Early streetcars: Memorable and uncomfortable

  • Article by: JOHN MCINTYRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 14, 2004 - 11:00 PM

On cold, muddy Washington Avenue, in the late 1870s, a Minneapolis commuter stands with a nickel in his hand. Off toward the east he can the tinkling of a bell - the sound of a horse-drawn streetcar.

The car pulls up. The weary driver nods sourly.

The commuter, if he's been in one of these contraptions before, hesitates before he climbs aboard.

The ride home is going to be no fun.

Twin Cities' streetcar service came a long way from its early horsecar days until it ended in the early 1950s, with then state-of-the-art high-speed electric cars.

The original horsecars -- the ancestors of today's light-rail cars -- were about 12 feet long and weighed about 1,000 pounds. They were called "crackerboxes on wheels." Riders could, for their 5-cent fare, get where they were going at a brisk 6 miles per hour, much faster than slogging through
the mud and manure-filled streets.

But that ride could be brutal. Passengers could be called on to put a derailed car back on track or to negotiate with a balky mule.

The ordeal started at the pay box at the front of the car, writes Stephen Kieffer, in "Transit and the Twins."

"Many an early patron of the cars will remember how the driver reminded him, by the ringing of a bell, that he had not placed his fare in the box."

Inside, the amenities were primitive. Passengers sat on hard benches that ran the length of the car. A foul-smelling oil lamp provided a dim light, says a history of the Minneapolis Street Railway Company.

"In winter, heat was supplied by a small sheet-iron stove in the middle of the car. The floor of the car was covered with hay to a depth of about one foot to assist the stove in keeping the passengers' feet warm. It was a common occurrence for passengers to alight from the cars with hay clinging to their feet and garments."

In the 1870s, the streetcar tracks were laid -- some might say floated -- on the muddy streets. Minnesota's rain, snow and ice knocked them out of alignment, says Goodrich Lowry in "Streetcar Man."

"Passengers were often asked to assist the driver in putting the half-ton car back on the track, or pushing it up a slippery hill."

Riders also could be asked to convince mule to get work. Sam Brinker, a horsecar driver from in the 1890s, recalled in a 1942 Minneapolis Sunday Tribune interview:

"Sometimes we'd use mules, and sometimes the mules would balk. But no one got upset, even though the mules were stubborn as long as an hour. Everyone would contribute ideas on how to get them started again. Pulling the tails slowly but steadily was the most popular suggestion."

Still, the riders had it easy compared with the drivers.

During the first 20 years of service, the typical driver, "unprotected alike from snow and rain, possessed a weather-beaten face, almost as rough and brown as the buffalo coat he wore," E.W. Tuckey writes in "An Historical Account of the Street Railways of Minneapolis and St. Paul" in the Minneapolis Historical Society's collection.

Drivers worked from six a.m. until 11 p.m. and were paid about $45 a month. Says Tuckey:

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