Monday, June 14, 2004

Early streetcars: Memorable and uncomfortable
By John McIntyre,
Star Tribune

Last update: June 14, 2004 – 11:00 PM

On cold, muddy Washington Avenue, in the late 1870s, a Minneapolis commuter stands with a nickel in his hand. Off toward the east he can the tinkling of a bell - the sound of a horse-drawn streetcar.

The car pulls up. The weary driver nods sourly.

The commuter, if he's been in one of these contraptions before, hesitates before he climbs aboard.

The ride home is going to be no fun.

Twin Cities' streetcar service came a long way from its early horsecar days until it ended in the early 1950s, with then state-of-the-art high-speed electric cars.

The original horsecars -- the ancestors of today's light-rail cars -- were about 12 feet long and weighed about 1,000 pounds. They were called "crackerboxes on wheels." Riders could, for their 5-cent fare, get where they were going at a brisk 6 miles per hour, much faster than slogging through
the mud and manure-filled streets.

But that ride could be brutal. Passengers could be called on to put a derailed car back on track or to negotiate with a balky mule.

The ordeal started at the pay box at the front of the car, writes Stephen Kieffer, in "Transit and the Twins."

"Many an early patron of the cars will remember how the driver reminded him, by the ringing of a bell, that he had not placed his fare in the box."

Inside, the amenities were primitive. Passengers sat on hard benches that ran the length of the car. A foul-smelling oil lamp provided a dim light, says a history of the Minneapolis Street Railway Company.

"In winter, heat was supplied by a small sheet-iron stove in the middle of the car. The floor of the car was covered with hay to a depth of about one foot to assist the stove in keeping the passengers' feet warm. It was a common occurrence for passengers to alight from the cars with hay clinging to their feet and garments."

In the 1870s, the streetcar tracks were laid -- some might say floated -- on the muddy streets. Minnesota's rain, snow and ice knocked them out of alignment, says Goodrich Lowry in "Streetcar Man."

"Passengers were often asked to assist the driver in putting the half-ton car back on the track, or pushing it up a slippery hill."

Riders also could be asked to convince mule to get work. Sam Brinker, a horsecar driver from in the 1890s, recalled in a 1942 Minneapolis Sunday Tribune interview:

"Sometimes we'd use mules, and sometimes the mules would balk. But no one got upset, even though the mules were stubborn as long as an hour. Everyone would contribute ideas on how to get them started again. Pulling the tails slowly but steadily was the most popular suggestion."

Still, the riders had it easy compared with the drivers.

During the first 20 years of service, the typical driver, "unprotected alike from snow and rain, possessed a weather-beaten face, almost as rough and brown as the buffalo coat he wore," E.W. Tuckey writes in "An Historical Account of the Street Railways of Minneapolis and St. Paul" in the Minneapolis Historical Society's collection.

Drivers worked from six a.m. until 11 p.m. and were paid about $45 a month. Says Tuckey:

"During the winter season frozen ears, nose and fingers were expected, and it was not an unheard of thing that some poor driver had to be lifted from his platform frozen too stiff to care for himself.''

In the 1890s when electric streetcars replaced the horse cars, conditions worsened for the drivers, Tuckey writes.

"The swift motion of the (electric) car caused a constant current of air across the front of the platform, which in the depths of winter became almost unendurable. The people were not slow to appreciate the inhumanities of the situation and joined with the employees in demanding protection."

The transit companies refused. But in 1893, the Legislature passed a law requiring the cars to be enclosed between November and April.

Riders didn't exactly have a smorgasbord of alternatives to the horsecars, but there were some - including steam-powered trains and cablecars.

The "Steam Motors" of the Minneapolis, Lyndale and Minnetonka Railway served routes from downtown Minneapolis, along Lake Calhoun and out to Excelsior in the 1880s. They were noisy, smoky, slow and unpopular with riders and residents along the routes, Kieffer writes.

"The coal-fired, steam-powered motors that were enclosed to be less objectionable when running through the streets of the city and less likely to frighten horses."

"In case a stop had to be made part way uphill, say in the neighborhood of Franklin Avenue, the 'Motors' were not powerful to start the trains again. They had to be backed down to the foot of the hill and a fresh start made in order to get sufficient momentum to run to the top."

The solution was finally to reduce the grade of the hill.

In St. Paul, the steep and troublesome Selby Avenue hill was conquered first by cable cars and later by electric cars and a tunnel with a more gradual grade.

The cable car line used a cable that was drawn in an endless loop under the street by a stationary steam engine. When it was time to move, the motorman used a lever to grip the cable. When it was time to stop, he released the cable. The cars moved at a stately 8 miles per hour. Similar cars are still running in San Francisco.

Cable cars were an improvement over horsecars, especially on hills. But Minnesota's weather made them unreliable, Goodrich Lowry writes.

"The slot in the center rail, which had to be just the right size, was apt to shrink in cold weather and expand in hot weather. When it shrank, the gripping lever got stuck, and when it expanded, the wheels of passing drays and carriages were trapped."

And the cable itself wasn't 100 percent reliable, Lowry says.

"Although the entire cable seldom parted, a broken strand could entangle the gripping mechanism, converting an orderly ride in to a wild runaway. When this happened, the entire system had to be shut down - usually in the rush hour!"

Electric streetcars glided onto the scene in about 1890. They were faster, quieter and more reliable. And as the years passed they became ever more sophisticated.

The first line was built along 4th Avenue S. in Minneapolis. It captivated the public from the start. People visited the construction every day until service began at 4 p.m. on Dec. 24, 1889, says "A History of the Minneapolis Street Railway Company - 1873-1908."

"Crowds of spectators lined both sides of the route. Others at the terminus at the Post Office waited for their chance to take a ride. The drivers and conductors, with long ulster coats, buttoned all the way with brass buttons, filled out their breasts, looked straight ahead and felt even more dignified than the passengers aboard who looked out upon their friends standing on the pavement. Ding, Ding, Ding, round the corner and straight out 4th Avenue. The cars swept majestically while the hundreds of onlookers pronounced them 'just the thing.'''

Even so, electricity remained a mysterious and dangerous force, the history says.

"Many watched with alarm the operation of the Electric Cars as they observed fire flying from the wheels and from the trolley wires as the cars ran along. Predictions were freely made that the first heavy snowstorm would settle the Electric Railway and put it out of business. Drivers were afraid their horses would be killed if horses stepped on the street Car Tracks, and a great many persons were afraid of the effect of the first lightning storm on the cars with their loads of passengers."

For the next 50 years Twin City Rapid Transit streetcars carried thousands of people every day. And they did it with remarkable safety, especially as the number of streetcars and their speed increased, says Kieffer.

"This was all the more remarkable when one considers the unfavorable weather conditions under which this transit company operated through most of the year," he writes.

He recalls a near disaster in 1890 when a loaded streetcar nearly fell off the Washington Avenue bridge and into the Mississippi River.

"The car left the track -- and when it stopped, the wheels were within six inches of the bridge. The rear platform was out beyond the edge. Panicky passengers had raced for the exit (there was only one) and without a doubt, some would have been hurled into the river if the conductor had not barred their way."

But James Linsley, a streetcar operator in the 1930s, had a different take on safety. His regular letters to his family, preserved in a 1995 article in Hennepin History, "Streetcarring in the 1930s: A Personal Account," describes the hard life of a driver and numerous accidents, though few injuries.

"Saturday was a tough day for Lake Street Station. We had three streetcars smashed by skidding into stuff. Benetti was driving one of them and smashed into an interurban bus at Washington Square and it in turn hit another streetcar. He got his hand cut by broken glass. All three cars had their whole front end caved in.''

By 1907, streetcar riding had become a daily routine, judging by the observation one young woman. Thora Thoresen, an 18-year-old Minneapolis seamstress, writes in her 1907 diary, preserved by the Hennepin County Historical Society, about going to work every day, running errands and even going to the YWCA for exercise classes.

Riding the streetcar was just a part of her day: Nothing remarkable, but worth noting all the same.

Jan. 17, 1907: (After dinner at a friend's house.) "Litta followed me to the car. I reached home safely, or I would not be writing this.''

"Jan. 23, 1907: This evening, Litta came up to the shop to call for me and Rug and Litta and I went to her YWCA reception. I also joyned (sic) it and so did Litta. So now we are members. Took the Central Car home because Litta did not feel well and didn't like to transfer."

"Jan. 28, 1907: Then we ran over to the car and got on the first car. When we were well seated, he told us it was a short line, so we got off at the next corner, which was Chicago Avenue and 25th Street. We took the next car and transferred on Selby and Lake and got off at the tailor's and fitted my coat."

Another rider, Elizabeth Boyer, told the Linden Hills Oral History Project in the Minneapolis Public Library collection, that when she was a child in the 1920s her parents let her ride the streetcar to a doctor's appointment in St. Paul.

"They gave me a nickel and a penny to get on the streetcar to go downtown. I had a map of what you do downtown... I was six or seven. It was very safe in those days. We were to talk to a policeman if I forgot what I was supposed to be doing."

By the early 1950s, the streetcars were gone - replaced by buses. Various writers expressed their feelings - and opinions about the streetcar system -- in letters to the Minneapolis Tribune.

The owners of the Twin City Rapid Transit Co., seemed elated, which was understandable considering they'd engineered the conversion to buses.

"In less than 25 months we have transformed a confused, sprawling system of 392 miles of rail and overhead cable, 724 streetcars and 354 older type buses into an engineered, modern network served by the world's largest fleet of new 51-passenger air ride Diesel buses. Today the noise of the streetcar is a memory!"

But others found more in the streetcar experience than just iron, steel and copper.

A Minneapolis Tribune editorial writer, on the 25th anniversary of the ending of streetcar service, described the ride south of Lake Street on the Como-Harriet and Oak-Harriet lines.

"We don't know that it was the world's loveliest streetcar ride, but on a June day it surely was a close contender for that honor. It began at the right-of-way at Thirty-first Street. The tracks curved between pleasant backyard gardens, came into full view of lake Calhoun and the 36th St. viaduct, skirted the green lawns and gentle slopes of Lakewood Cemetery with its miniature lake, passed along gracefully wooded areas of William Berry park, and shout into sight of lovely Lake Harriet near the bandstand. Well, that trolley ride is gone forever."

And an anonymous writer remembered the good times.

"Although the streetcars are leaving us forever, we shall not forget them...most of the big, yellow cars were things of beauty, speed, power and adventure ...The glamour and wonder of our streetcars will be remembered long after the discomforts are forgotten."


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