Open main menu

Portage is a city in and the county seat of Columbia County, Wisconsin, United States.[6] The population was 10,662 at the 2010 census[5] making it the largest city in Columbia County. The city is part of the Madison Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Portage, Wisconsin
Downtown Portage
Downtown Portage
Location of Portage in Columbia County, Wisconsin.
Location of Portage in Columbia County, Wisconsin.
Coordinates: 43°33′N 89°28′W / 43.550°N 89.467°W / 43.550; -89.467Coordinates: 43°33′N 89°28′W / 43.550°N 89.467°W / 43.550; -89.467
Country United States
State Wisconsin
 • Total9.71 sq mi (25.15 km2)
 • Land8.91 sq mi (23.08 km2)
 • Water0.80 sq mi (2.07 km2)
Elevation794 ft (242 m)
 • Total10,324
 • Estimate 
 • Density1,175.16/sq mi (453.74/km2)
Time zoneUTC-6 (Central (CST))
 • Summer (DST)UTC-5 (CDT)
Area code(s)608
FIPS code55-64100[5]
GNIS feature ID1571799[2]

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, Guillaume de L'Isle map, showing the historic portage.
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". This is reflected in indigenous names for the town, such as the Menominee name Kahkāmohnakaneh, which means "at the short cut".[7] 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). 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.[8] 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 sitesEdit


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.[14] 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. In addition to the rivers, the city has access to Swan Lake and Silver Lake.


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.


Census Pop.
Est. 201810,437[4]1.1%
U.S. Decennial Census[15]

2010 censusEdit

As of the census[3] of 2010, there were 10,324 people, 4,060 households, and 2,349 families residing 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.

2000 censusEdit

As of the census[5] of 2000, there were 9,728 people, 3,770 households, and 2,228 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,172.9 people per square mile (453.1/km²). There were 3,970 housing units at an average density of 478.7 per square mile (184.9/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 92.76% White, 3.90% African American, 0.51% Native American, 0.71% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 0.85% from other races, and 1.21% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 3.39% of the population.

There were 3,770 households out of which 30.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 44.5% were married couples living together, 10.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 40.9% were non-families. 34.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.30 and the average family size was 2.96.

In the city, the population was spread out with 23.3% under the age of 18, 10.6% from 18 to 24, 31.7% from 25 to 44, 19.3% from 45 to 64, and 15.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females, there were 106.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 108.7 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $35,815, and the median income for a family was $44,804. Males had a median income of $33,158 versus $23,478 for females. The per capita income for the city was $18,039. About 4.6% of families and 7.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 7.5% of those under age 18 and 7.8% of those age 65 or over.


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.



Wisconsin Department of Corrections operates the Columbia Correctional Institution.


Major highwaysEdit

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.

Intercity busEdit

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.[16]


Notable peopleEdit



  1. ^ "2017 U.S. Gazetteer Files". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved Mar 28, 2019.
  2. ^ a b "US Board on Geographic Names". United States Geological Survey. 2007-10-25. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  3. ^ a b "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  4. ^ a b "Population and Housing Unit Estimates". Retrieved August 14, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  6. ^ "Find a County". National Association of Counties. Retrieved 2011-06-07.
  7. ^ Hoffman, Mike. "Menominee Place Names in Wisconsin". The Menominee Clans Story. Retrieved 2018-10-05.
  8. ^ Jaqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown, The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001, p. 44.
  9. ^ "Museum at the Portage". Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Wisconsin Historical Society. Official List of Wisconsin’s State Historic Markers
  13. ^
  14. ^ "US Gazetteer files 2010". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on 2012-07-02. Retrieved 2012-11-18. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  15. ^ "Census of Population and Housing". Retrieved June 4, 2015.
  16. ^ "Transportation in Portage". Portage Area Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved 2017-02-27.
  17. ^ A. J. Turner (ed.). The Legislative Manual of the State of Wisconsin: Comprising the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Wisconsin, Jefferson's Manual, Forms and Laws for the Regulation of Business, etc. 12th ed. Madison: Atwood and Culver, 1873, p. 441.
  18. ^ 'Wisconsin Blue Book 1899,' Biographical Sketch of Jabez H. Wells, pg. 765

External linksEdit