The streetcars are running again

Como-Harriet Streecar
Car #1300, which is 100 years old this year, is one of three streetcars that takes passengers between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun on a restored segment of the Como-Harriet line.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The one-mile track connects Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun, and showcases three streetcars that used to be part of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit system. One of the cars is 100 years old this year.

In the early 1900s, you could catch a streetcar at the State Capitol in St. Paul, and ride all the way out to Hopkins on the Como-Harriet line -- you didn't even have to switch cars.

Lake Harriet streetcar
Lake Harriet streetcar, circa 1895.
Photo by Frederick E. Haynes, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Most of those streetcars and track are long gone -- even the mile of track that today shuttles passengers between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun had to be replaced in the early 1970s.

Volunteers like Aaron Isaacs and Rod Eaton have given up evenings and weekends for years now to drive the streetcars.

"We're the guys who were fascinated when we were little kids and didn't get over it," noted Isaacs, who is the kind of resident historian who can spout off hours of facts about the history of streetcars in Minnesota.

Isaacs says people are nostalgic for those days because of the community created by the streetcars.

Downtown Minneapolis
A streetcar passing the 5th St. side of Minneapolis City Hall about 1930. Today, the Hiawatha light rail line runs on this same street.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum

"The technology of today -- the automobile, the Internet -- kind of makes us do things by ourselves, in our self-contained pods," Isaacs said. "And people from every stripe, every level of society, travelled together on these things."

Eaton, the general superintendent of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, which runs the streetcars, loves trains and loves the way kids react to streetcars.

"It's not hard to imagine a mother with a colicky child riding the streetcar in the evening, letting the motion of the car and the nice, cool breezes coming through the windows put her child to sleep. And I'm sure that was a fairly common occurrence," Eaton said.

The interior of a streetcar, with the conductor at his post at the farebox near the rear door.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum

"I've seen children on the streetcar today when we're operating, fall asleep in their mom's arms because of the motion of the cars," he added. "It's a very reassuring thing."

When streetcars went out of business -- the Twin Cities line stopped in 1954 -- many streetcars were stripped or even burned for scrap. Some of the cars' frames were used as storage bins or cabins.

But car number 1300 has survived mostly intact for 100 years. One of the car's practice runs this week was a chartered ride for youngsters at Minnetonka Christian Academy.

In the neighborhood
A Como-Harriet streetcar southbound on Hennepin Ave. at 28th St. in 1954. Streetcars were a common sight in neighborhoods around the area at that time.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum

The kids on board didn't need Internet or video games to get excited.

"I've never been on a trolley before," was a common comment.

That kind of enthusiasm is a phenomenon that streetcar operators can't explain. But they notice that kids drag their parents down here year after year, and does help inform every new generation about the streetcars.

As the streetcar rolled into the small station near the Lake Harriet bandshell and the kids filed off, Isaacs noticed something.

"The woman in the parka there has a child asleep on her shoulder, just like we talked about."

Old number 1300 worked its magic once again.

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