Early Mass Transit – from Horse-Railroad to the Streetcar

Early Mass Transit – from Horse-Railroad to the Streetcar

By Cynthia Sommer

The mass transit of people and goods in Milwaukee presents a changing and interesting story from horse-drawn cars to streetcars to the trackless trolley to busses. Driving the early changes were the rapid growth in population in Milwaukee in the late 1800’s, the concomitant developments in technology and manufacturing, the thrust of entrepreneurial capitalists and the struggles for municipal control.

The newspapers reported that the first horse-drawn railroad cars were welcomed in Milwaukee in 1860 by a “cheering crowd of citizens”. The River and Lakeshore City Railroad, organized by Col. Walker (of Walker Point fame) and other investors provided transportation for a fare of 5 cents from the Walker’s Point Bridge, along the lakefront up Prospect Avenue to service Sister’s Hospital (the forerunner of Columbia-St. Mary’s).

The horse-railroad on the eastside was also needed for Wisconsin volunteers in the Civil War who were being trained from 1861-65 at Camp Sigel located near Lafayette Place and Prospect Avenue. The horse railroad was soon replaced by the electric streetcar starting in 1890. “Modern” citizens soon overcame their fears of high voltage wires, flying sparks and excessive speeds and, of course, they appreciated less manure in the streets. The early streetcar system in Milwaukee stemmed from the vision of Henry Villard, a financial giant who formed the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1870’s and who was integral to the Edison Electric Illumination Co. He consolidated several Milwaukee electric and streetcar companies to form by 1896 the Milwaukee Electric Railroad and Light Company (evolved into the current WE-Energies).

By 1892, the Farwell Avenue line ran from Park Place on Murray Avenue to Farwell Avenue to Ogden to downtown. Also running in the area from 1888 was the “interurban” steam engine line of the Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay RR. The train originated at North and Farwell Avenues with a route using Farwell and Downer and continuing along the lakeshore to the Pabst’s Whitefish Bay Resort on the bluff above Lake Michigan. One can image the citizens in their Sunday best using the streetcars and steam engine line to have an enjoyable Sunday by the lake.

The streetcars followed the growth to the north. By 1898, Route 15, the Oakland-Delaware line traveled from the south side to an eventual route down Brady, Farwell, North, Murray, Park Place and Oakland Avenue with a termination at Newton Avenue, just north of Edgewood. By 1923, the Oakland line was extended into the suburb of Fox Point. In the 1920’s, the Oakland-Delaware line was called the “Daisy Fields” line because scores of Milwaukee residents would ride on a Sunday afternoon during certain times of the year to pick daisy flowers from open fields just south of Bradley Road in Fox Point. The entire Route 15 was converted to trolley buses by 1953.

By 1897, the Wells-Downer line serviced citizens starting at the Lark Park Depot on Folsom (E. Locust) and Lake Park and then traveled down Glen St. (Downer Ave) to Bradford to downtown. One year later this route was extended to Downer College and north to the Milwaukee Country Club at Newton Avenue. The Lake Park Depot was also the final destination for Route 22, the Center Street line. By 1909 this service traveled down Folsom St. (E. Locust St) to Center Street. The Downer and Center Street lines were popular during the summer because they were direct lines for concert goers and picnickers coming to Lake Park. As the streetcars got closer to the very fashionable Lark Park Depot, you might hear anxious children asking “Are we almost there yet, Mommy?” The Lake Park Depot was no longer used after the change to busses in 1938 and the terminal was removed in the late 1950’s. You can still see the transit turnaround at Lake Drive and Locust Street. While the streetcars present a romantic image, it is important to remember that they were an essential form of daily transportation and a way of life for most citizens in the city.