Picturing the long-lost era of East Side Milwaukee trains

Mighty locomotives once dominated the East Side, but today these vanquished iron horses carry on only in old photographs and memories.

LMD trainHWTN members were recently treated to a presentation of some of these rare and fascinating historic photos. And these photos are now available on our website.

Kevin Keefe, former editor of Kalmbach Publishing Co.’s Trains magazine and current vice president-editorial, publisher of Kalmbach, showed a rapt HWTN crowd on June 5, 2013,  many such photos as part of a fascinating talk on Milwaukee’s historic railroad days.

Kevin’s presentation included then-and-now shots taken from the exact same locations —  with, and without, locomotives.

Kevin, a self-professed train fanatic, allowed to us post here on our website a copy of his slide presentation full of amazing, rare pictures of East Side trains. Many of the pictures come from Trains magazine’s archives.

He set the scene with this fascinating introduction about the history of trains in Milwaukee on the East Side (excerpted):

Kevin P. Keefe

Kevin P. Keefe

“Several of us at the office were talking one day about great railroad towns, and I think we agreed that of all the big American cities with ties to railroading, Milwaukee had fallen the furthest. Today, we’re a backwater compared with Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, or Minneapolis, to name a few comparable cities. But it wasn’t always that way.”

“Just 60 years ago, you’d have to look pretty far to find a city with as much going on as Milwaukee (as long as you keep Chicago, player of railroads, out of the picture, thank you Carl Sandburg).”

“Milwaukee’s heritage is deeply tied to trains. Alexander Mitchell, whose name now adorns major streets and parks, made most of his wealth by running the old Milwaukee Road in the late 19th century. Milwaukee once boasted one of America’s finest street transit systems, the late, lamented Milwaukee Electric. And, of course, the city gave its name to one of America’s most famous railroads.”

Valley trains

“The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific railroad descended into bankruptcy in the 1970s, but for decades its commercial name—the Milwaukee Road—was known throughout the U.S., thanks mostly to its famous and fast Hiawatha trains of the 1930s and ‘40s. Although the railroad’s executive offices were in Chicago, the company’s operational heart and soul was here, specifically at its sprawling shop complex in the Menomonee Valley, where generations of Polish, Irish, and other workers populated nearby neighborhoods and walked or took streetcars to the shops to build and maintain the Milwaukee Road’s locomotives and cars. Even Milwaukee’s great gift to industrial design, Brook Stephens, made one of his biggest splashes designing the Hiawatha trains of 1948.”

“There were other railroads in Milwaukee, of course, principally the Chicago & North Western, which in the glory days of the Thirties and Forties competed head to head with the Milwaukee by pitting its fleet of 400 trains against the Hiawathas. Both railroads emphasized speed: the North Western with its promise of “400 miles in 400 minutes” between Chicago and St. Paul, and the Milwaukee with its daily 100 mph operation on some of its Hiawathas. Behind steam locomotives, yet.”

Juneau Park rail“This entire drama played out on Milwaukee’s stage, the Milwaukee Road at its downtown station off Michigan Street, and the North Western at its beautiful depot on the lakefront at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue. In Chicago, both railroads’ headquarters were only a few blocks apart. Ditto their glitzy passenger trains serving Milwaukee.”

“A quick aside: Those of you who enjoy using today’s 7 Hiawatha Service trains on Amtrak might like to know that, as recently as February 1961, you could choose between nearly 60 trains running every day from Milwaukee to Chicago. The North Western fielded 9 trains from the lakefront. The Milwaukee Road competed with another 11 trains. And at the corner of 6th and Michigan Streets, another railroad, the electrified North Shore Line, added another 38 trains. I think that’s an amazing statistic.”

“So, with that background, I’d like to take you on a pictorial tour of the North Western’s and the Milwaukee Road’s trains of the east side. Almost all of the historical photos you will see are from Trains magazine’s vast railroad library, which has about 100,000 photos.”

“A caveat before we start: for the purposes of this program, I’m defining the east side as including the downtown lakefront near Summerfest, and the Milwaukee River corridor along Commerce Street, known in the past as the Beer Line.”

Kevin, an East Sider since 1980 and an HWTN member, is interested in giving a talk next year on the history of electric trains in Milwaukee. We hope that will happen. Such informative presentations about our past help us appreciate what we are today and how we might want to develop in the future.

– Jeff Bentoff

East Side Trains: Take A Pictorial Tour at HWTN’s June 5 Meeting

When the wind is right, train whistles still echo across the East Side, including the Historic Water Tower Neighborhood, but they’re always coming from another part of town.

Chicago & North Western’s “Peninsula 400” train from Green Bay easing south down the hill from Lafayette Place and about to rumble under the former Brady Street footbridge on its way to the downtown lakefront depot in the summer of 1954. The site no longer has tracks and is part of the paved recreational Oak Leaf Trail. Jim Scribbins photo.

Before the 1980s, however, the neighborhood had its own railroad scene, and an auspicious one at that. Whether it was the luxury passenger trains of the Chicago & North Western on the lakefront, or the workaday freight trains of the Milwaukee Road’s “Beer Line,” there was plenty of railroading within earshot of Prospect and North.

Kevin P. Keefe

Kevin P. Keefe

Local journalist and HWTN member Kevin P. Keefe takes us on a pictorial tour of the trains of the East Side, including such memorial subjects as the late, lamented North Western depot; the Twin Cities 400 passenger trains; and the Humboldt Yards.

Kevin is former editor of Kalmbach Publishing Co.‘s Trains Magazine and currently vice president-editorial, publisher of Kalmbach.

His talk takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesday June 5 in Lake Park Pavilion’s Marcia Coles Community Room, below Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro. It’s free and open to the public. HWTN’s regular monthly meeting will follow Kevin’s talk. We start gathering around 6:45 for conversation and Bartolotta coffee and cookies.


June 5 meeting features history of trains on Milwaukee’s East Side

Mark your calendar for Wednesday June 5 and a fascinating talk on how trains affected the development of the HWTN neighborhood. It’ll be presented by Kevin Keefe, vice president-editorial and publisher of Kalmbach Publishing Co. and former editor of its Trains Magazine (and an HWTN member).

The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in Lake Park Pavilion’s Marcia Coles Community Room. Watch this space, our Facebook page and member emails for more details.