Milwaukee Transit Archives & Museum Relocates to South Shore

December 3, 2018

By Sheila Julson

Larry Fisher’s “Luxury Travel on the North Shore” illustration depicts the North Shore Electroliner pulling out of the Milwaukee Depot, heading to the Sixth Street Viaduct, enroute to Chicago. Fisher, who created this image in 2012, provides a snapshot of downtown Milwaukee in the 1950s. —Transit Archives and Museum

The Hop, Milwaukee’s sleek new streetcar, created buzz during its service debut Nov. 2 – 4 and generated a ridership of 16,409.

But John Giove knows streetcars are nothing new to Milwaukee. As founder, president, and CEO of the Milwaukee Transit Archives & Museum, he can tell visitors all about the interurban line, street railway, trackless trolley, and motor bus lines that operated in metropolitan Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin, the first beginning in the late 1800s.

Transit museum founder and president John Giove seated on an early (c.1910s) rattan passenger seat from a Milwaukee city streetcar. —Katherine Keller

The Milwaukee Transit Archives & Museum, which opened Nov. 2 in its new location in Cudahy features an immense collection of transit artifacts, photos, scale models, streetcar equipment, and art. The museum was previously located on 102nd Street and Lincoln Avenue in West Allis, with additional storage space on 103rd and Oklahoma. After outgrowing the West Allis spaces, the board purchased the building on Packard Avenue October 2017 and consolidated the collection in a former office building, 4763 S. Packard Ave.

The museum currently occupies the lower level of the building, but Giove hopes to open the upper in the coming months. The upper level houses the library, a conference room, and an archive of printed matter, photos, slides, and negatives. Museum admission is currently free, although donations are accepted at the door. The museum is open most Thursdays and Saturdays from 11am to 4pm. Hours may expand if more volunteers become available.

A museum membership starts at $20 annually. In addition to memberships, funding includes individual and corporate donations and occasional museum sales. 

Giove, 76, grew up in Bay View and attended Bay View High School (BVHS). He later taught social studies at his alma mater and served as director of student activities.

He has been interested in streetcar transit since he was a child and still possesses his first wooden toy trolley car, which is on display. A black-and-white photo near the guestbook shows Giove when he was 5 years old, seated on a sled on Kinnickinnic Avenue after the snowstorm that paralyzed the city in 1947. 

Building a museum

The museum’s opening weekend drew a couple of hundred people, Giove said, some who rode The Hop and then traveled south to see Milwaukee’s transit past. Some of the museum’s artifacts are from Giove’s own collection, and many were donated to the museum over the years. “It’s a work in progress and always will be a work in progress, as that’s that nature of a museum,” he said. “You’re changing displays and always receiving new things.”

The museum has a display case on loan from the Milwaukee Historical Society that features a bell from the last streetcar that ran in Milwaukee. 

There is a room dedicated to the Chicago, North Shore, and Milwaukee Railroad, more commonly known as the North Shore Line, that offered high-speed electrified, interurban service between downtown Milwaukee and downtown Chicago. The room features a scale model of a full city block of Milwaukee’s North Shore Line passenger depot and freight houses, running off overhead lines. The model was built by Wayne Hammelman, who specialized in crafting HO scale model traction and trains. After Hammelman died in 2012, his wife Lois donated the North Shore Line layout to the museum.

The HO scale trolley layout that operates under live overhead wire was built by the late Wayne Hammelman and donated by his wife Lois Hammelman. Included in the layout are the North Shore Line’s Milwaukee terminal and passenger platforms, freight depot, scale trolley and vehicle models, and the entire city block bounded by N. 5th and 6th streets, and W. Michigan Ave. and W. Clybourn St. Nothing depicted in this 1950s scene exists today. —Katherine Keller

Other cases hold North Shore Line menus from the dining cars on trains or lunch counters in the depot. There are also pieces of china, cutlery, napkins, coasters, photos, and globe lights from the dining car.

Visitors can view vintage Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus passes from the 1980s, along with proofs designed by artist Klaus Birkhain. “The Milwaukee passes typically focused on something going on around town, like the state fair or festivals,” Giove said.

Tom Poliak, who has volunteered at the museum on and off for about 10 years, has held an interest in transit history since he was a child. He grew up on Milwaukee’s northwest side near four bus lines. “I was always fascinated by seeing these big hulking buses going down the street,” he said. Like Giove, Poliak’s transit collection hobby continued to grow, and he donated many signs and other items to the museum. “My entire bus pass collection is going to be in here,” he said.

Poliak said he has Milwaukee bus passes dating back to 1930, when they were first issued. Poliak and his collection had been featured on channels WTMJ-4 and WISN-12, and in Jim Stingl’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column the weekend that MCTS switched to the M-Card digital fare card.

For many years, cold hard cash was required to board most buses and streetcars. The museum has vintage metal and glass cash fare boxes.

The northbound No. 864 streetcar on S. Delaware Ave. at E. Rusk Ave. It was the stop closest to John Giove’s childhood home on S. Superior St. —Transit Archives and Museum

Its holdings include an extensive photo collection documents historical streetcars, interurban lines, and trackless trolleys, with street images visible in many. One might be surprised to learn that Milwaukee even had double-decker buses for a short time. “London doesn’t have anything on us,” Giove joked.

Visitors can view the operator’s cab of a streetcar, with the original handle, air brake stand, side door lever, fare box, and the side door. A motorman’s uniform, bus seats, and an early call radio provide more glimpses about the way people got around the Milwaukee region in decades past.

Giove said the museum will participate in next year’s Doors Open Milwaukee event and hopes to partner with nearby Cudahy Historical Society, as well as the South Shore Cyclery’s Milwaukee Bike Museum, which is located across the street from the Transit Museum. 

Giove observed that there doesn’t seem to be one particular display or artifact that’s a dominant favorite among visitors. Each visitor focuses on something different. 

Does Giove have a favorite artifact? “All of it,” he said after a slight pause. “All of it has significance. We’re very proud of the North Shore layout.”

He already obtained two items from The Hop—a button and brochure.

Incorporated in Wisconsin as the Milwaukee Transit Archives & Museum, Inc. on December 22, 2004, a search for affordable quarters for an archival museum led to office space in the lower level of a building at S. 102nd Street & W. Lincoln Avenue in West Allis. Occupancy commenced August 31, 2004, beginning with an effort to acquire display and archival storage cases and converting the space for museum use. Bylaws were adopted November 2006 and the museum’s nonprofit 501(c)(3) status was approved by the IRS on May 6, 2007. 

Source: Milwaukee Transit Archives & Museum

Milwaukee Transit Archives and Museum

4763 S. Packard Ave.
(414) 345-7210
milwtransit.org.

Editor’s Note: Read a fascinating account by Jim Boyd, about riding the North Shore Line from his home in Northern Illinois to Milwaukee from 1961-1963, when he attended the Layton School of Art:
bit.ly/2QhbTny

And to read more about the history of the art and design of MCTS bus passes: Kriston Capps’ “Farewell to Milwaukee’s Classic, Hand-Crafted Bus Passes,” bit.ly/2P6f7Wo

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