Four men in work clothes inside a streetcar maintence shop with several streetcars in the baackground.

Living in a Streetcar City

When traveling around the Twin Cities, I find it difficult to imagine the streetcar system that criss-crossed the area from the late 1800s until 1954. To me, streetcars seem most accessible by looking at old maps, where I can plot hypothetical routes from my house to destinations such as work or a friend’s house. I tend to think of streetcars only as a mode of transportation – a way of getting from place to place.

Color map of the Twin Cities, featuring numerous streetcar lines marked in red.
Detail of “The Twin Cities and Surroundings, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota”, 1915. A.W.  Warnock. Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

However, a conversation with my lovely Grandma Doris shifted how I view the streetcar era. In asking Grandma about her memories of streetcars, I assumed she would mostly reminisce about how handy it was to jump on a streetcar to go to school or work – and she did, a bit. But for Grandma, streetcars were much more than merely a method of getting around town. Surprisingly to me, most of her memories focus on the community that surrounded streetcars and the way streetcars shaped her experience of the Twin Cities.

Riding on Streetcars

Grandma was born in Minneapolis in 1923. Her mother, Elizabeth, ran the household and worked as a caterer. Her father, Peter, worked a long career as a motorman. Grandma remembers streetcars as being “kinda a jerky ride”. In her memory, streetcars were often crowded and riders would need to stand while holding onto a railing. Furthermore, streetcars could be quite cold in the winter. Streetcars had an extremely important role in the winter of plowing the streets. After a big storm, she would watch streetcars moving huge drifts of snow to the side of the road.

Black and white view of an empty streetcar with seats on both sides and a token collection box centered in the rear.
Interior of a streetcar. Taken between 1900-1945. Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

Grandma also talked about how convenient the streetcars could be. There was a streetcar stop less than a block from her house that connected her with most everywhere she needed to go. As a child, this often included relatives’ houses or parks. As a young adult, she was able to easily take the streetcar to jobs at a cookie factory and a defense plant during World War II.

A 1936 advertisement features Fred MacMurray with the quote "You're never lonesome when you ride the street cars."
1936 Twin City Rapid Transit advertisement touts benefits of companionship on the streetcar. Minnesota Streetcar Museum. 

For more insight into riding streetcars, the Minnesota Streetcar Museum’s videos provide a glimpse into riding on a streetcar. The museum also offers opportunities for a first-hand experience riding a streetcar on one of their demonstration lines.

Streetcar Drivers

A web of peoples’ lives revolved around working in the streetcar system, which was owned by the Twin City Rapid Transit (TCRT) Company. According to a 2005 article in Ramsey County History by John Diers, at TCRT’s peak in 1920, 3,000 people worked as motormen (streetcar drivers), conductors, maintenance workers, clerical workers, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and even a chemist. Workers’ medical needs were attended to by a company doctor and nurses. Working hours for motormen were long – a common schedule was ten hour days, six days a week, with 14 hour workdays sometimes required. New motormen were often scheduled to work a split shift during morning and evening ‘rush hours’. Once a motorman had accrued enough experience he (as far as I can tell, all streetcar drivers were male and white, except for a brief period during World War II when women operated streetcars) was assigned a regular run.

Four mechanics pose in a carhouse for the Lafyette and Rondo Line.
Four mechanics inside a St. Paul carhouse interior. Taken between 1896 – 1900. Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

One of these motormen was Grandma’s father, Peter. He was a tall, kind man with Polish roots born on a small farm in rural Minnesota. As a young adult, he worked as a lumberjack and farmer. After moving to Minneapolis, a job as a motorman offered a stable source of income for raising my grandma and her two sisters. The family lived in a neighborhood of modest houses bordering grain silos, which has now been replaced by the buildings of the UMN west bank campus.

Grandma remembers the strong camaraderie of streetcar workers – her father made many of his friends through work. She remembers Peter spending a lot of time at the streetcar ‘barn’ between his split shifts. In her memory, his barn had a large second floor with a break room for motormen and conductors. There was a barbershop where workers could get a haircut and a shave, and pool tables and other ways to relax between runs.

Streetcar workers pose inside a Twin City Rapid Transit barn.
Inside a TCRT barn. Taken between 1910 – 1915. Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

TCRT sponsored several events each year for workers’ families, which form treasured memories in Grandma’s recollections of growing up during the Great Depression. Grandma fondly recounts annual Christmas parties in the streetcar barn, where each child would receive a small decorated cardboard box filled with candy. TCRT also organized summer picnics in the park, which included raffle prizes for families.

Gateway to a Getaway

In addition to providing a way to travel around the city, streetcars were pivotal for special outings. Grandma remembers many streetcar trips to Como Park, where her favorite activity was riding the tilt-a-whirl at the amusement park. In fact, she once spent all her money on the tilt-a-whirl and had none left for the streetcar fare back home. Luckily, the streetcar driver was sympathetic and she was able to talk her way into a ride home on the promise of future payment. She got off at her usual stop, dashed to her house to retrieve a coin from her mother, and was back at the stop to belatedly pay her fare when the motorman circled back on the next leg of his route.

A streetcar passes under a bridge in front of the Como Park Streetcar Station in a 1906 rendering.
Como Park Streetcar Station, circa 1906. Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

In a recent article, Aaron Person documents the fabulous yet short-lived Big Island Park in Lake Minnetonka, which was reached by streetcars and ferries owned by TCRT. On weekends, thousands of city-dwellers would escape to the island amusement park, with streetcars running every ten minutes and connecting to ferries. 

Similarly to my grandma, Adeline Fremland fondly recalled streetcars as transportation to special outings in a 1978 interview about the experience of growing up Jewish in St. Paul. On many fair-weather Sundays, her family would take the streetcar to Wildwood Amusement Park, where a streetcar line stretched from the city to the amusement park owned by TCRT on the shore of White Bear Lake. There, she would swim and play arcade games with her cousins. Other Sundays her family would take the streetcar to Como Park to picnic and listen to music.

Remembering Streetcar Cities

Although the streetcar system has been gone for seven decades, the imprint remains on both the physical features of the Twin Cities and the ways we think about the past, present, and future of our communities. Remembering streetcars prompts “what if’ questions for our current transportation planning, inspires tours of lines using archival photos, and invites investigation into plotting gangsters involved in the streetcars’ demise. Research into two TCRT workers’ strikes, one in 1889 and one in 1917, illuminates poor working conditions and tensions within the streetcar system.

Many physical remnants reflecting the streetcar era are remaining. Decades worth of fascinating streetcar maps and photographs record streetcars’ paths through the geography as well as the past and present attractions of the metro area. It’s possible to see the vestiges of the streetcar system in the physical landscape – the layout of the cities, a glimpse of an abandoned track in a potholed streets, and of course, the lonely and lovely streetcar tunnels and bridges dotting the Twin Cities. 

Voices from people who rode or worked on streetcars – which can include interviews, oral histories, videos, letters, and more – provide a crucial layer to understanding the roles of streetcars for Twin Cities communities. The Minnesota Streetcar Museum has compiled or created many of such resources. 

Talking to my Grandma about how streetcars shaped her youth in the Twin Cities is a huge privilege. Learning about streetcars through my Grandma’s perspective has given me wonderful insight into her experiences growing up and my family’s life in the Twin Cities almost a century ago. However, as I record her memories, I realize they are unique to one person out of hundreds of thousands of people who lived during the streetcar era. 

Helen Murphy, a motorette, boards a streetcar in 1946.
Motorette Helen Murphy on duty, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1946. Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

Rather than providing conclusions, talking to my Grandma brought up many more questions about experiences of people during the streetcar era. Were Black, Indigenous, and People of Color community members discriminated against while riding streetcars? Were they able to participate in the streetcar weekend recreation opportunities as experienced by white families such as mine? How did racist and sexist TCRT hiring practices impact opportunities for employment? How did working conditions and opportunities differ for public-facing TCRT workers such as motormen and those working jobs such as streetcar maintenance in the shops? How did TCRT employees feel about the demise of the streetcars? What was it like to be a motorette (a female streetcar driver during World War II)? And that’s just the beginning.

If you remember the streetcars in the Twin Cities, your recollections are indispensable. And if you have a relative, friend, or neighbor who lived in the Twin Cities before the 1950s, I encourage you to ask them about their memories of riding the streetcars. When I asked my Grandma what I thought were a few simple questions about streetcars, many rich, interesting, and unexpected stories emerged about how the Twin Cities are shaped and inhabited.

About Emily Shepard

Emily Shepard first attempted to share her interest in history by creating a hot pink history book costume for trick or treating in '91, which was ineffective due to The Great Halloween Blizzard. Her favorite modes of transportation are sauntering and rambling, with an occasional constitutional.