Appleton originated from a fur trading post that was built in the early 1800s along the Fox River by Hippolyte Grignon. The Fox River is part of the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway, which was an important waterway that connected the Mississippi River with the Great Lakes at the time.
Methodist minister Rev. Reeder Smith wanted to establish a college in the area and obtained funding from Amos Lawrence, a Boston philanthropist that donated money to many colleges and causes at the time. Lawrence University was built, and the settlement of Appleton was formed, which was named after Lawrence’s wife’s family.
Paper mills soon followed due to the timber and proximity to the Fox River, and the world’s first commercial hydroelectric power plant became operational in 1882. The Vulcan Street Power Plant provided power for the first Edison light bulbs outside of the eastern United States. It also powered the first electric street car in the United States that ran until 1930, when buses replaced the street cars.
U.S. 41 developed into the busiest highway in the Fox Valley and received many upgrades. A freeway along the north side of Appleton was built in 1962 and was extended southward through Neenah soon after. In 1975, a bridge over Little Lake Butte Des Mortes provided a major connection for the southern Fox Cities, and became a part of WIS 441/Tri County Expressway. The freeway was finished in 1993 and completed a beltway around Appleton, along with providing the south and east side of Appleton freeway access while fueling growth.