Milwaukee’s new streetcars won’t have the same magic!

Exactly sixty years ago this past March, I boarded the ancient No. 10 (Wells Street) streetcar for one of the final runs of a streetcar on Milwaukee streets.

It was a nostalgic run for me that day – then a 28-year-old reporter for the former Milwaukee Sentinel – sent to do a feature story on Milwaukee’s last streetcar; the final run would come later that night, but for morning newspaper deadlines my feature story had to be based upon an earlier trip.

Now sometime later this year, streetcars will again run down Milwaukee streets, an initiative spurred on by generous Federal grants and a belief that modern streetcars will lead to a revitalization of the city – a belief certainly not shared by all Milwaukeeans.  Its success remains to be seen.

I will certainly make an effort to board one of the first runs of the new streetcar, even though it will hardly be much of a service for me, due to its limited scope.  Of course, I’ll be riding the modern, new streetcars, definitely more comfortable than the streetcrs of more than sixty years earlier. Strictly for nostalgia!

 

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1938 Map of Milwaukee transit lines.  Streetcar routes shown in orange. Photo courtesy of Dan Steininge

Streetcars once were key to Milwaukee’s early development as a city.  For the first 20 years of my life, they were the means by which mom took us kids to the doctors and dentists; they took me and my classmates and neighborhood buddies to movies and trips downtown; they took mom and us three boys to Schusters on Third and Garfield for school clothes, and they took me on dates through much of high school. Early in his years as Milwaukee mayor (1948-1960), Frank Zeidler rode the No. 19 car from his home near N. 2ndand W. Locust Streets to City Hall. 

But it was the No. 10 streetcar that remains most vividly in my memory.  Throughout my childhood, the No. 10 took us from its westernmost terminal, a narrow station in the Wauwatosa village (Harwood Ave. and W. State St), along a right-of-way adjacent to the Milwaukee Road tracks, turning S. on N. 68thSt., and then east on Wells, where it continued into downtown, usually to a doctor’s, dentist’s or optometrist’s office, all of which were downtown.

In my early years, I turned into a pathetic scaredy-cat as the car approached the rickety Wells Street trestle that ran from approximately N. 41ststreet, over the Menomonee River industrial valley (including Piggsville) to N. 37thSt.  The ancient structure, composed of spindly struts, swayed in the wind and I was certain the streetcar would topple off, plunging mom, my two brothers and me into oblivion. Of course, it never happened and in later, more mischievous years I remember going with a bunch of kids and trying to

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No. 10 eastbound on Wells Street

challenge gravity by swaying in unison as the streetcar crossed the creaking, precarious trestle.

The streetcars were hardly carriers of luxury.  To enter, one had to climb up steep portable stairs that dropped down when the motorman (there were no women driving the units then) stopped and opened the doors. I have no recollection of what disabled or older folks did to enter the car.

Cold and drafty in winter, there were heating units placed under several seats, which meant a passenger faced two choices, getting a hot seat or shivering.  The seats were of a lacquered wicker.  Summertime was no better; there was no air conditioning, of course, and thus windows were usually open, letting all sorts of bugs to enter, along with the stink of then-industrial Milwaukee from the tanneries, packinghouses, foundries and Red Star Yeast.

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Wells Street Viaduct made for scary ride.

 

What was most fun for mischievous kids, the streetcars had fronts on both ends.  When a streetcar hit the end of its line, there was no way to turn the car around, so the motorman merely unattached the control handles from what had been the front end of the car and carried them back to the other end, latching them in, making the rear now the front.  Then he’d walk back, switching the seat backs so they reversed direction.

The more daring of us kids would often hightail it to the rear of the car, sitting on the motorman’s seat (now at the rear).  There, a kid could ring the dinger, hitting a button on the floor, angering the motorman. (Streetcars had no horn, but the motorman would use the dinger to warn autos or pedestrians of its presence, though such warning was hardly necessary due to the noisy nature of a streetcar’s run.)

Both ends of the car were equipped with a “cow-catcher,” a devise that could be dropped to clear the tracks of any debris.  I was told some kids, playing the rear of the car, might drop it, forcing the motorman to stop and raise the unit in order to continue.  I never did that!  That was really being naughty.

From what we’ve seen of the new streetcars, they’ll afford a comfortable ride, most likely smooth and quiet.  I’ll make sure to be one of its first riders.

I may enjoy it, I suppose, but it won’t be the same. — Ken Germanson, March 31, 2018

 

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