Streetcars, Southwest’s transit past

Buried layers beneath the asphalt and concrete all over the city are streetcar tracks. Over a hundred years ago, streetcars revolutionized city travel before the advent of the automobile. Some older Southwest residents recall riding the cars as a child, hearing the gears turn and clank.

Russell Olson grew up in Southwest and said he remembers what it felt like to board the streetcar, pay 10 cents and sit in the wide wicker seats, watching the town go by. "I took the Bryant/Johnson streetcar downtown," he said.

Aaron Isaacs is co-author of a newly released book, "The Como-Harriet Streetcar Line," published by the Minnesota Transportation Museum. Isaacs, who by day is a Met Council transit staffer, said, "It's the history of transit, but also the history of the development of the city."

The history of streetcars

Isaacs, who is also the editor and photo archivist for the museum, said that he has always been passionate about the history of streetcars and traced them back to their most primitive forms, horse-drawn cars circa 1875.

He said it took seven horses to pull a single streetcar, and they were not an efficient mode of transportation, since they were slow, tough on horses and messy thanks to manure.

Isaacs said that when electric streetcars were perfected in 1887, they were considered scary. "The speed of the streetcars was considered to be horribly unsafe and a danger to the public -- very controversial," he said.

However it didn't take long for people to catch on. Isaacs said within five years, all Minneapolis had been wired for the newest form of transit.

Russell Olson, an early member of the Minnesota Transportation Museum and author of 1976's "The Electric Railways of Minnesota," said that Thomas Lowry, namesake of Lowry Hill, founded the Minneapolis Streetcar System.

The streetcar storing and manufacturing garage sat on Nicollet Avenue and 31st Street, right where the Metro Transit bus garage is now. The system, Isaacs said, "was the only one in the U.S. that built their own street cars."

He said another reason Minneapolis streetcars were unique is that they were the last major U.S. system to use wood for their cars. Olson said Twin Cities streetcars were also among the widest in the country, averaging 9 feet, 2 inches, compared to the standard 8 feet, 4 inches. He said the cushier accommodations came as a result of progressive management.

Olson worked two summers in the accounting department for a major streetcar company called the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. He said his job there sparked his interest in streetcars and provided him access to information leading to his book.

Mass-transit implications

Isaacs said the streetcar system had a huge effect on the way people got around and the organization of the city. "The history of transportation is the history of the city," he said.

The system solidified the importance of city centers. "Half of all trips in the metro area went to one of the two downtowns," he said.

Isaacs said the Como-Harriet route, his book's topic, was the area's most popular route because of all of the landmarks it went by, including both downtowns, Uptown, through Southwest and even connecting to Lake Minnetonka.

He said the development of the streetcar system had a large impact on the layout and development of the city.

"Prior to 1930 there was a very close relationship between the streetcar system and the development of the city," Isaacs said. He said often times the streetcar company owners, such as Lowry, developed much of the area surrounding the system in the city and farther out in St. Louis Park and Columbia Heights.

"The streetcar line expanded in increments of a half-mile to a mile, and development would follow it," Isaacs said.

Although streetcars covered most of what was at the time the metropolitan area, towners did not have the government funding that Metro Transit's bus system has today. Because the streetcars were owned by private companies and not by the government, they had to maintain the tracks they ran on, along with the overhead wires, and they even had to plow their own streets.

Isaacs said, "Can you imagine Metro Transit having to plow the streets they run on?"

Despite high costs, streetcar ridership dwarfs current mass transit

ridership, according to Isaacs. He said that during World War II, 200 million people rode the area's streetcars, three times the current Metro Transit number.

Because of the high number of riders, streetcar companies made sure to modify their service accordingly -- some would come every two minutes, he said.

Isaacs said the development of the city and the streetcar lines went hand in hand until the end of World War II.

The ultra-modern age

Isaacs said streetcars became obsolete as soldiers came home from war, purchased automobiles and moved their new families to the suburbs. But Olson said urban sprawl is just one reason why streetcars


Olson said the automobile allowed people freedom that the streetcars did not. "When Henry Ford developed his mass production technology that reduced the manufacturing costs, more people were able to afford cars," he said.

He added that the government paid to pave roads, and gasoline was hardly taxed, making auto costs even cheaper. "As the streetcar ridership dropped, they had less and lass revenue coming in and their costs were high," Olson said.

Some companies tried to use buses as a form of mass transit, but they didn't make money either, he said. Eventually, the state took over the community's mass transit


The last streetcar ran its route in June 1954. "The track at Lake Harriet was the very last line in both the Twin Cities," Olson said.

An original Minneapolis streetcar can now be found at Lake Harriet. Isaacs works there occasionally on weekends as what used to be called a "motorman," the person who was in charge of driving the car, collecting the fare and providing the transfers.