A series of metal sculptures taking shape in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley honors the men and women who worked at a now-lost transportation giant. The "People of the Road” monument is a tribute to the thousands who labored for a passenger and freight-rail service best known as the Milwaukee Road.
The railroad was officially known in its later years as the Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul and Pacific. That's because in its heyday it operated on 10,000 miles of track in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. But for much of the carrier’s nearly 140 years, Milwaukee was a key part of the company's success. A huge railcar and locomotive shop at the southwest corner of the Menomonee Valley employed more than 5,000 people.
When that building closed, and the financially troubled railroad dissolved in the 1980s, it was a mournful time in the city, as captured in the 1987 song Come Bugle Blow by Milwaukee folksinger Larry Penn.
Penn sang, "And what can you play, for a ragged old soul, but taps for the Milwaukee Road? Come bugle blow, for the Milwaukee Road, a rusty old road, a crusty old road. Come bugle blow, for a busted old road, for the Milwaukee Road, bugle blow.”
Forty-two years later, the passing of the Milwaukee Road no doubt remains painful to many. But others are hoping time has healed some of the wounds. Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist recently tried to offer a humorous remembrance.
"I remember the workers coming out of here, going through the tunnel across the river, and then going to the National Liquor Bar to cash their checks," he says.
Norquist spoke this month at an unveiling of two of the five sculptures that are planned for the “People of the Road” monument. The monument is going up along the Hank Aaron State Trail, just west of the 35th Street viaduct. It's in Menomonee Valley Community Park, which is where the railcar shop was.
In attendance of the unveiling was David Pierce, who briefly worked for the Milwaukee Road.
"I was what you call a gandy-dancer. So, I used an 8-pound maul hammer, and I would pound spikes into the rail and we repaired the track. It was a federal project to repair them from Wauwatosa to Watertown. That was my three-month career with the Milwaukee Road. I was glad to move on," Pierce recalls to WUWM.
Other members of the Pierce family stayed longer. A brother worked for the Road as an electrician, while their father and grandfather were locomotive engineers. David Pierce says he's glad to see the sculptures.
"I think it's important that organized labor is recognized. We were in a union there, and that was a way for the workers to be treated fairly, in safe working conditions. There was always someone to look out for you." Pierce remembered.
The person looking out now for the story of the workers is the creator of the sculptures, Milwaukee artist Richard Taylor.
Taylor says his father worked briefly for the Milwaukee Road. But the artist hopes the monument honors all the workers.
"I know I could have gone in other directions, with the iconography of the locomotives and the railcars, the tracks, and that sort of thing. But I thought the people should really be honored because it was such a rich history. It supported so many workers and families for decades and decades," he says.
Taylor says old photographs of the Milwaukee Road facility inspired the sculptures. One of the artworks features a male worker standing on a small trackside water tower while positioning a part to a rail vehicle. The other sculpture features a c-shaped railroad roundhouse standing on edge. A male worker swinging a sledgehammer stands next to the roundhouse, while a female worker stands on top holding a large monkey wrench.
"We wanted to emphasize that there were women who did heavy work, did mechanical work, were employed by the Milwaukee Road in doing assembly and hard work," Taylor said.
The sculptures are in silhouette, meaning they look 2D and you can't make out the workers faces. Deliberate choices, says Taylor.
"The silhouettes let each one of us fill in these figures with, who knows? Maybe someone we know who resembles the physiognomy of that person. Maybe a relative. Maybe someone we know who worked on the railroad becomes one of these figures." He continued, "It also let me overlay the figures with a little bit of railroad track, sort of imprint them with the railroad, or second the notion that yes, these are people of the Road."Taylor was recently given the go-ahead to work on the third sculpture. He hopes to have it up by August. The Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail is still trying to raise money for the other two figures.
Taylor says he understands that the layoffs of thousands of people more than four decades ago still doesn’t sit well with some.
"It is a rather bittersweet topic. But there are wonderful memories. There are people like my father who have great memories and great pride in the time he spent working on the railroad," Taylor concluded.
So, maybe, in a city that likes to offer toasts, that's another way to look at the new sculptures: as a celebration of a vibrant time in Milwaukee. Larry Penn said much the same in another verse of his song.
"So, drink if you like to the railroad men, lusty old men, Milwaukee Road men. And drink if you can in the taverns they been, to the days on the old Milwaukee Road," Penn sang.