Whitefish Bay Historical Society

Website for the historical society of the Village of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin.

Stories of Whitefish Bay

Transportation Access and the Development of Whitefish Bay

Posted on April 10, 2012 at 9:00 PM

The development of the Village of Whitefish Bay was intrinsically  tied to the development of a north shore transportation system. In the late 1800s, the northern limit of the city of Milwaukee extended to about North Avenue. Transportation beyond that point was difficult at best.  As a result, the area now known as Whitefish Bay was very sparsely populated. 


Several entrepreneurs, recognizing the potential attraction of lake shore properties north of Milwaukee, started enterprises to provide transportation:


Charles Andrews, proprietor of the Newhall House, formed the Lake Avenue Turnpike Co. and obtained a state charter to operate a toll road. Built at a cost of $50,000 the new road was opened in the fall of 1872. It started at what is now Lafayette Place and followed the lake front to the present Silver Spring Drive. A single toll gate was located at the southern end, which moved north as Milwaukee expanded. Guido Pfister and associates formed the Milwaukee & Whitefish Bay railroad, better known as the “dummy line,” in 1886. The tracks were installed by 1888 and began at Farwell and North avenues, ran north on what is now Downer Avenue, crossed Capital Drive at Maryland, and jogged to Frederick, before traveling up Wilshire to Cumberland and following it around to what is now Courtland Place before heading north on Woodburn and hitting Henry Clay at the front door of the Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort. The rail line eventually jogged around and followed what is now Marlborough, crossing Silver Spring and ending at Day Avenue. The "Dummy Line" continued to serve the area until 1898, when the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company extended its service to Whitefish Bay and took over the route.


The Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay Railway, also known as the Dummy Line


The Pabst Brewing Co. operated a steamer from 1905 until 1908 to take travelers from Milwaukee to the pier adjacent to the Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort.



In 1874, the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western (MLS&W) Railway, built a rail line southward along the lake shore from Manitowoc, connecting to the Chicago & Northwestern Railway at Lakeshore Junction (just south of Capital Drive), and from there ran south on joint tracks to a depot on Milwaukee’s lake front.



MLS&W purchased a considerable tract of land near what is now Fairmount Avenue in Whitefish Bay in 1887. Rumors spread that car shops and freight yards would be built. An enterprising real estate firm obtained land rights and platted a subdivision in the vicinity. It has been reported that this set off a real estate boom which resulted in platting subdivisions that covered much of what is now the village of Whitefish Bay. The railroad ran special suburban service to the area to encourage prospective home owners to purchase property. The real estate bubble burst in the panic of 1895, bringing an end to this railway service.


Similarly, the Dummy Line also attracted real estate activity into the lake shore areas of Whitefish Bay. Day Avenue became the first residential neighborhood in the community, with many homes built before year 1900.

Riding on the dummy, glad to get a seat.With a jolly company, all looking gay and sweet;Riding on the dummy the dummy with the darling I adore,Viewing hills and dales with joy I never felt before. [3]


The story of the Dummy Line is particularly interesting. It has been reported that the railway got its name because of an incident that occurred during the first trip of the railway's 12 ton locomotive. The incident has been described as follows: “While pulling three passenger coaches, the noisy engine terrified livestock and draft horses along its route, incurring protests from the owners of overturned wagons. In an effort to solve the problem, the company mounted a life size wooden horse onto a flatcar and coupled the car to the front of the engine to act as a calming vanguard.” [4]

While the story is entertaining, I believe it is doubtful that it is true. A good number of railways in the United States were dubbed, ‘Dummy Lines’ and a popular song of the time was entitled, “Riding on the Dummy.” Two different explanations were found from various sources for the name ‘Dummy.’


A term used in railroad logging to describe railroad tracks that did not connect communities nor seem have any direction to them; also called spur or tram lines. [Longleaf Pine Glossary, www.longleafalliance.org/teachers/teacherkit/glossary.htm.] ‘Steam dummies’ was a term applied to a locomotive that consisted of a simple tank style steam locomotive built with a faux street car shell over the chassis. It is reported that this was a common practice back in the era when horses were the primary power of transportation and supposedly were accustomed to street cars, yet were easily frightened by the moving parts and escaping steam of a conventional steam locomotive. The street car shell hid all the reciprocating machinery and apparently horses were more at ease in their presence with this arrangement. [from: http://members.trainweb.com/bedt/indloco/ht.html]This second explanation might provide the origin of the name, as well as the story. The existing photographs of the Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay train show that, indeed, the locomotive had a street car shell built around it. Furthermore, in appearance it looks quite similar to other locomotives described as ‘steam dummies.’


The Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay railway, with the conductor standing next to the locomotive. From: Shorewood, Wisconsin (Part of the Images of America Series), published by the Shorewood Historical Society


The Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western Railway was already operating before the ‘Dummy Line’ was built and traveled in much the same area. It used conventional steam engines. So the story that the first trip of the Dummy train, “terrified livestock and draft horses along its route, incurring protests from the owners of overturned wagons,” sounds incredulous. It is more likely that the local story morphed from the frequent retelling of the reason that steam dummies were designed to look like street cars. The owners of the Dummy Line (The Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay Railroad) probably selected a dummy train because it was suitable for the short passenger trips it was designed for. It only required a small engine to haul three small passenger cars, and the owners preferred an appearance similar to that of the new street cars that were already being used in Milwaukee. A good treatise of the development of the dummy locomotive, more formally called the ‘steam motor’ was provided in an article in Invention and Technology magazine.[5]  The article reported that, “the street-railway industry … understood their merits for suburban lines (rather than urban train systems). Stops were less frequent, so wear and tear on the machine was reduced and fuel economy improved. The speed potential of the dummy was also better realized. Although 15 or 20 miles per hour may not seem fast, compared with a horse car’s five miles per hour it did make a scheduling difference. One community after another from Connecticut to California established its dummy line. … By 1892 Poor’s Directory of Railway Officials and Manual of American Street Railways listed about 80.”“Most were minor operations with one or two dummies, a handful of cars, and a few miles of lightly built track. …The largest clusters of dummy lines were, as might be expected, around major cities. … The great majority were gone by 1900 as efficient, smokeless electric streetcars took over America’s transit needs.”It appears that the ‘Dummy Line’ was well accepted by its clientele. “Paths to the North Shore Suburbs,” an article on the history of early transportation to Whitefish Bay by Lewis W. Herzog, describes trips on the ‘Dummy’, stating:


“The socialites bound for the exclusive Milwaukee Country Club rubbed elbows with the holiday crowds headed for such places as Mineral Spring park, Welcome Park, Jefferson Park, and the one and only Whitefish Bay Resort. Here at the end of the line the chugging locomotives came to rest and the merry-makers entered the spacious pavilion overlooking the sparkling bay named for those succulent planked whitefish served in the spacious dining room. Here one could drink Milwaukee's Pabst Brewing Co. beer at the little round white tables along the walk, enjoy band music by the Joseph Clauder Brass Band outside, and Clauder's quintette inside under the direction of violinist Herman Kelbe. Kelbe also conducted the orchestra in the Davidson Theater in winter.”

The Dummy Line passed out of existence when the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company extended its Oakland Avenue street car line to Silver Spring Drive in 1898, following a pattern adopted at most other American cities.


Additional References to the Two Articles Above:

1  Paths to the North Shore Suburbs by Lewis W. Herzog This history is contained in aloose leaf volume of local history reference material maintained by the Whitefish Bay Public Library entitled, "A detailed history of Whitefish Bay with many memories" by Arthur A. Rabe. This volume also contains a map of the M&WFB right-of-way.

2 The RobertC. Pringle, a 101-foot wooden excursion boat, was built in 1903 in Manitowoc.  The Pringle began service as a passenger-carrying steamer that worked Lake Superior near Ashland for the Chequamegon Bay Transportation Co.  A year later, it was acquired by Benson Transit to travel between Milwaukee and St. Joseph, Mich.  The Pabst Brewing Co. then operated it from 1905 to 1908 for excursions between Milwaukee and the Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort.  Subsequent owners ran it for several years on passenger runs on the Michigan side of the lake before the Pringle line bought it in 1918 and converted it into a tugboat.  It sank in 1922.  In 2008, after searching for 30 years, Steve Radovan and associates finally found the wreck of the boat six miles off the shore of Sheboygan. 

3 Published in 1885 by George W. Hagans of San Francisco under the title "Riding on the Dummy," with words andmusic credited to Sam Both and Frederick G. Carnes, respectively (copyrighted in 1885, no. 26351).

4 Reported at http://www.villageofshorewood.org/train.htm

5  Available at: http://www.americanheritage.com/email/articles/magazine/it/1998/4/1998_4_34.shtml


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