 • Water 0.80 sq mi (2.07 km2)
794 ft (242 m)
 • Total 10,581
 • Estimate 
 • Density 1,167.51/sq mi (450.80/km2)
Time zone UTC-6 (Central (CST))
 • Summer (DST) UTC-5 (CDT)
ZIP Code
Area code(s) 608
FIPS code 55-64100
GNIS feature ID 1571799

Portage is a city in and the county seat of Columbia County, Wisconsin, United States. The population was 10,581 at the 2020 census making it the largest city in Columbia County. The city is part of the Madison Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Portage was named for the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway, a portage between the Fox River and the Wisconsin River, which was recognized by Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet during their discovery of a route to the Mississippi River in 1673. The city's slogan is "Where the North Begins."


Wisconsin in 1718
Wisconsin in 1718, Guillaume de L'Isle map, showing the historic portage.
Portage WIS
Portage station, c.1900

The Native American tribes that once lived here, and later the European traders and settlers, took advantage of the lowlands between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers as a natural "portage". In May 1673, Jacques Marquette joined the expedition of Louis Jolliet, a French-Canadian explorer, to find the Mississippi River. They departed from St. Ignace on May 17, with two canoes and five voyageurs of French-Indian ancestry (Métis).[3] They followed Lake Michigan to Green Bay and up the Fox River, nearly to its headwaters. From there, they were told to portage their canoes a distance of slightly less than two miles through marsh and oak plains to the Wisconsin River. Later, French fur traders described the place as "le portage", which eventually lent itself to the name of the community. As a portage, this community developed as a center of commerce and trade; later, a canal was constructed to facilitate this trade. When the railroads came through, the community continued in this role.

Portage emerged at this place because of its unique position along the one and a half mile strip of marshy floodplain between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. By the end of the 17th century, the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, linked at The Portage, served as the major fur trade thoroughfare between Green Bay and Prairie du Chien. It was not until the 1780s and 1790s that traders built their posts and warehouses at each end of The Portage. In the early 19th century Portage was primarily populated by Métis. In 1828, the federal government recognized the strategic economic importance of The Portage and built Fort Winnebago at the Fox River end. After 15 years of controversy, Winnebago settlement (now Portage) won the county seat in 1851. The community incorporated as Portage City in 1854.

The Portage business district lies along a hill that overlooks the Portage Canal. The buildings now in the city's downtown were once part of a bustling, urban commercial center serving a large region across north central Wisconsin. The building of the city paralleled its commercial prominence between the end of the American Civil War and the second decade of the 20th century.

Historic sites

  • Fort Winnebago Surgeon's Quarters Historic Site
  • Old Indian Agency House
  • Zona Gale House
  • Museum at the Portage
  • Wisconsin American Legion Museum and Learning Center
  • Portage Canal Society
  • Historic Portage Canal
  • World War II History Museum
  • Wisconsin State Historical Markers in Portage
  • Veterans memorials
    • Revolutionary War Veteran (Cooper Pixley and Alexander Porter)
    • To Honor Pierre Pauquette
    • To the Memory of Our Historic Dead
  • Daughters of the American Revolution Historic Markers
    • Site of Fort Winnebago / Surrender of Red Bird
    • Pierre Pauquette and East End of Wauona Trail
    • Landing Place of the Ferry Built by Pierre Pauquette


Portage Wisconsin aerial view
Aerial view of Portage, Wisconsin

Portage lies in the Wisconsin River valley. The city is surrounded by prairies and grasslands. Approximately three miles (5 km) west of the city are the Baraboo bluffs. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 9.62 square miles (24.92 km2), of which, 8.82 square miles (22.84 km2) is land and 0.80 square miles (2.07 km2) is water. The location of the town at the split of the Wisconsin and Fox river is what gives it the name "Portage", which means carrying a boat of its cargo between two navigable waters.


When Portage was first established, the streets were laid out on a traditional grid system. Today, the streets of the outlying city are contorted as a result of the many marshes and lowlands that run through much of Columbia County. The northern side of the city thus looks different from the central city, with the organized grid street system giving way to a more suburban streetscape with a lower housing density.

The city has two commercial areas. One is the downtown historic district, which features several small boutique shops and restaurants; the other is the Northridge commercial area that features big box stores. In the summer of 2007, the Portage Canal was cleaned up and now features a bike path that runs alongside part of it. In the summer of 2008, the main downtown street was redone. Historical landmarks of the city include the Museum at the Portage, the Indian Agency house, and the Surgeons Quarters.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1850 603
1860 2,879 377.4%
1870 3,945 37.0%
1880 4,346 10.2%
1890 5,143 18.3%
1900 5,459 6.1%
1910 5,440 −0.3%
1920 5,582 2.6%
1930 6,308 13.0%
1940 7,016 11.2%
1950 7,334 4.5%
1960 7,822 6.7%
1970 7,821 0.0%
1980 7,896 1.0%
1990 8,640 9.4%
2000 9,728 12.6%
2010 10,324 6.1%
2020 10,581 2.5%
U.S. Decennial Census

2010 census

As of the census of 2010, there were 10,324 people, 4,060 households, and 2,349 families living in the city. The population density was 1,170.5 inhabitants per square mile (451.9/km2). There were 4,493 housing units at an average density of 509.4 per square mile (196.7/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 90.9% White, 5.0% African American, 0.9% Native American, 0.8% Asian, 0.7% from other races, and 1.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 4.0% of the population.

There were 4,060 households, of which 31.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 40.5% were married couples living together, 11.9% had a female householder with no husband present, 5.4% had a male householder with no wife present, and 42.1% were non-families. 34.8% of all households were made up of individuals, and 14.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.27 and the average family size was 2.90.

The median age in the city was 37.2 years. 22.1% of residents were under the age of 18; 8.6% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 30.6% were from 25 to 44; 24.8% were from 45 to 64; and 13.9% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 53.7% male and 46.3% female.


Portage High School, 1911

Portage Community School District serves Portage.

Portage High School (Wisconsin) was recently upgraded to a larger building, with the older high school building now housing the Wayne E. Bartels Middle School. Portage has three elementary schools: John Muir, Woodridge, and Rusch. Three rural elementary schools serve three of the towns in Columbia County: Lewiston, Fort Winnebago, and Caledonia. There are also two private schools: St. John's Lutheran and St. Mary's Catholic Schools. The Madison Area Technical College, also has a campus located in Portage.

The Portage scheme of support for children with special educational needs was developed in the city.



Wisconsin Department of Corrections operates the Columbia Correctional Institution.


Major highways

Three interstate highways, Interstate 94, Interstate 90, and Interstate 39 run past Portage, giving the city a 30-minute commute to Madison and 15-minute commute to Wisconsin Dells. The city also lies only a few hours from Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis/ Saint Paul, Minnesota.


Portage is served by Amtrak's Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle or Portland, with a train stopping there in each direction every day.

  • Portage (Amtrak station)

Intercity bus

Portage is served by intercity bus from Milwaukee via Madison and to Wisconsin Rapids via Stevens Point, with a bus stopping in each direction daily at the Portage station.

  • List of intercity bus stops in Wisconsin


  • Portage Municipal Airport (C47) serves the city and surrounding communities.

Notable people

  • Earl Abell, member of the College Football Hall of Fame
  • Alvin Alden, Wisconsin politician
  • Walt Ambrose, NFL player
  • Josiah D. Arnold, Wisconsin politician
  • Levi W. Barden, Wisconsin politician
  • Everett Bidwell, Wisconsin politician
  • Peter J. Boylan, U.S. Army general, President of Georgia Military College
  • Ben Brancel, Wisconsin politician
  • Samuel S. Brannan, Wisconsin politician and newspaper editor
  • Llywelyn Breese, Wisconsin politician, former Secretary of State
  • Guy W.S. Castle, Medal of Honor recipient
  • Maureen Clark, U.S. Olympian
  • William W. Corning, Wisconsin politician
  • Luther S. Dixon, Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court
  • Thomas E. Fairchild, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals
  • Russel C. Falconer, Wisconsin politician
  • Zona Gale, writer, Pulitzer Prize winner (first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, 1921)
  • Charles Randall Gallett, Wisconsin politician
  • B. Frank Goodell, Wisconsin politician
  • Henry Gunderson, Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin
  • Joshua James Guppey, Union Army general
  • Frank A. Haskell, Union Army colonel, author of a noted account of the Battle of Gettysburg
  • Philip Hayes, U.S. Army general
  • Charles W. Henney, U.S. Representative
  • John Edward Kelley, U.S. Representative from South Dakota
  • Herman Lange, Wisconsin politician
  • Margery Latimer, writer
  • James J. Lindsay, U.S. Army general
  • Wellington Porter McFail, aviator
  • Hugh McFarlane, Wisconsin politician
  • John Muir, naturalist
  • William Owen, Wisconsin politician
  • Russell W. Peterson, former Governor of Delaware
  • Russ Rebholz, head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame; head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers men's basketball team
  • Ferdinand Schulze, Wisconsin politician
  • Mike Thompson, NFL player
  • Andrew Jackson Turner, writer, newspaper editor, politician
  • Frederick Jackson Turner, historian, Pulitzer Prize winner
  • Samuel K. Vaughan, Union Army general
  • Joan Wade, Wisconsin politician
  • Jabez H. Wells, Wisconsin politician
  • Yellow Thunder, chief of the Ho-Chunk (or Winnebago) tribe

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