The St. Paul Parks Department recently finished the restoration of an historic pedestrian bridge that was used by streetcar passengers to cross the tracks in Como Park.
Streetcars connected downtown St. Paul with Como Park in 1891, and turned around at a rambling wood depot. In 1898 the “Como Interurban” was extended to downtown Minneapolis via its namesake street, the second streetcar connection between the two cities.
All streetcars had to negotiate a rather indirect loop to serve the Como Park station. That led to a reroute in 1904. On a new alignment relocated about a block to the north, streetcars now passed under Lexington Avenue and followed a new private right of way through the park, re-entering Como Avenue at Hamline Avenue. The line was paired with the Lake Harriet line in Minneapolis and became the Como-Harriet, eventually extending from downtown St. Paul through downtown Minneapolis to Edina.
Streetcar service on the St. Paul portion of the line ended in 1953. The Minneapolis end of the line was the last to be converted to buses in 1954.
As part of the 1904 line relocation, the St. Paul Parks Department replaced the wood Como Park depot with a two-story fieldstone building that also housed offices and other park facilities. Because of the large crowds, Twin City Rapid Transit Company erected a tall wrought iron fence between the tracks and a concrete arch bridge was built to carry pedestrian over the tracks.
When the streetcars were abandoned, the tracks and overhead wires were removed, but the depot and bridge remained in place. The depot was eventually restored and now houses park offices and a large activity room. The floor of the activity room is a map of a portion of the St. Paul streetcar system.
The bridge was deteriorating badly. The railings and ballisters were mostly gone. On the underside the concrete had eroded, exposing the inner steel structure. For years it was an eyesore, barricaded off.
To the rescue came a Transportation Enhancement grant. The TE program was established in a more enlightened era before No New Taxes became a religion. It set aside federal highway funds for a series of non-road purposes, including bike trails and the restoration of historic transportation infrastructure. The majority of the nation’s bike trails were funded by it, along with such projects as the reopening of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. It paid to restore the Como Park depot and St. Paul secured a grant to rebuild the ped bridge.
That work, originally scheduled for 2013, was completed just this month. New ballisters and railings were fabricated and installed and the concrete looks like new.
Most of the streetcar right of way through Como Park has now been made into a bike trail.
This includes the rebuilding of the streetcar bridge over Beulah Lane, a now-gone street just south of the zoo and alongside the s-curving section of Horton Avenue. The new bridge, labeled “Como-Harriet Streetcar Line”, sits on the original stone piers.
A couple of years ago Congress reduced Transportation Enhancement funding by over a third, renaming it Transportation Alternatives. The Metropolitan Council and Transportation Advisory Board, which administers TE funds locally, revised their rating system to largely restrict TE grants to bike and ped facilities. Historic transportation infrastructure technically still can compete for the money, but the rating system makes success unlikely.