Once there were Streetcars

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I’ve been on break from school now for a couple weeks and I made it one of my goals for break to read more about trains. That sounds weird doesn’t it? Probably for a couple reasons, first why would I want to spend my break assigning myself more homework? Also, why trains? Might sound like a kind of odd topic to choose for someone who is a little obsessed with history. Well here’s the scoop – I like trains! And trains are a very important piece of Minnesota’s history – and for that matter future.

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Over the past 15 years Minnesota has been working very hard, as have other states, at further developing their high speed and light rail train lines. I am an avid supporter of this development; I personally see it as necessary. That being said, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the most knowledgeable on the topic. Investment in trains can sometimes get controversial. Taxes, profitability, sustainability, environmental impact and economics often enter the conversation – all of which typically lead the topic away from trains and steers it to politics. I hate getting backed into these conversations when I don’t feel educated enough compete. So, it’s a personal goal of mine to spend more time learning about trains and all the hot-button issues that surround their development.

Horsedrawn Streetcar


Like any subject, in order to get a full understanding it’s important to start at the beginning. The United States developed its freight rail system out of necessity for transportation of goods. Similarly, in the late 1800’s as Minnesota’s urban areas became thriving business districts it became increasingly necessary to find ways to transport people to their jobs and entertainment. What started as a network of horse-drawn multi-passenger carriages would become over 500 miles of electric streetcar tracks. The Twin Cities Lines ran an as far as Stillwater to the East and Excelsior in the West. Many of the Metro Transit bus lines use the same routes that were originally forged by these lines. The Twin City’s streetcar line system was well known for its upkeep. Although the lines were heavily used they were well maintained which amounted to a pleasant experience for the riders.

Last Streetcar Run


Streetcar in St. Paul


The conversion of streetcars to busses in the Twin Cities was similar to that of what was going on around the rest of the country. After World War II the “car” was becoming an integral part of the American Dream and ridership of many streetcar lines were declining. Without ridership to support the cost of maintenance many of the less popular routes were converted to busses. Busses were considered easier and less-expensive to maintain. The Twin Cities Lines were fully converted by 1954 and most of the streetcar tracks were ripped up, or even paved over.

Streetcar on rail bridge


Although it was likely that the loss of the Twin City’s streetcars were inevitable, it was accelerated by some less-than honorable business dealings of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company (TCRT). Unlike most mass-transit today, the TCRT was a privately owned company – and actually operated as such all the way up until 1970 when the Twin Cities Lines were taken over by Twin Cities Area Metropolitan Transit Commission. A New York businessman, Charles Green, purchased majority shares of the Company in 1948 with the intention to convert the streetcar lines to busses. After facing some adversity in his conversion Green hired Fred Ossanna, a notorious Minneapolis criminal lawyer to assist in the legal issues and in the hopes of increasing TCRT’s profits.

Salvage of Streetcars Source

Green would come to regret this partnership, because after some tactical decision making and well-placed rumors by Ossanna the shareholders would fire Green and elect Ossanna in his place. A partnership between Ossanna and General Motors would see to it that busses would become the future of the Twin Cities Lines. During the conversion some of the streetcars were sold off to other operating rail companies, while most were scrapped for parts. The illegal behavior came into play when TCRT leadership began selling parts of streetcars, rails and even real estate to family members for far below market price. The family members would then turn around and sell the items for large profits. Ossanna, among many others were eventually convicted for such fraudulent behavior in 1960.

James Towley & Fred Ossanna in front of burning streetcar

Ossanna, pictured here to the right, with James Towley receiving a check in front of burning streetcar


All told the story of streetcars in Minnesota is an interesting one and it continues today. There has been talk about bringing them back to the Twin Cities – although the expense is a tough hill to climb. Many support the expansion and investment into our bus system instead of the redevelopment of streetcars. But, the State has made strides in the way of its lightrail and high-speed train system and over the next few years if these projects continue to find funding our Twin City landscape could look very different. Traveling between the cities, out to the suburbs and as far north as Duluth could become a much easier. This movement is not limited to Minnesota, plans to connect the country via high speed rail are in the works and I, for one, am excited to see these plans begin to gain traction.

Until next time…









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