Minnesota Streetcar Museum juggles historic work with modern fun

“Super volunteers” allow small nonprofit to serve large audiences and add 21st century entertainment.

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Russ Isbrandt, motorman for the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line, waved to passengers at the station in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

Photo: Photos by KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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About 100 little tykes in pajamas boarded the trolley at Lake Harriet last week for a “PJ Party” that sold out in six minutes. This weekend, an older crowd is helping solve “A Most Modern Murder” mystery on the historic streetcar. Then some lucky children will go to streetcar camp and learn to operate a 100-year-old trolley.

Each year about 40,000 visitors board the historic trolleys at Lake Harriet and downtown Excelsior to participate in special events or just ride the rails. They’re part of the changing face of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, a mobile museum that takes frugality — and patience — to new heights.

Next year marks the 60th anniversary since streetcars were pulled off Twin Cities streets, trolleys that once carried more than 200 million passengers a year. Most were stripped and burned.

But one trolley was donated intact to the railway fan club, and that evolved into the Streetcar Museum. Juggling the preservation of that rare gem and others since discovered, while attracting 21st century fans, is the museum’s challenge.

“Like all railway museums, we’re doing what we can to bring people in and introduce them to our work,” said Rod Eaton, the museum’s general superintendent. “Our mission is to make streetcars come to life for the next generation.”

The museum occupies an unusual niche among nonprofits. It has no building. It has no paid staff. No offices. No glitzy galas or golf tournaments.

It spends less than $100,000 a year to operate the trolleys, host special events, and painstakingly restore some of the state’s few remaining streetcars, said Eaton.

The museum chugs forward thanks to more than 200 volunteers, including conductors and a group of retirees who think nothing of spending seven years restoring a trolley, bolt by bolt. Those volunteers are gearing up for the final push of summer programming.

“We keep our expenses really low,” said Jim Vaitkunas, a volunteer who is secretary of the board of directors, a streetcar conductor, newsletter editor, and in-house insurance policy coordinator.

“We have no paid staff. Our bookkeeping is done by a volunteer accountant. And we only restore one streetcar at a time. And it takes six to 10 years, so we spread out the financial hurt.”

Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, calls the museum an example of nonprofits sustained by “super volunteers.”

“A group like this shows the amazing power of volunteers, whose work is equal to money,” said Pratt.

Old trolleys, new traditions

That lone streetcar donated 60 years ago now operates on a one-mile track along Lake Harriet. It is joined by restored streetcars from Duluth, Winona and another from Minneapolis. In Excelsior, a Minneapolis and a Duluth streetcar take passengers.

The trolleys are creating memories for modern families.

“When I was 5, we’d come here from South Dakota to visit my great-aunt,” said Mike Fuller, of Golden Valley, taking a photo of his young daughters on the trolley last week. “Now we come here for my daughters’ birthdays. It’s carrying on the tradition.”

Sonia and Jim Casey, also of Golden Valley, were boarding the trolley with their two young sons.

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  • Students and graduates of Southwest High School rehearsed for a “A Most Modern Murder” mystery on the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

  • Russ Isbrandt, motorman for the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line, drove the car backward in Minneapolis.

  • A fare box on the Como-Harriet streetcar holds tokens collected from passengers.

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