Villard Ave. Salutes City’s Transit History
So does Aldrich St. But these were two wildly different transportation companies.
Arthur Aldrich and Henry Villard both have Milwaukee streets named for them. They were also in the same business – transportation. But they were poles apart in their approaches to providing the public with ways to get around town and had vastly different levels of success.
Arthur Aldrich, the son of New Englanders, was born in Detroit in 1831, and in 1836 his family was among the earliest Yankee settlers to arrive in Milwaukee. As an adult he worked at quite a few jobs, none of them for very long. He was a fireman for a while, then ran a vegetable stand for a short time and subsequently operated a meat market on Mason Street. He was a gardener, a bar owner, a cattle broker, and a postal agent as well as the owner of an erratic bus service.
It was called Aldrich’s Omnibus Line, and was a horse-drawn bus service between Bay View and Downtown in the mid-1870s. His route, when he showed up, was from the Kinnickinnic River to the city’s center and back. His customers complained of being stranded Downtown when Aldrich decided to go home before the agreed upon time. Aldrich said if his customers didn’t like his service, they shouldn’t use it. So they didn’t, and before too long he was driven out of business by a punctual competitor.
After that failure Aldrich served as a deputy sheriff until his retirement. Over the years (he lived in Milwaukee for more than six decades), Aldrich made the newspapers when he shot a man in a bar fight on Broadway. He was not charged. Another time, he was charged and fined $100 for gambling, and when he assaulted a Third Ward man he was fined $25. Aldrich Street, a short residential street near his home and the south end of his short-lived bus route (it runs between Bay St. and E. Lincoln Ave.) was named in 1876 when he subdivided his land. Aldrich died in 1906 and is buried in Forest Home Cemetery.
About the time that the Aldrich family was settling in Milwaukee, Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard was born in Bavaria, Germany. As a teenager he left Germany due to differences of opinion with his father over his upbringing. After arriving in the United States he changed his name to Henry Villard to avoid being found by his wealthy father.
Villard never lived in Milwaukee but he came here from Chicago at the age of 21 to sell books of American literature to the city’s German citizens. But the deck was stacked against Villard. Many immigrants from his homeland were more interested in German literature than American and most of them could not speak English, much less read it. Villard left town after three weeks with his expenses exceeding his sales. He later gained fame as a Civil War correspondent for Eastern newspapers and followed that with a career as a financier, and owned railroads and street railways throughout the country.
When Villard purchased five Milwaukee electric utilities and streetcar companies in the late 1880s he created a virtual monopoly which was the forerunner of today’s We Energies. His streetcar lines were much more customer service oriented than Aldrich’s failed line and were much more successful. Over time, horses were retired and replaced by electric motors. New routes were added and others were improved. In addition, the merging of the streetcar systems provided a transportation network that allowed Milwaukeeans to travel from one side of the city to the other without paying multiple fares.
In 1892 Henry Clay Payne, Vice President of the Milwaukee Street Railway, named Villard Avenue, an east-west arterial on the north side, after his boss. Villard, also the founder of the General Electric Company, died in 1900 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
Along Villard Avenue
Along Aldrich Street
Carl Baehr, a Milwaukee native, is the author of Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind their Names, and articles on local history topics. He has done extensive historic research for his upcoming book, Dreams and Disasters: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee. Baehr, a professional genealogist and historical researcher, gives talks on these subjects and on researching Catholic sacramental record