The Story of Saint Paul’s Selby Avenue Tunnel

As Saint Paul’s population grew in the late 19th Century, people began moving out of the city’s core and into residential areas adjacent to downtown. The Selby Avenue streetcar line was built in 1888 to provide people with transportation from their homes on top of the hill to the offices, factories, and shops downtown, and to the transportation hub – Union Depot. With the newly christened Selby-Lake line up and running, the streetcars made runs between Minneapolis and St. Paul at all times of the day. The Selby-Lake line was the most popular route in the entire streetcar system.

Map detail showing the streetcar route.

Most of the line traversed a flat Twin Cites landscape. Near the Cathedral of Saint Paul the electric engines of the streetcars struggled to climb the steep 14 percent grade. The system used counterweighted cable cars but a more permanent solution had to be found as service up and down the hill was slow and dangerous. The cable cars could not travel more than 10 miles per hour.
In 1906 the Twin Cities Rapid Transit (TCRT) cut a tunnel under Selby Avenue lowering the grade to 7 percent, which was manageable for the electric streetcars to handle without counterweights. After a year of digging, the two-track tunnel opened in 1907. Streetcars bound for downtown St. Paul travelled below this section of Selby Avenue near Nina Street and descended quickly through the 1,472 -foot long passage to emerge at the base of the hill.

Businesses quickly sprung up along the Selby line that catered to people’s basic needs. Grocers, butchers, confectioneries, cobblers, movie houses, pharmacies, tailors, and dressmakers all lined the corridor. The corner of Selby and Dale was the hub; at one time there were twenty-six businesses on a single block. By the peak of streetcar commerce in 1930, nearly one hundred businesses aligned on Selby Avenue between Western and Lexington Parkway. By the end of World War II, the streetcar system ridership began to decline.

The last streetcar passed through the tunnel in 1954, three years after General Motors promised to finance 525 city busses, with the understanding that all streetcars would be taken off the streets and the rails would be sold or destroyed. Today, the lower entrance to the tunnel can still be seen below the Cathedral of St. Paul, complete with tracks appearing from a thick concrete wall that blocks anyone from going inside.

An excerpt from Minneapolis-Saint Paul: Then and Now showing the pre-tunnel streetcar tracks, and the area over the tunnel as it is today.

About Robert Roscoe

“A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange My professional experience includes over 36 years of architectural office experience, with the last 21 years as principal of Design For Preservation. My education includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, and five years at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota. I served 21 years on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and I have written articles for Architecture Minnesota, a publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I have given lectures on preservation architecture at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and various public forums. Art photography is a main avocation for me, focusing on capturing images of abandoned parts of the built environment, and I have been featured in several art exhibitions. I have co-authored a book on County Catholic Churches and am the author of the book Milwaukee Avenue – Community Renewal in Minneapolis. Also, I am editor of the infrequently published Journal of American Rocket Science.

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