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Public Transportation: Horse Carts to Electric Railways


From the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives Collection, ca. 1890. (WHi(x3)25841

Only the largest of Wisconsin's cities could afford a public transportation system. Before the automobile, city life was largely pedestrian, but in major urban centers streetcars provided the necessary mobility until their replacement by buses following World War II.

George Walker started Milwaukee's first public transportation system in 1859, when he established a horse drawn street railway that served a limited number of neighborhoods. Soon other promoters opened routes expanding the transportation grid. Through a number of mergers and business charters, railroad tycoon Henry Villard formed the Milwaukee Street Railway Company in 1890. In 1896 this company consolidated as the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company (TMER&L). Emerging at the same time was the Milwaukee Light, Heat and Traction Company (MLH&T), which provided services outside of the city. Together these two companies provided a rail system that had 232 miles of track by 1909.

Streetcars were an essential feature of suburban living, allowing people to live well away from the city in planned communities such as Washington Highlands in Wauwatosa, which was placed at the terminus of a street car line. Milwaukee's interurban railway network ultimately stretched south to Kenosha, west to Watertown and north to Sheboygan. The Public Service Building in downtown Milwaukee served as the interurban hub and central office. Interurban service in Milwaukee continued into the 1950s despite cuts due to the increase in automobile use.

Madison began the electrification of its lines in 1889, slowly replacing its earlier system of slow, mule pulled cars. The western line of 1892 and its extension in 1897 opened over 1800 acres for additional housing, resulting in the development of the Wingra ParkWest Lawn, and University Heights neighborhoods. Another rail line extended east, servicing new neighborhoods along Winnebago Street and Fair Oaks Avenue. The present day shopping areas on Monroe Street near Camp Randall, and Schenk's Corners at the end of Williamson Street were both developed at the terminus of street car lines. No new lines were added after 1919, when it was realized that newly platted areas could not provide the density or absorb the construction cost. After an ice storm in 1935 damaged many of the overhead lines, buses were substituted for the streetcars. These substitutions became permanent replacements.

Other cities in Wisconsin with street railway systems included Appleton, Ashland, Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Janesville, La Crosse, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Superior, and Wausau. In the majority of cases, these cities established rail service in the 1880s and 1890s; most streetcar service was discontinued about 1930.


Replacing streetcars with motor
buses on West Burnham Street
in Milwaukee, ca. 1949.
From the Wisconsin
Historical Society
Archives collection.
(WHi(x3)40804

More examples from the National Register:

University Heights Historic District, Madison

West Lawn Heights Historic District, Madison

Wingra Park Historic District, Madison

Public Service Building, Milwaukee

Washington Highlands Historic District, Wauwatosa

Sheboygan Light, Power and Railway Company Car #26, East Troy

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