Early Mass Transit – The Tractless Trolley

Early Mass Transit – The Tractless Trolley

By Cynthia Sommer

While electric streetcars were a major means of transportation in Milwaukee from 1860-1958, there was a gradual replacement with gasoline buses (1925-1962), the tractless trolley (1936-1965) and eventually with time to the diesel buses (1950-present).  The story of the tractless trolley in Milwaukee is a story of transition from the streetcar to the diesel bus – a shift from rails to rubber tires but still using the electric power approach of the streetcar.  The reasons for this shift to tractless trolleys were several: the economic slump of the Great Depression caused a drop in rider ship, a strike in 1934 caused a loss of revenue and companies were pressured by the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission to separate transit from electric companies. With these economic impacting issues the Milwaukee Electric Rail and Light Company (TMER&L) shifted to the less expensive tractless trolley, a widely popular vehicle in the US at the time.  The trolley car was attached to the overhead electrical wires using flexible poles.  The trolleys could operate 12 feet to each side of the car and therefore could receive and discharge passengers at the curb or pass around vehicles standing in the street.  Other advantages included no fumes associated with the buses, ample heat, smoother, faster rides due to no gears to shift and low engine noise coming from electric traction motors.  However, these vehicles still had to deal with increased car traffic and the forces of nature, such as the great snowstorm of 1947.

The first route that changed in Milwaukee from streetcar to tractless trolley occurred on Nov 8, 1936 on the North Avenue line. Fairs were $1 for a weekly pass, 50 cents for a weekly school pass and 25 cents for a one day shopping pass.  The trolley traveled east to the enclosed transfer terminal at Farwell-Murray-North where patrons then connected with the Downer or Oakland streetcar lines.  This area was a major transfer point for streetcars, trolleys and buses – note the current width of this section of North Avenue.  By 1938, the increase in trolleys, streetcars and routes in the area demanded the construction on Oakland Avenue and Edgewood (now RiverviewPark in Shorewood) of a car barn for repair and cleaning of these transit vehicles.  The Center streetcar line was one of the last routes to be expanded in Milwaukee in the 1930’s, so there was not a urgent structural need to change over from streetcar to the tractless trolley until 1943.

World War II greatly impacted public transportation for several reasons.  Milwaukee with its expertise in heavy machinery had high employment for the war effort and combined with gas and tire rationing, public transportation increased significantly.  Healthy rider ship continued for a time after the war and a study in 1948 showed that Milwaukee’s transit system was “well patronized compared with other cities of similar size.”  In the 1950’s, the arrival of the less expensive diesel bus manufactured by GM impacted the originally planned conversion of the remaining streetcar lines to tractless trolley lines. A surplus of trolley cars soon resulted with the addition of more buses.  A decision was made to use the extra trolley cars on the Oakland Avenue line and thus the #15 streetcar north of downtown was replaced by 1953 with the tractless trolley. Around the same time, the Farwell Eastside streetcar line was replaced by the #30 bus through the Jackson Downer route.

In 1961, a decision was made to end all trackless trolley operations based on economics – the cost of diesel fuel for buses ran at 2.84 cents per mile while electric power needed for the trackless trolleys was 4.76 cents per mile.  On Dec 30, 1962, the Oakland Avenue tractless trolley was abandoned and by 1965 all routes in the city were changed to buses.  A changing era of early transportation in Milwaukee had ended.