MPLS History – The Street Car System – Part 1

As I mentioned, part of the success of Wonderland in South Minneapolis was due to its proximity to established street car routes. As most Twin Cities residents know, the metro area was once home to a complex and busy network of streetcar lines. Now that gas prices are driving a renewed interest in mass transit, those memories of a once great established system are being rekindled. I dug into some of the history of the streetcar system because I wanted to learn about how it was conceived and built, but also because I wanted to figure out where in my own neighborhood the street cars operated. I found that plenty of information exists, but there is also a dose of mystery and intrigue surrounding the street car system. It will take a couple of posts to fully examine the details, so here goes.

The first mystery surrounds the very inception of the rail system. No hard facts seem to be known regarding the initial planning and building projects that became the seeds from which the larger network grew. Some credit the very first mayor of Minneapolis, Dorilus Morrison, with building the first rail lines downtown. The story goes that Morrison, along with a group of like-minded businessmen involved in the milling industry, laid the first rails around 1867 and founded the Minneapolis Street Railway Company (MSRC). However, the system was small and saw little use at the time. Then, in 1875, the company recruited a real estate lawyer by the name of Thomas Lowry to join the group. Lowry was relatively new to the area, but was quickly becoming a powerful man in the market (many Minneapolis landmarks bear his name). By 1875, Lowry had managed to lead the way in establishing a rail line from downtown Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota. Two years later, he had gained a controlling interest in the company and was busy arranging loans to expand the system even further, specifically to areas that were not yet fully developed (but that Lowry himself had real estate interest in already).

As the MSRC was getting up and running, smaller transit ventures were also trying to gain footholds. Horse buggies were popping up, but with the rutted dirt roads, customers found the smooth rail rides to be much more comfortable and desirable. Cable cars were also being built, but the continuously moving cable system was difficult to install and struggled mightily in the Minnesota winters. Lowry pushed to electrify his MSRC lines and do away with moving cable. By the late 1880’s, electric street cars were running in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, the St. Paul City Railway Company was building their own rail system and had electric street cars of their own. As both systems grew, a merger became mutually beneficial and in 1890 the systems merged by way of a line running down University Avenue between the two downtown areas. The companies themselves also merged and became Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT).

With resources pooled, the new company quickly went to work building electrified lines all over the metro area and buying up smaller competitors. Soon they were even able to begin building their own rail cars instead of buying them. This allowed them to build cars that better withstood the harsh winters, something their old suppliers didn’t have experience with.  Thomas Lowry had a special VIP car built that featured larger windows for better sightseeing. This car carried President William McKinley through the area when he visited in 1900.

The TCRT grew into a huge company. Here are some stats from it’s peak in 1922:

– 530 miles of track were laid.

– The track material was the most expensive of its kind, costing $60,000 per mile.

– Meaning the estimated cost of laying all track was $31.8 million (in 1922 dollars).

– 1021 street cars were in use.

– They carried an estimated 140 million passengers.

– The line spanned about 50 miles from Stillwater on the east to Minnetonka on the west.

– The company built its own amusement park at the end of one line in Mahtomedi called Wildwood Amusement Park. It was staffed by company employees in the summers and was intended to increase traffic on the system.

– It was claimed that everyone in Minneapolis lived within 400 yards of the nearest station.

– For a time, TCRT was the largest employer in the metro area.

I’m struck by how well connected the neighborhoods of South Minneapolis were. Some regular side streets had streetcars going up and down them all day. Here are a few historical pictures from the Minnesota History Society that show the street cars and tracks that once existed within 400 yards of my house.

Of course, the once mighty rail system is long gone and it’s the decline and eventual dismantling of the system that holds the most intrigue. I’ll tackle this topic in the next installment of the series.


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