Transportation Deployment Casebook/2014/Twin Cities Streetcar History

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

From the turn of the century until the 1950’s, streetcars played an integral role in the transportation and creation of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Derived from horsecars and cable cars, the streetcar provided an efficient and reliable mode of transportation for both urban and suburban travel. The streetcar lines, at the peak of operations, provided service from the downtown centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul as far west as Lake Minnetonka, and east to White Bear Lake and Stillwater. Not only did the streetcar shape the mass transit systems in the Twin Cities, but also the metropolitan and suburban development of the region leaving lasting effects into the present.

Before the Streetcar[edit | edit source]

Prior to the usage of streetcars, horses were the primary mode of transportation in the Twin Cities. The first horse drawn streetcars were introduced in St Paul in 1872 on 4th Street, in 1875in Minneapolis Dinkytown to Downtown. These horse drawn streetcars, used carriage like omnibuses or streetcars on rail lines, often sharing the same road as other pedestrians and vehicles. While the system was simplistic in nature, the scheduled routes and stops laid the foundation for the future streetcars. By 1889, there were 67 miles of horsecar line in Minneapolis and 53 miles in St. Paul. However, horse power posed severe disadvantages. The most notable of these disadvantages was the pollution caused by horses. With up to seven horses needed for each street car, to serve as rotating teams, manure became a large scale problem in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. This was not only unsightly, and a problem for other pedestrians, the manure pollution also led to disease among those near the horse line tracks. In addition, horses often had problems traversing the steep hills in St. Paul. Because of the disadvantages of horses the Twin Cities, like the rest of the United States, explored various methods of powering streetcars. [1]

The first of the plausible solutions was steam power. The first application of steam power was attempted in Minneapolis from Lake Harriet, to Minnehaha Park, to Excelsior, in 1879, and from the east to north side of St. Paul in 1890. Although it was a reliable form of transit for river traffic, there were distinct disadvantages when applied to streetcars. The noise and smoke frightened horses, and the engines gave off large amounts of soot and hot embers. By 1892, both of these steam power streetcar lines were discarded. [1]

The next major breakthrough in the Twin Cities transportation industry was the usage of underground cables. Mimicking the cable cars developed in San Francisco, underground cable tracks were constructed in St. Paul. These street cable cars used griping devices inside the rail tracks, connected to a pulley system, to pull the streetcars up the hills. While this was advantageous on the steep hills that had been previously unsuitable for horses, the cable and pulley systems had high maintenance costs, and were prone to freezing and ice build-up during the Minnesota winters. [2]

Development of Streetcar Technologies[edit | edit source]

As seen throughout the rest of the country, the final solution for streetcar power was electricity. While many had attempted the electrification of street and cable cars, Minneapolis even had an electrified line on Marquette Avenue from 1885 until 1886, it was not until 1887 that the technology was fully feasible. It was in 1887 that Frank Sprague provided the mechanical breakthrough needed. By using two axels, and two corresponding motors, the gears on the streetcar remained secured even if the wheels jostled up and down on rough tracks or debris left on the tracks. In addition, Sprague employed direct gearing rather than belts or chains. This lessened the intensity and need for repairs that had plagued previous models. Lastly, by using positive currents in overhead, wires, the streetcars did not need to be grounded because the under-wire wheels used to press against the wire rarely became dislodged. [2] It was through these significant improvements that the first viable electric streetcar was constructed in Minnesota by the Stillwater Street Railway Company in 1889. The success of this line, and others across the nation, provided the catalyst for successful electrification in the Twin Cities.[1]

Streetcars in the Twin Cities[edit | edit source]

Implementation[edit | edit source]

After the technological advancements made by Sprague, and the successful demonstration of electrified rails by the Stillwater Street Railway Company, the Twin Cities began a large scale remodel of the streetcar systems in the metropolitan area. By 1891, all but two streetcar lines in the Twin Cities ran on electrified rails. [1] This relatively fast deployment, from the first Minneapolis usage of electrified rails in 1885 to full scale deployment by 1891 was made possible by the examples of railroad and horsecar companies. The early streetcar companies formed in the Twin Cities based much of their company structure and hierarchical system on the already expansive and successful railroad companies. In addition, many of the proven and highly occupied horsecar or omnibus routes seen in the 19th century were repeated by the streetcar lines. It was at this time the rail gauge of 4' 8.5" was chosen as the standard rail gauge for streetcars. This was based on both the railway, and the streetcar systems that had already been established in the United States.

The most decisive, and unique, factor in the success of the Twin Cities streetcars was the singular, long term, ownership of the system. Unlike many transit systems in the United States, the Twin Cities streetcar was owned and operated by the same family for four decades. Thomas Lowry, an officer of the Minneapolis Street Railroad, unified the Twin Cities streetcars and laid the foundation for the closely connected, intercity system. This was done by purchasing both the Minneapolis Street Railway in 1877 and the St. Paul Company in 1884. By 1890 the two cities were connected by the University Avenue line, and in 1891 the two companies were merged to form the Twin City Rapid Transit (TCRT). The Twin City Rapid Transit was owned and operated by the Lowry family until 1931. [1] A major innovation, and policy that led to the success of many transit lines in the Twin Cities, particularly those serving suburban areas, was the use of designated private right of way for the streetcar tracks. Not only did this provide for adequate construction ability of the tracks and overhead wires, it alleviated many of the congestion issues that were faced by streetcars elsewhere. The private right of way dedication also gave the Twin Cities Rapid Transit the ability to change route operations within the dedicated right of way.

To further the implementation of the streetcar, and to help lower maintenance costs, the Twin Cities Rapid Transit commission owned and operated streetcar snowplows to clear the rail lines during the winter months. In 1893, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul owned a total of 39 snow removal vehicles. In comparison, the Twin Cities Rapid Transit owned 1 double-truck plow, 19 regular truck snow plows, and 1 snow sweeper by 1904 to clear the transit rail lines. These plows were run directly on the rail lines, in front of the streetcars, to clear the path “in real time” during heavy snow events. By 1906, the company had built 10 more large steel-framed snow plows, six of which were combined plow and sweepers. The sweeper brooms were used to clear large drifts of snow, and the plows to bank the snow off and to the sides of the track. This development not only allowed the TCRT to control its own snow plowing needs, rather than wait for the city to plow the rails, it also was a part of the TCRT contract of maintaining the rails and surrounding areas. [3]

Growth of the Streetcar Network[edit | edit source]

By the 1920’s, the streetcar had been established as the dominant transportation method in the Twin Cities. At the peak of ridership in 1920, there were over 238 million annual riders and 524 miles of track from Stillwater to Bayport, and to Deephaven and Minnetonka at the peak. The success and growth of the streetcar lines is due to multiple factors. First and foremost, the Twin Cities was under a significant period of growth, not only in population but also in the surrounding metropolitan region. As an expanding metropolis, the Twin Cities gave the prime opportunity for a streetcar line to flourish and a high population to use the system. This growth was further fueled by the construction of “Streetcar Suburbs”. [1] These so-called streetcar suburbs were neighborhoods constructed along or at the end of the spoke wheel streetcar routes, and often funded by those who owned the streetcar line. With a population that already was inclining to move towards the city and near suburbs, the streetcar suburb provided a magnetic location for many. The next major factor was the ability of streetcar companies to cater to more than workers and business men making daily commutes. Shopping districts were highlighted, and built to attract women on daily shopping trips. Not only did this capture a market during the times of day that commuter ridership was low, it also attracted members of households in which a vehicle was used for a work commute. Lastly, the ridership was further enhanced by the ability to reach amusement sites, which increased the weekend ridership on the streetcars. The streetcars soon reached amusement parks at line terminals, aimed at extending the streetcar usage to weekend riders in addition to the work weak rider. These included the Big Island Amusement Park and Lake Park Hotel on Lake Minnetonka, and the Wildwood Amusement Park on White Bear Lake. The early baseball stadiums, Minnesota State Fair Grounds, and Snelling shopping centers were also accessible by streetcar. [1]

Decline of the Streetcar[edit | edit source]

The decline of the streetcar in the Twin Cities began in the mid 1920’s. The decreasing ridership of the streetcars in this ear can be attributed to multiple factors. The largest of these aspects was the automobile. The Twin Cities, much like the rest of the nation, saw a drastically increasing number of households that owned an automobile in the 1920s. This increase can be attributed to the mass production of automobiles, particularly Ford vehicles, which made them affordable and popular. [1] Not only did the automobiles directly affect ridership, the increasing prevalence of vehicles on the road made the operations of the streetcars more difficult to safely maintain. In addition, The Great Depression fell heavily on the streetcar system. While it provided a slight increase in the overall ridership during this era, due to the economic downturns for many families, it also held economic hardships for the Twin Cities and surrounding metros. Ultimately, this led to the closure of 16% of the Twin Cities streetcar lines. The majority of these closures were made to the suburban lines, small city streetcar systems, and the least utilized lines such as those in the wealthy Kenwood district in Minneapolis. The depression also forced the closure of many streetcar amusement parks, furthering the closure of suburban line. [1] This closure of spoke lines not only decreased the ridership, but indirectly aided in the “car-culture” forming in the Twin Cities suburbs due to the reliance on private vehicles in the areas the streetcars had been closed.

The trend of ridership decline continued into the 1940’s. There was a secondary spike in ridership, however, reaching nearly 200 million riders during the mid 1940’s. This ridership increase coincides with the United States involvement in World War II. During this era, there was rationing of gasoline and rubber, as well as a push for citizens to carpool or use alternative means of transit such as the streetcars rather than personal automobiles. [1] By 1946, however, ridership once again began a steep and steady decline. Spurred on by the financial prosperity in the country during the postwar era, more automobiles were purchased and movement continued to trend towards the suburbs, further declining streetcar utilization. During this downward trend, the Twin City Rapid Transit President D.J. Strouse tried to regain the slipping ridership by purchasing new, modernized streetcars. [4] However, this revamp came too late, as many were already turning away from streetcar usage. By the end of the 1940’s the TCRT was plagued by multiple problems. The largest of these was the declining ridership. In addition, the streetcar fleet was becoming outdated and disliked by many users. Lastly, the framework of streetcar policies could no longer support the industry. These policies included the flat rate fares which had not been raised with inflation, congestion on the roadways which interfered with the in-place routes, and the inability to sufficiently change streetcar routes with the metropolitan growth patterns.

The final break in the streetcar empire came in 1949. [5]. This deficit and ineffectual leadership created an opportunity for Wall Street financier, Charles Green, a stockholder in the Twin Cities lines. With legal help from dubious Twin Cities lawyer Fred Ossanna, Green used dividend demands and a proxy fight to take control of the TCRT. Green quickly used his control of the TCRT to replace streetcar lines with bus routes. In 1951, the Twin Cities Rapid Transit once again changed hands when Fred Ossanna forcefully replaced Green. This led to a 25-month conversion of streetcars and busses to 838 new General Motors buses. This takeover by Green and Ossanna become a controversy and fueled many conspiracy theories about General Motors, shadow deals, and corruption; it even spurred on the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1998). [4]

While the conspiracies, and Hollywood plots made for entertaining theories, the truth behind the decline was far more basic. It can be seen in the graph of ridership data that the involvement and takeover by Charles Green in 1949, and the controversy surrounding General Motors involvement, were not the deciding factors in the demise of the streetcar in the Twin Cities. As shown by the general trend downwards beginning in the late 1920's, the street car had already lost much of its ridership and customer base, before any involvement by General Motors or Charles Green. The streetcar had reached the peak of maturity, and was being replaced by the next mode of transportation. Citizens preferred the new, sleek, modern buses to the now-old streetcars, and enjoyed the smoother ride the buses provided. Similarly, an increasing number of people had discontinued their usage of mass transit in favor of personal automobiles, and the luxury and independence they provided. Because of this, it can even be argued that without the added boost in ridership during the World War II era the decline of the streetcars would have reached the low level of ridership seen in the 1950’s at a much earlier year. Like the omnibus and horsecars at the turn of the century the streetcar had reached the end of its era and life cycle.

Life Cycle Analysis[edit | edit source]

Methodology[edit | edit source]

The Twin City streetcar history show distinctive birth, growth maturity and decline phases. Because of this, a three parameter logistic function can be used to analyze the S-curve shaped life cycle of this transportation mode. To do this, the equation S(t)= K/(1+exp(-b(t-t0))) was used to fit the data through a least squares methodology. This was done separately for both the growth phase from 1900 to 1923, and for the decline phase from 1924 to 1954. To determine the decline phase best fit equation, the years 1942-1949 were removed from the data set. This was done to eliminate the statistical anomaly created by the forced usage during World War II.

The ridership data given is from the Twin Cities Rapid Transit, as tabulated by John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs. [5]

S(t) Annual Ridership in Thousands
t Year
t0 Inflection Year
K Saturation of Streetcar Ridership
Regression Results - Growth Phase (1900-1923)
K = 287,000
b = 0.1259
t0 = 1910
Adjusted R Square = 0.972
Regression Results - Decline Phase (1924-1954)
K = 230,000
b = -0.1155
t0 = 1936
Adjusted R Square = 0.723
This graph depicts historical streetcar ridership data compared to the projected ridership found using life cycle analysis.

Results[edit | edit source]

Between the regression results and the graph of the ridership, the phases of the streetcar life cycle can be distinctly seen. The initial birth occurs at the turn of the century, in the 1890’s when the streetcars were first deployed in the Twin Cities. It is from 1900 to 1923 that the growth phase occurs, this is defined by the increasing ridership on the streetcar system. This phase includes the 1920 ridership peak of 238,400,000 million annual riders. The next phase in the mature phase, in which the system is built out but the usage still remains. This is seen from 1920 to 1925. And lastly, the decline phase which is signified by the loss of ridership on the streetcars, last from 1925 to 1954 when the streetcar system is essentially eliminated in the Twin Cities. When this data was fit with the S-curves for growth and decline, distinctive patterns can be seen. The regression runs very closely with the growth of the system, indicated by the R-value of 0.972. In addition, the inflection year, or the year at which the increase in ridership began slowing, is seen in 1910. Similarly, in the decline, the point at which the decrease in ridership quickens is seen in the year 1936. This coincides with both the Great Depression, and later the increase in automobile usage in the Twin Cities. This curve does not fit as closely, however, showing an R-value of 0.723 without the World War II ridership values. This is due to the left-over increases in ridership during the war and due to the disrupted life cycle decline by both the Depression and the World War. Ultimately, the graph of the Twin Cities Streetcar ridership follows the standard S-curves expected in a full transportation life cycle.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c d e f g h i j "A Brief History of Twin Cities Transit." Minnesota Streetcar Museum. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.
  2. a b Post, Robert C. Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007. Print.
  3. "TCRT Was Prepared for Winter Snow." Minnesota Streetcar Museum: Streetcar Currents. Jan.-Feb. 2008. Web. 06 Nov. 2014. <>.
  4. a b "The Demise of the Twin Cities' Streetcar System | Bridgeland News." Minneapolis Bridgeland News. Web. 04 Nov. 2014. <>.
  5. a b Diers, John W., and Aaron Isaacs. Twin Cities by Trolley. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.