Six decades ago in the Riverwest neighborhood on Milwaukee’s north side, a kindergarten boy stood at the edge of the Fratney Street School playground and watched a steam locomotive struggle past with a seemingly endless train of railroad cars.
“Those engines would shake the school,” Jim Albrecht said. “I would put my hands over my ears.…The whistle was so loud, and they blew for every crossing.”
When Jim began watching trains in the years following World War II, railroads had already been a part of Milwaukee for nearly a century. In fact, today’s Beerline recreational trail follows one of the oldest railroad right of ways in the state.
The Milwaukee & Waukesha, chartered in 1847 with construction beginning two years later, was the state’s first railroad. In 1852, a second railroad, the La Crosse & Milwaukee, started building northward from its terminus at North Third Street and Highland Avenue on the west bank of the Milwaukee River. The line followed the river alongside Commerce Street to its engine terminal and railroad yard at the southeast corner of North Avenue and Humboldt Boulevard. From there, the line ducked under the North Avenue viaduct and climbed the river bluff to today’s Gordon Park, and turned northwest through the Riverwest neighborhood.
In 1869, the two railroads were joined by via a north–south connector track between the former M&W in the Menomonee Valley and the La Crosse & Milwaukee at North Milwaukee Junction near Thirty-Second and Hampton.
With the linking of the two railroads, the former La Crosse & Milwaukee main line through Riverwest became a 6.2-mile branch line officially called the Chestnut (since renamed Juneau) Street Line.
Although relegated to branch line status, the railroad through Riverwest was destined to play a significant role in the new Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. This short section of track generated more freight revenue per mile than any other part of the vast system. With three major breweries, Schlitz, Pabst and Blatz, near the southern end, the branch soon acquired the nickname “Beer Line.” Certainly, beer was big business for the line. On some days, the breweries loaded more than 250 railroad cars. There were many other customers along the line.
Except for a few residential blocks at the northern end of Riverwest, the Beer Line was lined with heavy industry, including the Nash (later American) Motors Seaman Body Plant on Capitol Drive, which required 35 to 50 freight cars a day. Other major shippers included Continental Can and the Schuster’s Department Store warehouse on Commerce Street.
Steam locomotives were replaced by diesels in the 1950s, but train after train rolled through Riverwest.
Jim Albrecht recalls counting as many as one hundred cars in some trains—a moving wall of steel nearly a mile long. In the 1940s and 1950s, Albrecht said, the railroad maintained a tiny crossing shanty at the corner of Locust and Humboldt. As the trains approached, an elderly man would emerge from the little shack and wave a sign to stop traffic. A heavy train climbing the river bluff from North Avenue would take ten minutes to struggle through the intersection, posing a real problem for emergency vehicles that needed to get through.
The Beer Line grew up with the brewing industry, and it faded when brewing drained from the Milwaukee scene. Blatz closed in 1959. Schlitz, which once accounted for hundreds of carloads a day, began to unravel, finally closing in 1981. Pabst, never a major Beer Line customer, also gave up on rail service entirely. In the mid-1970s, American Motors sharply scaled back production at its Capitol Drive facility. By the 1980s, the plant had shut down. By then, the Milwaukee Road itself was in a death spiral, soon broken up and sold off in pieces.
Under new owners but starved for business, the Beer Line slowly retreated from downtown, ending 130 years of service on the historic line. The city and county reclaimed much of the right of way in recent years and opened the Beerline Recreational Trail.
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