Lathrop Avenue Viaduct (Racine, Wisconsin)

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Coordinates: 42°42′30″N 87°49′34″W / 42.70821°N 87.82601°W / 42.70821; -87.82601 The Lathrop Avenue Viaduct was a railroad viaduct carrying the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad over Lathrop Avenue in Racine, Wisconsin. Constructed in 1932, it was abandoned along with the rest of the line in 1982 and demolished in 1998 to make way for part of the Racine–Sturtevant Trail.

History[edit | edit source]

Early subway (ca. 1908–1931)[edit | edit source]

Two Racine Journal-News photographs show the Lathrop Avenue subway in 1929, from both the north (top) and the south (bottom).

As early as 1858, a railway had been constructed proceeding in an almost perfectly straight line from Racine Junction, on the south side of Racine, to Burlington 27 miles (43 km) west at the opposite end of the county.[1] At this time, what would become Lathrop Avenue was an unpaved farm road, which was laid out and given its name around 1908.[2] A narrow subway, dug into the ground at the crossing, allowed one car at a time to pass under the railroad tracks, but by 1929, this subway had become inadequate for the growing city. At this time, the crossing was located on the boundary between the city of Racine and the town of Mount Pleasant, and both municipalities urged the railroad to widen the subway.[3] The West Racine Businessmen's Association also pushed for the subway to be widened, as well as for one to be constructed at Cleveland Avenue.[4]

In November 1930, the city petitioned the state railroad rate commission to order the railroad to both widen and heighten the subway, describing the one-lane subway as a "menace".[5] The commission ruled in favor of the city's request on March 24, 1931, requiring the railroad to widen the subway to 53 feet (16 m) including sidewalks, and to begin construction as soon as possible.[6] Shortly before construction began, on June 3, 1931, the Racine Journal Times reported that "three Negroes" had been arrested at the crossing on charges of vagrancy after several boxcars caught fire there.[7]

Construction and early history (1931–1938)[edit | edit source]

In September 1931, the city of Racine and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad began jointly seeking contractors to excavate Lathrop Avenue at the site and construct a viaduct for the railroad to pass overhead.[8] The Wisconsin Public Service Commission gave the railroad a deadline of December 31, 1931 for the completion of the $68,000 viaduct, which was later extended to April 30, 1932 after construction was hampered by flooding and freezing conditions.[9][10] By early April, the excavation was complete and a "dangerously narrow" temporary wooden viaduct had been completed, but the railroad requested another deadline extension from the commission to build the permanent viaduct.[11] The deadline was moved to July 1, but by early June the railroad was seeking another extension, leading to protests from residents of Lathrop Avenue, who called on the city council to fight any further extension.[12] A week before the July 1 deadline, the construction was expected to overrun, but be completed as quickly as possible.[13]

After the construction of the viaduct, Lathrop Avenue remained unpaved. During heavy rainstorms, several feet of water gathered in the street, requiring local residents to clear off the water to prevent accidents. In 1934, the area's alderman, Leroy Olson, called for federal funding to pave the street under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration This is a link to a Wikipedia article (FERA).[14] The segment of road was paved in 1935 with funding from both FERA and its replacement, the Works Progress Administration This is a link to a Wikipedia article.[15]

The street underneath the viaduct, seen here after record rainfall in January 1938, was prone to flooding.

On January 24, 1938, record rainfall in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois led to significant flooding throughout the region. Lathrop Avenue underneath the viaduct was flooded with water more than four feet deep. The driver of an automobile which drove into the water was believed to have drowned, but it was found that he had safely escaped from the car.[16] By 1969, sewer backups were becoming a common problem at the underpass, with raw sewage leaking into the basements of houses near the viaduct.[17]

Abandonment (1982–1998)[edit | edit source]

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad abandoned the Racine–Sturtevant line in 1982 during its lengthy bankruptcy proceedings.[18] The right-of-way was acquired by Railroad Properties Associates, a group co-founded by the Downtown Racine Development Corporation and Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce (RAMAC).[19] The area surrounding the Lathrop Avenue viaduct was sold to Wisconsin Electric for the construction of power lines, although Wisconsin Electric later stressed that it was not the owner of the viaduct structure, only the land it sat on.[20]

Thunderstorms believed to be sparked by a tornado trapped two cars under the viaduct on the night of August 16, 1987.[21] Another rainstorm stranded a motorist there on August 30, 1993.[22]

After the railway line was abandoned, the viaduct became a common yet dangerous place for local teenagers to hang out. On September 6, 1993, Labor Day, a 15-year-old boy fell 25 feet from the viaduct to the street below, while attempting to perform a somersault on the viaduct's railing. He suffered a fractured skull, but survived without noticeable brain damage. The boy's father, Jerry Anderson, subsequently began a campaign to have the viaduct removed or fenced off.[23] Anderson and city officials struggled to determine the ownership of the viaduct.[24] By 1995, the city began to propose constructing a bicycle trail along the former railway line, and local residents debated whether the viaduct should be torn down and the dip in Lathrop Avenue filled in, or whether it should be converted into part of the new trail. After further investigation, the city stated that, since Railroad Properties Associates had never explicitly sold the viaduct to Wisconsin Electric, RPA was still the owner until it was dissolved in 1987, at which point ownership transferred to RAMAC, the majority partner in its founding. RAMAC disputed this claim and said they had sold it to Wisconsin Electric.[20][25]

Demolition (1998)[edit | edit source]

The abandoned viaduct, photographed by Jim Slosiarek in March 1998, months before its demolition.

In 1997, Racine County received federal grant money to convert the railway line into a bike trail, but ownership of the viaduct was still not established. The city council stated that it would negotiate a plan with both RAMAC and Wisconsin Electric to demolish the viaduct and fill in the dip in Lathrop Avenue.[26] The Lathrop Avenue Business Association pushed for the viaduct to be removed in March 1998.[27][28] Some local cyclists, including state legislator John Lehman This is a link to a Wikipedia article, disagreed with the decision, arguing that converting the viaduct for trail use would be safer than having cyclists cross Lathrop Avenue. However, Racine County officials said they did not want to accept the liability of owning the structure.[29]

The span of the viaduct was demolished in March and April 1998.[30] The removal of the support structure and retaining walls of the viaduct, and the raising of the cut in Lathrop Avenue, took place in September and October 1998.[31] The road was raised three feet, leaving a smaller dip but not fully leveling out the roadway. A complete leveling would have required the driveway of the house at 1824 Lathrop Avenue to be reconstructed, and possibly the sale and demolition of the house itself. The residents of the house had been advocates for the viaduct's demolition, and when accused of deliberately holding out and complicating the reconstruction process, they said that they were never asked to sell their property.[32]

The Racine–Sturtevant Trail construction project faced years of delays, largely caused by difficulties dealing with the viaduct, and ultimately was constructed on the former railroad right-of-way throughout 2000. The segment that crosses Lathrop Avenue opened in October of that year.[33]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Redding & Watson's Map of Racine County - 1858,
  2. 1908 Sanborn Insurance Maps, front cover,
  3. "Subway Widening Is Sought", Racine Journal-News, August 14, 1929, page four.
  4. "Would Make Two Street Changes: West Racine Businessmen Start Move for Subway in Cleveland Ave.", Racine Journal-News, December 3, 1929, front page.
  5. "Will Ask Railway to Widen Subway: City Will Request St. Paul to Remove Lathrop Ave. Hazard.", Racine Journal-News, November 26, 1930, page four.
  6. "Railway Must Build Subway: Rail Board Finds for City in Lathrop Avenue Case.", Racine Journal-News, March 25, 1931, page four.
  7. "Three Negroes Are Nabbed By Police", Racine Journal-News, June 3, 1931, page four.
  8. "Notice to Grading Contractors", Racine Journal-News, September 1, 1931, page twelve.
  9. "Hold Up Work For Large Force Of Racine Men: Freezing Weather Halts Work.", Racine Journal-News, December 10, 1931, page nine.
  10. "Builders of Racine: West Racine Business Men's Assn.", Racine Journal-News, February 15, 1932, page two.
  11. "Rail Company Asks For Time To Complete Work", Racine Journal-News, April 7, 1932, page four.
  12. "War Vets Would Restrict Use Of Memorial Hall", Racine Journal-News, June 8, 1932, page four.
  13. "Work on Viaduct", Racine Journal-News, June 24, 1932, page four.
  14. "City Considers Paving Project: Ald. Olson Anxious to Have Lathrop Ave. Paved", Racine Journal Times, July 12, 1934, front page.
  15. "More WPA Jobs Approved Here", Racine Journal Times, September 24, 1935, page four.
  16. "Flood Menaces Many Racine Areas", Racine Journal Times, January 24, 1938, front page.
  17. "Will Invite Council to Help with 'Mess'", Racine Journal Times, March 26, 1969, page 10."
  18. "Boat ramp work, downtown park get council OK", Racine Journal Times, August 18, 1982, page 5A.
  19. "Railroad right of way bought by local group", Racine Journal Times, June 1, 1983, page 4A.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Buttweiler, Joe. "Lathrop viaduct still in limbo", Racine Journal Times, May 8, 1995, pages 1B and 3B.
  21. "Wet, wild storm socks Racine", Racine Journal Times, August 17, 1987, page 3A.
  22. "STORM", Racine Journal Times, August 31, 1993, page 9A.
  23. Hayman, Rik. "Boy seriously injured in fall from viaduct", Racine Journal Times, September 8, 1993, pages 1A and 7A.
  24. Hayman, Rik. "Injured boy's father hunts for owner of Lathrop viaduct", Racine Journal Times, September 16, 1993, page 1C.
  25. "Interested parties ought to be able to solve bridge problem", Racine Journal Times, May 9, 1995, page 6A.
  26. Burri, Lance. "Viaduct headed for scrapyard", Racine Journal Times, June 14, 1997, page 1C.
  27. Sumner Coon, Laura. "Unwanted viaduct may soon go", Racine Journal Times, March 4, 1998, page 1C.
  28. Buttweiler, Joe. "Bike path will change city's look", Racine Journal Times, March 11, 1998.
  29. Buttweiler, Joe. "Lathrop viaduct will come down, council decides", Racine Journal Times, March 18, 1998.
  30. Hertzberg, Mark. "Demolition Duty", Racine Journal Times, March 26, 1998, front page.
  31. Scolaro, Joseph A. "Lathrop Avenue dip slated for repairs through Oct. 15", Racine Journal Times, August 28, 1998, page 1C.
  32. "Viaduct neighbors seek clarification", Racine Journal Times, August 31, 1999, page 1C.
  33. "Biking Weather", Racine Journal Times, October 18, 2000, page 3C.