Tomah to Portage, Wisconsin Great American Railroad Journeys


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Tomah to Portage, Wisconsin

Michael Portillo's journey from Minnesota to the Deep South continues. In Tomah, Wisconsin, Michael helps harvest cranberries, an important US crop.


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LineFromTo

I have crossed the Atlantic to ride the railroads

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of North America with my reliable Appleton's guide.

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Published in the late 19th century,

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Appleton's General Guide to North America will direct me to all that's

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novel, beautiful, memorable

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and striking in the United States.

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'As I journey across this vast continent,

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'I'll discover how pioneers and cowboys conquered the West...'

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GUNS SHOTS

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'And how the railroads tied this nation together,

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'helping to create the global superstate of today.'

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I'm concluding that part of my journey that skirts

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the Upper Mississippi.

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I hope to learn how the technology of the region's new inhabitants

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enabled them to tame and to channel

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and to link the waters in order to increase

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the opportunities for trade.

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How the riverscape became a pin-up

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and how the people survived on a diet of berries and circuses.

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'This route began in Minnesota's twin cities,

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'following the Mississippi to the Wisconsin border at La Crosse.

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'I'm now heading for the Great Lakes,

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'where I'll turn south at Milwaukee,

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'bound for America's railway capital, Chicago.

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'I'll follow the route of the historic Illinois Central Railroad,

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'through Centralia,

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'then rejoin the Mississippi

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'to finish my journey in the home of the Blues.

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'Today, I'll start in Tomah, where flooded marshlands bear fruit.

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'Heading east, I'll discover the man who made Wisconsin Dells

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'a magnet for railway tourists.

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'My last stop will be Portage,

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'whose role was crucial in 19th-century navigation.

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'On this journey, I bury myself in the Thanksgiving harvest...'

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We are moving a vast number of cranberries,

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just vast.

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'Take the plunge in the water park capital of the world...'

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'..and find out how railroads spread the joy of the

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'Greatest Show On Earth.'

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Holy whoop-de-doodle, here comes the train and there's an elephant trunk

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sticking out of one of them,

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a clown sitting on the vestibule of another...

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My next stop will be Tomah, Wisconsin.

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Appleton's tells me it's at the crossing

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of the Wisconsin Valley Railroad in a very fertile valley,

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that's probably why the book says that it's a growing village -

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food for thought!

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'I'm alighting here to discover how an ingenious 19th-century farming

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'innovation brought cranberries to the masses.

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'Today, the state of Wisconsin

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'produces more cranberries than any other,

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'about five million, 100lb barrels each year -

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'that's 60% of the United States' entire crop.

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'There are 180,000 acres of cranberry marsh

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'and, at the centre of it all, is the village of Warrens.'

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The cranberry is, if anything, even more American than apple pie,

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since it features as an important component in the Thanksgiving feast.

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Warrens, Wisconsin, is the cranberry capital

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and the cranberry harvest is just beginning.

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I'm grief-stricken to be missing the Cranfest,

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which begins in ten days' time.

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'I've come to Wetherby Farm to meet one of the original founders of the

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'Cranberry Festival, Nodji Van Wychen.'

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-Nodji, hello.

-Hello, Michael.

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-Good to see you.

-Good to be here.

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Now, you are holding a pair of waders, are they for me?

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They certainly are and we're going to put you to work today

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and show you exactly how this whole process is done.

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'Nodji's grandfather started this cranberry farm

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'and her family has now been here for over a century.'

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Where does the cranberry come from?

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Well, the cranberry is native to North America.

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When the early Native Americans and Dutch settlers and so forth were in

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this area, they noticed that the blossom resembled the head

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and neck of a sandhill crane

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and those birds feast in these low-lying areas,

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so they named them "crane-berries" and it was shortened to cranberry,

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which we still call it today.

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So, here we are, a lot of floating cranberries.

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How come, how do they get to this state?

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Well, when we raise the water level up in the bed,

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we're ready for harvest,

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and then we have a mechanical machine called a harrow,

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which has tines in the front and the back.

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As the machine goes through the bed,

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it slips the fruit off the vine

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and they immediately float to the surface of the water.

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'Wisconsin's cranberry farms were established by 19th-century settlers.

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'At first, they picked the berries laboriously by hand,

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'then, in the 1870s, an area was deliberately flooded

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'to create the first cranberry marsh.'

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Your family has been here three generations.

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Um... I mean, how do you feel about the business you're in?

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Oh, it's my life, it's my way of life, I'm passionate about it,

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I grew up here.

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Um... My son and son-in-law are active in the business now,

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I have eight grandchildren

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and it's grandma's dream that one of those kids

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will take over the marsh and be the fifth generation on this marsh.

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'Well, on this, the first day of the harvest, it's all hands to the pump.

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'First, floating booms are used to round up the cranberries

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'before they're pumped into a waiting truck.'

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I'll... I'll get a few sections down, shall I?

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'Producing a litre carton of cranberry juice

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'takes about 1,000 of these berries.'

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We are moving a vast number of cranberries,

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just vast!

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Thank you very much.

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Next Thanksgiving,

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Americans can give thanks to me

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for bringing them their cranberry sauce.

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With tremendous force, the pump is sucking out the cranberries,

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distributing the fruit to the truck, getting rid of the rubbish,

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returning the waste water,

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but it's still very useful to have a couple of guys with a rake!

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'It's an impressive operation and a major part of Wisconsin's economy.'

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'The Empire Builder service travels from Seattle,

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'Washington, in the far north-west...

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'all the way across America to Chicago,

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'a journey of well over 2,000 miles

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'and lasting more than 45 hours.'

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-Excuse me?

-Howdy.

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May I join you a moment?

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-Pardon?

-May I join you a moment?

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-Sure.

-I'm-I'm interested, are you plotting our route on your map?

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Just the route that we're taking here

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over to New York City and, um, I'm just, uh,

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marking off the states I've been to.

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Where did you get on this train?

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Um... Olympia, Washington.

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My goodness! Where are you getting off this train?

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We're going to stop in Chicago and have...

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have a delay of four hours

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and then we're going to get off in New York City.

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And why are you doing that?

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Is it for the joy of travelling by train, or why?

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I'm, uh, travelling with my ex-wife.

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We were going to drive this route.

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The transmission went bad about in here, right here,

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we didn't get too far from home.

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So, we decided to take the train.

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You could have flown this distance in six hours,

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the train's going to take you more than three days.

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Yeah, the train's a lot more fun.

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MICHAEL CHUCKLES

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-Yeah.

-That's great.

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My next stop will be Wisconsin Dells,

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a place long popular with visitors.

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In the late 19th century, thanks to newish technology,

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prospective tourists could not only read about their destinations,

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but they could view their images in black and white.

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'I've arrived at a city on the Wisconsin River

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'lined by striking sandstone gorges and canyons,

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'cut by glacial meltwater thousands of years ago.

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'These beautiful dells are a natural tourist attraction

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'made famous by 19th-century photographer H H Bennett.

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'His studio is still here, managed by David Rambow.'

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Michael. Great to see you.

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David, I get the impression that H H Bennett was a big figure in the

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history of American photography, who was he?

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He started out as a carpenter's

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apprentice and then a carpenter and moved here from Vermont in 1857,

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right before the railroads came here.

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He took up photography, uh,

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quite early after his experiences in the Civil War.

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His right hand was damaged by a bullet,

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so he had to switch trades and do something a little bit easier.

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Very well-known for his landscapes,

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these were all taken around Wisconsin Dells, were they?

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These were all taken within a few miles of here.

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What do you think he did for Wisconsin Dells?

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He literally put Wisconsin Dells on the map

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with railroad travel and with tourism in general.

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'In 1886, this stunning photograph cemented Bennett's fame.

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'Before then, the long exposures required by early cameras had made

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'capturing motion almost impossible.'

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Well, this was an innovation, this was Bennett at his best.

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He, in the late 1880s,

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was dabbling with what he called an instantaneous shutter.

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It was... He called it a "snapper".

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It ran on a rubber band.

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This was actually his son

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that he induced somehow to jump 14 times to get it just right.

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When they first showed this in Chicago,

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people were astonished, they accused him of fraud,

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they wondered where the wires were holding the son,

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but he could show them that he could replicate this and it was real.

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'David has brought me to one of the Dells' most tranquil spots

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'to show me the way that H H Bennett worked.'

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He would have chosen any spot where you could get a good view

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of the rocks and the panorama over the river.

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Right, we're going to be dealing with chemicals, which don't agree with yellow jackets.

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I'm just going to get rid of that.

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So, what do we do?

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OK, first, we choose a nice, clean piece of metal.

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We have to pour something on it that will connect to the silver

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into the metal, and in my case, uh, we use collodion,

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which is a combination of ether, nitrocellulose and grain alcohol.

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Sounds like you might knock yourself out with that.

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I don't smoke near it, that's for certain.

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What you want to do is cover it completely

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without spilling too much, this is precious liquid.

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That's very satisfying, actually, David.

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'David disappears into his mobile darkroom to dip the plate

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'in silver nitrate, which makes it light-sensitive.'

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Bye for now!

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'The film now coating the plate will turn black when exposed to light.

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'A special holder protects it as it's transferred into the camera.'

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You have to remove this little baffle...

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-Ah-ha!

-And that exposes the film to the front, where the light

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-will come in.

-I'm going to remove the lens cap. How long for?

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Um, in this light, probably about five seconds.

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-Will you count me down?

-Certainly.

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Five, four, three,

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two, and clear.

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'The last step is to wash the plate in a solution of potassium cyanide.'

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What will this ghastly compound achieve?

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You'll be starting to see this image turn from what looks like

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a negative into a positive.

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I'm seeing the trees emerging as dark shapes and now, indeed,

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the image is spreading all the way across the plate.

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Now, look at that, David...

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Really, you have produced a beautiful image of the trees

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and the water and would not people have been drawn to Wisconsin Dells

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-by this photograph?

-That was the plan that Bennett had.

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He saw these put into libraries all over the South

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so people would want to be drawn here.

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'In H H Bennett's day, Wisconsin Dells was officially called

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'Kilbourn, named after the president of the railroad,

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'but local people had always referred to it as

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"the Dells," and in 1931,

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'the name was formally changed.

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'By the mid-19th century,

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'holiday-makers who came for the landscape

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'could also enjoy attractions from water-skiing to theme parks.

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'And today, the city bills itself

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'as the water park capital of the world.'

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The resort of Wisconsin Dells

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has changed a bit since the times of H H Bennett,

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but water is still very much the theme and, hey,

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you've got to flow with the times.

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MUSIC: Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner

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Whoo!

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More revealing of a person's character

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than any 19th-century photograph!

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'Before rejoining the railroad,

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'I'm making a detour to another important attraction.

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'A short distance away is Baraboo, a place that,

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'in the late 19th century, became known as Circus City.

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'Today, it's home to a quirky museum

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'with a special draw for the railway enthusiast.'

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Welcome, welcome to Circus World.

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A magical world for me, not only a train shed,

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but a train shed full of circus vehicles.

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Circus train, for sure,

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it's over 600 feet long and it contains a full circus train

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on three different sidings.

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'Former clown and ringmaster, Scott O'Donnell,

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'is the museum's director.'

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Scott, I think this is one of the most extraordinary places

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I've ever been and we're walking on flat railway cars,

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what were these for?

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Uh, the flat cars in the circus were for transporting all of the exciting

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and spectacular circus wagons from town to town.

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These are magnificent wagons that weigh from five to 12 tonnes apiece.

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'Baraboo was home to the five Ringling brothers.

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'They opened their first circus on the site in 1884

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'and started to tour the Midwest.

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'But within six years, they were using the railroad

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'to take their acts much further afield.'

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Paint me a picture of those trains.

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Sure, so the train in its entirety is probably a mile long.

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Uh, it's a combination of flat cars, such as we're walking on,

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and it's a combination of Pullman cars,

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sleeping cars for the performers to live in as well.

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Then there is also some specialised stock cars which took the elephants

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or any of the other exotic animals from town to town.

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'The Ringlings weren't the only circus to use the railroad.

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'In 1872, their fellow Wisconsinite, P T Barnum,

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'famous for creating the Greatest Show On Earth,

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'pioneered the idea of the specially-designed circus train.'

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Is Wisconsin special in the history of American circus?

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It's an important state because it's like a hub to the rest of America.

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You could go east or you could go west.

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It also had good rail infrastructure,

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so that allowed a lot of circuses to be formed here.

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When the circus came to town, it was like a national holiday.

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Schools were let out,

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businesses took the day off because the circus came to town with sights

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and sounds and smells that you'd never seen before.

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Electricity is an attraction when you're at the circus.

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Flying machines, automobiles, recorded sound.

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Whether it's animals in a menagerie,

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whether it's people with some unique physical features in the sideshow,

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you can imagine the awe and excitement that would be found

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at a day at the circus.

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'The Ringling brothers bought Barnum's circus in 1907

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'and still use the railroad.'

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Travelling by train is like the United Nations on rails,

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you could have a Mongolian contortion act,

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next to a Hungarian teeterboard act,

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next to a Brazilian tiger trainer,

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and that's an amazing world to be a part of, especially on rail.

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You get to sit on a vestibule in your train car

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and watch America go by.

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Part of the magic of the circus is you're standing at the side of the

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road, the arms go down for a train coming and holy whoop-de-doodle,

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here comes the train and there's an elephant trunk sticking out

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of one of them, there's a clown sitting on the vestibule of another,

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and that's a great experience.

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Controversially, in Europe, is the use of animals.

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Obviously, they were used in the United States, are they used still?

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Animals are still used in America, not in every circus,

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but on classic or traditional circuses, um...

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We, here at Circus World, have animals with us during the summertime.

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Shall we move along and you can show me some tricks?

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Absolutely.

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Michael, welcome. Welcome to the centre ring.

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We have some fantastic circus wardrobe for you to put on,

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although, by the looks of it, you don't need much other

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than the nose and the hat, but your choice!

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I... I'm going to go for this jacket, cos it's...

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-It's kind of my style.

-Polka-dots are in, absolutely.

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-Good, OK.

-Of course, you can't do nothing without one of these.

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-Oh!

-Ah, how do I look?

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Ta-dah!

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Very fine. Right. Shall we teach you some tricks?

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Yes. Well, you can try to.

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OK. Get yourself a broom and your finger,

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put the broom on your finger and work on your balancing skills.

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It's best when you're balancing just to look at the top,

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so, if it starts to lean one way,

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you come underneath and counterbalance with your finger.

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Right. All I can really see is my...

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-Is my nose.

-Is your nose...

0:20:300:20:32

And you're off.

0:20:320:20:34

Nicely done, look at you sweeping up with these skills!

0:20:340:20:37

Centre ring, here you come.

0:20:370:20:38

My goodness, there's sawdust in your veins, I can tell.

0:20:380:20:41

Back, nose!

0:20:430:20:45

OK, we're going to spin plates with the skills that you just learned

0:20:450:20:48

balancing the broom. So get yourself a plate, get yourself a stick...

0:20:480:20:52

Sit it on the stick and you're going to let it go right around the stick

0:20:520:20:56

until it goes right to the centre and spin around... It does.

0:20:560:21:00

And...go.

0:21:000:21:02

Nice.

0:21:020:21:04

I've spent 30 years of my life working on spin!

0:21:040:21:07

And the circus performer is born.

0:21:080:21:11

Whoa!

0:21:110:21:13

Really nice.

0:21:190:21:20

'There's one more stop on this leg of my journey.

0:21:260:21:30

'A short train ride just 20 minutes east.'

0:21:300:21:33

The Empire Builder train, that left Seattle 44 hours ago,

0:21:430:21:49

is approaching Portage city,

0:21:490:21:51

which Appleton's tells me is situated at the head of navigation

0:21:510:21:55

of the Wisconsin River

0:21:550:21:57

and on the canal connecting the Fox and the Wisconsin

0:21:570:22:01

at a junction of the Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad.

0:22:010:22:07

A portage was a place where you had to carry your boat

0:22:070:22:10

between one body of water and another.

0:22:100:22:13

Ouch!

0:22:130:22:15

TRAIN HORN BLOWS

0:22:150:22:17

Ah! Thanks for the ride.

0:22:210:22:23

So how long is your route? Where do you go backwards and forwards from?

0:22:230:22:26

Between Chicago and Winona, Minnesota.

0:22:260:22:28

How long have you been on the railroad?

0:22:280:22:29

-Uh, eight years.

-Yeah, that's quite a long stint.

0:22:290:22:32

-Eight years.

-So, what do you have to do now as we come into this station?

0:22:320:22:35

I have to tell the engineer when to stop,

0:22:350:22:37

I have to have him stop at a specific point on the platform.

0:22:370:22:40

-OK, I'm going to let you concentrate on that.

-All right.

0:22:400:22:42

So you tell him how many car lengths, is that right?

0:22:420:22:45

Yeah, how many car lengths until I need him to stop.

0:22:450:22:47

Four cars.

0:22:510:22:53

Three.

0:22:540:22:56

Two.

0:22:570:22:59

One.

0:22:590:23:01

-Hope to see you on another ride.

-I hope so too.

0:23:060:23:08

-Bye-bye, now.

-Take care.

0:23:080:23:10

'The canal described in my Appleton's was once a vital link

0:23:220:23:26

'in America's 19th-century system of waterways.

0:23:260:23:30

'I'm hearing the story from amateur historian Fred Galley.'

0:23:300:23:34

-Hello, Fred.

-Hello, Michael. Welcome to Portage.

0:23:340:23:36

-Thank you so much.

-We're happy to have you here.

0:23:360:23:39

And this is the Portage Canal?

0:23:390:23:40

Yes, it is. This first section was built in 1876,

0:23:400:23:44

but the history of the portage goes back some 10,000 years.

0:23:440:23:47

So there was a portage between the Fox River and the Wisconsin River.

0:23:470:23:52

How far were people having to carry their boats?

0:23:520:23:54

A mile and a quarter, that's about 2,000 metres.

0:23:540:23:56

And what sort of land was between the two?

0:23:560:23:59

Well, it was a marshy area.

0:23:590:24:01

'This short section of marsh

0:24:020:24:05

'was the only obstacle to travelling thousands of miles by water.

0:24:050:24:08

'The Fox River is linked to the Great Lakes

0:24:080:24:11

'and thence to the Atlantic Ocean.

0:24:110:24:14

'The Wisconsin River joins the mighty Mississippi, which, in turn,

0:24:140:24:18

'flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.'

0:24:180:24:20

The Native Americans knew about and used this portage,

0:24:200:24:23

who were the first Europeans to do so?

0:24:230:24:25

The first Europeans were Marquette and Joliet.

0:24:250:24:28

They came in 1673,

0:24:280:24:30

they were French explorers and the Indian translators told them

0:24:300:24:33

where the portage was.

0:24:330:24:35

In the heyday of the portage, what was it like?

0:24:350:24:37

Around 1800, the portage really started to be used

0:24:370:24:40

and what it was used for was people travelling west.

0:24:400:24:43

So, at its height, about 1,000 people a year would cross

0:24:430:24:46

the portage and that continued on until the 1830s or even 1840s.

0:24:460:24:52

There were a number of different entrepreneurs that started a livery service.

0:24:520:24:55

And when you pulled up in your boat in the Fox River,

0:24:550:24:59

they would come down and ask you if you wanted help.

0:24:590:25:01

And for 5 or 10,

0:25:010:25:03

they would take all of your stuff and carry it to the other side

0:25:030:25:05

of the Wisconsin River, get you all situated and push you off

0:25:050:25:08

and send you downriver.

0:25:080:25:10

'The waterways were being used increasingly to transport wheat and

0:25:110:25:15

'manufactured goods.

0:25:150:25:17

'Local businessmen began to campaign for a canal in 1829,

0:25:170:25:21

'but it failed due to a lack of funds.

0:25:210:25:24

'Eventually, in the 1870s,

0:25:240:25:26

'the Army Corps of Engineers took on and completed the project.'

0:25:260:25:30

1876 is very late for a canal, because, by then,

0:25:310:25:35

-you've got railroads.

-Right.

0:25:350:25:36

And that kind of caused a lot of problems.

0:25:360:25:39

But what happened was the railroad was a monopoly and they were

0:25:390:25:42

charging just extravagant amounts of money to haul these goods.

0:25:420:25:45

The entire Fox-Wisconsin water system was built

0:25:450:25:48

to make the railroads lower their prices and be accountable, you know,

0:25:480:25:53

give them some competition.

0:25:530:25:54

Thinking back to the days of the portage,

0:25:540:25:57

what do you think it was like for the ordinary person having to lug

0:25:570:26:00

their canoe a mile and a half?

0:26:000:26:02

Well, I've got one sitting right over here, let's give it a try.

0:26:020:26:05

OK!

0:26:050:26:06

And how would you set about carrying that?

0:26:090:26:11

Well...

0:26:110:26:12

So, you grab it like this...

0:26:120:26:14

Then we pick it up and flip it over!

0:26:140:26:17

Oh, hang on, Fred. Hang on, hang on, hang on!

0:26:170:26:20

I think you and I are a bit old for this, don't you?

0:26:200:26:22

-Just a little, yes.

-Look, there's a handle at each end.

0:26:220:26:25

There's a handle at each end, let's try that.

0:26:250:26:27

Let's try that. OK.

0:26:270:26:29

-Hup!

-All right, we're ready to go!

0:26:290:26:32

-OK, how far?

-2,700 paces.

0:26:320:26:34

2,700.

0:26:340:26:36

19, 20, 21, 22...

0:26:370:26:39

That's a long way to 2,700.

0:26:390:26:41

-Hard work, Fred.

-Yes, might be easier if we put it in the canal.

0:26:410:26:45

Now you tell me!

0:26:450:26:47

So, up ahead, Michael, is the Wisconsin River lock.

0:26:510:26:54

How far are we now from the Wisconsin?

0:26:540:26:56

Well, the Wisconsin is just down the other side of this levee, so not far, like, 100 feet.

0:26:560:27:00

Well, Fred, you're right about one thing.

0:27:010:27:03

Paddling a canoe certainly beats carrying a canoe.

0:27:030:27:07

That's correct.

0:27:070:27:09

'The riverscape of North America would have changed hardly at all

0:27:130:27:16

'in the thousands of years that Native Americans

0:27:160:27:19

'hunted and fished this region.

0:27:190:27:23

'The white settlers converted the Mississippi

0:27:230:27:26

'into a major artery for commerce and, later,

0:27:260:27:29

'engineers built this Portage Canal to connect the North Atlantic

0:27:290:27:33

'to the Gulf of Mexico.'

0:27:330:27:35

Railroads, farms, cities and highways followed.

0:27:360:27:40

The taming and development of the Midwest

0:27:400:27:43

offers an extraordinary example of American grit and ingenuity.

0:27:430:27:48

'Next time, I taste the freedom of the American open road.'

0:27:550:27:59

-Ready to ride?

-I'm ready to ride.

0:27:590:28:01

'I'm bowled over.'

0:28:050:28:06

Yay!

0:28:080:28:11

'And learn how innovation delivered a fuel injection...'

0:28:110:28:14

And a little bit of gas.

0:28:140:28:15

'..to 19th-century farming.'

0:28:150:28:17

Michael Portillo continues his journey from the northern state of Minnesota to the Deep South.

Michael reaches Tomah, Wisconsin, where he helps harvest cranberries, an important crop for the US.

Boarding the Empire Builder rail service once again, he travels to Wisconsin Dells, where an innovative photographer first captured motion.

Michael takes a plunge in the waterpark capital of the world and finds a pleasant surprise in Baraboo - the circus is in town and it travels by train. Guided by a former clown and ringmaster, Michael explores the train's spectacular wagons.