Beertown made railroad passenger cars, too

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The original 'Hiawathas' of 1935 were stunning, if idiosyncratic, examples of West Milwaukee Shops' car building capabilities under the leadership of Karl Nystrom. Classic Trains coll.
Last week I had the chance to witness something that doesn’t happen much in Milwaukee anymore: a railroad industry press conference.

Sixty years ago, that wouldn’t have been big news. In mid-century, the brewing capital was home to one of the largest railroad complexes in the U.S., the Milwaukee Road’s West Milwaukee shops. The city also was the backdrop for one of the fiercest passenger-train rivalries in history, that of the Milwaukee’s Hiawathas and the Chicago & North Western’s 400s. Reporters were always gathering at the tracks somewhere around town.

Those thunderous days were a distant murmur last Friday as I stood on a vast factory floor on the city’s north side to watch local officials welcome back the Spanish train manufacturer Talgo.

I say “welcome back” because Talgo was here before, about eight years ago, when it arrived in the same industrial building to assemble several sets of its famed passive-tilt high-speed trainsets, including two for the state of Wisconsin. Alas, in a story too twisted for this space, Talgo left town after 2010 when the new governor, Scott Walker, pulled out of the state’s plan for new Milwaukee–Madison service. Let’s just say a lot of bad blood was spilled.

Now, Talgo is back. At the press conference, reporters congregated beside a pair of unassuming transit cars used on Metro’s Red Line, linking Los Angeles Union Station with North Hollywood. Talgo plans to rebuild 37 pairs of these Breda-built cars over the next five years. Car overhaul is a new business for Talgo and the fact that they set up shop in Milwaukee again is a shot in the arm for city officials.

What most of the politicians and journalists there probably didn’t know was that, once upon a time, Milwaukee was an important center for passenger-car manufacturing. Not as notable, perhaps, as Red Lion in Philadelphia (Budd), or St. Charles, Mo. (ACF), or, lord knows, Pullman, Ill. (no company name required). But notable just the same.

The reason for that, of course, was the Milwaukee Road, the hometown railroad that shocked the world in 1935 with its dazzling Hiawatha streamliners. The traveling public came to know the Hiawathas for their incredible speed — 100 mph became routine — but Milwaukeeans knew the trains because they were a symbol of hometown craftsmanship. All those early cars were made in the city, right there at the West Milwaukee shops, which sprawled across the flat bottom of the Menomonee River valley west of downtown.

Those first 40 cars of the 1935 Hiawatha were groundbreaking, even if they were overshadowed a bit by the rakish 4-4-2 steam locomotives produced by Alco for the trains. Streamlined in the Milwaukee’s own distinctive way (the windows were arched) and cloaked in beautiful orange and maroon, these cars introduced a number of innovations in metallurgy, carbody engineering, and interior design.

The second and third generations of 'Hiawatha' cars came from the drawing board of legendary industrial designer Otto Kuhler, but were crafted at West Milwaukee. Classic Trains coll.
If speed was the main selling point, hospitality was a close second. The fleet included the new “Tip Top Tap Room,” positioned at the front or the train, which the railroad claimed was the first cocktail bar in regular train service in the U.S. At the end of the train, the railroad introduced the distinctive Beaver Tail observation car, a beautiful or odd twist on Art Deco, depending on your taste. The rest of the roster included a diner and a mix of plush parlor cars and coaches.

The design of that first Hiawatha is credited largely to Karl F. Nystrom, a native of Sweden who came to the railroad in 1922 and worked his way up to the job of chief mechanical officer, along the way earning an honorary doctor of engineering degree from Milwaukee’s Marquette University. Nystrom’s main claim to fame was on the engineering side, especially the revolutionary four-wheel Nystrom trucks slung under all those homebuilt cars, known for an exceptionally smooth ride at high speeds.

Later style iterations of the Hiawatha would attract other big names, notably industrial designer Otto Kuhler for the 1937 and 1939 editions, which ditched the arched windows and added ribbed car sides. After World War II, for the 1948 Hiawathas, the railroad hired a local hero, Brooks Stevens, a celebrated designer known also for his concepts for Studebaker, Harley-Davidson, and Oscar Mayer (think “Wienermobile”).

Making all these wonderful trains possible was a workforce as accomplished as any at Pullman or ACF. In that era, the railroad employed hundreds of people in the car shops, many of them the products of Polish and Irish neighborhoods lining either side of the valley. In those days, the Milwaukee’s payroll included a large complement of upholsterers, finish carpenters, and specialty painters, along with the customary welders, electricians, and machinists.

West Milwaukee's carbuilding prowess reached its apotheosis with the Brooks Stevens-designed Skytop observations of 1948. Classic Trains coll.
The construction of passenger cars in Milwaukee reached its apotheosis in that 1948 reequipping, when the shops turned out 4 of the railroad’s 10 trademark Skytop cars, featuring the most spectacular observation lounge ever seen on the American railroad. West Milwaukee built the Rapids-series parlor-observation Skytops for the Chicago–Minneapolis Morning and Afternoon Hiawathas and Pullman-Standard constructed the Creek-series 8-bedroom/observation lounge versions for the transcontinental Olympian Hiawatha.   

The literature of the Hiawathas is huge, led by author Jim Scribbins’ landmark The Hiawatha Story of 1970, a classic that has enjoyed several printings. I’m willing to bet no other fleet of trains has sold more books.

And why not? The story of the Milwaukee Road and its passenger trains is compelling for any number of reasons. Most of all I think it’s because this maverick, idiosyncratic railroad decided to manufacture its own trains. How audacious! Imagine if a major airline announced tomorrow it was going to build a competitor to the 737.

The 1948 Hiawathas marked the end of large-scale carbuilding in Milwaukee, and today the site of the West Milwaukee shops is divided between an industrial park (including a frozen pizza factory) and a huge parking lot for Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers.

But the carbuilding tradition here isn’t over. Today, deep inside a factory complex in West Allis, just a stone’s throw from the West Milwaukee shops, is Avalon Rail, Inc., a specialty firm offering an astonishingly wide range of expertise.

Avalon’s rebuilding prowess has attracted contracts from Amtrak, VIA, freight-railroad business-car fleets, state DOTs, commuter authorities, private car owners, and railroad museums. Current projects on the shop floor include rebuilding the trucks for the Illinois Railway Museum’s North Shore Line Electroliner and doing asbestos remediation and widening doors on some stainless-steel heritage cars for North Carolina DOT.

So you see, Milwaukee can still call itself a center for the railroad passenger car, thanks to Avalon and now Talgo. Maybe these businesses don’t match the massive scale of those Hiawatha days, but give them credit. I take comfort in knowing that, somewhere on factory floors in this city, the heirs to all those Milwaukee Road carbuilders in the valley are keeping the faith.

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