Milwaukee streetcar

Thrills on the Wells Street Viaduct

A postcard, dated 1909, shows a streetcar crossing the viaduct. The 2,085-foot-long Wells Street viaduct was the Milwaukee streetcar system's greatest engineering feat. Built in 1892, it remained in service until the end of trolley service in 1958. Carl A. Swanson collection

A postcard, dated 1909, shows a streetcar crossing the viaduct. The 2,085-foot-long Wells Street viaduct was the Milwaukee streetcar system’s greatest engineering feat. Built in 1892, it remained in service until the end of trolley service in 1958. Carl A. Swanson collection

Nothing remains today, but for 60 years, the Wells Street viaduct was a Milwaukee landmark and the single greatest engineering achievement of the city’s once-vast streetcar and interurban empire.

As a thrill ride, albeit an unintentional one, the viaduct had few equals – especially when high winds buffeted the cars. Even veteran riders felt apprehensive as their streetcars rattled and swayed across the rickety-looking 2,085-foot-long bridge, 90 feet above the Menomonee River valley.

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Milwaukee’s hat-pin ordinance

Where there's hats like these, pins are needed. In 1913, the Milwaukee common council decided something had to be done to deal with the menace of hat pins. Postcard Carl Swanson collection

Where there are hats like these, pins are needed to keep them in place. In 1913, the Milwaukee common council decided something had to be done to deal with the menace of hat pins. Postcard Carl Swanson collection

In 1913, the Milwaukee common council passed an ordinance placing limits on the length of hat pin allowed within city limits. Specifically prohibited were an “Exposed point protruding more than one-half inch beyond the crown of the hat (unless) … the exposed point is covered with a guard.” If a lady’s hat pin exceeded the legal limit, she was subject to arrest and might be fined as much as a dollar. (The equivalent of $23 today.)

“Think of the Disgrace!” The Milwaukee Sentinel’s May 12, 1913 issue warned of the consequences of being caught in possession of an over-long hat pin.

Local newspapers had a great deal of fun with this. The Milwaukee Sentinel asked, “Will the police stretch a tent over Milwaukee and arrest every woman therein who wear a hat?” The same article sarcastically wondered what the city was coming to when women who wear pins protruding five-eighths of an inch from the crown of their hats are not apprehended.

Perhaps there was cause for concern. In January 1913, the Milwaukee Journal reported Henry Pritkin of 1916 Cold Spring Ave., was a passenger on a very crowded streetcar. Each time the car lurched he bumped into a seated woman described as “beautifully dressed and looking petite and dainty.”

She didn’t like being jostled. Neither did Mr. Pritkin but he couldn’t do anything about it.

Suddenly, the newspaper said, after Pritkin had fallen against her yet again, she rose, unsheathed her hat pin, and dramatically sprang at him. “If you do that again I’ll run this through you!” she exclaimed.

Pritkin protested that he was not purposely bumping into her. “That makes no difference,” she retorted. “You stay here” – indicating a spot – “or you’ll get this pin in you.”

At this point the woman became aware she had the undivided attention of an entire streetcar load of people. Blushing bright red, she sat down and got out at the next stop.

Certainly the pins could be useful in time of need. In 1909, a 25-year-old machinist named Fred Hoelzer attempted “unwelcome advances” on Mrs. Alice Bohan, who responded by deploying her hat pin and chasing her would-be assailant several blocks. He was arrested, found guilty (of the crime of “mashing”), and sentenced to six months.

Although the city′s hat-pin law was widely mocked at the time, and is still occasionally cited in lists of weird local ordinances, one expert put the matter in perspective. In a 1929 Milwaukee Journal article describing changing fashions in headwear, local hat manufacturer Henry P. Neubert said, “It was a necessary ordinance. Why, some of those hat pins were 12 inches long. People were injured by them; some had an eye put out when a lady suddenly turned her head.”

Hat pins have been out of fashion for a century but if they make a return, the women of Milwaukee may wear them without worry. In 1982, the common council abolished a number of obsolete ordinances, this one included.Carl_sig

Surprising facts about Milwaukee

Also zombie-proof. Carl Swanson photo

Also zombie-proof. Carl Swanson photo

We can water our lawn after a nuclear war

The North Point pumping station was built in the early 1960s with roof and walls two-feet-thick to protect the city’s vital water pumps from a nuclear blast. Arthur Rynders, superintendent of water works at the time, felt this was a reasonable precaution because survivors of World War III would need water to fight fires and “to wash atomic contamination into the sewers.” Source: The Milwaukee Journal, Aug. 11, 1960


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Milwaukee’s deadly transit strike

A brief strike in 1934 paralyzed the city's transit network and triggered mass rioting. Carl Swanson illustration

A brief strike in 1934 paralyzed the city’s transit network and triggered mass rioting. Carl Swanson illustration

A Milwaukee transit strike 81 years ago resulted in three successive nights of rioting, massive property damage, scores of arrests, widespread injuries, and the death of a young man. It is one of the most significant labor disputes in Milwaukee history.

At stake was union representation for 4,700 employees of the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Co., the giant utility supplying the city with both electric power and mass transit. It ended with a union victory that helped pave the way for further labor inroads in the city. (more…)

Milwaukee Streetcar builds on a sometimes strange history

The original Milwaukee streetcar system racked up a lot of stories in its 100 years of service to Milwaukee. This is one of the stranger ones. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

The original Milwaukee streetcar system racked up a lot of stories in its 100 years of service to Milwaukee. This is one of the stranger ones. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

Milwaukee has many transit firsts. It was the first large city to merge independent trolley companies into a single transit system. It pioneered the use of weekly ride passes.

Milwaukee also boasts possibly the first recorded case of “trolley rage.”

In December 1946, Albert Greb, 43, a Milwaukee streetcar motorman, appeared in district court to answer charges of reckless driving and causing damage to property – namely, using a streetcar to demolish an automobile owned by Grant Miswald, 51.

According to Miswald (and we only have his side of the story) the incident began after he lost control of his automobile in slick conditions. Miswald’s vehicle slid into the intersection of North Seventh Street and West Vienna Avenue where it was bumped by a northbound trolley.

Motorman Greb did not take the incident well. Miswald told police Greb leapt from the trolley and began beating the hood of Miswald’s car with a steel switch rod while demanding the driver move his car off the tracks. When Miswald could not get his stalled vehicle to start. Greb returned to his streetcar and deliberately rammed the disabled automobile and shoved its crumpled wreckage off the tracks.

It would be nice to know Greb’s account of the event but he did not make a statement during his initial court appearance. For its part, the streetcar company could only say Greb had filed an accident report that included a general denial of Miswald’s claims.

Tuesday’s vote by the Milwaukee Common Council moves the new Milwaukee Streetcar one step closer to construction. This opens a new chapter in the city’s transit history. Like all Milwaukee stories it may be good at times, bad at other times, and, once in a while, just plain weird.Carl_sig

Today's vote by the Milwaukee Common Council brings the streetcar plans one step closer to becoming reality. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

It’s a new dawn for local transit. Today’s vote by the Milwaukee Common Council brings the streetcar proposal one step closer to becoming reality. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

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Milwaukeeans rode the trolley to Lake Park

Milwaukee's extensive 19th century streetcar network included this elegant wooden deport in Lake Park. Collection of Carl Swanson

Milwaukee’s extensive 19th century streetcar network included this elegant wooden depot in Lake Park. Collection of Carl Swanson

How important were streetcars in 1890s Milwaukee? Let’s just say there’s a reason the first major structure in then-new Lake Park was an large and elegant trolley station. Read the whole story in my article on OnMilwaukee.comCarl_sig