History and Photos
As an archival museum for Milwaukee's transit history, our focus is not upon railroads or even trolleys in general, but specifically upon the interurban, street railway, trackless trolley and motor bus lines which served the metropolitan Milwaukee area and southeastern Wisconsin. With particular emphasis on the Milwaukee Electric and North Shore Lines, these range from the horsecars of the Milwaukee Street Railway and others, to the present Milwaukee County Transit System.
North Shore Line
NORTH SHORE LINE (BLUFF CITY ELECTRIC STREET RY. CO., C&ME, CNS&M)
The North Shore offered high speed interurban service between Milwaukee and Chicago, featuring named trains, parlor car and dining service, merchandise despatch and other freight operations. Organized in 1891 as the Waukegan & North Shore Rapid Transit Co., operations lasted from 1895 as the Bluff City Electric Street Ry. Co. to the lines abandonment on January 21, 1963. It also operated city streetcar service in Waukegan and in Milwaukee. Such service ceased in Waukegan and North Chicago in November, 1947, and ended in Milwaukee in August, 1951.
Milwaukee, Racine & Kenosha Electric Railway Co.
MILWAUKEE, RACINE & KENOSHA (MR&K) ELECTRIC RAILWAY CO.
The MR&K was the first interurban line built in the Milwaukee area. Service began in 1897 between South Milwaukee and Racine, and later from downtown Milwaukee to Kenosha. The original roadside operation along the old Chicago Road was completely rebuilt from 1925 to 1932 to largely run on private-right-of-way. Plans to extend the line to Chicago were trumped by the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad.
The Depression's effects, labor strikes of 1934, slow street running on Milwaukee's south side, and rider complaints about poor track maintenance led to the sale of the line in 1943-44 in sections to what became the Kenosha Motor Coach Lines (KMCL). After wartime restrictions were lifted, the KMCL started a competing bus service, leading to a cutback of rail service to Racine on September 13, 1947, and the line's complete abandonment on December 31st.
Milwaukee Northern Railway (MNRy)
Initially developed in 1905 by Detroit interests with Milwaukee connections, the Milwaukee Northern began interurban service in 1907 from its Milwaukee station at N. 5th and W. Wells Streets to Cedarburg and Port Washington, and in 1908 to Sheboygan. The line also ran local streetcar service in Milwaukee from 1907 until 1928 between downtown and N. 6th & Atkinson Av., with alternating cars continuing either to 20th St., or north on 6th St. to Lindwurm (now Lincoln) Park.
The MNRy was acquired by T.M.E.R.& L. Co. in 1922 and operated as a subsidiary until its full merger into the TM system in 1928. 1923 saw parlor car service instituted, and operations shifted to TM's Public Service Building in downtown Milwaukee. In 1940, the line from Sheboygan to Port Washington was curtailed. Full abandonment came in 1948, except for operations in and around the Port Washington Power Plant which were continued by the Wisconsin Electric Power Co. until the mid-1970s.
Milwaukee Electric Lines
City and Suburban Lines
Street railways in Milwaukee began with the horse car. The first, the River & Lake Shore City Railway Co., opened in May, 1860, along what is now North Water Street. Westsiders demanded their own street railway, so in 1865, the Milwaukee City Railway Co. was born. New owners in the 1870s and 80s moved the original Water Street line to the west side of the river. Eastsiders organized their own horse car company, the Cream City Railroad. Their first line ran from downtown to the Farwell Avenue carbarn. A South Side line ran to a second carbarn at Mitchell Street and Kinnickinnic Avenue. Cream City pioneered heated cars in winter, girder rail and automatic switches in the city.
Rapid growth west of downtown led to the creation of yet another horse car line in 1874, the West Side Street Railway Co., with a line on Grand Avenue and Wells Street from the river to 22nd Street, and later to 34th Street to the west, and the C&NW depot to the east. 1890 brought electrification to Milwaukee, with the first electric car operated on the Wells Street line of the West Side Street Railroad Co. Consolidations continued into the 1890s, with the Milwaukee Street Railway emerging as a leader by 1893. By 1894, all horse car lines were converted to electric operation with new, larger cars. The Commerce Street Power Plant, constructed in 1892, supplied commercial power to downtown as well as the street railway system.
In 1896, the Milwaukee Street Railway Co. foreclosed, and was sold to new owners organized as The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Co. (TMER&L). With the automobile still only for the rich, the trolley was the mode of city transit for nearly everyone in the early 1900s. Larger, heavier cars were added to meet the demands of an expanding city and WWI wartime traffic. Soon, one-man lightweight cars in orange & cream replaced conductors assisting motormen in the heavier ones. To promote ridership during the Depression, weekly shopper passes, unlimited transfers and Sunday passes were pioneered in the early 1930s. A violent strike by streetcar workers in 1934 led to public demands to break up the T.M.E.R.& L. system into its various parts.
Interurban Lines (Milwaukee Electric Lines)
The interurban provided a comfortable, swift mode of transit between cities, free from the dirt and cinders of the railroads. Stops were more frequent, and lines usually went to the center of towns. The first true interurban line in the area was the Milwaukee, Racine & Kenosha Electric Railway, completed in 1897. By 1900, TMER&L Co. took over this 23 mile line, and the Milwaukee interurban era had begun. Lines were acquired and/or built to distant cities, resorts and lakes, such as the spas and springs of Waukesha, Waukesha Beach and Muskego Beach.
At its peak in the early 1930s, the TM had interurban lines radiating from Milwaukee to Sheboygan, Watertown, East Troy, Burlington and Racine-Kenosha, with over 200 miles of trackage on the third fastest interurban railway in the U.S. A modernization program in the 1920s and 30s saw the building of a private-right-of-way Rapid Transit line 7 ½ miles to the west of Milwaukee which included a never built subway into downtown. But in the late 1930s, led by the Depression, increased competition from autos and buses, and a series of labor riots in 1934, curtailments became the rule. One by one, lines were cut back and then abandoned. Due to gas rationing and tire shortages during World War II, ridership temporarily increased in the early 40s, only postponing the inevitable.
The Transport Company Era
A forced reorganization in 1938 separated the T.M.E.R.& L. properties into the parent utility company as the Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WEPCo), and a wholly owned transit subsidiary, The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transport Co. (TMER&T). Twelve years prior, the first motor bus replaced a streetcar line in Milwaukee, and over time cutbacks of streetcar service became common. The first trackless trolley bus service came on the North Avenue Line in 1936. Other conversions to these rubber-tired buses powered by overhead wire followed, again often replacing streetcars in cutback stages.
By 1951, motor bus service had been extended to the suburban areas of the Airport, Cudahy and South Milwaukee to the SE; Greendale to the SW; West Allis, Wauwatosa and Elm Grove to the W; and the Town of Granville to the NW. TMER&T Co. then consisted of:
- 433 buses over 312 routes + 2 Green Bus lines covering 177 miles
- 400 trackless trolley coaches over 8 routes covering 54 miles
- 276 streetcars over 8 car lines covering 59 miles.
In 1952, WEPCo sold its transit subsidiary to a new entity, the Milwaukee & Suburban Transport Corporation (M&ST Corp.), which took over the city's transit operations a year later. Committed to the complete replacement of streetcars in favor of diesel buses, the last streetcar revenue run in Milwaukee occurred March 2, 1958 on the Route 10 Wells Street line. Eventually, trackless trolleys similarly were replaced, with the last run occurring June 19, 1965 on the Route 18 National Avenue line.
In March 1964, shortly after completion of the first freeway link to the suburbs, a new bus service called the Freeway Flyer was instituted. The Flyer proved to be an instant success running between Mayfair Shopping Center in Wauwatosa and Downtown Milwaukee. Over the years, a dozen or more routes were created, effectively luring drivers from their autos for commuting and along special routes to the Stadium, Summerfest grounds and others.
Milwaukee Rapid Transit and Speedrail
Passing from the Transport Company in 1946, through the Kenosha Motor Coach Lines, Northland Greyhound Lines and the Racine Motor Coach Lines, Milwaukee's remaining interurban rail service was sold in 1949 to a group of investors led by Jay Maeder who formed the Milwaukee Rapid Transit & Speedrail Co. Known by locals as the Rapid Transit Line, it operated west to Waukesha and southwest to Hales Corners, and represented the last remaining vestiges of the once sprawling TMER&L Co. interurban network.
Several improvements in service kept loyal rail passengers riding the line. Six lightweight cars were purchased second-hand to run in one-man service, replacing heavier two-man units from the days of TM operation. The company also bought ten articulated former South Milwaukee suburban two-car trainsets from the Transport Co. to handle heavier passenger loads.
Two days before the sale transfer in 1949, two cars collided at Soldiers Home resulting in 19 injuries, and raising safety concerns. But the death knell came Labor Day weekend on September 2, 1950, when a wreck near National Avenue on the Hales Corners line between a regular service car and a charter by attendees of the National Model Railroad Association in Milwaukee with Jay Maeder at the controls, killed 10 and injured 45 passengers. Three days later, another accident at West Junction totaled a lightweight car and badly damaged a heavyweight freight motor.
The result was a loss of public confidence in the line's safety, a loss of riders, and cancellation of insurance coverage. Never recovering, and faced with increasingly ugly competition from parallel Waukesha Transit motor coach service from the same Public Service Building downtown, the line ceased operations on June 30, 1951, ending interurban rail service in Milwaukee except for the North Shore Line.
Milwaukee County Transit System
Through most of Milwaukee's transit history, the system was privately-owned and self sustaining through fares. On July 1, 1975, the county assumed the assets of the M&ST Corp., and contracted Milwaukee Transport Services, Inc. (MTS) to handle the newly named Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus operation. The county added new services, such as the Metrolink express in 1992, and new low floor buses, leading to significant rider growth in the 1980s and early 90s. A popular U-PASS program offered unlimited rides to over 5,000 students at eight universities or colleges. Twice, in 1987 and 1999, the MCTS was named by the APTA as America s Best transit system nationwide.
The system's administration and fleet maintenance operations were previously located at Cold Spring Shops off Highland Boulevard, which in the early 1900s was the site of many innovations including building entire streetcars and bus bodies. The administrative departments moved to the present facilities on North 17th Street in 1985. Three bus stations at Fond du Lac, Kinnickinnic and Fiebrantz each house a garage to fuel, clean and provide day-to-day maintenance. A Downtown Transit Center, opened in 1992 adjacent to O'Donnell Park on Milwaukee s lakefront, featuring a large waiting area, extensive bus parking, meeting rooms and a transit history exhibit, never reached its envisioned potential, and may soon be replaced by a 44-story tower development featuring high-end apartments and a hotel.