With all the talk about bringing back the streetcars, we thought we’d visit a fellow who has the pleasure of driving one. Bill’s a motorman for the Harriet line — the beautiful old car that runs from west side of the lake through a leafy glade to the outskirts of Calhoun. If you’re agnostic on the pleasures of trains, one breezy trip on a sweltering summer evening might move your opinion.
If you’re already a streetcar enthusiast, you’re lurid with envy, because he not only gets to wear the hat, he’s been driving a car since 2002.
So, did you take streetcars as a kid?
“I’m a native Minneapolitan, but I grew up in southwest Minnesota,” Arends says. “After the army, I moved to Minneapolis to get a job.” As a motorman?
He laughs. “I worked in a bank.”
Well, in both cases you’re taking people’s money and sitting down, but at least as a motorman you get to travel. How did you end up doing this for fun?
“I was out for a walk one Sunday morning with my wife and saw they were looking for operators. I’ve always been interested in history.”
Plus, there’s bragging rights. “I went to a one-room schoolhouse, didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity for years, drove mules … In Murray County there are many of us like that, but if you ask who’s also driven a 100-year-old streetcar, mine’s the only hand that goes up.”
Don’t worry if the hand goes up while he’s operating the vehicle. He’s driving with his feet.
“These cars run the same as they ran in service through ’54. It’s an actual operating streetcar. You can control the speed — it’s like a car with an automatic transmission. You don’t have to use your hands.”
The car is lined with old ads that speak to anyone who loves Minneapolis history.
Does he have a favorite? He walks over to a spiffy wide ad for the Curtis Hotel.
“When I moved to Minneapolis in 1968, coming from southwest, as you came into the city, this was the first hotel you saw. My wife and I checked in and that’s where we stayed our first night in town.”
On a hot night, there’s simple relief in sitting next to the open window of a streetcar, letting the breeze roll in, sailing through the shade. “Back in the days when the streetcars ran, most houses didn’t have air conditioning, and people would take the streetcar to go to the lakes and swim in their wool bathing suits.”
Those days are gone, but the people aren’t: “We get a lot of passengers who reminisce about the streetcar days.” There are also kids with wide faces: “Little kids love trains.”
Do you want them back? “I’d love to see them come back. It gives the city a special identity and it would provide good service.” And you’d be the first to sign up to drive, right?
“I’m a retired person. When I hear people say they want to put people back to work, I hope they won’t put me back to work. But yes, it would be good to have them back. Everyone loves trains. They have rails. Everyone knows where it’s going. You get on a bus?” He grins. “Who knows.”
In the meantime, do you play a character — act like a motorman from a bygone era?