A Short History of Milwaukee’s Old Streetcar System
The city once had a dense system with 20 routes that helped change the city. Why did it die and what is its legacy?
After repeated attempts to stall its passage, a new streetcar project was approved for Milwaukee and plans are underway to construct it. As the city embraces this form of transit, its worth looking back to the past and to the decades of experience Milwaukee had with an older form of the streetcar. Whatever happened to the original streetcars? How did they contribute to the life and economy of the city? Are there any lessons to be learned from the historic trolleys?
Milwaukee once boasted a dense streetcar network. At its zenith, with up to 20 routes, one could travel from as far north as Silver Spring Drive in Glendale to as far south as South Milwaukee, and as far west as West Allis or Wauwatosa. There were also interurban lines that took riders out to Waukesha or Watertown to the west; to East Troy, Burlington, southward to Kenosha, and northward to Sheboygan.
The system had humble beginnings. The present North Water Street Bridge to East Juneau Avenue saw the first horse-drawn cars on rails in the city on May 30, 1860. They were cutting-edge at the time but these horsecars suffered from serious disadvantages. The worst was the quality of service, often lacking in both comfort and speed. The horses also struggled pulling their passengers up hills.
The horses needed feed, required adequate rest, were subject to disease — and created a lot of poo. By one estimate, Milwaukee’s 12,500 horses in 1907 produced 133 tons of manure a day. The smell must have been something.
Inventors, including Thomas Edison, worked toward harnessing the power of electricity to replace the need for horses in urban transportation. German Ernst Werner von Siemens was the first to electrically power a train in Berlin in 1881. Later in 1884, native-Belgian Charles J. Van Depoele of Detroit produced the first safe method of powering streetcars by connecting the cars to overhead wiring via a “troller,” as it was first called.
The streetcars would go on to alter Milwaukee and the nation, changing how Americans built their cities, lived, entertained themselves, and conducted business. The streetcar allowed people to live further away from the bustle and pollution of the city. This led to the early growth of suburbs such as Wauwatosa and South Milwaukee.
Eventually the streetcar led to the segregation of how land was used, with a highly centralized Downtown, where most if not all business and entertainment was conducted, surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
This degree of centralization in Milwaukee, like other major American cities, pushed for taller buildings to allow for ever more people to work in the relatively small downtown area. Property in Downtown, as today, was more expensive. And land near the busiest streetcar intersections also had the highest land values.
Only the most lucrative firms could afford to conduct business. That’s why in Milwaukee downtown’s heyday, the department store giants such as Gimbels and Boston Store respectively stood at the busy intersections of West Wisconsin Avenue and Plankinton Avenue, and West Wisconsin Avenue and Fourth Street. Both locations were served by trolleys.
The streetcar became an integral part of life in Milwaukee and most other American cities. It peaked in the years between 1905 and 1915, before widespread use of cars.
So important were the streetcar lines to Milwaukeeans, that the community came together to support a strike against the corporate owners of The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company. The strike began in 1896 when TMER&L’s workers called for higher wages and unionization. TMER&L declined to engage with its employees and brought in strikebreakers.
This was during the Gilded Age, and amidst the rampant corruption typical of the age, the public was in no mood to support wealthy businessmen who were buying their politicians. Milwaukeeans largely boycotted streetcar service. Local hotels would not provide room for the strikebreakers nor would grocers sell their produce. Even then-Mayor William Rauschenberger’s butcher refused him service over the issue. The strike lasted for two long months before some anarchists ended public support through an attack that would be labeled terrorism today. The assailants discharged rifles at two streetcars on successive days in June. Luckily, merely one passenger was injured.
Yet the streetcar would not last as the primary means of transportation in Milwaukee. Nationwide, ridership peaked around 1920 and steadily declined except during World War II. The reasons are many. They include the changing times, the fault of the streetcar companies themselves, and government policy and regulation.
Widespread adoption of gas-powered automobiles hurt ridership. The perception of slow and crowded trolley rides in outdated streetcars also pushed riders away. Many people also preferred buses because they were viewed as the cool new thing. Exacerbating this trend, many streetcars by the 1950s were older. Due to a lack of available capital, urban rail firms were hard-pressed for proper maintenance, let alone upgrading to the latest technology. The decline in riders hurt pushed these companies toward unprofitability.
Changing economics and poor long-term decisions on the part of the urban railways also hurt companies immensely. After World War I transit companies had to contend with a huge inflation of material costs, soaring employee wages, and inability to increase fares from five cents due to contractual obligations to the cities they served. It was also expensive to maintain the portions of the street occupied by the rails as well as the rails themselves.
By this time, due to Progressive Era politics, most states including Wisconsin had public service commissions whose duty was to regulate the street railways on behalf of the public. Before widespread use of autos, people were more limited in how they could get around: walk, horses, or the streetcar. So for the public, affordable use of the speedier streetcar was a vital interest. The flip side of the commissions’ protection of consumer interest was that in many cases regulation overzealously hurt the financial stability of the companies by not taking into account profitability. However, it should be noted that many street railway companies lost much sympathy because they were, as historian Stanley Mallach writes, often “guilty … of monopoly, financial manipulation, corruption, and gouging the public…”
Due to cost concerns, TMER&L established bus routes as early as 1920 to complement streetcar lines. The company believed it more cost-effective in many cases than installing additional rails. The first bus route went down Mitchell Street. No buses replaced streetcar lines until 1926 with the Lisbon Avenue route from Washington Park to Wanderer’s Rest Cemetery, now Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Then, in 1931 buses took over the Oakland Avenue route from Silver Spring Drive to Fox Point.
But it was a labor strike and riot in 1934 which swayed TMER&L’s management to believe streetcars were no longer tenable. TMER&L then committed to complete abandonment of its streetcar lines. The company that is now WE Energies spun off its transit division as The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transit Company. As TMER&T moved away from rail transit service, it still contended with city regulation which likely perpetuated streetcar use longer than the company would have intended.
By 1950 the city was at a crossroads in examining how to proceed on transportation policy. It could push for newer streetcars with the latest technology, switch to trolleybuses tethered to electrical lines, or move toward transit service by gasoline buses. In 1948, Municipal leaders had commissioned a firm, Coverdale & Colpitts Consulting Engineers, to analyze these options to find the best public option.
The study compared Milwaukee and similar Northern cities, it examined demographic changes, the pros and cons of different transportation modes, as well as public preference. The engineers ultimately encouraged the city to fully convert from street railways to trackless transit. This was based on data showing increased public automobile use and declines in non-rush-hour patronage. Data showed Milwaukee’s citizens preferred trackless trolleys (electric-powered buses tethered to power lines) to railed ones, and the firm argued that trackless trolleys were a better technology. Historic documents show city leaders leaned in that direction around the time of the engineering firm’s verdict.
Eventually all the streetcar lines became trackless and those later yielded entirely to the motor buses we know today. The last streetcar ran on March 2, 1958 with many people coming out to give it one last hurrah.
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More about the Milwaukee Streetcar
For more information on project details, how the operator will be selected, what the vehicles will be like, and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.
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- How Streetcar Could Change King Drive - Elizabeth Baker - Oct 5th, 2017
- The Streetcar, Public Safety and Our Budget Crisis An Honest Assessment of Milwaukee’s Status Quo - Ald. Bob Donovan - Oct 4th, 2017
- Alderman Zielinski tells Mayor Barrett: Cut the streetcar, don’t cut protective services - Ald. Tony Zielinski - Sep 27th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Republicans Heap Hate On Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 7th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: City Chooses Streetcar Operator - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 6th, 2017
- Milwaukee Streetcar Construction on Target to Meet Residential Preference Program, DBE Goals - City of Milwaukee Dept. of Public Works - Jul 21st, 2017
- Friday Photos: Streetcar Tracks Getting Road Tested - Jeramey Jannene - Jun 30th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: $30 Million Spent on Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - May 19th, 2017
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: County Gets Waiver on Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 17th, 2017
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: City Won’t Delay Streetcar for County - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 28th, 2017
- Eyes on Milwaukee: County Board Okays Bid for Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 23rd, 2017
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Track Construction Starts in April - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 17th, 2017
- Streetsblog: 80 Transit Projects in 2017 - Angie Schmitt - Feb 6th, 2017
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: Streetcar Project Receives Federal Grant - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 12th, 2016
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Okays Streetcar to Bucks Arena - Jeramey Jannene - Jul 6th, 2016
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- Murphy’s Law: Do Millennials Oppose the Streetcar? - Bruce Murphy - Dec 15th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Pennsylvania Company Wins Streetcar Contract - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 13th, 2015
- Plenty of Horne: City Accepts $14 Million Federal Streetcar Grant - Michael Horne - Oct 29th, 2015
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- Murphy’s Law: The Strange Politics of Anti-Streetcar-ites - Bruce Murphy - Jun 18th, 2015
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- A Short History of Milwaukee’s Old Streetcar System - Ken Smith - Mar 31st, 2015
- Plenty of Horne: Davis Sets, Cancels Meeting on Streetcar - Michael Horne - Mar 17th, 2015
- Back in the News: Anti-Streetcar Petition Drive Fails - Bruce Murphy - Mar 5th, 2015
- Friday Photos: Streetcar Signing Is Quite a Celebration - Michael Horne - Feb 13th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Milwaukee Streetcar Approved - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 10th, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: Who is “Lobbying” For the Streetcar? - Bruce Murphy - Feb 5th, 2015
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- Back in the News: City Attorney Says Streetcar Petitions Might be Moot - Bruce Murphy - Jan 30th, 2015
- Data Wonk: Millennials And The Streetcar - Bruce Thompson - Jan 27th, 2015
- Op-Ed: Why I Support the Streetcar - Russell Rossetto - Jan 26th, 2015
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- Murphy’s Law: Koch-Funded Group Backs Anti-Streetcar Drive - Bruce Murphy - Jan 20th, 2015
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- Murphy’s Law: Who Is Funding the Anti-Streetcar Effort? - Bruce Murphy - Jan 20th, 2015
- Op Ed: Why the Streetcar Won’t Work - Samuel Jensen - Jan 14th, 2015
- Murphy’s Law: Will Anti-Streetcar Referendum Succeed? - Bruce Murphy - Jan 9th, 2015
- The Story Behind the Streetcar Referendum - Michael Horne and Bruce Murphy - Jan 8th, 2015
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Delays Streetcar Until January - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 16th, 2014
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- Eyes on Milwaukee: Committee Approves Milwaukee Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 9th, 2014
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- Back in the News: A Streetcar Named Cooperation? - Dave Reid - Apr 27th, 2014
- Streetsblog: How a Streetcar Spurs Development - Angie Schmitt - Nov 3rd, 2013
- Plenty of Horne: Streetcar Social - Michael Horne - Sep 12th, 2013
- Republicans Move to Kill Milwaukee Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - May 9th, 2013
- Plenty of Horne: Mayor Says Streetcar is “Trojan Horse” - Michael Horne - Apr 17th, 2013
- Streetcar Meeting on Tuesday - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 29th, 2012
- Donovan’s New Anti-Streetcar Allies - Jeramey Jannene - Aug 16th, 2012
- Battle of the Bobs: Donovan vs Bauman Streetcar Press Conference - Jeramey Jannene - May 18th, 2012
- Milwaukee Streetcar Hearing at Frontier Airlines Center - Jeramey Jannene - Nov 15th, 2011
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- Milwaukee Streetcar Takes Key Step Forward - Jeramey Jannene - May 6th, 2010
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- Milwaukee Streetcar Meeting This Thursday - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 5th, 2009
- Downtown Streetcar Open House - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 23rd, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Routes Unveiled by Mayor Barrett - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 21st, 2009
- Common Council Creates Streetcar Committee - Dave Reid - Jun 18th, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up - Jeramey Jannene - Apr 19th, 2009
- Vote For Your Favorite Milwaukee Streetcar Route - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 25th, 2009
- Design Your Own Streetcar Route - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 23rd, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Map - Jeramey Jannene - Mar 21st, 2009
- Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee - Dave Reid - Mar 14th, 2009
- Palomar or Streetcar? - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 22nd, 2009