"Holler" is lit up with incandescent lights, while "Gene" and "Marcy's" are illuminated in neon below

How to Go to Milwaukee

MSP to MKE via Public Transit

Jorie and I went to Milwaukee last weekend to find the Holler House, the oldest functioning 10-pin bowling alley in America. We live in Minneapolis and decided to take Public transit there and back. What I learned from this trip is: Public transit is a great way to get to Milwaukee, and Milwaukee is kind of cooler than Minneapolis right now.

On Friday morning at 7 a.m., after getting coffee at Boiler Room, Jorie and I walked from our home in Stevens Square, across the Sharon Sayles Belton Bridge and along 3rd Avenue to the light rail stop outside City Hall at 3rd Avenue and South 5th Street. We took a 7:24 a.m. Green Line train to St. Paul, and arrived at Union Depot about 8:15 am. Union Depot was mostly empty, but the Lowertown Bike Shop was open. In the main room a few people were pacing the broad marble floors, or standing while charging their phones in an outlet, unable to sit because all seats in the station are marked “for ticketed passengers only.”

The train we were planning to take was scheduled to leave Union Depot at 8:50 a.m. We discovered the train was delayed four hours. This was disappointing, though not unexpected if you’ve ever ridden Amtrak before. The delay was likely due to the fact that Amtrak is essentially a guest on nearly all of the railway track it uses. This means that it often has to stop and pull out on a spur for a freight train being operated by one of the few class 1 freight railroad companies. I learned this and other interesting train policy conundrums in James MacCommon’s elucidating 2008 book, Waiting on a Train.

Because of the impending four-hour delay, I went to the Amtrak booth and asked if we could switch our train tickets with Coach bus tickets. Amtrak runs/contracts a daily coach bus that also operates between St. Paul and Milwaukee, stopping more frequently in mostly college towns throughout Wisconsin. Fortunately, the Amtrak man was happy to switch our tickets, which were actually $1 cheaper than the train ($49 one way, as opposed to $50 on the train), which meant we got a small refund.

So, at 8:55 a.m. we left Union Depot a full $2 richer aboard a quarter-full coach bus headed for Milwaukee by way of Green Bay.

Celebrating the impending arrival of the coach bus. Photo by author

Things you can do on a coach bus to Milwaukee that you can’t do if driving.

  • Read a book
  • Witness someone smoke in the lavatory and have the bus driver threaten to kick all perpetrators off the bus, and find yourself vehemently defending the smoker because you’ve learned from overhearing her phone conversations that she recently gotten out of jail.
  • See the current trends in college fashion when stopping in towns like Eau Claire (not great).
  • Talk to other passengers.
  • Create new bespoke Wisconsinian snacks.
Bugle-curd. Photo by author

We arrived at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station at North 6th Street and East Saint Paul Avenue, at 6 p.m. From there we walked across the 6th Street bridge, which crosses the Menomonie River, south toward the Harbor View neighborhood where we were staying. We dropped our bags at our place and set out to find the Holler House.

About the Holler House

The Holler House is the oldest sanctioned 10-pin bowling alley in America. It is also one of the few remaining bowling alleys that uses pinboys to set up the 10 pins after each bowler’s turn. Its hours were posted as 4 p.m. to midnight on Google. Do not go to the Holler House if you expect to bowl or to be served a beer. The place operates somewhat like a private club. Bowling leagues occur Tuesdays and Saturdays, and private parties are occasionally arranged upon request.

When we arrived the owners were throwing a Halloween party, and we were told that they knew every person there aside from us. Fortunately they had extra costumes for us. Do go to the Holler House if you want stories from the owners, a couple in their 60s, about all the famous people who have visited (Jack White, Larry the Cable guy, the lead singer of Beach House, someone named Valerie), or if you want to be corrected on the terminology for pinsetter (it’s pinboys, not pinpeople, according to the husband who was dressed that evening as Flo the Progressive spokesperson).

The Holler House, called “the oldest sanctioned bowling alley in the nation.” Photo by author

An aside about bikeshare in Milwaukee

Jorie and I decided to take a scooter and bike to get to Holler House. Jorie got a Lime Scooter, and I got a Bublr Bike, Milwaukee’s version of NiceRide. Unlike NiceRide, Bublr does not yet have stationless bikes, requiring you to check in and out from a designated station location. Upon checking out the bike I discovered what appears to be some frankly incredible redlining of bike share station locations in Milwaukee. While I didn’t do any formal mapping, the lack of bikeshare in majority BIPOC areas is strikingly obvious. Check out this map from the City of Milwaukee showing where most of the Black and Latino populations live. Then check out this map of bike share locations

We are fortunate to have Nice Ride in Minneapolis, even for all their issues, the history of prioritizing equity in station planning has continued to help ensure all neighborhoods have at least some bike share options.

A brief comparison between Minneapolis and Milwaukee

Yes, we were in Milwaukee for only 28 hours. We saw only a small portion of the sprawling city. But we noted a few intriguing comparisons between Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Milwaukee has better bones than Minneapolis. Despite some terrible freeways and the monstrous downtown detonation that is the Harley Davidson Museum, I got the impression from walking and biking around that far more of the downtown core and neighborhood business districts had maintained their pre-World War II buildings than in Minneapolis.

Milwaukee has poor bike infrastructure but more pedestrian activity than Minneapolis. To be sure, Milwaukee’s walking and biking infrastructure is maybe 15 years behind Minneapolis or St. Paul. I saw no protected lanes anywhere we went, and ADA improvements, which the Twin Cities have been diligent about in reconstructs, are almost nonexistent. Even so, there was more pedestrian activity downtown and in the neighborhoods than is usually present in Minneapolis. I suspect this has to do with the fact that Milwaukee has free lightrail downtown (conspicuously funded by the Casino), and that there are more fully intact business districts that haven’t ceded immense property area to surface parking.

The trip back

After visiting the Milwaukee Public Market, Jorie and I walked to the Intermodal Station to catch the 4:45 p.m. Empire Builder heading west to St. Paul, and ultimately onward to a final destination of Portland, Oregon. The train was on time, and at capacity. We were unable to find seats next to each other in the coach cars. We ended up spending the entire six-hour train ride back in the observation car. The tree leaves across the Wisconsin countryside were in high color. For much of the ride, until it got dark, there wasn’t a road in sight.

Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Photo by author.

There are so many perks to taking the train. Where a plane is often has a hushed sense of collective terror either from the claustrophobia or all the safety warnings, the train has a sense of novelty and excitement. There is a bar, and a friendly bar attendant who gives you free ice. There are sometimes excited children making friends in all the cars. There is ample room to walk around, stretch your legs, find a new view. You can bring your own food aboard. You can meet people or not, depending on how you feel.

Sunset heading towards St Paul. Photo by author.

We arrived back at Union Station at 11:50 p.m. after being delayed a few times by freight trains and nonfunctioning grade-crossing arms. Unfortunately this slight delay meant that we had to take an Uber back to Minneapolis, as the last Green Line train currently leaves Union Station on Saturday night at 11:19 p.m.

Holler House image at top courtesy of the Official Holler House Website.

Jono Cowgill

About Jono Cowgill

Jono is a planner based in Minneapolis. He has done community work in Seattle, London, Tacoma, San Francisco and the Twin Cities. He is interested in how we make parks, streets and housing for everybody.

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1 thought on “How to Go to Milwaukee

  1. THarris

    As someone who grew up in Milwaukee and regularly visits, I encourage you to visit a much larger cross-section of Milwaukee before comparing Milwaukee to Minneapolis. Milwaukee is actually quite a bit larger than Minneapolis, but does not have the same volume or distribution of amenities throughout the city as Minneapolis. It sounds like you did what most Milwaukee visitors do which is to visit the very narrow “East Side” slice of the city that borders Lake Michigan and includes the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee/Marquette University, downtown, and the Third Ward, but which is not representative of the city as a whole. In my personal experience, Minneapolis has a much larger number and broader distribution of strong neighborhoods, restaurants, shops and natural amenities (lakes, rivers, parks) across its city and accessible to more residents.

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