Portage is a city in Columbia County, Wisconsin, United States. The city uses the slogan "Where the North Begins". The population was 9,728 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Columbia County. Portage is 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. Portage is part of the Madison Metro Area
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 9.0 square miles (23.4 km²), of which, 8.3 square miles (21.5 km²) of it is land and 0.7 square miles (1.9 km²) of it (8.09%) is water.
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.
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,” which eventually lends itself to the name of the community, taken from the word the French fur traders used to describe the place, “le portage.” As a portage, this community developed as a center of commerce and trade, and later, a canal was constructed to facilitate this trade. When the railroads came through, it 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 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 hillside which 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.