Back on track at East Troy Electric Railroad
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Some of the cars on the display in the car barn at the East Troy Electric Railroad are visible through the window of a 1920s Milwaukee streetcar. Visitors to the Museum this weekend will see the streetcar and other vehicles that were once common on the city's streets. Terry Mayer photo.
EAST TROY -- It’s hard to believe now, with cars crowding streets and highways, but there once was a time when people traveled by train along an interurban line whose network of railways in southern Wisconsin totaled 385 miles at its peak, in routes that stretched from Sheboygan to Kenosha and Watertown to Hales Corners and East Troy.
(Read all of this week's stories from Walworth County Sunday HERE. )
Getting around on the streets of major cities like Milwaukee in those days was different, too: streetcars, also running down tracks and powered by overhead lines, took people across the city to department stores, offices, even the old baseball stadium.
“The streetcar line, that was the way to get around then. There weren’t a lot of garages or private cars because people couldn’t afford them,” said John Giove, the chairman of the board of the East Troy Electric Railroad Museum, who also owns and operates an archival museum for Milwaukee’s transit history in West Allis. “Streetcars were fast and frequent. There were streetcars (at stops) every three or four minutes, weekends every five to seven minutes.”
Visitors to the East Troy Electric Railroad can board and examine an authentic Milwaukee streetcar during the museum’s Milwaukee Days event on Saturday, Sept. 29, and Sunday, Sept. 30.
Giove, who grew up in Milwaukee, hung around the cars as a youngster.
“Mother always knew where to find me when supper was ready. She’d come down to the end of the streetcar line and there I was, changing the trolley poles (that attached to the overhead wires) and the seats for the motorman,” he said.
Once or twice, Giove even got behind the controls of a streetcar, with the guidance of the driver when the car was empty. By age 7, he fully intended to become a motorman.
But as the post-World War II population spread to the suburbs, automakers shifted production into high gear and cars became king, while trains and streetcars lost ground.
Streetcar service in Milwaukee ended in 1958 and the last interurban ran in Wisconsin in 1963. But you can get a feel for the past at the ETER, which takes visitors from East Troy to Mukwonago and back on its collection of restored streetcars and railroad cars. The cars run by overhead line on a 10-mile stretch of track that dates back to 1907. The regularly scheduled rides run from May through October.
“There aren’t too many people who remember that service firsthand,” Giove said. “If you’re in Kenosha or other cities that have put in light rail, you understand what the trolley is and how it operates. But when you don’t have even that, our museum is an introduction to the past. It’s also a fun, really unique experience, a step back in time at a slower pace with a ride through a scenic countryside.”
“There’s a generation that’s starting to lose the idea (of trains) because they can’t connect with it,” said Chuck Damaske, an author of railroad history and the president of ETER. “There’s something magic about a train running on rails.”
The interurban tracks in East Troy became a freight line after 1939, but freight traffic declined and the line grew expensive for the village to maintain. The railroad was named a state historic landmark in 1972, and in the mid-1980s, East Troy got Paul Averdung of the Wisconsin Trolley Museum to manage it. By 1995, a volunteer group, the Friends of East Troy Railroad, purchased the line from the village for $67,500 and raised $370,000 to take over Averdung’s collection of cars.
“ETER is only here because of Paul Averdung,” Damaske said. “He created the railroad we see today, with cars he acquired, and got volunteers to help him refurnish them.”
The nonprofit museum maintains the lines, a depot and a roster of almost 30 cars -- with about 14 currently in service -- that includes a horse-drawn car, locomotives, streetcars and cabooses. Many are being slowly restored in the museum’s car barn.
The collection is remarkable given that many older streetcars and interurban cars virtually have disappeared.