Fireworks and a trip to Milwaukee

I have been to Milwaukee a number of times in my life, as I have family that has lived there in the past. However, this was my first time traveling there for non-family reasons. I just wanted to get out of dodge for a bit and also experience the Hiawatha.

It was a bit tough finding a time for this to work, since I wanted to be in Chicago for the Fourth of July (more on that in a bit). I also needed a time when it was going to be sunny, and I didn’t want to take more than two days off work. I ended up choosing the Monday-Wednesday after July 4 (July 5-7), since I already got the Monday off anyway, and the weather looked favorable.

In the meantime, it looked like Chicago cancelled the fireworks, so I looked at options in the suburbs. It ended up looking like Wilmette was my best option since I could easily get there on the Purple Line. However, when I was downtown on July 3, I saw a service alert indicating that there would be restrictions on carrying bikes and strollers on the L in the evening, leading me to check again the firework situation. It turned out that much like when they announced they cancelled the annual dyeing of the Chicago River for St. Patrick’s Day then did it anyway, they did the same for the fireworks and uncancelled them. My guess is that they did so to avoid people traveling from out of the area and also that gave them leeway to make a decision based on case numbers at the time. They did somewhat modify the firework setup, not having a singular viewing area but instead having a seven mile long stretch along the lakeshore where they could be viewed (using bigger and higher fireworks to accomplish this). I thus changed my plans and went downtown, and watched from just north of Museum Campus since that seemed to be approximately in the middle of the viewing area. The fireworks were pretty awesome, just a bit odd having the sound lag behind the visual due to the distance.

Fourth of July fireworks in Chicago

Then, on Monday, I hopped on the 1:05pm Hiawatha to Milwaukee from Chicago Union Station. Union Station was a lot more chaotic than I expected, I guess people are starting to travel again.

Hiawatha Cabbage car at Chicago Union Station
“Cabbage” (cab+baggage) unit at the back of the Hiawatha at Chicago Union Station

From there everything seemed to go smoothly until somewhere just north of the Wisconsin border, we stopped. After a few minutes, the conductor announced that there was a “vehicle on the tracks” and that they were being “inspected for damage.” My first thought was that we hit a car. However, I didn’t hear any crashes (I was two cars from the front of the train), and I checked Google Maps and didn’t see any traffic advisories in the area.

View out the window from near where we stopped

After about ten minutes they announced that they had moved the vehicle so it only blocked the northbound track, so we just needed to wait for a southbound train to clear the area so we could go around it on the southbound track. After about five more minutes, the southbound Hiawatha passed us and we were moving again. We ended up only being about fifteen minutes late, nothing terrible. From there, I photographed the train in Milwaukee:

Hiawatha at Milwaukee Intermodal Station
My train at Milwaukee Intermodal Center

I also photographed the Marquette Interchange, a famously obnoxious traffic interchange:

Marquette Interchange from the southeast
Marquette Interchange

A friend of mine from middle school met me at the station, and we walked around for a bit and got an early dinner at the Brat House, where he got a burger and I got the “southsider,” a bratwurst with melted cheddar, jalapenos, and bacon. It was pretty delicious and a good introduction to Milwaukee. I also got a picture of the Milwaukee river from the park where we ate our dinner:

Milwaukee River looking south from State Street bridge
Milwaukee River from State Street

The Milwaukee River and all the drawbridges was definitely a reminder of Chicago, giving a nice familiar vibe. After that, we parted ways and I continued exploring the city. I scoped out a skyline photography spot, Veterans Park, and determined it would probably be good after the sun set. While waiting for the sun to go down, I got some ice cream and then went back to the hotel to rest my legs for a bit. Then, as dusk approached, I headed back out and caught the “The Hop,” the Milwaukee downtown streetcar, at Wisconsin Avenue and took it to Burns Commons.

The Hop waiting at Burns Commons
The Hop streetcar at Burns Commons

After getting off the streetcar, I walked over to Veterans Park again. This time I did not forget my tripod, so I was able to get some good long-exposure shots. This was probably my best one:

Milwaukee skyline at night from Veterans Park
Downtown Milwaukee skyline at night from Veterans Park

Then, pretty exhausted from all the walking, I headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

The next day I hit the ground running, so to speak. Due to COVID measures, the hotel wasn’t serving breakfast, so I went to the Canary Coffee Bar and got a muffin and chai tea, both of which were great. The weather indicated it was going to be sunny in the morning but cloud over later in the day, so I took the morning for some more photography. Importantly, all my photos from the lakeshore needed to be in the morning anyway so the sun would be behind me. Naturally, I started with photographing the streetcar:

Train at Wisconsin Avenue Southbound
The Hop streetcar at Wisconsin Avenue southbound

I took it to Burns Commons again and got a daytime photo from Veterans Park again.

Milwaukee skyline from Veterans Park
Milwaukee skyline from Veterans Park during the day

I then walked down to Discovery World and got some photos from there.

Milwaukee skyline from Lakeshore State Park
Milwaukee skyline from Discovery World

I explored Downtown Milwaukee some more for a while, then figured I’d head up to Glendale to get frozen custard at Kopp’s. I took the bus up to Glendale and from there got Kopp’s. I’m finally old enough that if I say I’m having frozen custard for lunch, I’m having frozen custard for lunch. Kopp’s only has four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and two rotating flavors (apparently there was only one rotating flavor at a time in the past). One of the rotating flavors when I was there was “grasshopper fudge,” which is a mint base with fudge chunks. I got a cup of that, which was also delicious.

Sign in front of Kopp’s

After having enjoyed my Kopp’s frozen custard, I caught the bus back downtown. It was starting to cloud over, so I figured that would be a good chance to check out the Grohmann museum, a museum about art related to labor and industry (and one of the only museums open on a Tuesday). The museum was pretty cool, featuring a rooftop sculpture garden and a massive amount of paintings. The paintings dated from the 17th century (that’s the earliest I remember anyway) to 2020 and featured all sorts of industries. Pretty cool museum, worth a visit.

After leaving the museum, I walked around downtown a bit. One particularly interesting detail is that The Hop isn’t electrified for its entire length, operating on battery power for one stretch. I caught a video of a streetcar raising its pantograph:

The Hop streetcar raising its pantograph at City Hall
Eastbound train at Historic Third Ward
The Hop streetcar at Historic Third Ward

Eventually, for dinner, I headed to the Milwaukee Public Market for dinner and got dinner at the Foltz Family Market, a BBQ cheddar burger with fries. Also amazing; I definitely ate well on this trip. After dinner, I walked around downtown for a while longer and photographed some more stuff.

Wells Street Bridge raised
Raised bridge at Wells Street
Milwaukee City Hall tower
Milwaukee City Hall

For my third and final day, I headed to Discovery World in the morning. I first visited it within a year of it opening, in the winter of 2006. It was interesting seeing it from the perspective of an adult vs. a kid and also what’s changed vs. what hasn’t changed. It’s still definitely a cool museum, featuring a bunch of different exhibits about science, technology, and engineering as well as an aquarium and an old restored ship. Also definitely a worthwhile trip for anyone traveling to Milwaukee.

After leaving Discovery World, I headed south to photograph the Allen-Bradley clock tower.

Allen-Bradley clock tower from the east
Allen-Bradley clock tower

It was cloudy so the colors were a bit dull, but I can only ask for so much. With that photo in the bag I started heading back downtown, only to be interrupted by a sudden onset of rain. Of course of all things I forgot to pack, I forgot my umbrella. I stood under a bridge for a while hoping to wait out the rain.

The underside of a bridge where I tried to wait out the rain

After about an hour under the bridge and the rain giving no signs of letting up, I figured I had to leave somehow. I ended up timing it so I was able to get to a nearby bus stop only about two minutes before the bus arrived, so I avoided being totally drenched. Once I got back downtown, I got dinner at Smoke Shack.

Smoke Shack

Being originally from North Carolina, I wanted to see what sort of barbecue game they had in Milwaukee. The building was clearly supposed to mimic the shacks you see down south, but unlike those this was definitely a well-constructed modern building, as opposed to an actual shack. This was definitely a more upscale place trying to pull off a “casual southern” vibe. All that aside, the food there (I got a pulled pork sandwich) was also excellent (as a former North Carolinian, I approve). I also got a “pecan pie in a glass” cocktail to go with my food:

“Pecan pie in a glass” cocktail

After finishing dinner, I waited out the rain a bit longer in the public market seating area, then headed back to the Amtrak station to catch the train home. Unlike the journey north, the journey south was pretty quiet. Very few people on the train. I guess that’s what happens with an evening train on a Wednesday.

Almost empty railcar

We pulled into Chicago Union Station right on time, but interestingly came in on one of the run-through tracks and unloaded on the southern side of the station.

Hiawatha and another Amtrak train at Chicago Union Station
Hiawatha (left) on the southern tracks of Chicago Union Station

My guess is that since this was the last run of the night, they were going to take it to the Amtrak yard, which is located south of Union Station. Anyway, I headed back home. Walking through downtown Chicago was a bit of a shock though, since I headed through several blocks surrounded by skyscrapers. While Milwaukee definitely had tall buildings, they are nowhere near as tall and there are nowhere near as many as in Chicago. Anyway, I made it to Monroe and caught the Red Line home.

Overall, a fun trip! This was my first major vacation in the past year, and it was nice to get out for a bit. Milwaukee is also a pretty cool city and while this wasn’t my first time there, it was my first time really experiencing the city itself rather than the city just being a meeting place.