For Six Decades, the Wells Street Viaduct Rode High Over the Menomonee

Streetcars traversed the Valley on the terrifying spindly viaduct.

It was the cheapest thrill in town. For a paltry five-cent fare, streetcar riders could leave solid ground behind at 36th and Wells streets and cross the Menomonee Valley, swaying back and forth for a hair-raising half-mile, on a spindly iron bridge 100 feet above the valley floor. Catholics were known to cross themselves before they crossed the Wells Street viaduct, and one little girl was heard to say, “It’s as high up as heaven, I bet.”

The viaduct was built in 1892 by the Milwaukee & Wauwatosa Motor Railway, an enterprise launched by beer baron Frederick Pabst to connect Wauwatosa, the location of his summer farm, with the big city to the east. The Pabst venture was absorbed within a few years by The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Co. – today’s We Energies – and became the literal high point on the busy Wells Street line.


 

 

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Milwaukeeans never learned to really trust the viaduct. Politicians repeatedly questioned its safety and civic groups called for a “more modern” structure, but their fears were misplaced; one eminent engineer after another pronounced the span safe for streetcars and even heavy interurban trains. For 66 years, the viaduct weathered high winds above, floods and fires in the valley below, multiple suicides and generations of frightened passengers without so much as a derailment.

The one adversary it could not outlast was the automobile. Rubber tires pushed steel wheels into oblivion after World War II, and the last streetcar crossed the Wells Street viaduct in 1958. Four years later, the entire structure – trusses, rivets and rails – was dismantled and sold for scrap.

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK: 

  • Lost in the overcast is the Miller brewery, established on Watertown Plank Road (now State Street) in 1855.
  • Steam trains on the Milwaukee Road mainline connected Milwaukee with the Twin Cities and points west. The same right-of-way supports Amtrak service today.
  • The Menomonee River created the valley and flooded it with annoying regularity.
  • The Wells Street viaduct overlooked Pigsville, a minuscule neighborhood named for a 19th-century pig farm on the west bank of the river.

IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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