The disconnect on connections

Monday, December 06, 2010

From a column by John Gurda in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The state thrived because of previous travel 'connections'

It's not the money, really. In the long run, it's all about connections. Scott Walker has made no secret of his aversion to high-speed trains, but before he goes any further with his plans to derail the planned Milwaukee-Madison line, Walker might consider some earlier chapters in Wisconsin's transportation history. They indicate that the governor-elect could be putting his state in reverse.

As long as there has been a Wisconsin, residents have labored mightily to establish connections with each other and with the world beyond the state's borders. Although disputes often arose in working out the details, the general trend was unmistakable.

Milwaukee, for instance, became the state's commercial capital largely because it had the best harbor on Lake Michigan's western shore, but that harbor did not come without some built-in obstacles. A sandbar at the river mouth made it impossible for large vessels to land downtown, and local leaders besieged Congress with pleas for federal assistance. It was only fair, they argued, for Washington to return some of the money it was collecting from land sales in Wisconsin. When federal help did not arrive, Milwaukeeans taxed themselves for port improvements, creating what the Milwaukee Sentinel (Dec. 18, 1857) called "the safest, most accessible and roomiest Harbor on all these inland seas."

Connections by land were just as important. The first farm-to-market roads turned to muddy ruts in rainy weather, spawning a network of privately built plank roads that eased the journey into town. One of the longest made it possible to cover the 58 miles from Watertown to Milwaukee in a day and a half.

Plank roads were only a stopgap measure until the trains began to roll. Few transportation breakthroughs have been half as influential as railroads, and none have been more ardently pursued. A rail connection could, and frequently did, spell the difference between prosperity and obscurity for towns aspiring to something more than crossroads status. The state's first railroad chugged from Milwaukee to Waukesha in 1851, and dozens more followed. "The present seems to be the age of railroad mania," said F.H. West, president of Milwaukee's Chamber of Commerce in 1872. "Every town of a dozen inhabitants is working up some railroad scheme." The mania became so general that scores of communities, including Milwaukee, issued public bonds on behalf of private railroad companies.

The one connection that Milwaukee resisted was with Chicago. Another Chamber of Commerce official described the Chicago & North Western Railroad, based in the Windy City, as "Milwaukee's most formidable enemy." Local boosters feared that Chicago would divert Wisconsin's trade to the foot of the lake, and they worked diligently to develop a home-grown railroad. It was, in fact, an independent line - the fabled Milwaukee Road - that enabled the city to thrive despite the proximity of Chicago.

Railroads were Wisconsin's prime movers for generations, carrying passengers and freight throughout the state and far beyond, but a new technology began to threaten their primacy after 1900. The number of motor vehicles licensed in Wisconsin soared from 1,492 in 1905 (when a lifetime license cost all of $1) to more than 124,000 in 1916, and the fleet kept growing. On every level - state, county, and town - Wisconsin worked to develop a network of roads that could handle them all. The first state highway system, covering 5,000 miles, was laid out in 1918, and federal aid helped to make it a reality.

Government led the way into the air as well.