Como-Harriet streetcar has storied history

A Minnesota Streetcar Museum streetcar sits ready for a holiday ride on the museum’s final weekend of operation for 2017.

Streetcars roamed the Twin Cities in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, transporting hundreds of millions of riders each year.

Just two streetcar lines remain from those days, including the restored Como-Harriet line near Lake Harriet.

The non-profit Minnesota Streetcar Museum operates the line during the spring, summer and fall, providing rides to about 40,000 visitors annually. A small army of volunteers operates the museum and streetcar line, a group that is about 115 members strong.

“They like the history of it,” said Aaron Isaacs, the museum’s board chair. “The streetcars really were what developed the city.”

Streetcars date back to the 1870s, when horses pulled them around cities. Electric streetcars didn’t become practical until 1888, Isaacs said, around which time the Twin City Rapid Transit Company started an electric system. The company built the Como-Harriet line out to Lake Harriet in the 1890s and by 1912 extended it down Xerxes Avenue and eventually to Lake Minnetonka.

“A lot of times, people would take the streetcar just to cool off in the evening,” volunteer Jim Vaitkunas said.

Trolley riders wait on the streetcar station near Lake Harriet on Dec. 2, the Como-Harriet line’s second-to-last day of operation in 2017.
Trolley riders wait on the streetcar station near Lake Harriet on Dec. 2, the Como-Harriet line’s second-to-last day of operation in 2017.

The system expanded as the city grew, though automobiles began denting ridership in the 1920s, Isaacs said. The company experienced a ridership boom during World War II, as gas and rubber were rationed, but the cars slid toward obscurity in the late ’40s, as parts wore out and busses became cheaper to operate. By 1954, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company dismantled its streetcar system, opting instead to run a for-profit bus system.

A lot of streetcar bodies were stripped and sold as cheap buildings, Isaacs said. Some were burned.

In June 1954, the Twin Cities company donated a single streetcar to the Minnesota Railfans Association, a predecessor to the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. The car sat for eight years until it was restored by a group that included Isaacs’ dad, George Isaacs. The group replaced the roof and rigged a generator to supply power, eventually getting the car to run again.

Isaacs said the group began operating the car in the St. Paul Midway, drawing thousands of curious visitors. It was after that, he said, that they decided to form an operating museum.

They didn’t find a permanent location for the museum until 1971, when they signed a lease with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for the Linden Hills site. The group has since grown the museum to serve thousands of visitors each year and has added a streetcar line in downtown Excelsior.

The museum is entirely volunteer run and sustains itself on operating revenues and grants, Isaacs said. It has expanded its workshop and car barn near Queen Avenue and Linden Hills Boulevard several times over the years, most recently in 2013.

The organization finds its car bodies through other museums and has even found one on eBay. It’s not too hard to find car bodies, Isaacs said, but it’s trickier to find the parts that make the cars run.

“Those pieces are what was scrapped,” Isaacs said. “It’s the equivalent of getting an automobile body with no engine or interior.”

Volunteer Dennis Stephens said most of the volunteers are self-taught machinists, adding that they save money by restoring their own parts. They’ve restored the cars to appear as they did during the time the cars were active, he said, but they’ve have added some modern improvements.

Most of the volunteers are men around retirement age and share an interest in history. Isaacs said there’s a fear in the preservation community at large about volunteers aging out and not being replaced, though he stressed that the museum is in a strong position.

About half the museum’s ridership comes from repeat riders, Isaacs said, with families and kids making up the core of the ridership. He said he notices more generational ridership nowadays.

A Minnesota Streetcar Museum volunteer dressed as Santa greets riders during a trolleyride on Dec. 2.
A Minnesota Streetcar Museum volunteer dressed as Santa greets riders during a trolley ride on Dec. 2.

“I think we’re kind of a beloved institution in the neighborhood now,” he said.

That was apparent on the trolley’s last weekend of operation, during which dozens of families lined up to ride. The museum had volunteers dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus greet the kids and hand them candy on their way off the trolley.

Vaitkunas said the interaction with families is one of his favorite parts of volunteering for the museum. He said the organization gives him a way to stay active, adding that the museum is always looking for new volunteers.

“It’s just part of the general nice feeling about that part of the Chain of Lakes,” he said of the trolley. “What we do for the kids is hopefully give them a little bit of a sense of the history of it.