Only two locally made streetcars survived intact when transit leaders rushed to scrap the Twin Cities rail transit system in the 1950s.
One became a popular attraction in Minneapolis. But its cousin has also become a crowd pleaser 1,800 miles away, thanks largely to a Minnesota man’s devotion to his motorman grandfather.
More than 110 years after it rolled off the factory line in St. Paul, Car 1267 carries passengers several times a week at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. Riders can even peer up from their seats and see old ads for long-gone restaurants and shops in downtown Minneapolis.
The story of its unlikely salvation was shaped by three generations of Minnesotans and several historical coincidences, including a Minneapolis native’s fortuitous job in Maine as hundreds of streetcars were being junked to make way for buses.
“If we were to respond purely to our emotional feeling, we would keep all these old servants,” said Fred Ossanna, president of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company, at the car’s send-off in 1953. “But progress commands that we make a change.”
Two years before Ossanna’s speech, Doug Anderson’s parents put him on a train from Seattle to Minneapolis to meet his grandfather. Anderson vividly remembers emerging from the since-demolished Great Northern Depot in downtown Minneapolis and seeing an array of yellow streetcars on Hennepin Avenue.
“I was totally blown away because here were all these things I’d never seen before,” said Anderson, who now lives in Rochester. “We didn’t have streetcars in Seattle at that time.”
His grandfather Ole Peder Sather was a Norwegian immigrant who had retired after more than three decades operating streetcars in the Twin Cities. Looking for a reason to get out of the house, Sather took his grandson on a rail tour of Twin Cities landmarks.
“We went all over. And I thought that was just fascinating,” Anderson said. “Especially when we all of a sudden left the streets and were going through the woods.”
Anderson did not realize at the time that hundreds of buses were already on order from General Motors — none had arrived. The conversion was fully underway several years later, however, and the leftover streetcars were being sold for scrap.
That’s when Dwight “Ben” Minnich, a leader at the New England Electric Railway Historical Society (later the Seashore Trolley Museum), sent a letter to Ossanna asking for one of the old cars. Minnich, the son of a prominent University of Minnesota professor, had grown up in Minneapolis riding streetcars to school, according to his widow, Ida Mae Minnich.
The system’s general manager Barney Larrick wrote back saying he could have a car, but he better get to Minnesota quick because “we will be scrapping, selling and junking these streetcars every day.” And he warned that they would need lots of permits to haul it back home on a trailer — though they ultimately packed it on a train.
“[Y]ou are going to have nothing but trouble,” Larrick wrote.
They chose one of the oldest cars still running in the system, Car 1267, which had been built at St. Paul’s Snelling Shops — at what is today Allianz Field — in 1907. It was kept in service at the University of Minnesota, which preferred the older “gate”-style cars for its intercampus line since people boarded through a back gate where a conductor oversaw a special fare collection system.
The momentous nature of the handoff was apparently not lost on Ossanna, who had years earlier taken the helm of the private transit agency and later went to prison for fraud related to the sale of old streetcar materials. He remarked how much the country had changed since 1907, from an agricultural society to an urbanized powerhouse with automobiles, airplanes and even the atomic bomb.
“Our Twin Cities were in swaddling clothes when [Car 1267] first made its appearance, and the routes used for transportation were definitely limited,” Ossanna said. “It has been a faithful old car and we are happy to know that it will rest in the Valhalla which you provide for the distinguished relics of the past.”
From rot to restoration
The New England Railway Historical Society heralded its arrival in its 1953 annual report, remarking that it was “Maine’s only operating streetcar.”
From a young boy riding the rails with his grandpa, Anderson developed into an adult with a passion for streetcars. His job with IBM had moved him to Rochester by 1970, when he first visited the Seashore Trolley Museum. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he first saw Car 1267, which by that time needed extensive renovation.
He found through research that his grandfather had very likely driven this car at some point, since he and the car overlapped at East Side Station in Minneapolis for about two decades. Thankfully IBM had a benefit that double-matched employee charitable contributions, so within several years he raised $90,000 — in addition to other donations.
Several people got to work on the car, fixing a missing portion of the roof, removing and restoring the siding, refurbishing motors and rebuilding windows, among other jobs. Anderson returned every year to pitch in with the labor.
They completed the project in 1994. A plaque in the back of the car features a picture and short biography of Sather, along with an inscription:
“[The streetcar] has been restored in his memory to its approximate appearance at the time of his hiring in 1915. His grandson’s lifelong love of electric railway transportation is his living legacy.”
Anderson said he fondly remembers riding the streetcars with his grandfather in 1951.
“And I wanted to kind of do that again,” Anderson said. “So we fixed it up so we could do it again, even though he’s just riding along as a picture.”
A throwback even then
Car 1267 and its counterpart operating around the Chain of Lakes, Car 1300, are the only two locally built streetcars that survived fully intact. Others still in operation, such as a car operating in Excelsior and another in East Troy, Wis., were salvaged as bodies and reconfigured back to streetcars.
So what happened to all the other streetcars? A couple hundred that weren’t sent to the scrap yard were stripped and sold off as “instant buildings,” said Aaron Isaacs, chairman of the board at the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.
“They got used for cabins Up North,” Isaacs said. “A guy set up an appliance business in one. There’s one where a guy [had] I think his hogs living in it. There’s one where people turned it into a trailer with wheels under it, and took it to California. They got used for all kinds of stuff.”
Isaacs said Car 1267 was famous among trolley fans, even in the 1950s.
“It was the last bastion of these older-designed cars with conductors, and so it became very well-known among trolley fans,” Isaacs said. “And that’s why they wanted that car, because it was sort of a throwback even when it was running.”
Anderson said it is a “blast” to ride the streetcar now that it has been restored.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Anderson said. “It’s really a memorial to not just Ole but all these other people who have put their heart and soul into making it look the way it looks.”