2012 – USA – “The Milwaukee Road”

A few days in Wisconsin

Milwaukee and Chicago are about 90 miles apart.   That is actually a good distance for rail to compete with other modes of transport for inter-city traffic.   It is too short a distance to make air competitive and too long a distance to make the car faster.   So, it is no surprise that Amtrak operates one of its few intensive inter-city services on this stretch. It schedules 7 daily trains each way between the two points.   The travel time is 90 minutes.

There used to be more than one railway company linking Chicago and Milwaukee, but the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific Railroad was always the most famous. As the name suggests the line continued on from Milwaukee towards Minneapolis St Paul and eventually to the Pacific coast.  Despite this, the railway was always known by the first major stop out of Chicago; it went by the nickname “Milwaukee Road”.

Milwaukee Road / Ed Lynch Bell / Creative Commons 2.0

In the 1930’s the Milwaukee Road operated some of the fastest and most beautiful trains in the world.   The “Hiawatha” streamliner set the standard for other American trains.  It linked Chicago with St Paul and it was quick.  By 1939 it was covering the distance between Chicago and Milwaukee in just 75 minutes and regularly reaching speeds of up to 100 mph on the way.

Hiawatha / Ed Lynch Bell / Creative Commons 2.0

Today’s Chicago to Milwaukee trains are slower and make a few extra stops en route, but they still retain the evocative name “Hiawatha Service”.

I took a Hiawatha and spent a few days in Wisconsin’s largest city.

The trip started at Chicago’s impressive Beaux Arts Union Station.  The Hiawatha Service runs roughly two hourly and I caught the mid-morning departure.  The train was a pretty standard Amtrak short distance one; an Alsthom locomotive hauling 6 Amfleet carriages. There was an on board trolley and I bought a coffee and a pastry from it.

The trip wasn’t very scenic and the urban sprawl rarely gave anything up to countryside over the whole 90 miles.

Milwaukee station was a reconstructed concrete affair which shared its facilities with the bus station.

I liked Milwaukee.  It had a nice feel to it.   The size was good; big enough to be interesting to walk around, but not too big as to be intimidating or difficult to navigate on foot.   It is also a German influenced city and plays heavily on its Teutonic links.

You can see this most in the food and drink.  Beer is taken very seriously and even the local sports team are known as the Brewers.    There are plenty of German-style pubs offering lots of authentic food.

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The fast food of choice is the Bratwurst and they are delicious too

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German-style cheese is also a big thing with lots of shops selling it

There was an interesting art gallery too.  It featured quite a bit of German art. The highlight for me was Hans Baluschek’s painting “City of Workers” depicting Berlin in the 1920’s.

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The most famous thing ever to have come from Milwaukee is undoubtedly the Harvey Davison motorcycle.  A visit to the impressive museum that traces the history of the “Iron Horse” is well worth making.

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The most famous person ever to have come from Milwaukee is probably General Macarthur and there is a memorial to him in the city centre.

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He was famous for the phrase “I Will Return”. As I settled into my seat on the “Hiawatha” back to Chicago, I thought that one day I might very well return to Milwaukee too.

Categories: USA