An old Richfield bus

Suburbs of the Month: Excelsior, Deephaven, Shorewood and Tonka Bay

It has been a long time since I’ve posted an installment of my “Suburb of the Month” series on transit in the Twin Cities suburbs, mostly due to my limited ability to take pictures at this time. However, I have a picture relevant to the Excelsior area, and even though it wasn’t my planned next installment, I have decided to go with it to start off 2021 right!

Excelsior, Deephaven, Shorewood and Tonka Bay, despite being four separate municipalities, have a nearly identical transit situation, both now and historically. They are essentially the “end of the line” for whatever routes they are or have been on.

Transit to Excelsior started around the turn of the 20th Century as a Twin City Lines (TCL) streetcar line from Minneapolis. At the time, the communities on Lake Minnetonka were mostly resorts, more like the proverbial “cabin up North” than residential suburbs. As such, they generated significant weekend ridership, which was augmented by the presence of an amusement park in Excelsior, created by TCL for that very purpose.

The streetcar was discontinued in the 1930s and was replaced by the Minneapolis-Excelsior Bus Company, of which I unfortunately possess little information. However, I have personally met George Holter, the man who bought out that service in 1959 and made it part of his Richfield Bus Company (RBC), which, ironically, didn’t serve Richfield, though it had its headquarters there.

RBC served Minnetonka Boulevard in Saint Louis Park and Minnetonka, going down the south shore of Lake Minnetonka into Excelsior and Tonka Bay, then down Powers Boulevard and 78th Street to Chanhassen. According to Mr. Holter, this extension was created because it was on the way back to Richfield from the original end of the line in Tonka Bay.

There was also an express version of the RBC route, which went down Minnetonka Boulevard to Hopkins Crossroad to Highway 7 into Excelsior.

Even though suburban bus companies didn’t usually compete with TCL, or later the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), due to stop restrictions, there was a small amount of competition between RBC and TCL in Saint Louis Park along Minnetonka Boulevard. TCL Route 17 served Minnetonka Boulevard as far west as Texas Avenue, and still does as a Metro Transit Route. RBC travelled mostly the same way, but wasn’t allowed to drop off outbound or pick up inbound east of Louisiana Avenue. Between Louisiana and Texas avenues, people had a choice between the two buses. Holter told me that many people preferred the Richfield bus, and some would even walk to Louisiana Avenue from points east just to ride it instead of the 17. This public preference convinced the Public Utilities Commission to move the boundary east from Louisiana Avenue to Highway 100!

When the Nicollet Mall was built in 1967, it was originally for TCL/MTC buses only, while suburban buses had to use the Marquette/Second Avenue S pair of one-way streets a block or two over. This created a dilemma for people wanting to go to Saint Louis Park, who had to decide whether to wait on Nicollet for the 17, or on Marquette or Second (depending on whether it was before or after the “wrong-way” lanes of today started) for the Richfield bus. This caused a humorous dispute which ended up with a Richfield driver being arrested for using the Nicollet Mall in protest of the MTC monopoly on that route.

In the 1970s, MTC had the goal of taking over the suburban bus lines in order to have a unified system. Transit Commissioners and the Metropolitan Council often pressured suburban bus company owners to sell. After 1979, RBC no longer served the Excelsior route, though it still operated buses in Rochester as late as 2015 and still operates commuter service from small towns in southeastern Minnesota to the Mayo Clinic (currently suspended due to the coronavirus).

Today’s transit service in the Excelsior area is but a shadow of its former self. Streetcars used to run seven days a week, late into the night. The RBC ran Monday through Saturday in the daytime, and so did MTC for the first decade or so after it took over the route. However, now only two rush-hour only expresses, Routes 670 and 671, run to Excelsior, and the 671 is suspended right now due to COVID-19. The “good times” weekend traffic just doesn’t exist anymore; tourists would rather drive than take a bus. Only if you live out there and work in Minneapolis is transit even an option now. At least the Minnesota Streetcar Museum restored a few blocks of the old line and, when life gets back to normal, you can ride a piece of history – but you’ll need to drive a car to get to it.

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