If you’ve been peeved by a Como Avenue road-repair detour, here’s some consolation. The St. Paul project uncovered some long-buried history: streetcar tracks, still resting on their ancient wooden ties.
When the streetcar system was scrapped for buses in the early 1950s, concrete was poured over the rails and slathered with asphalt, and the reminder of the city’s once-thriving transportation network was buried.
Perhaps you’re one of those who wish the system had never been dismantled. Perhaps you have a romantic notion of quaint cars clattering along, carrying office workers and shoppers. If you’d been around when they stopped running, you would have been in the minority.
“Everyone loved the streetcars, but no one was riding them,” according to “Twin Cities by Trolley,” a 2007 history of the streetcar days by John Diers and Aaron Isaacs. I mined the book for some details about the system that helped build the metro area. Here are a few things you might not have known about the Twin City Rapid Transit Co.
1. The streetcars weren’t our first transit system.
There were many predecessors, starting with horse-drawn cars. Steam-powered cars were tested, but the vibrations were so bad the car almost shook apart. Early streetcars (1887 in Minneapolis) had cables that dragged the cars along, just like San Francisco. Electricity won out by 1890. Power for the trolleys came from the company’s own power grid.
2. Uber competed with streetcars.
OK, it wasn’t really Uber, but it was a lot like it. Circa 1910, unlicensed drivers picked up passengers and took them where they wanted to go. Streetcars were bedeviled by the jitneys, as the private cars-for-hire were called. Transit systems nationwide demanded that the jitneys be regulated, so city governments complied. By 1916, the jitneys were regulated into obscurity, and the streetcars continued taking passengers where the tracks went.
3. Ridership peaked early.
Want to guess when? 1937? 1942? 1950? Try 1920. Twin City Rapid Transit had 41 lines and 238 million rides in 1920. By the end of the decade, rides had dropped to 168 million. Those numbers crashed during the Depression, when fewer people were going to work. And the car was the nail in the coffin. As soon as people had the chance to ditch the trolleys for the flivver, they took it.
4. Streetcars fueled suburbs’ growth.
We think of suburbs as car-centric developments, but some suburbs were laid out to connect with the streetcar system. Often, entrances to subdivisions also acted as trolley stops. The company built trolley shelters (much like bus shelters today) to protect riders from the elements. The last one in the metro area? The Country Club neighborhood of Edina.
5. The Twin Cities didn’t lead the switch to buses.
Buses eventually replaced the streetcars, but in the Twin Cities, that didn’t happen until 1954. That’s 24 years after Mankato scrapped their trolleys, and 18 years after St. Cloud changed over.
6. Buses were an improvement over streetcars.
While they carried fewer people, buses had fewer infrastructure costs — no wires to maintain, no energy plants to run, no aging cars. Plus, buses were more flexible. Routes could be quickly reconfigured and because they could pull over, buses didn’t stop traffic the way streetcars did. When the trolley power lines came down, the city skies were no longer covered in a lattice of wire, which was considered a civic improvement.
7. The trolley lost money.
Streetcars might have survived a while longer if they’d made money. They didn’t. The transit system was regarded as a public monopoly, and the government set its fares. Rate increases were rare, and stingy. It cost 5 cents to ride the streetcar in 1900, and it took 20 years to raise the rate — by a penny. The fare was a dime in 1929, and a dime in 1947. Undercapitalized and outmoded, the system was unsustainable.
8. The system went down in flames.
The end of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit was messy. After suffering shady investors and allegations of kickbacks, the system was sold for scrap. Not every car was destroyed, however. Ninety-one streetcars were sold to Mexico City, which ran them until 1984 — five years short of a century since the first electric streetcar rolled down a Minneapolis street.
9. It’s not forgotten — and not really gone.
The loss of the system looks inevitable in hindsight. And it happened all across the country. But it would have been marvelous if some streetcar lines had survived. Oh, wait, some did. You just can’t see them.
So make it seven things you didn’t know about streetcars. That last one you probably knew already.