Riding the rails in the Twin Cities

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Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar in Minneapolis and St. Paul

Want to get from point A to point B in a motorized vehicle without driving a car? You’re a good candidate for the bus. But what if you want an emotional, as well as a utilitarian, experience?

“I like buses, but they’re pretty mundane,” says Aaron Isaacs. “They don’t have the ‘sizzle factor’ that rail does.”

When Isaacs says “rail,” he could be talking about LRT, a part of the Twin Cities transit scene since 2004, when light rail was added to Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, and due to become an even bigger part when the Central Corridor comes on line in 2014 or so. More than likely, though, he’s thinking of a much earlier manifestation of rail transportation: the streetcar.

Isaacs, a retired Metro Transit employee, has teamed with John Diers to create a book just published by the University of Minnesota Press: “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar in Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

“People love streetcars,” Isaacs says. “They’re viewed now with nostalgia and great affection, something that just doesn’t happen with buses but that we’re starting to see with light rail.”

At its peak in the 1920s, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company operated some 900 streetcars that carried more than 200 million passengers a year on 523 miles of track. Some of the most scenic of those miles, according to “Twin Cities by Trolley,” were along the Como–Harriet line, which ran from Minneapolis to St. Paul and passed through St. Anthony Park and Como Park. Many riders, the book says, took that line just for the experience.

The Como–Harriet line was in operation from 1891 to 1954. The Snelling line, between Hoyt Avenue on the north and Highland Parkway on the south, opened in 1905 and closed in 1952.

According to Isaacs, streetcars supplanted commuter trains that ran between Minneapolis and St. Paul during the 1880s. St. Anthony Park had two train stations near Raymond Avenue. The streetcars in turn gave way to the increasing popularity of the automobile.

“Twin Cities by Trolley” documents 80 years of streetcar history in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and a transition from horsepower to steam to electricity. The book includes more than 400 photographs and 70 maps.