When Horses Powered the City Streetcar System: Bumpy Rides, Long Trips and Trouble with Kids

Aug. 14, 2017
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A Milwaukee horse-drawn streetcar in 1872

As work progresses on the new Milwaukee streetcar, it is worth remembering that Milwaukee’s very first streetcar began shuttling people around the city some 157 years ago. The very first lines were drawn by horses and, given the various reminiscences about the city’s horsecars printed in the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel in the years since, few city dwellers were sad to see the old horses put out to pasture.

The common council granted the first streetcar franchise in 1859. For those without a horse or carriage in these days, the only option beyond walking was to a hail a horse-drawn taxi – known then as “hacks.” The franchise was given to the River and Lake Shore Railway Company and was seen as a major step forward for the growing city. Over the next year, the small grid of lines were drawn up and constructed, with the “R & LS” having exclusive rights to the area east of the river. The very first run was made on May 30, 1860, as two 16-passenger cars were pulled from what it is now the Water Street Bridge to Juneau Avenue. Crowds stood along the line and cheered as the cars, filled with city officials, passed by.

The streetcar business proved to be a good one. In 1865, another franchise was granted, for lines running west of the river. The Milwaukee City Railway Company won the rights, an enterprise backed by such local business titans as John Plankinton, Frederick Layton, and Samuel Marshall and Charles Ilsley. A third franchise was granted by the city in 1880s, with each controlling their own part of the city.

These exclusive franchises made for a system that was ripe for mismanagement and graft and that often left city travelers wondering if they’d be better off walking. Fare for the streetcar was capped at a nickel but, with the three companies running in three distinct parts of the city, it did not include a transfer. Any cross-town trip usually had riders jumping from one company’s car to another’s, and trying to match up competing schedules that were hardly reliable. A journey from one end of the city to the other – four to five miles as the crow flies – could often end up taking two to three hours. In the wintertime, with the horses struggling through snow and ice, it could take even longer.

During this era, there were likely no harder working animals in the city than the horses (and the occasional red mules) that powered the streetcar system. By the early 1880s, the city had 38 miles of streetcar track (in actuality, wooden beams covered with metal sheeting) and the three firms owned over 600 horses. A single horse could only work about three hours before needing a rest, so a line needed 10 horses or more to keep it functional in a given day. 

The conditions of the city streets and the rustic tracks, as well as the nature and temperament of the over-worked horses made for a very bumpy ride. There was little in the way of shock absorption and the cars’ closely situated front and rear axles caused an on-going sway throughout the trip. This odd set-up also drew the attention of troublemaking boys who learned that leaping onto the rear bumper of a stopped car would cause the front end to jump the track. It took several stout men to reset the car in such situations, one of who was usually tasked with chasing after the guilty children.

In 1890, the city’s first electric streetcar line went active and the days of the horsecar were numbered. A few stray horse lines lingered on until 1894 when the grid finally went all-electric. The electric line was retired in 1958.

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