New Third Ward Park to Utilize Part of Milwaukee’s Railroad History

Jul. 5, 2017
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trestle
This inactive railroad trestle in the Third Ward will soon become a public park.

Plans were recently announced for a new park in the Third Ward that will incorporate the neighborhood’s old Chicago-Northwestern railroad trestle. The park will use a city-owned lot on E. Erie Street, linking and street and an extended portion of the Riverwalk to the long-dormant trestle. The park will sit between the Hansen’s Landing condo building and soon-to-be-completed DoMUS condo building and be adjacent to the former bridge operator’s building, which is also in the process of being converted into residential space.

Trestle Park will eliminate one of the last remaining parts of the Third Ward’s riverfront that retains the gritty nature of its industrial past. The trestle was built in 1915 along with the massive 243-foot-long Milwaukee River swing bridge that still sits in the middle of the waterway. The bridge was the largest swing bridge ever built in Milwaukee and is one of the few bridges of its kind still in existence in Wisconsin.

The Milwaukee River bridge was constructed to replace a smaller swing bridge that had been built on the site in 1890. Remarkably, the old bridge actually remained in use while the new bridge foundation was built and the new bridge was built off-site. Using enormous pontoons, the 500-ton bridge was lifted off its foundation and moved about 60 feet downriver to a new mooring, where it was linked up with a temporarily redirected line of track. Train traffic was disrupted for only five hours while the move was made. The old bridge not only served the many trains visiting the warehouses of the Third Ward and the old lakefront passenger depot during construction, but also could be swung near enough to the new bridge site to deliver materials from the mainland.

The old bridge is floated away as the present-day bridge is fit into place.

This makeshift crossing was used for nearly five months until the current bridge was finished. While the old bridge was removed, the new one was floated into place and affixed to its foundation. That process took only six hours, meaning that in replacing a nearly 250-foot long bridge, traffic was disrupted for a total of less than12 hours. During its first years in use, the new bridge served an average of 100 trains per day – an average of one every 15 minutes all day long.

Into to mid 1900s, the bridge was primarily used for passenger service to and from the lakefront depot. After service to the depot was discontinued in 1966, the bridge and the lines surrounding it saw little use. According the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the bridge was last used in 2003 to accommodate a car delivering a piece of industrial art to the Milwaukee Art Museum. According to the 2005 historic designation report by the city, the bridge was still part of an active rail line. Since then, much of the lines connecting to the bridge and its trestles have been pulled up, leaving the span inaccessible by the rails.

In 2013, an idea was floated by a local group called Art Milwaukee to convert the bridge into a “linear park” with space for artists, but the idea stalled in the planning stages. The proposal did, however, lead the city to buy the Third Ward-side trestle and the lot surrounding it from Union Pacific with the intention – soon now to be fulfilled – of using it as park space. The design of the park will allow for the opening and closing of the still-operable bridge.  

Work on the new park is set to begin this fall and could be completed by the end of the year.

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