Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Wisconsin Highway 38 connects downtown Racine with downtown Milwaukee on a more inland route than Highway 32. In place since 1924 from Racine to Highway 100 in Oak Creek and since 1947 all the way to National Avenue in Milwaukee, it winds through Racine neighborhoods of all kinds, fertile farmland in Racine County, serves as the main thoroughfare through fast-growing Oak Creek and is the main road connecting to Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport. It then winds through some commercial and residential districts in Milwaukee before ending in the city’s “Latin Quarter” just south of downtown Milwaukee and the Harley-Davidson Museum. Along the way are three breweries, two airports, a distillery, and a plethora of museums. It provides a nice tour of the Racine-Milwaukee corridor as an alternate to I-41/94.
Wisconsin Highway 38 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North):
Highway 38 begins at Highway 32, at the corner of State and Main Streets in downtown Racine (pop. 81,855), which calls itself the Belle City and is Wisconsin’s fifth-largest. The French may have named the city (Racine is French for “root”, after the Root River which flows into Lake Michigan here), but Danish immigrants left the tastiest mark on the city; Racine is known as the “Kringle Capital of the World.” Famous locales like Lehmann’s, O&H, and the Larsen Bakery (many of which are just west of downtown along nearby Highway 20/Washington Avenue) crank out millions of the tasty iced and filled pastries every year and ship them worldwide. You can, however, stop in for a fresh one right there. They’re best that way.
Racine’s industrial and entrepreneurial history now spans three centuries. Home to major companies like J.I. Case and S.C. Johnson, it’s where the garbage disposal was invented in 1927; In-Sink-Erator still calls Racine home. It’s also where malted milk was invented in 1887 by William Horlick, who now has a high school named after him (they do not have a malted milk stand, however, according to my limited research.)
Many cities the size of Racine host minor-league baseball, but Racine hosts minor-league football. The Racine Raiders of the North American Football League are one of the most respected minor-league football organizations in the country and have been around for over 50 years. The Raiders have sent players to the NFL over the years, although unfortunately most of them went to the Vikings. They play at Horlick Field on the north side of town; their season begins in June, so no frozen tundra.
Downtown Racine and the Harbor area offer a wealth of sights and things to do. The Racine Art Museum (441 S. Main St.) houses a series of contemporary craft exhibits and street-level displays while the Racine Heritage Museum (701 Main St.) houses a bird collection and other features from Racine’s early days. Monument Square (500 S. Main Street, just south of where Highway 38 begins) offers a look back – and up – with its 61-foot high Civil War Soldiers Memorial – dedicated in 1884 when it was called Haymarket Square – while also giving a nod to the future with Wi-Fi Internet Access for anyone using their laptops in the square. If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned diner experience and one of the best-rated burgers in the state, by the way, a visit to the Kewpee (520 Wisconsin Ave.) should satisfy you, as it has for Racine residents since the 1920’s.
*** BREWERY ALERT ***
A block from where Highway 38 begins, along Highway 32/Main Street, you’ll find the Racine Brewing Company, which established its Tap Room in a storefront in 2017. The Reefpoint Brew House is located just east of the end of Highway 20 in the busy Marina area; they don’t brew beers on site but do offer unique crafts that are contract-brewed by other breweries in southeastern Wisconsin.
Racine’s attention to the lakefront is among the most impressive in the state. Buildings lining downtown streets offer increasingly busy storefronts, but their upper floors also offer sweeping lake views, as do the condos springing up all over the place. The Reefpoint Marina, Festival Park and Pershing Park can be accessed right along 4th and 5th Streets leading down to the water. Annual events include the Racine Boat Show and Salmon-A-Rama (which is fun to say, actually).
Other things to see in Racine include the Johnson Wax Golden Rondelle (1525 Howe Street), built in 1964 for the New York World’s Fair; the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Johnson Wax Research Tower (pictured at right); the beautiful Wind Point Lighthouse (4725 Lighthouse Drive, Wind Point), one of the oldest (1880) and tallest (108 feet) lighthouses on the Great Lakes; and the Racine Zoo (2131 N. Main Street, about 1.5 miles north of downtown), which offers an impressive array of over 75 animal species, overlooks the lake, and offers its “Animal Crackers Jazz Series” on Wednesday and Selected Sunday evenings.
Check out more on Racine with our State Trunk Tour Podcast conversation!
Highway 38 winds out of downtown via State Street and angles on a northwesterly direction… to the point where it eventually becomes Northwestern Avenue. You head through an interesting set of neighborhoods; ones that have seen better days sit right next to the upscale Racine Country Club and beautiful Colonial Park. Long-closed factories lie on the other side. One of the attractions you pass is the Wustum Museum of Fine Arts (2519 Northwestern Avenue, 262-636-9177), which features 13 acres of parkland, a one-acre formal garden and a classroom and studio, all crowned by a Italianate-style farmhouse that dates back to 1856. This was the original Racine Art Museum; but the collection grew so large they had to build a new location downtown to hold it all.
Near the intersection with County MM, Green Bay Road and Rapids Drive coupled with a small bridge over the Root River (yes, again), you’re close to John Batten International Airport, the largest privately-owned, public-use reliever airport in the United States. The “public use” is primarily for corporate jets (Racine holds several international corporate headquarters) and local aviation enthusiasts; don’t look for commercial flights to and from the place. It is, however, now large enough to offer customs services 24/7…who knew? Its airport code is RAC; the larger airport for the region lies ahead, also on Highway 38.
Beyond the roundabout with County K, Highway 38 becomes a “country” road, a two-lane highway meandering through fertile farmland and occasional clusters of homes. When it reaches Six Mile Road (aka County G), Highway 38 joins in, going west through the little hamlet of Husher. Part of the Town of Caledonia that makes up most of Highway 38’s non-Racine existence in Racine County, Husher offers the Husher Pub & Grill and a few homes – and a speed limit reduction. It was originally to be called “Hoosier”, but the pronunciation led to it being referred to as “Husher” instead.
Just past Husher, Highway 38 turns northerly again along Howell Road, which leads you past an increasing succession of “Mile Roads” (and 1/2 mile roads) until you cross the Root River – for the third and final time – and hit the only county line along the route.
At this point, you’re in Milwaukee County and the city of Oak Creek (pop. 33,946), which was a vast township that incorporated in 1955 to avoid being annexed by the city of Milwaukee. Oak Creek today is a growing suburb that once hosted the headquarters of Midwest Airlines and today holds Bucyrus International, which has its main operating plant (and former HQ) in adjacent South Milwaukee. Oak Creek also held a major Delphi plant and other manufacturing facilities; economic changes have led to turnover in those buildings, with some along Howell very empty bit others experiencing a rebirth in the “new economy.” Shortly inside Oak Creek, Highway 38 as Howell Avenue expands to a six-lane boulevard and stays that way through the heart of the city. Although Oak Creek doesn’t have a “downtown” per se (they’re building one right now), the strip from Highway 100/Ryan Road past Puetz Road to and Drexel Avenue holds plenty of commercial activity there.
At County Highway ZZ (College Avenue), you enter Milwaukee (pop. 596,000), the nation’s 28th-largest city and, of course, the largest in Wisconsin. Milwaukee is home to everything from major breweries (MillerCoors’ Milwaukee brewery is among the world’s largest) to major corporations such as Johnson Controls, Manpower, Rockwell Automation, Roundy’s, and more. Summerfest is the World’s Largest Music Festival and other ethnic festivals on the same grounds along the lakefront keep things buzzing all summer. All of the region is served by the major airport, General Mitchell International Airport. Also known by its airport code of MKE, Mitchell Int’l is named after General Billy Mitchell, a Milwaukee native who many consider the father of the U.S. Air Force. As of 2016, MKE offers nonstop flights to 37 destinations across the country plus Toronto and Mexico, as well as 160 international destinations with only one connection – usually Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, or Detroit.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|According to the Airports Council International, during 2nd Quarter 2010 Mitchell International was the third fastest-growing airport in the world, bested only by airports in Istanbul, Turkey and Moscow, Russia. Take THAT, O’Hare!|
One fairly unique thing along Wisconsin Highway 38 is the tunnel under the main east-west runway at Mitchell International; built in 1965, it allows Howell Avenue to flow freely as planes take off, land, and taxi above. While the design is a little more commonplace today, in the 1960s this was somewhat of a novelty. But it’s the only spot on Wisconsin’s State Trunk Highway system where you just might pass directly under a taxiing jet.
Beyond the airport, Highway 38 goes into a residential neighborhood of Milwaukee that has recently reemerged as the “Garden District.” As Howell Avenue and then Chase Avenue, you can enjoy a nice, tree-lined boulevard past a series of pre- and post-World War II neighborhoods before crossing Oklahoma Avenue, entering an industrial area that includes the main plant where they make Klements Sausages, and then heading up and over I-94 into one of the city’s oldest residential districts. At Lincoln Avenue, Chase Avenue ends and Highway 38 angles onto 6th Street. To your left is one of the most beautiful churches in the nation, St. Josephat’s Basilica. Built by Polish Catholics from materials salvaged from a Post Office in Chicago, the magnificence of St. Josephat’s led to Basilica status in 1929 and it still serves the heart of the Catholic community in Milwaukee today, although most attendees are of Latino origin.
A trek through near-south side Milwaukee leads you under I-43/94, which you just went over a few mile or so back. At this point, you’ll be in Walkers Point, specifically a section known as Milwaukee’s “Latin Quarter”, a re-emerging area of restaurants, shops and lofts that reflect the continuous change – and reinvention – of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. The 2016 opening of Urban Harvest Brewing Company along 5th Street is part of this resurgence.
Highway 38 technically turns east at Washington Street and then follows 5th Street northbound to National Avenue (Highway 59) where it ends, but you can also stay on 6th Street and at National you’ll see an “END 38” sign. In the same line of vision, you can see the 6th Street Viaduct, a cable-stayed bridge that takes travelers into the Menomonee River Valley and the Harley-Davidson Museum before lifting them back up to leapfrog into downtown Milwaukee.
Just beyond the end of Wisconsin Highway 38:
Just past the technical end of Highway 38, 5th Street northbound passes plenty of Walkers Point haunts, including the Brenner Brewing Company, a microbrewery established in 2014.
5th Street northbound and 6th Street southbound combine to enter a large roundabout at the northern end of Walkers Point. Adjacent to the roundabout, you’ll find the Great Lakes Distillery, the Iron Horse Hotel and the 6th Street Viaduct, a beautiful cable-stayed bridge complex that connects you to downtown and the Harley-Davidson Museum.
Can connect immediately to: Highway 59
Can connect nearby to: I-43/94, about 1/4 mile west; Highway 32, about 1/4 mile east; Highway 145, about 1 mile north; U.S. Highway 18, about 1 mile north; Highway 57, about 2 miles west