Paths and progress in Falcon Heights

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I run down the embankment from Cleveland Avenue, just south of Larpenteur, and head for a thin strip of woods at the edge of the soccer field. Seventy years ago this place was not so different — or was it?

It seems as if the University protects everything around it, like a friendly giant slumped over a book, rustling with its industry and good purpose, its shoulders establishing these heights above the Mississippi valley.

But this silent path in the trees wasn’t so quiet back then. This is where, in 1940 and 1941, my father, Curtis Larson, rode the intercampus trolley, a streetcar line that edged what is now the north perimeter of University Grove. It couriered students between the two campuses with Skipper Spencer as conductor.

“It was an institution,” says my father, then an engineering student, and Spencer diligently memorized students’ names each fall.

Dad lived near Dinkytown with a friend, both small town boys for whom Spencer made the city feel more familiar. The wooded route was “a pleasant variation from city streets and traffic,” wrote my father in his memoir.

He couldn’t have guessed that he would eye this same terrain — once called Gibb’s Mountain — for most of his life. Neither did he suspect that he would teach at the St. Paul campus or live just a field away.

Though my father left Minnesota a few years later — out to sea to fight a war — this stretch of streetcar track would be the first leg of a journey that would loop back to Falcon Heights, a good place for a farm boy, where you can see a storm move in from the west over open fields.

My dad recently moved from 1666 Coffman, the stately and curious white abbey-like structure adjacent to Grove Park and the rim of where the intercampus trolley once rumbled. Coffman’s residents, retired U of M employees, plant their gardens in back, fertilized by the crumbling rail ties that disintegrate a little more with each snow melt. My father’s balcony faced south toward the bramble woods where the intercampus trolley once passed by, and where now I tramp along with dog-walkers.

In the spring and fall I often meet students on the path, touring with professors, studying the flora or perhaps the erosion — the topic Dad would have chosen as an agricultural engineer.

This place is precious to many, I’d guess. I’ve made big decisions on this sanctuary-like path, admiring the bare-branch ceiling, startling a deer once, picking my way over exposed ties and the muddy gulley at its lower reaches where it enters the Lauderdale Reserve woods.

Dad describes how the trolley line passed through a tunnel under Cleveland Avenue, made a sharp turn at Eustis, curving downhill and picking up riders at Como, just like buses do these days, then veered west again along Como. He writes, “Physically, it was a regular Twin Cities streetcar, running on rails and propelled by an electric motor receiving power from an overhead cable.”

I hope the new Bell Museum will honor this nearby artifact, the footprint of the intercampus trolley tracing its southern boundary, once ferrying farm kids and Skipper Spencer.

Soon another rail line, the Central Corridor, will trace a parallel track along St. Anthony Park’s opposite edge, not so different from 70 years ago.

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