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It's taps for Milwaukee’s old Beer Line

(The following story by John Schmid appeared on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel website on October 3.)

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee lost another vestige of industrial history when the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. abandoned all but a stub of the Beer Line, once the busiest freight line serving the city and the backbone of its heavy industry.

In its heyday, the six-mile stretch hauled more freight than many cross-country railroads. It linked foundries, machine-tool shops, lumberyards, tanneries and makers of engines, castings, shoes, cardboard, cans, batteries, furniture and sausages. The north side line also connected three of the nation's biggest breweries; during summer peaks in the 1950s, the Beer Line carried up to 270 boxcars each day with nothing but kegs and bottles.

Following the latest shut-down, which won approval in recent weeks from various regulatory agencies, all that remains is a mile-long spur with two remaining commercial customers that request irregular service, said William Gardner, president and chief executive of the Wisconsin & Southern.

"For now, we'll hang onto it to store cars unless someone wants to buy it," Gardner said of the abandoned 2.4-mile section.

The Beer Line was the busiest part of the former Milwaukee Road, which was the fifth-biggest railway in North America in the middle of the last century, spanning 16 states with 10,000 miles of track.

The Beer Line began in 1854 with a starting point near the heart of downtown at the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., once the world's biggest brewer. It also ferried Pabst Blue Ribbon and Blatz and linked to another Milwaukee Road artery that hauled beer for the Miller Brewing Co.

The Milwaukee Road and Schlitz both went out of business by the early 1980s. And about half the original track, starting at Schlitz, was ripped up years ago. Sleek condominium buildings now line that stretch, much of which runs along the Milwaukee River. Schlitz is a business park.

Wisconsin & Southern acquired the remaining stretch - much of it lined with shuttered factories - which ran from Keefe Ave. on the east side and arced northwest to the railroad's main yards near W. Hampton Ave. and N. 33rd St., where the Beer Line connects with the rest of the railroad's network.

When the Longview Fibre Co., 3832 N. 3rd St., canceled its rail service last year, privately held Wisconsin & Southern lost any incentive to keep open much of the remaining stretch.

"We've already gone through federal, state and city approvals for the abandonment," said Tim Carp, the railroad's chief financial officer.

The final two customers lie a few blocks from the railroad's main rail yards, near the end of the Beer Line, Gardner said. They are Benz Oil Inc., 2724 W. Hampton Ave., and Standard Tar Products Co., 2456 W. Cornell St.

Freight rail died with old industry. The old 148-acre Tower Automotive Inc. campus, which lies immediately south of the Wisconsin & Southern rail yards, closed two years ago. The Tower works, which also linked to the Beer Line and hauled undercarriages of cars, once employed 8,000 auto workers.

These days, the freight rail business booms in rural Wisconsin.

Car loadings rose 12% over the same period last year, Gardner said. "Coal to plastics to wheat to paper to scrap iron, you name it, we haul it," he said.

One commodity that's in demand is corn and all its byproducts, including ethanol.

"I originate more corn in the state of Wisconsin than all the other railroads combined," Gardner said. "I am the corn belt."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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