After donning their black “motorman” hats, the four women running the Como-Harriet Streetcar on Sunday evening lined up for a photo at the depot near Lake Harriet.
As a light drizzle fell, the operators took a moment to mark the occasion — what was likely the first time in more than seven decades that the 23-ton streetcar was in the hands of an all-female crew.
“Every ride is a celebration of the history of Minneapolis,” said Leah Harp, one of the volunteers who operates the streetcar that now runs a 2-mile round trip from Lake Harriet to Bde Maka Ska, formerly Lake Calhoun. “But this is an especially rich one for honoring that history.”
Of the 85 or so volunteer streetcar operators, just a handful are women. Finding a time when four of them could come together to form a full crew was a small way to pay homage to the “motorettes” who ran the streetcars during World War II.
“It’s our own Rosie the Riveter story,” said Linda Ridlehuber, another operator of the streetcar, which dates to the early 1900s.
Twin Cities Lines began hiring women in 1943. At the time, the company employed about 900 men under age 38 and estimated that about half of them would be called for military service. So advertisements went out to the women of the Twin Cities.
If they could prove they had adequate care for their children while they were at work, the women were paid the same as the men to clang bells, blow whistles, punch transfers and dispense tokens. More than 460 joined the ranks. At the end of the war, many of the motorettes were laid off as seniority determined who could stay. Several of them went on to become bus drivers.
“At the time it was a patriotic duty,” Harp said. “And then suddenly these women were entering the world of ‘men’s work.’ That worked to change expectations.”
As a grandmother to two young boys who love trains and trolleys, Kathleen Graber was a frequent passenger on the Como-Harriet Streetcar even before she became a volunteer operator this year. After multiple rides, she noticed she hadn’t seen any female operators and wondered how she could get involved.
“Now I say, ‘Mothers, raise your daughters to be streetcar operators,’ ” she said with a laugh. “It’s a really fun thing to do.”
Several of Graber’s friends and family came out in the drizzle on Sunday to watch her in action and celebrate her role in the historic day. Jumping off the streetcar after the 20-minute ride, her 4-year-old grandson waved and said, “Thank you, Nana!”
Capturing the interest of boys often doesn’t take much more than a quick ride, Harp said. But she and the other operators hope to see more young adults and more women join the ranks.
Most volunteers are in their 60s, Ridlehuber said, although she’s met a couple of them in their 20s who remember loving rides in the streetcar as children.
Laura Kuzzy brought her 3-year-old daughter, Ada Lageson, to the streetcar to give her the experience she remembered from her own childhood. To prepare for the ride, Ada read books about trolley rides. Ada was shy as she waited for her turn to board, but her eyes went wide as the car pulled to a stop.
“It’s a big deal to be here today, and it’s impressive to think about the work these ladies put in,” Kuzzy said. And looking down at Ada, she added: “Who knows, maybe she’ll get to be a motorette someday.”
Ridlehuber said she’d like to plan another event to celebrate the history of the women operators, perhaps as a way to honor the end of WWII. Before a 1993 reunion of the Twin Cities motorettes, one woman told the Minnegazette about celebrating the end of the war from the helm of the streetcar.
When word got out that the war was over, passengers began laughing, crying, hugging and praying. The streets soon filled with people, and it took several hours to get the streetcar through the crowds and back to Snelling Station. In the interview, Mary Ann Jones Turner said she was always grateful to the streetcar company for that night “because I had the best seat in the house.”
Harp often feels the same way, even when she’s just taking a handful of passengers for a quick ride to experience a bit of the city’s history.
“I love moving a lever compared to tapping a touch screen,” she said. “It’s a really unique experience. … It’s a living museum.”