In case you hadn’t heard, Milwaukee is getting a streetcar. That sentence should include the word “another”, as Milwaukee had, for nearly 70 years, been one of the preeminent US streetcar-using cities. While anyone can debate the merits and faults of the recently-approved design, what we should be starting any conversation with are the solid historical facts behind what we’ve done before.

An electric streetcar of some sort ran in Milwaukee from at least 1890 until 1958, with horse-drawn cars prior to that. With as many as 4 different companies operating their own, dedicated lines within the city limits (and more in the suburbs), there was not only competition but companies turning a profit on public transportation. What a novel concept. But that was more than 100 years ago.

By 1917 the majority of the streetcar system in downtown Milwaukee had been consolidated into one entity: The Milwaukee Electric Rail and Light Company. The system was nearing the peak of its electric-rail reach.

As the TMER&L was not only a transport company but also an electric utility, in 1938 they broke up the party and formed two different companies. By this point some former streetcar lines were being converted into bus lines, and those buses continued to reach farther into the suburbs.

In 1953 the whole system was sold again, and now for the most part all forms of public transportation were under one roof: The Milwaukee & Suburban Transport Corporation. The last streetcar stopped running in 1958, as all transport moved to buses in the 60s.

Now, in 2015, Milwaukee is planning to lay tracks again; albeit a much smaller footprint. But we mustn’t forget what we’ve done before. That’s why I’ve taken what historical data I could reasonably find and assembled a fun Google Map, shown below. This map has different layers representing the different systems in certain years: 1892 (the beginning), 1917 (the peak), 1938 (the beginning of decline), 2015 (currently-approved route), and possible future extensions (not-yet approved).  I encourage you to play around with the map and see where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we could go. The point is not to dwell on the past, but to encourage discussion and improvement for the future.

To use, click the little white box in the top left of the map. This will display a number of layers with different parts inside each layer. The layers are named with the year of the map. Click the check box next to each year to either show or hide that layer. 

Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company building. Photo by Richie Diesterheft.

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