Urban public transportation was an invention of the industrial revolution, which created cities too large to traverse on foot. The average urban resident owned neither a horse nor carriage. First came horse drawn omnibuses. These were soon usurped by horse drawn streetcars. Horsecars, as they were known, traveled on rails, which gave a much smoother ride than an omnibus bouncing over cobblestones. They could be built to hold more people, yet were much easier for horses to pull, especially in the muddy conditions that prevailed at that time.
Separate horsecar companies were founded in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The St. Paul City Ry. opened its first line on 4th Street in 1872. The Minneapolis Street Ry. ran from Dinkytown to downtown in 1875. By 1889, 67 miles of horsecar line had been built in Minneapolis and 53 miles in St. Paul. The network of lines extended two or three miles from each downtown, but the cities were not yet connected.
Despite the advantage of steel wheel on rail, the cars were still horse powered, and horses were a problem. Up to seven were required to keep a single car in service all day. They produced epic quantities of manure. They were slow, couldn't handle steep hills and were subject to disease. Around the country, inventors experimented with mechanical means of propulsion, and the Twin Cities hosted several of these attempts. The most reliable power of the era was steam, widely used on trains and boats. However, it didn't work well in an urban environment, generating soot and hot embers and frightening horses. Even so, steam powered trains ran from Minneapolis to Lake Harriet, Minnehaha Park and Excelsior from 1879 to 1891. Another steam line briefly ran from the east side of St. Paul to North St. Paul during 1890‑92.
The cable car was invented in San Francisco in 1873. An unpowered streetcar used a device called a "grip" to grasp a moving underground cable through a slot in the pavement. During its brief heyday, which ended by 1900, cable cars ran in many large American cities. In St. Paul, two lines were built to overcome steep hills, on Selby Avenue from 1887 to 1898 and on East 7th Street from 1889 to 1893. Cable car materials were purchased for Minneapolis, but the lines were never built. Though reliable and clean, the underground cable system was immensely complex and expensive to maintain. Cable cars quickly disappeared, except for San Francisco where they survive today as a civic tradition and tourist attraction. Electricity proved to be the answer. An experimental line ran unsuccessfully on Marquette Avenue in 1885 and 1886. In 1887 an inventor named Frank Sprague made a crucial mechanical breakthrough in how the motors drove the wheels and his technology swepthe country. In 1889, the independent Stillwater Street Railway became the first Minnesota electric line to apply Sprague's inventions. By 1891, the entire Twin Cities system was electric except for the two cable lines, which converted a few years later
Unlike the streetcar systems in many other cities, the local companies benefited from an extremely stable, long term corporate ownership. Thomas Lowry was an officer of the Minneapolis Street Ry. from its incorporation. He purchased a controlling interest in MSR in 1877, and in the St. Paul company in 1884. The cities were physically connected when the University Avenue line was completed in 1890. In 1891, he merged the two companies to form Twin City Rapid Transit (TCRT). The Lowry family personally ran the company until 1931 and corporate continuity lasted until purchase by the Metropolitan Transit Commission, a government agency, in 1970
The streetcars expanded along with the metro area. Lowry used them as a tool to develop his considerable real estate holdings, which included much of St. Louis Park and Columbia Heights. Track was added until 1947.
At its peak, the company operated 524 miles of track stretching from Stillwater and Bayport on the east to Deephaven, Excelsior and Tonka Bay on the west. TCRT built its own fleet of Lake Minnetonka steamboats which met the streetcars. For a brief time the transportation empire encompassed the Big Island amusement park and Lake Park Hotel on Lake Minnetonka, Wildwood Amusement Park on White Bear Lake, and most of the buses and taxi cabs in the cities. Independent streetcar companies reached Anoka and Hastings, using TCRT track inside the city. Motor buses appeared in 1921. Small and uncomfortable, their use was restricted to light duty services such as long suburban routes, crosstowns, expresses and short shuttles from the ends of the streetcar lines. Not until 1938 did they replace streetcars on anyfull service city routes. In 1940 buses carried 9 percent of the riders. This rose to 23 percent by 1949.
The streetcar was the dominant mode of Twin Cities transportation until 1920. Its decline began with the coming of mass produced automobiles. The Great Depression of the 1930's worked both against and for public transit. It killed most of the small city streetcar systems, as well as the more exotic and lightly patronized portions of the big city systems. In Minnesota, every small city trolley was gone by 1938, and Duluth's cars quit in 1939. In the Twin Cities, the depression put an end to 16 percent of the track miles including the long suburban lines to Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake, Stillwater and Anoka, as well as a few light city routes such as Kenwood in Minneapolis and East 4th Street in St. Paul.
On the plus side, the depression stopped suburban development cold. For 15 years, from 1930 until the end of World War II, autos were either not affordable or not available. Even if you owned one during the war, gas and tire rationing prevented you from using it much. Transit ridership, which had peaked at 238 million in 1920 and slumped to 100 million in 1933, rebounded to 201 million in 1946. In 1949, 36% of all trips in the metro area were made on transit, compared to less than 5% today.
With the end of the war, the tremendous pent up demand for new housing and automobiles set in motion the suburbanization of the Twin Cities. Even so, ridership held at a very respectable 165 million in 1949. Twin City Rapid Transit responded by buying new streetcars to begin modernizing its fleet, by converting a few additional streetcar routes to bus, and by planning some consolidation of its facilities. The company's management, headed by D.J. Strouse, still believed in serving the public well. Because of the PCC purchases, the fleet had actually grown 18 percent to 828, plus the buses, housed at six streetcar barns and two bus garages. It still maintained the sprawling Snelling Shops complex, where every wood car was torn down and rebuilt every five years.
That benevolent attitude was shattered in November 1949, when a group of outside investors took control of the company in a bitter proxy fight. Because of the high cost of maintaining its tracks and overhead power system, streetcars were more expensive to run than buses. There was money to be made from scrapping the cars and infrastructure and substituting a lesser service, and that is exactly what happened. Ridership dropped dramatically. By 1954 it was down to 86 million and the streetcars were gone
.Twin City Rapid Transit survived until 1970, when its assets were purchased by the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Transit was becoming unprofitable, and the transaction was part of a national movement to preserve transit systems through government ownership.
Many remnants of the streetcars remain, if one knows where to look. Many of today's bus routes travel the same streets and bear the same names. The 1914 North Side Station, 1891 East Side Station and the 1885‑vintage 3rd Avenue N. horsecar barn‑general office still stand, used for other purposes. A modern bus garage occupies the site at 31st & Nicollet where a transit facility was first opened in 1879. The Main Steam Station streetcar power plant by St. Anthony Falls now serves the University of Minnesota. Around the city are scattered overhead wire poles and former power substations. Miles of track lie buried under layers of asphalt, and poke through when the pavement deteriorates.
And of course the Minnesota Streetcar Museum's Como‑Harriet Streetcar Line and Excelsior Streetcar Line preserves streetcars 78, 265, 322, 1239 and 1300, along with a mile of original right of way.