There was a time when overhead trolley wires crisscrossed the Twin Cities, and for a nickel you could hop on a streetcar in downtown St. Paul and ride all the way to Hopkins. Two million people a year rode the streetcars during their heyday in the 1920s before automobiles gradually replaced them.
I brought my two sons to ride a remnant of the old trolley system last weekend, a mile-long section of track that runs between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. It is maintained by the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, an all-volunteer group that offers rides on three restored streetcars daily throughout the summer.
We bought tokens ($2 apiece) in the Linden Hills station, a small wood structure rebuilt to look like the original station that stood there in 1900. The man who took our money wore an old motorman pillbox cap. Several dozen people, mostly families with children, were milling around the platform.
We climbed the steps into Car 1300, a wood trolley car restored to the original bright yellow and olive green that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. We dropped our tokens into the fare box, and my two sons slipped into the remaining empty seats as we pulled out with a surprisingly smooth glide and metal screech.
It took about 30 seconds for my kindergartener to discover the buzzer, and he pushed it repeatedly throughout our ride, an act that likely would have gotten him kicked off a century ago. I marveled at an era when something as utilitarian as alerting the driver to your stop was a thing of beauty: The buttons were mother-of-pearl, set into the wood window frame by each seat.
Above our heads were advertisements for things long gone — Ben-Gay, Radio Free Europe and the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis, which once offered rooms starting at $3.50 a night.
"We like to think that when you step on a streetcar, you're stepping back in time," said volunteer Rod Eaton. "They're as authentic as we can make them."
The cars may look like antiques, but the technology has changed remarkably little. The old electric cars are precursors of today's light-rail line. As Eaton pointed out, you could run a hundred-year-old car on the Hiawatha line if it weren't for the difference in voltage.
Frank Sprague, an associate of Thomas Edison, developed the first electric streetcar in 1887. After a successful trial in Virginia, the technology caught on with investors. Streetcar companies became the "dot-coms of the Gilded Age," according to "Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul," written by two retired Metro Transit employees, Aaron Isaacs and Jon Diers, and published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.
The first electric
The electric trolleys became an instant hit. They were much faster than horse-drawn railcars and clean and quiet compared with coal-powered steam trains.
Under Lowry's leadership, the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. became one of the Twin Cities' largest employers and eventually ran 41 lines over more than 500 miles of track. The company built nearly all its own cars at a facility on Snelling and University avenues. A plant on St. Anthony Falls powered the system.
It's hard to imagine how central streetcars were to everyday life. Housing developments sprang up along streetcar routes. People rode them to work, on errands and to the movies. On weekends, they rode them to church and to the amusement parks owned by the trolley company in Lake Minnetonka and White Bear Lake.
Most lines ran every 10 minutes, more frequently on busy routes.
"Nobody ever bothered to look at a schedule because waiting for the streetcar was like waiting for an elevator," according to Diers and Isaacs.
The section of track we rolled slowly along last weekend was part of the Como-Harriet line built in 1898. We passed by Lakewood Cemetery and stopped at the southeast edge of Lake Calhoun, where volunteer motorman John Kennedy started backing us up to the Linden Hills Station.
"This used to be the main line right through the Twin Cities," he told us. "This car here would go up through downtown Minneapolis on Hennepin Avenue then into St. Paul along Como Avenue and all the way to stop in front of the State Capitol."
We returned to the Linden Hills Station 15 minutes after we set out. As we filed out the trolley's back door, we spotted one of the other restored streetcars as it was pulling back to the car barn. It was a sleek PCC "Streamliner," a high-speed model designed in the 1930s to bring a modern look to the industry. Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. bought 140 of them right after World War II, but they didn't use them for long.
A number of factors contributed to the demise of the streetcar. Public money was pouring into road and highway construction. Meanwhile, the streetcar system received no subsidy and had to maintain an increasingly expensive infrastructure. As Isaacs and Diers write, " ... everyone loved the streetcars, but no one was riding them."
In 1953, Twin Cities Transit Co. ran its last trolley and converted to diesel buses. The wooden streetcars were burned or turned into playhouses and cabins. The PCCs were sold to Mexico City; Cleveland, Ohio, and to Newark, N.J., where they remained in operation until 2002.
Today, if you want to see the old Twin Cities PCCs, you have two options. You can ride the Como-Harriet line. Or you can go to San Francisco, which snapped up a dozen old Twin Cities trolleys to run on regular routes along Market Street. They even have one painted in the yellow and green colors of the Twin Cities.
Some people believe the Twin Cities should never have gotten rid of all its streetcars. After riding in one, I can only agree.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Como-Harriet Streetcar Line
Where: Departs every 15 minutes from Linden Hills Station at Queen Avenue South and West 42nd Street (on the west shore of Lake Harriet) in Minneapolis
Information: 952-922-1096 (answering machine); www.trolleyride.org
Hours: 6:30 p.m. to dusk weeknights; 12:30 p.m. to dusk Saturday and Sunday and holidays through Sept. 5; 9 a.m. to dusk Memorial Day.
Cost: $2 per person; children 3 and under, free; no reservations necessary.
Target audience: All ages
Crowd pleaser: Hearing the trolley horn under the William Berry Bridge
Avoid: Missing your trolley. The streetcars don't run in the rain.
Tip: Make an afternoon of it. Walk a couple blocks from the station for ice cream at Sebastian Joe's or browse children's books at Wild Rumpus bookstore. Pack a picnic to enjoy across the street at Lake Harriet.
Special events: Summer moonlight rides depart 10 p.m. once a month on June 21, July 19, Aug. 16 and Sept. 13 ($5); Autumn rides to the pumpkin patch and ghost rides offered near Halloween; rides with Santa offered in November and December.