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Wisconsin's Interurban and Streetcar History

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Published: May 26, 2023

By: Adam Burns

One of the lesser-known but finest interurbans in the nation was the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company, which operated more than half of Wisconsin's 383 miles of interurbans.  Other notables included the famous Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee and Wisconsin Power & Light Company.

Eastern Wisconsin Electric Company

The Eastern Wisconsin Electric Company began operations in 1917 through the merger of the Sheboygan Light, Power & Railway; Fond Du Lac & Oshkosh Railway; and the Winnebago Traction Company.

Together these interurban railroads served Sheboygan, Plymouth, Elkhart Lake, Fond Du Lac, Oshkosh and Neenah. Streetcar operations survived until 1927 when buses replaced rail service.

Wisconsin Traction, Light, Heat & Power Company

The Wisconsin Traction, Light, Heat & Power Company began operations in 1900 through the acquisition of the Fox River Valley Electric Company and Appleton Electric Light & Power Company.

The interurban operations served Neenah, Appleton, and Kaukauna. It was renamed Wisconsin-Michigan Power Company in 1927 and a year later interurban services ended.

Wisconsin Public Service Company

The Wisconsin Public Service Company began operations in 1911 connecting Kaukauna and Green Bay.

Most notable is the subsidiary, Green Bay Traction which served many parts of the port city on a 23-mile railroad. Streetcar operations survived until 1928 when buses replaced rail service.

Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company

The Milwaukee Electric became so successful thanks in part to its strong financial backing by the North American Company.

The earliest history of the line dated back to a local Milwaukee street railway system of 1890 that originally used horse power.

North American acquired this line and soon after incorporated the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company or also known as the TREM. It had built up a 100+ mile system in just over 10 years.

When construction had completed in 1909 it reached Kenosha (and a connection with the North Shore Line), Burlington, East Troy, Waukesha, Watertown, Port Washington, and Sheboygan where it also connected with the Wisconsin Power & Light Company.

While building had ended before 1910 the TREM spent the next decade or so upgrading its routes by double (or even triple) tracking some lines and eliminating street-running to improve operating times (it spent more than $6 million to do this, an astronomical sum for most interurbans).

In 1928 it reached its final length when it acquired the nearby Milwaukee Northern Railway Company. The company did well to weather the Great Depression, much better than most lines, but its downfall began around this time.

Through the 1930s it slowly began to cut back services and during the 1940s its routes were either sold to bus lines or outright abandoned.

By 1945 the original Milwaukee Electric was no more although its lines carried on under different owners for a few years. A small five-mile section of its southern network remained in use for freight operations through the 1960s.

Manitowoc & Northern Traction Company

The Manitowoc & Northern Traction Company began operations in 1902 connecting Manitowoc and Two Rivers on an 8-mile railroad.

It came under different ownership twice first by the Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power Company and later by the Wisconsin Public Service Company. Streetcar operations ended in 1926.

Northern States Power Company

The Northern States Power Company of 1923 (which purchased the property), originally known as the Chippewa Valley Light Railway & Power Company incorporated in 1898, connected Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire on a 14-mile railroad. Streetcar service was abandoned in 1926.

Wisconsin Valley Electric Railway

The Wisconsin Valley Electric Railway began operations in 1909 connecting Wausau and Schofield on a 9-mile railroad. Interurban service was abandoned by 1926.

Bay View Street Railway

The Bay View Street Railway, opened in 1909, served a 1 1/2-mile system connecting northeast Green Bay with an amusement park. The railroad would become part of the Green Bay Traction Company.


Wisconsin Power & Light Company

This interurban was created through the merger of several smaller lines that served Sheboygan, Plymouth, and Elkhart Lake dating back to the Sheboygan Light Power & Railway of the 1890s.

The WP&L would become another Insull property and was able to build a bit of carload freight business, which it interchanged with the Milwaukee Road.

In 1924 the WP&L gained ownership of the Wisconsin Power Company properties, unconnected lines that reached Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Omro, Neenah, Menasha, and Appleton all near Lake Winnebago.

These routes dated to between 1899 and 1903 and were originally known as Winnebago Traction. Much of its passenger services were gone by 1929 although part of its line remained in use for freight traffic until 1939.

Douglas County Street Railway

The Douglas County Street Railway was a little operation that began in 1892 soon after becoming the Superior Rapid Transit Railway. It became part of the Duluth Street Railway in August of 1900.

Other Systems

Beloit Traction Company

Chippewa Valley Electric Railway

Fort Howard Electric Railway (Served the area now known as Green Bay, beginning operations in 1894 and becoming part of the Green Bay Traction Company.)


SteamLocomotive.com

Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!