Streetcar Johnny on the Job

September 8, 2009
trolley family 3

One of the delightful features of my southwest Minneapolis neighborhood is the historic trolley that runs between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun. The Como-Harriet Streetcar Line is operated by the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. The museum also operates a second historic streetcar line in Excelsior. They’re remnants of what was once one of the best streetcar systems in the United States.

This year, I began volunteering as a streetcar motorman. That’s me above, with my wife and daughter on Car #1300, one of six cars restored and owned by the Streetcar Museum.

I love it. The streetcars are fun to drive, and everyone is so happy! Kids are delighted, and that makes their parents delighted. The grandparents tell stories of when they rode the streetcars to school, or to downtown Minneapolis for shopping and a movie. Back in the day, nobody thought anything of sending an 8-year-old kid alone on the streetcar.

At its peak in the 1920s, the Twin City Lines carried about 236 million passengers a year, or about 650,000 a day. Consider that at the time, the combined population of Minneapolis and St. Paul was just over 600,000! So, about half of the people living in the Twin Cities metro area were riding the streetcar every day.

There were 550 miles of track, and the streetcars ran all the way from Stillwater to Excelsior. The fare was a nickel, and in the city of Minneapolis, no home was more than three blocks from a streetcar stop. It was a tremendous system.

The streetcars shaped the development of Minneapolis. Throughout the city, you’ll see major intersections that have a cluster of small businesses for a block or two around the corner. Those corners were major streetcar stops. People would get off the streetcar and stop at the neighborhood grocery store or drugstore on their way home. Earlier, the streetcars led to the development of “streetcar suburbs” in Minneapolis, away from the downtown core. Once people could ride the streetcar downtown, they could live farther away. Until the 1910s and ’20s, the area around Lake Harriet was a country retreat where people kept summer cottages. It’s a pattern that would be repeated on a much, much larger scale with the automobile and suburban/exurban growth.

After World War II, however, ridership declined. People were buying cars and moving to the suburbs. The streetcars seemed obsolete and antiquated. The last streetcars ran in June 1954. The car I’m pictured in above was actually one of the last two cars that ran in regular service on the last day.

Fred Ossanna (right) gleefully accepts a check as streetcars burn.

Fred Ossanna (right) gleefully accepts a check as streetcars burn.

Sadly, the Twin City Lines fell into the hands of crooks. Fred Ossanna, a Minneapolis lawyer who gained control of the line, later went to prison for fraud associated with the dismantling and selling of the trolley line’s assets. Even under honest ownership, it’s doubtful if the trolley line could have survived. Streetcar systems all over the country were shut down throughout the 1940s and 1950s, victims of America’s love affair with the automobile. There are also conspiracy theories associated with the alleged role of General Motors in buying up and destroying streetcar systems, but that’s too big a topic for me to get into here.

You can’t really blame people for not having the foresight to save the line. But I’ve always felt that if it could have somehow hung on until the first oil shocks of the early 1970s, it would have survived. We would have realized the benefits of this unique form of mass transit. But there was a 20-year window when our eyes were closed.

Now, of course, we’re spending billions to get rail transit restored in the United States. I enthusiastically support this, but it’s hard not to think of what might have been if we hadn’t dismantled the existing infrastructure that served us so well for so long.

The Lake Harriet line will be running on weekends between 12:30 – 8:30 p.m. until the end of September, then on weekends from 12:30 – 5:00 p.m. until Thanksgiving.