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by Justin Engebregtsen

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In 2002, the State of Wisconsin’s "Year of the Trail", Ozaukee County in partnership with eight local communities, is celebrating the grand opening of its new Ozaukee Interurban Trail. The Ozaukee Interurban Trail is a 30-mile, paved, mostly off-road, multi-use transportation and recreation trail that crosses the County from north to south passing through eight of Ozaukee County’s sixteen communities. The Trail not only accommodates all season, non-motor vehicle recreational uses such as: hiking, walking, running, biking, rollerbladding, wildlife viewing, and skiing, but also is an integral feature in connecting Ozaukee County’s commuters to places of employment, business, industry, historic places and commerce. In fact, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail is a key element in Ozaukee County’s overall transportation plan for the County.

Actually, the route of the Ozaukee Interurban Trail is not new at all. As the name suggests, the right-of-way the trail uses is primarily that of the historic interurban railway that connected Ozaukee’s communities with Milwaukee. In 1922, the right-of-way was acquired by The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company (TMER & L) for development of an improved rapid transit service from Milwaukee to Sheboygan. The Northern Route, the interurban electric railway from Milwaukee to Sheboygan since 1908, had stops in the mostly rural communities of Brown Deer, Thiensville, Cedarburg, Grafton, Port Washington, Belgium, Cedar Grove, Oostburg and Sheboygan. The rapid transit was an electric railway system linking Milwaukee and many of the surrounding communities to the north, west and south from its inception in 1905 to the end of all operations in 1951. During its operation, the Northern Route of the interurban line was also made famous for transporting African-American blues musicians to the main recording studio for Paramount Records recording label in Port Washington and ultimately in Grafton, Wisconsin. The idea of African-American artists from the rural South traveling to Grafton, Wisconsin in the late 1920s and early 1930s by taking the "electric train" seems fantastic. After the TMER & L acquired the right-of-way lands in 1922, it began an ambitious improvements project for many of the lines including the Northern Route that ran through Ozaukee County to Sheboygan. Much of these improvements and realignments that were to be realized happened by 1934. In 1938, the TMER & L reorganized into The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Transit Company (TMER & T); however, the rapid transit system was increasingly losing ridership to the automobile. The economic situation and World War II only temporarily halted this decline. Ridership on the interurban railway lines actually increased during World War II only to realize significant decreases following the War. These decreases lead to the abandonment of the Northern Route north of Port Washington in 1940. In 1946, the remaining Port Washington interurban line was sold by TMER & T to the Kenosha Motor Coach Lines. Between 1940 and 1948, the Port Washington interurban line serviced Ozaukee County, but on March 29, 1948 the Port Washington line was terminated, which brought an end to the former Northern Route to Sheboygan.

With the completion of the paved 30-mile Ozaukee Interurban Trail, trail users will be able to retrace connections from the past coming from southern Milwaukee County (e.g. Oak Leaf Trail) or from as far west as the Mississippi River on a combination of State (e.g. Hank Aaron State Trail) and County trail systems. Eventually, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail will connect to the City of Sheboygan to the north on the interurban historic right-of-way and with the Old Plank Road Trail in Sheboygan County heading west. Hopefully, one day the Ozaukee Interurban Trail will be a part of a continuous trail route from Green Bay to Chicago using these old railway right-of-ways.

The concept for the Ozaukee Interurban Trail has been around for a number of years. The County and some municipalities established the initial segments (6 miles in the Cities of Mequon, Cedarburg and Port Washington to be followed by an additional segment in the Village of Grafton) of the Trail along this right-of-way in 1975; however, the concept for the entire trail became a reality thanks to several determined individuals who got behind the idea and pushed for its development. After several years in the conceptual stage, a County study committee was formed in 1997 to develop the feasibility of a countywide trail. Soon after the committee was established, an agreement with WE Energies, the current landowner of the right-of-way, the award of a 1998 Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WDOT) Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ) grant and the continued intergovernmental cooperation of all the communities made the concept a reality. In 1998, Ozaukee County, as well as each of the incorporated municipalities in the County, received separate WDOT CMAQ grants to complete the Ozaukee Interurban Trail. As part of intergovernmental cooperation, these individual grants were rolled together to establish a single grant for the uniform guidance of a countywide trail.

Upon receipt of the grant funding, Ozaukee County established an Ozaukee Interurban Trail Advisory Council, approximately 35 members, to assist in the planning and implementation of the Trail. The Advisory Council’s mission is to promote the safe public use of the Ozaukee Interurban Trail for transportation, recreation, health, education, economic development, and enjoyment of Ozaukee County’s unique cultural, historical and natural resources. The Advisory Council is a diverse representation of all areas of the community including: chamber of commerce representatives, business owners, elected officials, governmental staff, bike club representatives, concerned citizens, sheriff’s department representatives, park commission members, University of Extension representatives, bird club members and landowners. The Advisory Council has also established several committees to serve as "working groups" to assist in the implementation of the Trail, including the following committees: Rules and Ordinance Development, Logo Development, Public Meetings, Trailside Facilities, Website Development, Public Relations and Marketing, Trail Clean-up, Trail Watch, Opening Ceremonies and Intergovernmental Cooperation. Among many of the accomplishments of the Advisory Council was its work to get the Ozaukee Interurban Trail designated as one of the first "Great Wisconsin Birding Trails" in the State of Wisconsin and the development of a uniform logo for the Trail. As a Great Wisconsin Birding Trail, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail Advisory Council will be working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Endangered Resources and its partners to identify quality habitat and "birding hotspots" for wildlife viewing along the Trail. The logo for the Trail draws heavily upon the historic past of the interurban railway with the outside shape and yellow-green coloring of the interurban rail cars, three of the permitted uses on the trail, bicycling, running, and skiing, are displayed in the windows of the interurban rail car and the "rail catcher" for the rail car is the diamond on the bottom of the rail car reminiscent of the logo used by TMER & L. In addition, the nameplate on the top of the rail car logo will display the name of the community the trail is passing through in the County or "Wisconsin" for general use. As the logo is incorporated into the signs along the trail, users of the trail will instantly be able to tell which community they are passing through. Currently, the Advisory Council is preparing for the official opening ceremony of the Ozaukee Interurban Trail on Saturday, September 28, 2002 at 12:00 – 3:00 p.m. with a formal dedication at 1:00 p.m. at the Ozaukee County Justice Center in Port Washington along the Trail.

For more information on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, contact the Ozaukee County Parks Department at 262-238-8257.

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