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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

For thirty years, electric streetcars ruled Twin Cities streets

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Grand Avenue streetcar, St. Paul, c.1910.

Horse car and cable car systems in the Twin Cities spurred urban growth and gave residents more mobility. The coming of the electric streetcar in 1889 had an even greater impact. With cars that could travel faster and farther, the system grew to become one of the nation’s finest public transportation networks before the dominance of automobiles and buses in the 1950s.

The first electric streetcars were developed in the mid-1880s. The new mode of transportation caught on. By 1902, there were 21,902 miles of street railway tracks throughout the United States, with 97 percent of all lines powered by electricity. The electric streetcar earned the nickname “trolley” for the trolley wheel that ran along the overhead wires to power the car.

When Thomas Lowry assumed control of both Minneapolis and St. Paul streetcar companies in 1886, he was reluctant to adopt electrification. The Minneapolis City Council forced Lowry’s hand when it approved the construction of an experimental line by the Thomas-Houston Electric Company. The city mandated that Lowry’s company purchase the line if the demonstration proved successful. Lowry agreed, and the new line entered service on Fourth Avenue South in Minneapolis on December 24, 1889.

Archbishop John Ireland encouraged Lowry to build the first electric lines in St. Paul. The St. Paul City Railway’s first electrified route ran on Grand Avenue on February 22, 1890. Soon , a second line began service on Randolph Avenue.

The public quickly embraced the new technology, but there was speculation about its safety. People were afraid of sparks flying from the wheels and worried that the wires overhead would attract lightning strikes. Drivers of horse-drawn vehicles thought their horses would be electrocuted if they attempted to cross the streetcar tracks. Skeptics believed that the first snowstorm would put the electric cars out of business. The popularity of the lines grew In spite of these concerns. By 1892, the newly incorporated Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) had converted all horse car routes to electric operation.

The extensive three-year conversion required heavier, wider track, and wider streetcars. New power stations were needed, the first of which was located at the corner of Third Avenue North and Second Street in Minneapolis. The cost of conversion for the two cities totaled $6 million.

The first interurban route began operation in December 1890, following the old horse car line down University Avenue. The Como–Harriet line opened in July 1898. It ran seventeen miles, from Como Park in St Paul to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, and cost a dime—two zones at a nickel each. In 1906, the Selby–Lake Street line began service on a route crossing the newly built Lake Street bridge over the Mississippi River. The Snelling–Minnehaha line opened in 1909. That year, TCRT bought the St. Louis Park and Robbinsdale lines, expanding operations to the suburbs.

To meet the power needs of the rapidly developing new system, TCRT leased two power stations near the dam just below St. Anthony Falls. The growth of the streetcar system gave riders convenient access to destinations from Wildwood Amusement Park in White Bear Lake to Lake Minnetonka, where it connected with a fleet of express and excursion boats.

Electric streetcars reached their heyday in the 1920s, when TCRT had more than nine hundred cars running on more than 523 miles of track. Ridership peaked in 1920. That year, the company carried a record 238 million passengers, in spite of an increase in the fare from five to six cents—the first increase in TCRT’s history.

Improved roads and the growing popularity of automobiles began to cut into streetcar revenues by the late 1920s. In 1929, TCRT shut down some of its lines and raised the fare to ten cents. To cover its losses, the company purchased local bus companies and a controlling interest in Yellow Cab. Diversifying gave TCRT a monopoly on public transportation in the Twin Cities.

Encouraged by increased ridership during World War II, one hundred forty-one sleek new President’s Conference Committee cars entered service between 1945 and 1949. These were short-lived. Rapidly declining ridership in the post-war years prompted new TCRT management to replace streetcars with buses. The last streetcar made a final ceremonial run in Minneapolis on June 19, 1954.

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

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 03/08/2016 - 08:34 am.

    sure wish we’d kept some of the system

    Maybe half of the lines would do wonders for transit and street life today. Cities that kept a few of their streetcar lines in the US are very rare, but I don’t think any of them regret it.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 03/08/2016 - 08:36 am.

    Who killed the electric streetcar?

    While many look back at the streetcar era with nostalgia, the truth is streetcars and vehicle traffic don’t share streets very well. This is different from light rail, which has it own dedicated space for tracks.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/08/2016 - 10:29 am.

      Perhaps true now…

      Of course there were some auto/street rail accidents back in the day, more likely before Model T drivers got accustomed to their cars and the new issues.

      Everyone knew and used the streetcars before and during the post-WW I automobile boom.
      Most everyone figured it out.

      I agree with you in consideration of “re-railing” our streets, given current auto density and driver “density,” as well.

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/08/2016 - 09:03 am.

    Very Tidy Review

    Wish a few more photos might have been included, especially a horse car shot. I doubt any of us remember those!

    My grandfather, Roy Million, came from the bus side of transportation, ascending through TCRT after its acquisition of the old St. Paul White Co., finally becoming 3rd Vice President (I believe). When “Green” [not his true name] and the boys took over, he was retained in management because he was close to the drivers and shop crews; then, when “the boys” had what they wanted, he was unceremoniously “scrapped,” as well, at age 64, just short of his pension date. He died just a few years later.

    I clearly recall riding downtown from Burr St. in Saint Paul twice with my grandmother because she wanted me to “ride a streetcar before they were all gone.” When crews began to rip up those tracks, she repeated Grandpa’s caution: “Someday they’ll be sorry they did that.”

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 03/08/2016 - 10:54 am.

    There’s more an shadier history

    About the end of the street car era, including Kid Cann’s involvement, if I recall. I wish I knew more about it.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/08/2016 - 05:38 pm.

      The story indirectly from my Grandfather

      The “connection” to mobsters was fairly well investigated (by non-Minnesota sources) and pretty much substantiated; however, much local maneuvering by numerous parties pretty much kept that stuff from local publication. One prominent local attorney known to be very much involved with Minneapolis political dealings was alleged to have been heard discussing the scheme with respect to kickbacks from fuel vendors if the line was converted to buses. All of us likely know that such arrangements were as fundamental to mob income as protection money, but much less obvious. This is complete hearsay now, but he is alleged to have stated something like, “That’s what we did with Yellow Taxi” (allegedly referring to a prior takeover gambit).

      In any case, three “co-conspirators” did go to prison for peripheral actions regarding kickbacks after the takeover. Two were “underlings,” apparently, but one was a prominent player. The lesser two completed their short sentences, while the “boss” (so to speak) was promptly released after serving about a year and a half, as I recall—pardoned by the incoming Governor.

      A local banker (later very prominent) was also alleged to have been the money lender who helped finance the account of a local stockbroker, who allegedly handled the stock accumulation by “Mr. Green,” the man later alleged to be an eastern mob operative, in his successful leverage against TCRT management.

      In the end, this “cabal” supposedly had enough stock to take over the company by formal means at the annual shareholders meeting; however, that was apparently not the sole method of their success (they were large shareholders, but still without majority control). About thirty years ago I finally got my Father to discuss my question: Why did they let them do it?
      Again, this is legal hearsay because it comes indirectly to me from my own Grandfather and TCRT officer. My Dad’s response to me: “Because they came into the office before the meeting.” “So?” I asked.” Looking at the floor and with quiet voice, my Dad ended our conversation: “They had guns on.”

      Anyway, all but my personal chat was revealed back in the ’50s by a prominent national magazine expose. Much of the facts of this case came from local hearings held by Sen. Estes Kefauver, who authored the newly enacted RICOH Act. The TCRT takeover was any early application of that federal statute.

      If you read local accounts, even relatively recent “historical” writing, you will find all this “unsubstantiated” allegation to be summarily dismissed.

      [No representation here is to be taken as other than mere allegation and family legend. If MinnPost management has issues regarding comment standards, please contact me.]

  5. Submitted by Hal Davis on 03/08/2016 - 11:51 am.

    End of streetcar era

    Here’s a less benevolent explanation for the end of the streetcar era, from the Minnesota Streetcar Museum at http://www.trolleyride.org/History/Narrative/TC_Transit.html:

    With the end of the war, the tremendous pent-up demand for new housing and automobiles set in motion the suburbanization of the Twin Cities. Even so, ridership held at a very respectable 165 million in 1949. Twin City Rapid Transit responded by buying new streetcars to begin modernizing its fleet, by converting a few additional streetcar routes to bus, and by planning some consolidation of its facilities. The company’s manage­ment, headed by D.J. Strouse, still believed in serving the public well. Because of the PCC purchases, the fleet had actually grown 18 percent to 828, plus the buses, housed at six streetcar barns and two bus garages. It still maintained the sprawling Snelling Shops complex, where every wood car was torn down and rebuilt every five years.

    That benevolent attitude was shattered in November 1949, when a group of outside investors took control of the company in a bitter proxy fight. Because of the high cost of maintaining its tracks and overhead power system, streetcars were more expensive to run than buses. There was money to be made from scrapping the cars and infrastructure and substituting a lesser service, and that is exactly what happened. Ridership dropped dramat­ically. By 1954 it was down to 86 million and the streetcars were gone

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 03/08/2016 - 11:59 am.

    Ridership

    Would like to see more information on “rapidly declining ridership.” I wonder if that means, simply, less use of transit and greater use of individual automobiles in the post-war era. Some say even the salvage value of the rails may have played a role. And there’s the matter of the automobile-petroleum industrial cabal, and shady maneuvers including later on, with buses, that cash-out scheme by Carl Pohlad.

  7. Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 03/20/2016 - 07:07 am.

    What really happened to street cars

    I’m sure that the fact that a National City Lines (funded by GM, Phillips Petroleum, Standard Oil, and Firestone)started buying up transit systems…then shutting them down in favor of buses. They were subsequently indicted in court of using their monopolistic powers to sell buses to the transit systems they owned. Fines were minor, and it was too late. I remember riding the street car from Deephaven to downtown Mpls (for a dinner at DiNapoli’s…where my grandmother worked) with my grandmother shortly before it was mothballed.

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