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A Look Back At Milwaukee's Original Streetcar System

Milwaukee County Historical Society
Horses drew Milwaukee's streetcars on rail lines in front of the old Market Hall, where City Hall stands today.

As Milwaukee inches closer to building a modern day streetcar system, WUWM kicks off a series, called Streetcar: High Risk, High Reward?

First, WUWM's Marti Mikkelson revisits Milwaukee's old system.

The earliest form of the Milwaukee streetcar took shape in the mid-1800s, when the main mode of transportation was horse and buggy. “The very first streetcars in Milwaukee were actually horse drawn cars on rails. They began in 1860 and the first line went up Water Street," Ben Barbera says. He is associate curator at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

As Barbera gives a tour of the streetcar exhibit housed at the Downtown Transit Center, he points out large black and white photos. “What we have here is an image of the old Milwaukee City Hall. There’s a huge amount of bustle on the streets, you see horse drawn carriages, horse drawn wagons and horse drawn streetcars,” he says.

Barbera says a private company owned the horses, but they were difficult to maintain. Plus, they left a tremendous amount of manure in the streets. He says just in the nick of time, early innovators came along and began designing an electric streetcar.

 “It wasn’t until 1890 when Henry Villard, a New York multi-millionaire, and Henry Clay Payne created a company called the Milwaukee Electric Railway Company and that’s when we saw a real established electric streetcar,” Barbera says. 

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
West Wisconsin Avenue in the 1920s.

“We were an early player in the game," says Tim Brown, who serves as We Energies' historian.

Brown says Milwaukee's early electric rail company morphed into today’s utility giant - We Energies. Back during the industrial boom, he says, the City needed an electric streetcar system to carry people to jobs.

Credit Photo courtesy of Dan Steininger.
Transit system map from 1938. Orange = Streetcar Route, Blue = Trolley Bus, Brown = Regular Bus, Light Green = Independent Bus Lines and Thicker Lines = Interurban Service to the suburbs.

“It really expanded opportunities for everyone in the area by being able to get to employment from where they live,” Brown says.

In the first year of operation, the multi-car system provided 28 million rides, he says. A couple decades later, the number had ballooned to 132 million. Brown says it only cost a nickel to ride the streetcar and at one point, it boasted of 190 miles of track.

“It really was quite extensive, it served all parts of the Metropolitan Milwaukee area through the streetcar system," he says. "It reached out to all the suburbs in the Milwaukee area."

The streetcar remained a popular way to get around for a few generations, as many people could not afford cars. Dan Steininger rode the system in the 1950s, when he was a kid living on Milwaukee’s north side.

“If you wanted to go downtown, you jumped on the streetcar to go shopping. You didn’t go in your car to the mall, you took the streetcar, which was kind of neat,” he says.

Steininger also recalls when the streetcar met its demise in 1958. He says the electric company decided to take out the tracks, because other modes of mass transit, such as buses, were becoming popular.

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
Milwaukee's last streetcar, which made its final run on March 2, 1958.

“People wanted to ride the bus, it was the new thing. It was more flexible, it could go more places. It was probably a more comfortable ride without all the noise and overhead electrical wires,” Steininger says.

Next, WUWM reports on what Milwaukee’s new streetcar will look like.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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