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Before the Twin Cities had streetcars, there were horsecars

Horse-drawn streetcars sparked the growth of what would become one of the most extensive streetcar systems in the country.

Horse-drawn streetcar in Minneapolis; sign reads Sixth Street, Monroe Street and Eighth Avenue, c.1885. This photograph shows a second team of horses ready to relieve the team on the horsecar.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

With the rapid growth of the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the mid-nineteenth century, the need for a reliable form of public transportation became apparent. Horse-drawn streetcars provided the answer and sparked the growth of what would become one of the most extensive streetcar systems in the country.

Horsecars had been operating in New York City since 1832. The St. Paul Street Railway Company was incorporated in 1872 and began running horsecars in July of that year. The Minneapolis Street Railway Company followed suit three years later.

The early Twin Cities horsecars were modest in size at just ten feet long and, at about one thousand pounds, were equivalent in weight to the average horse. Each car could accommodate up to fourteen passengers and ran at a maximum speed of six miles per hour, as mandated by city ordinances. For the comfort of riders in winter, heat was generated by a small iron stove placed in the middle of the car and the floor was covered with a thick blanket of hay. Signal lights were hung on each end, and an oil lamp provided light inside the car.

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The first horsecar lines were also modest. St. Paul’s initial line was two and one-half miles long, and the Minneapolis line just two and one-tenth miles. Minneapolis line construction cost $6,000 per mile, and the completed tracks were made of five-inch-square wooden rails, or “stringers,” with wooden crossties and bent iron plates spiked onto them. The inferior quality track sometimes caused a car to derail, at which point passengers disembarked to help push it back onto the track. Passenger power was sometimes employed to assist a car up a steep hill as well.

The early streetcar barns housed both horses and cars and were staffed by a mechanic and a blacksmith. The first barn in St. Paul was located at Fourth and St. Peter Streets, and in Minneapolis at Third Avenue North and Second Street.

The public could ride anywhere within the city limits of St. Paul or Minneapolis for just five cents. Passengers would drop a nickel into the fare box located in the front of the car before taking a seat. The first day’s revenue for the Minneapolis Street Railway Company totaled $21.50, collected from four hundred thirty passengers. By 1877, the company was running eighteen cars and carrying an average of seventeen hundred riders daily, with receipts totaling up to $100.

Maintaining the horsecar lines was expensive. The first cars cost $872 each. Six horses were needed for each car to keep them in operation for a full day. Horses cost $135 to $150 per head and were fed five times daily. Drivers (and later, conductors) worked twelve- to sixteen-hour days in all weather for $35–$54 per month. With such high overhead, the lines were not cost-effective and employees sometimes waited several weeks to be paid.

While embraced by the commuting public, horse-drawn cars had serious drawbacks. The odor and health risks associated with horse pollution were a real concern. One horse can produce up to fifty pounds of manure daily. When dried, wind-blown manure dust contaminated the air. Health officials warned that the polluted air was responsible for the high occurrence of diarrhea, especially in children. Piles of manure attracted flies, and outbreaks of typhoid fever were a common problem for city residents. Rainy weather turned the dust into a sludge that made walking highly disagreeable.

Worse yet, horses were sometimes injured in the line of duty or succumbed to the burden of their work, dropping in their harnesses on the street. Unable to move the heavy carcasses, drivers would leave them where they fell, and a cart was eventually sent to collect them. The carcasses posed health risks and blocked traffic.

Electric streetcar lines were introduced in Minneapolis in 1889 and St. Paul in 1890. By that time, Minneapolis was running a total of two hundred eighteen horsecars with one thousand eighteen horses and mules on over 66.7 miles of track. St. Paul had one hundred fifty-nine cars with nine hundred horses and mules covering 53.3 miles of track. By 1892 all lines had been converted to electric operation.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.