Riverwest: A railroad ran through it

Beer Line Trail, Milwaukee Riverwest neighborhood. Carl Swanson photo

Beer Line Trail, Milwaukee Riverwest neighborhood. Carl Swanson photo

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.

The state’s second-oldest railroad right of way (it dates to the 1850s), the Milwaukee Road’s “Beer Line” is now a recreational trail. Carl Swanson photo

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)

21 comments

  1. I’ve been studying the history of this line and even helped to create a model railroad depicting it (featured in November 2011 Model Railroader). One missing item in my research is photos of the old stone arch pedestrian bridge that used to stand in Gordon Park just south of Locust and Humboldt. I saw it for years in person until one day it was gone and I regret never taking a picture of it.

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  2. I Want to reproduce the old Schlitz Brewer 3rd. St. rail yard as a model railroad layout. I need the track plans/layout and any pictures of the yard while it was still in operation. Any information that would be helpful in this endeavor would be appreciated.

    Thanks, Rudy Jacobson

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  3. I am researching the old Jos. Schlitz Brewery Milw. Road rail yard which used to be located on third St.; just north of the Usinger Sausage Co. I was raised in Milwaukee, graduated from Marquette University in 1957, While attending dental school, I worked for Schlitz during the summers when they put on a third shift. Being a model railroader, I want to replicate this freight yard in the layout I intend to buiild. So, I need to find some pictures of this yard while it was still in operation and hopefully a track layout/plan.. Any help anyone can give me toward this end would be greatly appreciated. Even some contactss would be most helpful.

    Thank you, Rudolph Jacobson.

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    1. Rudolph, both the book and the Facebook page mentioned in earlier comments are excellent resources for the information you seek.

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  4. Great articles, I’m in my 80’s, ands history puff.
    Learned how to swin at Gordon Park, also went there foe 4th of July events!
    Thanks, RonG

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  5. I just walked this with my wife last weekend. Her mom had grown up on Gordon place and used to tell stories about walking down to the railroad tracks and taking that path to Gordon Park. A truly classic Milwaukee treasure that more people should know about thank you for this article!

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    1. Jeff, Where did your wife live on Gordon Pl.? I grew up on Stanley Place … off Meinecke, between Humboldt and the river.

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      1. It was actually the childhood home of my mother in law and her family, the Pier’s. The were on Gordon Place just south of Clarke.

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  6. I lead hikes on this trail, helping others appreciate the history that lies beneath their feet as they walk. Thanks as always for an entertaining and informational piece.

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  7. In the late ’60’s I was hired on at a commercial nursery/landscaping company in Sussex. Right across the highway was a railroad track. About halfway through the owner’s ball and burlap tutorial for us newbies, a freight train began to rumble past. As the train trundled off in the distance the owner finished the lesson and asked if anyone had a question. One newbie piped up: “Did you know that there were 173 cars on that train?” That kid was down the road and outa there before breaktime.

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