The History of Transit in the Twin Cities

John W. Diers
Author of “Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul”

The Evolution of the Streetcar and the Transition from Horsepower to Electric Power

In the late 1880s a steam motor and a coach of the Minneapolis Lyndale & Lake Calhoun Railway sit at the passenger station at 31st Street & Nicollet Avenue. Minnesota Streetcar Museum

Looking east toward downtown St. Paul, a cable car descends the Selby Avenue hill. Cable cars were used in St. Paul on the Selby Avenue line from 1888-98 and on East 7th Street from 1889-93. Minnesota Historical Society

Horsecars appeared in St. Paul in 1872. By 1875 they had arrived in Minneapolis. They were slow and their small, enclosed cabins offered no amenities for passengers. An even bigger issue was the horse, itself. The horses required food, shelter and innumerable farriers, blacksmiths, harness makers and veterinarians. Their manure was a constant disposal problem. Something better was needed.

In 1873, a San Franciscan, Andrew Hallidie, introduced the cable car. Drawn by a continuously moving cable that ran through a slot in the street, cable cars offered improved speeds and the ability to scale steep grades. They were adopted in San Francisco and widely used in a number of cities. Chicago had one of the largest cable car systems in the country. Two cable car lines were constructed in St. Paul: one on Selby Avenue and the other on Seventh Street. While a great improvement over the horsecar, cable car systems were expensive to build and difficult to maintain, especially in cold climates where ice and snow would collect in the cable conduit. Moreover, there was always the risk that a break in the cable could disable the entire system.

Steam locomotives had long been used by the railroads to pull freight and passenger trains, while smaller steam engines called “dinkies” or “motors” were put to work to haul passenger cars on elevated railways in Chicago, New York, and on street railways in Minneapolis and other cities. In 1879, the Lyndale Railway Company began operating its trains from downtown Minneapolis to Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. It was eventually extended all the way to Lake Minnetonka. Never popular with the public, the steam trains were smoky, dirty and often frightened the horses.

Over the years a number of engineers and inventors experimented with electric propulsion. None succeeded until 1887 when Frank Sprague perfected an axle mounted electric motor and the trolley wheel to collect electric current from an overhead wire. On December 24, 1888 electric streetcars debuted in Minneapolis. By 1889 there were 154 electric railway systems in the U.S. Within a decade, all the horsecar systems had vanished, the cable cars had retreated to only a handful of cities and steam power had disappeared from elevated railways and the streets of Minneapolis. The Twin Cities were all electric by 1891. The electric cars were so well accepted in Minneapolis and St. Paul that the railroads were forced to discontinue their commuter trains between the two cities due to a lack of business.

In the Twin Cities they were called “Tom Lowrys” in honor of Thomas Lowry, the founder of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT). Elsewhere, they were simply streetcars or trolleys or trams or, less flatteringly, rattlers. In the first and second decades of the 20th century they were the wheels that moved urban America. For centuries, the distance one could cover on foot or on horseback limited a city’s reach, but the electric streetcar decreased both time and distance. More than anything else, electric streetcars were responsible for the growth of the modern metropolis. In Minnesota, you could ride them in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Duluth, Mankato, St. Cloud, Stillwater, Winona, East Grand Forks, Moorehead, Hibbing and at one time in Brainerd and Wahpeton-Breckenridge. In 1920, 238 million riders boarded the big yellow streetcars of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company.

Streetcar companies, like TCRT, were the “dot-coms” of the Gilded Age and were hugely profitable for their shareholders. The term “traction” came into common use as a synonym for electric railways. Traction moguls like Charles Tyson Yerkes built and controlled the Chicago streetcar system. Samuel Insull and Thomas Lowry were among those who made great fortunes as the trolley-craze swept America. Electrically powered streetcars were the greenest invention to come out of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, replacing horsecars, cable cars and even steam powered trains.

Streetcars proved themselves in decades of operation and millions of miles of service. Electricity could be generated at one central point and distributed around a transit system, powering hundreds of vehicles. Over a thousand streetcars were in operation at peak hours in Minneapolis and St. Paul, moving thousands of people to their destinations.

Streetcar power plants used a number of fuels, predominately coal. However in the Twin Cities, approximately 20% of the electric power came from a hydroelectric plant at St. Anthony Falls. In the 1940s the company began switching to natural gas. Today, some systems are using wind and solar power. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Municipal Railway is building what will be the largest solar station in the world to help supply electric power for its light rail lines and trolley buses.

The Hiawatha Light Line established in the Twin Cities only a few years ago is a direct descendant of the electric streetcar. It uses the same technology and brings the promise of a cleaner, greener environment as energy becomes dearer and more expensive while people are looking for alternatives to the automobile.

Read Up

Twin Cities by Trolley The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul by John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs. University of Minnesota Press 2007.The Electric Interurban Railways in America by George W. Hilton and John F. Due. Stanford University Press 2000.

Act Locally

Minnesota Streetcar Museum & Streetcar Rides Como-Harriet and Excelsior Streetcar Lines

The History of Transit

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