Getting Around

Click the image to learn more. Two children share a bike as they ride down a Milwaukee sidewalk in October 1943.

Humans love to travel. We want to explore new places, learn new things, experience new cultures, and then return home again to familiar surroundings. There are also practical reasons why we go from one place to another. We need to go to work, or visit relatives, or purchase food and clothing, or just socialize.

But how do we get from place to place? Today we can easily travel by car or plane, but that was not always the case. Initially we just had to walk to wherever we wanted to go.

Getting Around by Foot

Judging from footprints discovered on a former shore in Kenya, it is thought that ancestors of modern humans were walking in ways very similar to the present activity as many as 1.5 million years ago.[1] Until the early nineteenth century the most common way to get from one place to another in Wisconsin was still by foot.[2]

How far can you walk in a day? A healthy person can walk about four miles per hour and cover a mile in 12.5 minutes. If you walked for eight hours a day, you would cover an amazing thirty-two miles a day. Human walking is accomplished by a process called the “double pendulum.” During forward motion, the leg leaves the ground and swings forward from the hip (this is the first pendulum). Then the leg strikes the ground with the heel and rolls through to the toe in a motion described as an inverted pendulum. The process of walking recovers approximately sixty per cent of the energy used due to pendulum dynamics and ground reaction force.[3]

The native residents of the future Milwaukee area traveled by foot and canoe. In the early nineteenth century, eastern settlers traveled by land across Wisconsin following animal and Indian trails. These trails, together with the Wisconsin’s abundant waterways, provided the earliest routes for those seeking to relocate and for those in the fur trade.[4] It is not surprising that the Milwaukee-Watertown road was constructed in 1837 following old Indian trails.[5]

Getting Around by Boat

Water was another important avenue of travel. Wisconsin Indians used birch canoes and dugout canoes to navigate rivers. To carve a dugout canoe, a fire was started on a large log. After the fire burned down into the log, it was put out and the ashes were dug out. This process was repeated until the desired depth was reached. Later in the nineteenth century, steamships were an effective method of transportation from town to town along Wisconsin rivers and the shores of Lake Michigan.

Getting Around by Horse

Farmers regularly used horse-drawn wagons to take produce to village markets and occasionally to take their families on short trips. Wealthier people could purchase horse-drawn carriages to travel on short trips. But stagecoaches provided the main source of travel between Wisconsin towns in the early nineteenth century.

By 1845 there were daily four horse stagecoaches running from Milwaukee to Galena Wisconsin. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, stagecoaches left Milwaukee and passed through Troy, Janesville, Monroe, Wiota, Schaumburg, Gratiot’s Grove, and White Oak Springs. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, the stagecoaches went by way of Prairieville, Whitewater, Fort Atkinson, Madison, Blue Mounds, Dodgeville, Mineral Point, Platteville, and Hazel Green.[6]

Stagecoaches provided relatively quick but not necessarily pleasant trips. The coaches had four bench seats intended for eight passengers, but on popular routes twelve people often squeezed in. The coach was suspended from its frame by two leather straps running from the front axle to the rear axle. During a typical trip one wheel or another was always dropping into a pothole or hitting a stone or tree root, causing the passengers to be constantly jostled back and forth.

Mud and snow also slowed or trapped wagons and stagecoaches on the early dirt roads. But a solution to uncomfortable stagecoach travel was found when a dirt road was covered with a series of wooden planks, making it a “planked road.” The wooden planks were about two inches thick and eight feet long,[7] and they smoothed the road’s surface enough to make stagecoach travel rapid and relatively comfortable.

Since plank roads were cheaper and easier to construct than railroads, they were an effective means for farmers to reach their markets in the nearby villages and towns. In order to recoup their cost and to make a profit, the companies that built these roads charged a toll for their use. A typical toll was one cent per mile for single horse-drawn vehicle, with an extra half-cent for each additional horse pulling the vehicle. For example, a trip from Milwaukee to Green Bay with a team of horses pulling a wagon on plank roads could cost as much as four dollars.

Plank roads were rapidly constructed between the more densely settled portions of the state. The well-traveled Milwaukee-Watertown road was one of the first to be covered with wooden planks.[8] Construction began in Milwaukee in 1848 and was completed to Watertown in 1853.[9] Stagecoach lines to and from Watertown soon began to connect with Wisconsin’s early railroad system. This saved even more travel time to and from Milwaukee and was the beginning of Wisconsin’s stagecoach lines shifting their terminals to make connections with the faster and more popular railroads that emerged in the 1850s.

Plank roads, when well maintained, significantly reduced travel time from farm to market. But after only a few years the usually untreated wood planks started to decay. Maintenance became expensive. As planks deteriorated, they were often simply covered over with gravel, resulting in a slower and pothole-plagued trip.[10]

Getting Around by Train

In the mid-nineteenth century, railroads changed how Americans traveled the country and their localities. Operating on purpose-built tracks and requiring expensive equipment to run, railroad companies competed fiercely for profits and regional dominance. After the Civil War, Alexander Mitchell’s Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad stretched out across southeastern Wisconsin. His fortune grew from the transportation of wheat from Wisconsin farms through Milwaukee to consumers around the United States. Milwaukee’s status as a nationally important city grew up along with the railroad-driven wheat trade.[11] Later in the nineteenth century, Milwaukee’s economic relationship with railroads was further reinforced by its emergence as a center of heavy manufacturing. The Village of Butler developed in the early twentieth century when the Milwaukee, Sparta, and Northwestern Railway established a major railroad yard.[12]

Some Milwaukee area residents also became railroad commuters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steam-driven, local passenger trains, smaller than the behemoths that pulled freight, were called “Dummy Lines.” One dummy line ran through Shorewood between Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay. It enabled people to travel within the Milwaukee area for either recreation or work.[13] Milwaukee residents also traveled within the region by streetcar, a mechanism that evolved from horse to electrical power in the nineteenth-century.

Getting Around by Streetcar and Interurban Railroad

In May 1860, horse-drawn streetcars began travelling from the North Water Street Bridge to East Juneau Avenue. They were better than walking, but they lacked comfort and speed. Like humans, animals were subject to biological limits. It was easier to go downhill than up. They needed to refuel with rest and food, became ill, and created a lot of manure.[14]

Electricity was then in its infancy. Inventors such as Thomas Edison sought ways to use electricity to overcome the shortcomings of horse-driven urban transportation. By 1885, transit companies began safely powering electric motors in streetcars by connecting them to overhead wiring called a “troller”; the cars they powered were soon called “trollies”. In April 1890, The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company began offering Milwaukee’s first electric streetcar service. Milwaukeeans were initially skeptical because of the dangers of electrocution. But eventually the streetcar won them over. Notably, it encouraged further commutes and suburbanization, leading to the growth of outlying municipalities such as Wauwatosa and South Milwaukee.

The “interurban” was an electric railway dedicated to serving passengers travelling between cities and towns. By 1900 the first interurban line in Milwaukee was thirty-four miles long, running from Milwaukee to Racine and Kenosha. At its peak in the early 1930s, there were interurban lines radiating from Milwaukee to Sheboygan, Watertown, East Troy, Burlington and Racine-Kenosha, with over two hundred miles of track.[15] By 1940s, as competition from autos and buses increased, the lines were slowly cut back and eventually abandoned.

Even with the comfort and speed of the electric streetcar and interurban, it was still not easy going for women. Voluminous skirts made it dangerous to jump on and off of moving streetcars. Restrictive clothing fashions also decreased their mobility. From about 1900 to 1915 a popular dress style called a “hobble” skirt was in fashion. It had a very narrow hem at the bottom so that a woman could only take very small steps, and women often wore a strap around their ankles (similar to that used to hobble horses) under the skirt to prevent them from taking a large step that would tear it when walking.

Getting Around by Bicycle

By the mid-nineteenth century a new form of travel became popular: the bicycle. Initially called a “velocipede,” it had a wooden frame and wooden or iron wheels. In the spring of 1869, they were seen on streets of Milwaukee, Appleton, Oshkosh, and Eau Claire.[16]

Cycling joined activities like football and baseball as an arena of masculine sport. Although men dominated bicycling, it also gave women new social opportunities and gave rise to a new fashion trend, the “bloomer.”[17] Bloomer suits seemed scandalous on women because the clothing resembled male trousers. Consequently, most women bicyclists wore the traditional long ankle length dresses and petticoats, equipping their bicycles with guards to protect their clothing from catching in the chain and spokes.

During the 1890s Wisconsin participated in the national bicycle craze. Technological innovations made bicycling safer. The addition of a chain drive and smaller, air-filled (pneumatic) tires encouraged both men and women to take up riding.[18] The increase in demand for bicycles spurred a massive growth of bicycle manufacturing companies, with factories like Sterling in Kenosha and Sercombe & Bolte, Meiselbach, Minerva, and Mohawk in Milwaukee.[19]

The bicycle had a special meaning for women. A woman in the nineteenth century, who had little opportunity to express her individuality, now had a vehicle with which she could overcome reliance upon men for travel. However, men felt that a woman on wheels was a threat to traditional social order because she could travel beyond her previous limits without the surveillance of a knowing husband.[20] In retrospect, the bicycle turned out to be a major step in the growing equality between the sexes.

Getting Around by Automobile

The steam engine powered the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, so it was natural for a few creative individuals to try to adapt it to propel a vehicle to transport people. These “horseless carriages” were not financially successful until the twentieth century, when roads improved and manufacturing costs were reduced. One notable case involved Reverend J. W. Carhart who, in 1873, built a steam-powered buggy that travelled less than ten miles per hour.[21]

Early attempts at building horseless carriages produced machines that were slow, noisy, and frightening, especially to horses. Wisconsin legislation soon required the operator of such a vehicle to reduce speed when approaching a horse-drawn carriage. If the horses or driver were frightened, the law required the driver of the horseless carriage to stop completely and to get out and lead the horses past their “devil-wagon.”[22]

It was quite unusual for women to drive an automobile in the early 1900s. Not only were early cars difficult to steer, but until the electric starter was invented in 1912, engines had to be hand-cranked. This task required upper body strength and flexible clothing.[23] But in the summer of 1903, Mrs. George Rowe and Mrs. Nettie Hoyt drove from Beaver Dam to Milwaukee in a three-day trip. This feat received much publicity in Milwaukee newspapers.

Most successful early automobile companies had previously manufactured wagons or buggies. In the late nineteenth century, the Mitchell & Lewis Motor Company in Racine was an important wagon manufacturer. In 1903, the company produced its first automobile, the Mitchell. By 1911 the Mitchell-Lewis Motor Company had become Racine’s largest employer.[24]

Thomas B. Jeffery had originally built bicycles called “Ramblers” in Chicago. He experimented with parts from buggies and bicycles to create a new, lightweight inexpensive automobile. In 1900 he moved to Kenosha; there, in 1902, he produced 1,500 new Rambler automobiles. In 1916 the business was sold to Charles W. Nash, who quickly made Kenosha the largest producer of automobiles outside Detroit. In Hartford, hardware dealer Louis Kissel began producing his “Kissel Kar” automobile in 1906.[25] Among the purchasers of a Kissel Kar was aviator Amelia Earhart.[26]

Motorized bicycles were also at the cutting edge of the new self-propelled trend in the early twentieth century. In 1901, William Harley and Arthur Davidson began working on a project to build a motorized bicycle with a two-cylinder engine. Their effort grew into Milwaukee’s iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycle company.[27]

Between 1915 and 1919, Milwaukee’s A. O. Smith Corporation built a small, open-air car named the Smith Flyer. The Briggs & Stratton Company bought the design and dubbed it the “Briggs & Stratton Flyer.” The vehicle was simply a motorized seat mounted on bicycle wheels. There was no suspension, body, or windshield. It was driven by a two-horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine mounted on the back, like an outboard motor boat.[28]

The mass production of automobiles in the United States transformed a host of cultural patterns, including employment, consumption, social interchange, and urban planning. At the same time, car-dependent Americans walked less, and the railroad lost riders. Wisconsin’s present highway system began in 1918, with numbers and letters used to mark the highways and maps issued to help motorists. By the 1940s, few Wisconsin cities still used streetcars and interurbans; buses that ran on diesel fuel replaced them.[29]

While the introduction of the mass-produced car represented a revolution in mobility and convenience, the modern consequences of intensive automotive use are not all positive. Negative consequences include reliance on fossil fuels, social disconnection, obesity, pollution, and inefficient land use patterns. Federal subsidies for roads and suburban development contributed to Milwaukee’s suburbanization. New retail businesses catering to drivers included drive-in fast food restaurants and numerous gasoline stations, which sprouted like weeds across the state.[30]

In 1974 Americans committed on average more than 1,600 hours each year to their automobiles, as they drove and earned money for car payments, gasoline, tolls, insurance, and taxes. In other words, they spent four of sixteen waking hours each day either on the road or gathering resources to drive their vehicles.[31]

Getting around by Airplane

By the early twenty-first century, there were 558 airports in Wisconsin, including six in the Milwaukee area.[32] Most were for general aviation, which includes non-scheduled civilian flying as well as business flights, air charters, private aviation, flight training, ballooning, parachuting, gliding, hang gliding, aerial photography, foot-launched powered hang gliders, air ambulance, crop dusting, charter flights, traffic reporting, police air patrols, and forest fire fighting.

Milwaukee County’s first airport was opened in 1919 on Lisbon Road near New Butler (now Butler). Airmail service began there in 1926, but the airfield was too remote from the City of Milwaukee. So Milwaukee County constructed a new airport on Layton Avenue on Milwaukee’s South Side. In 1941, the airport was renamed General Mitchell Field in honor of General William “Billy” Mitchell, the Milwaukee World War I aviator who is regarded as the father of the United States Air Force. In 1986, the airport was redesignated General Mitchell International Airport, reflecting its capacity for international travel.

By the end of the twentieth century, computers had invaded the automobile. Computer-aided features included antilock brakes, engine control units for fuel efficiency and emission control, Global Positioning Systems for navigation, voice activation systems, and so forth.[33] In the first decades of the twenty-first century, automobiles continued to get smarter, with the addition of sensors monitoring everything from tire pressure to the driver’s sleepy eyes. Computers in modern automobiles have more computer code that a Boeing 787 airplane. It is likely that by 2030 the era of self-driving cars will have arrived, making driving safer, more comfortable, and less stressful.[34] And in the more distant future Americans will be leasing vehicles rather than owning them, as maintenance and obsolescence become ever costlier.

That fossil fuels will eventually be depleted has been known for decades. Science also recognizes that burning them is having a negative impact on the Earth’s atmosphere. The internal combustion engine that initiated the automotive revolution is being replaced by the more energy-efficient electric motor powered by batteries or fuel cells.

In 1990, 76 percent of Milwaukee-area commuters drove alone, and their average one-way travel time to work was 20.1 minutes. Two decades later in 2010, 80 percent drove alone and their average one-way travel time to work had only increased to 22 minutes, the third-lowest among the nation’s largest metro areas.[35] The era of renewed mass transit use in Milwaukee had not yet arrived.

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Katherine Harmon, “Researchers Uncover 1.5 Million-Year-Old Footprints,” Scientific American, February 26, 2009.
  2. ^ Walking was also referred to as getting around by “shank’s mare,” which means using one’s own legs as a means of transport. It derives from the name of the lower part of the leg between the knee and ankle—the shank, nowadays more often known as the shin-bone or tibia. An alternative version of this phrase is “the horse of ten toes.” The following prediction was made in The Dubuque Daily Herald in May 1869: “A public exhibition of the velocipede [a predecessor of the bicycle] was given on the streets last evening by Mr. Clark, who managed the vehicle with considerable skill…They are a toy, and will never come into general use in competition with shank’s mare.”
  3. ^ Giovanni Cavagna, “Walk Like a Pendulum,” New Scientist, January 13, 2001.
  4. ^ Indian trails often followed earlier trails created by deer and other animals. They typically followed accessible routes that went around hills and crossed rivers and streams at shallow points. The trails often followed streams and rivers to provided quick escape routes and drinking water. In open plains the trails provided animals the ability to see if enemies were near. Indians followed these animal trails for the same reasons, and European settlers did the same.
  5. ^ Watertown Daily Times, December 1986, 30-31.
  6. ^ J. H. A. Lacher, “The Taverns and Stages of Early Wisconsin,” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1915): 118-167.
  7. ^ The planks were often not nailed down because nails would work loose and injure horses’ hooves; consequently, heavy rains could wash the planks away.
  8. ^ Later the Milwaukee-Watertown road became Highway 16 (also called “Oconomowoc Road”). This road was also called the “Emigrant Trail” as European immigrants used it to settle in Wisconsin.
  9. ^ Milwaukee-Watertown Plank Road, Watertown History website, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  10. ^ Rickie Longfellow, “Back in Time, Plank Roads,” Federal Highway Administration website, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  11. ^ John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999). 100-103.
  12. ^ Michele Saltzman, “Village of Butler,” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, accessed March 7, 2019.
  13. ^ Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay Railway Company’s Dummy Line Railway, Shorewood Historical Society website, last accessed March 7, 2019. See also Christopher Mark Miller, “Milwaukee’s First Suburbs: A Re-interpretation of Suburban Incorporation in Nineteenth-Century Milwaukee” (PhD diss., Marquette University, 2007).
  14. ^ According to one estimate, in 1907 Milwaukee’s 12,500 horses left 133 tons of manure on the streets every day. See Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 26.
  15. ^ Milwaukee Transit Archives & Museum, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  16. ^ Bicycling in the 19th Century, Recollection Wisconsin website, October 12, 2012, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  17. ^ During the second half of the nineteenth century, social norms required women who appeared in public wear dresses that covered as much of the body possible. This included a wide long skirt and a tight corset. In 1851, Amelia Bloomer recognized the need for more practical clothing for women, so she designed and wore shorter skirts over Turkish-style trousers.
  18. ^ Bike Boom, Wikipedia, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  19. ^ There were nearly 3,000 different bicycle manufacturers in the United States between 1878 and 1918: Bicycle Brands, The Wheelmen website, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  20. ^ David Hendricks, “The Possibility of Mobility: The Rise and Fall of the Bicycle in 19th Century America,” American Studies at the University of Virginia website, last updated January 7, 2010, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  21. ^1st Auto Built Here in 1873 by Ex-pastor,” Racine Times Call, June 18, 1929, Wisconsin Historical Society website, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  22. ^ Dorothy V. Walters, “Devil-Wagon Days,” Wisconsin Magazine of History (September 1946): 69-77, accessed March 7, 2019.
  23. ^Starter (engine),” Wikipedia, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  24. ^Making the Mitchell Car: An Illustrated Description of the Mitchell Plant” (Racine, WI: The Mitchell-Lewis Motor Co., 1911), last accessed March 7, 2019.
  25. ^Automobile Culture,” Turning Points in Wisconsin History, Wisconsin Historical Society website, last accessed March 7, 2019.ibid
  26. ^ 1923 Kissel Speedster (Gold Bug), Forney Museum of Transportation website, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  27. ^ Matthew Costello, “Harley-Davidson,” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  28. ^ Dan Neil, 1920 Briggs and Stratton Flyer, “The 50 Worst Cars of All Time,” Time, April 25, 2017, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  29. ^ Walters, “Devil-Wagon Days,” last accessed March 7, 2019.
  30. ^Effects of the Car on Societies,” Wikipedia, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  31. ^ Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1974), 18.
  32. ^ Airports in Wisconsin,, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  33. ^Automotive Navigation System,” Wikipedia, last accessed March 7, 2019.
  34. ^ “Smart Cars Are Already Here,” Time, March 7, 2016, p. 60.
  35. ^ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 20, 2010. The worst commute was in the New York metropolitan area where commuters spent an average of 35 minutes going to work. Nearly 20% of New Yorkers traveled an hour or more to their jobs.

For Further Reading

Gant, Jesse J., and Nicholas J. Hoffman. Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2013.

Glancey, Jonathan. The Car: The History of the Automobile. London, UK: Carlton Books Ltd., 2013.

Gurda, John, The Making of Milwaukee. 3rd ed. Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 2008.

Stanley, Autumn. Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Smith, Robert. A Social History of the Bicycle. New York, NY: American Heritage Press, 1972.

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