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Beer Line:
A Railroad Ran Through It

Source: Riverwest Currents
By Carl Swanson

Beer Line Recreational Trail is New, but Roots Go Back to Milwaukee's Early Days

Six decades ago in (what was called) Riverwest, 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.

Roller coaster
A yard engine pulls up the ramp called "roller coaster."

“Those engines would shake the school,” Jim Albrecht said. “The smoke and steam would be so thick that I’d miss the first three or four cars.”

He added, “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 Riverwest for nearly a century. In fact, the Beer Line Trail follows a section of one of the oldest railroad right-of-ways in the state.

The Beer Line was not the state’s first railroad; that honor belongs to Byron Kilbourn’s Milwaukee & Waukesha, chartered in 1847. By the time the railroad was ready to lay track in 1849, its name (and its ambitions) had changed to Milwaukee & Mississippi. Kilbourn lost control of the M&M in early 1852 after some shady dealings came to light. Just three months later, according to John Gurda’s The Making of Milwaukee, Kilbourn was back in the railroad business, and the M&M had a competitor.

Kilbourn’s La Crosse & Milwaukee started building northward from its terminus located between North Third Street and the Milwaukee River at Highland Avenue. The line followed the west bank of the Milwaukee River along Commerce Street. The railroad established a roundhouse and railroad yard at the southeast corner of North Avenue and Humboldt Boulevard, now a Jewel-Osco store. (A section of land south of the store will soon house the RiverCrest condominiums.) From there, the line ducked under North Avenue and climbed the river bluff to today’s Gordon Park, then turned northwest through the neighborhood to start toward La Crosse.

Remnants of the Roller Coaster
The remnants of the "Roller Coaster" today.

In the 1860s, Milwaukee banker Alexander Mitchell pieced together several different railroad companies into a unified system that would eventually become the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific – the Milwaukee Road. A north-south connector track was built in 1869 to link the former M&M line in the Menomonee Valley with the La Crosse & Milwaukee at North Milwaukee Junction near 32nd and Hampton. When it was completed, the former La Crosse & Milwaukee track became a 6.2-mile branch line that was officially called the Chestnut Street Line. (Chestnut Street is the former name of Juneau Avenue, the location of the line’s original downtown yard.) But the railroad through Riverwest was destined to play a significant role in the new Milwaukee Road, generating more freight revenue per mile than any other part of the vast Milwaukee Road system.