Milwaukee’s depot at the lake

This view of Chicago & North Western’s lake front depot in Milwaukee was captured around 1890 by a photographer from the Detroit Publishing Company. Going by the angle of the sun and the station clock, it’s 7:30 on a summer morning. The Romanesque building, once called “the most elegant passenger station in the west,” was located at the foot of East Wisconsin Avenue, near what is today O’Donnell Park. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-DIG-det-4a04244

This view of Chicago & North Western’s lake front depot in Milwaukee was captured around 1890 by a photographer from the Detroit Publishing Company. Going by the angle of the sun and the station clock, it’s 7:30 on a summer morning. The Romanesque building, once called “the most elegant passenger station in the west,” was located at the foot of East Wisconsin Avenue, near what is today O’Donnell Park. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-DIG-det-4a04244

The Chicago & North Western Railway was the first to connect Milwaukee with Chicago and originally served the Cream City from a small wood-frame depot on Michigan Avenue. In June 1888, 30 railcar loads of foundation stone arrived at Milwaukee’s lakefront. The stone would become the footings for a new passenger train shed. It was the city’s first tangible sign the railway was moving forward on its promise to give the rapidly growing city a fine new station.


Built of brick and brownstone with terra-cotta ornamentation, the expansive two-story depot had an L-shaped footprint, with the main part of the structure, housing the passenger offices and waiting rooms, facing Wisconsin Avenue and a shorter extension containing the baggage room, the rail package service, and telegraph office facing the tracks.

The Elk Monument at Juneau Park overlooked the Chicago & North Western Ry. station. Collection of Carl Swanson

The Elk Monument at Juneau Park overlooked the Chicago & North Western Ry. station. The landfill that forms much of the present-day lake front had yet to be built when this photo was taken around 1900. Collection of Carl Swanson

The depot included a restaurant, a huge fireplace in the waiting room, and a hotel on its second floor complete with a bridal suite overlooking Lake Michigan. And it was served by the railway’s famous 400 passenger trains.

The station, or to be more specific, its location, was not universally admired. In its Jan. 5, 1929 edition, The Milwaukee Journal took editorial note of the great beauty of the lakefront and its potential for becoming a civic asset, adding, “Meanwhile, a railroad runs through the present park and its proposed additions. So again Milwaukee has opportunity to regret this blight on its lake front.”

Looking south from Juneau Park as a steam-powered passenger train departs Chicago & North Western's Lake Front Station heading north toward Shorewood. Collection of Carl Swanson

Looking south from Juneau Park as a steam-powered passenger train departs Chicago & North Western’s Lake Front Station heading north toward Shorewood. Collection of Carl Swanson

The railroad ignored the criticism and even remodeled the station in 1941, improving its main entrance and adding “modernistic decorative schemes” (which meant, in this case, lighter colors and covering the waiting room walls with glazed brick).

The years passed and then, shortly before midnight on Sunday, May 15, 1966, Chicago & North Western train no. 125 pulled into the Lake Front Depot, ending its scheduled run from Chicago. The train’s passengers filed through the waiting room and when the last had gone the lights snapped off, the doors locked, and the station fell silent, it had seen its last train.

There was talk of saving the lake front depot, or at least preserving its distinctive clock tower but those efforts ultimately came to nothing, largely because local officials were then focused on building a lakefront freeway and had little interest in preserving a building that no longer had an apparent use.

Charlie House, writing in the Feb.2, 1968 edition of The Milwaukee Journal, described the station in its final days as it awaited demolition.

The 78-year-old building, once a symbol of affluence and progress in Milwaukee, has ceased to serve its historic purpose as the city’s gateway. The striking clock tower thrusts itself for 234 feet into Milwaukee’s skyline. But it languishes in shabby elegance, used up, debased, slighted, unwanted.

With a life expectancy which has faded to mere days, it stands as a vandalized, pigeon stained, disconsolate monument to the history of a city which does not care.Carl_sig

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