Where did suburban streetcar lines run and why were they removed?

At its peak, Twin City Rapid Transit had 524 miles of track and car­ried 200 mil­lion rid­ers each year.

A double-decker streetcar operates in Excelsior in the early 1900s. These special cars were only run for several years.
A double-decker streetcar operates in Excelsior in the early 1900s. These special cars were only run for several years.

— Hennepin County Library

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A hun­dred years ago, you could get from Minneapolis to Excelsior as quick­ly as that 18-mile trip takes today at rush hour — about 45 min­utes — but in­stead of fum­ing in grid­lock, you'd breeze along, gaz­ing at fields and trees from a street­car.

From the late 1800s to the 1930s, streetcars were the pri­mary mode of trav­el with­in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also east to Stillwater, Bayport and White Bear Lake and west to Lake Minnetonka.

Grow­ing up in the met­ro area, Ken Gart­ner knew it once had a street­car sys­tem. He has seen the paved-over tracks that pe­ri­od­i­cal­ly pop through worn down­town streets. When his fam­i­ly moved to Minnetonka five years ago, Gart­ner found a quiet wood­ed path that he deduced was the rem­nant of an old street­car track to Deephaven, based on an map of the form­er route.

"One of these lines ap­pears close to where we cur­rent­ly live," he said.

A streetcar traveling down Water Street in Excelsior in 1907.
A streetcar traveling down Water Street in Excelsior in 1907.

Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society

Gart­ner asked Cu­ri­ous Minnesota, the Star Tribune's com­muni­ty-driv­en re­port­ing pro­ject fu­eled by ques­tions from read­ers, for more in­for­ma­tion about the streetcars to cit­ies sur­round­ing Lake Minnetonka.

In the late 19th cen­tu­ry, Thomas Low­ry, own­er of Twin City Rapid Transit, be­gan lay­ing tracks for e­lec­tric streetcars to re­place steam-pow­ered com­mut­er trains. At its peak, the com­pany had 524 miles of track and car­ried 200 mil­lion rid­ers each year — more than twice Metro Transit's total rid­er­ship in 2019.

Streetcars brought to­gether peo­ple of all socio­eco­no­mic class­es, said John Diers, co-au­thor with Aaron Isaacs of "Twin Cities by Trol­ley: The Street­car Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul."

"Ev­er­y­one rode the street­car — from mil­lion­aires to ho­bos," said Diers, a re­tired trans­it employee.

In 1906, a west­ern line op­ened from Minneapolis to Hopkins, where it split into two tracks — one to Deephaven and the oth­er to Excelsior and Tonka Bay. Tour­ists out for a day trip and com­mut­ers with homes or sum­mer cot­tages could trav­el on the lake in steam-pow­ered street­car boats, also part of the trans­it sys­tem.

The route was called "The Great White Way," for its bright­ly lit tracks, or "The Line of Green­er­y and Sce­ner­y" for its views of open land­scapes, de­cades be­fore sub­urbs took over. Street­car speeds could top 60 mph, about 20 mph fast­er than a Ford Mod­el T.

"Once they got clear of the city lim­its at France Avenue, they got up and moved," said Isaacs, chief his­to­ri­an for the Minnesota Street­car Museum in Minneapolis.

As auto­mo­bile mass pro­duc­tion grew in the 1920s and '30s, street­car rid­er­ship dwin­dled. The Lake Minnetonka line closed in 1932. Car sales boomed af­ter World War II,sub­urbs de­vel­oped, and the last street­car in the met­ro area ran in 1954.

Many peo­ple believe auto manu­fac­tur­ers con­spired to drive streetcars out of busi­ness, but that's an ur­ban leg­end, Diers and Isaacs said. Con­sum­ers sim­ply pre­ferred cars.

So the trans­it com­pany switched to bus­es, cheap­er to run but less pleas­ant to ride.

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Correction: Previous versions of this article misspelled the name of John Diers.