Museum History

The Minnesota Streetcar Museum runs two streetcar lines in Minneapolis and Excelsior, MN. Until 2005, when it went its own way, it was part of the multi-modal Minnesota Transportation Museum (MTM), which at its peak had two streetcar lines, a roundhouse, an interstate tourist railroad, an historic depot, an operating steamboat and vintage buses. It’s hard to relate the Streetcar Museum’s history without spending some time on MTM’s many enterprises, so bear with us, because it’s an interesting tale.

What is now the Minnesota Streetcar Museum was founded in 1962 as the Minnesota Transportation Museum. It was formed to save a single streetcar, Twin City Rapid Transit (TCRT) #1300. Typical of the over 1,000 wood standard cars designed and built in the company’s own shops, #1300 was one of only two that survived the 1954 TCRT abandonment completely intact. The other, #1267, resides at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

At the end of TCRT streetcar service in June of 1954 #1300 was donated to the Minnesota Railfans Association, a group that specialized in fan trips during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s before going out of existence. It was moved from TCRT’s Snelling Shops in St. Paul, where it was built, to a siding in the western suburb of Hopkins in a way that would never be allowed today – on its own wheels in the consist of a regular freight train. There it sat weathering for eight years. Amazingly it was never vandalized.

MTM was formed in 1962, and #1300 was moved to a stall in the Minnesota Transfer’s roundhouse in the Midway section of St. Paul. A new canvas roof was fabricated and all the bad wood in the carbody was replaced. A generator was rigged up on a handcar to supply electricity and that winter, it ran once again under its own power.

MTM was left with the question: “What now?” The car was done, but had no place to operate. Undeterred, MTM announced that #1300 would operate back and forth in the Transfer’s rail yard for the public. Despite the completely unglamorous setting, 10,000 people showed up over several days. The waiting line was a city block long at times, and MTM realized the public would support an operating museum.

The 1960s were spent looking for an operating site. Most of the candidates were semi-rural, within an hour or so of the Twin Cities. None panned out.

The best-known and most scenic part of the TCRT system had been the private right-of-way between Lakes Calhoun and Harriet in southwest Minneapolis. Minneapolis has a terrific park system, anchored by a chain of five connected lakes, Calhoun and Harriet being the southernmost pair. Upon abandonment in 1954, the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park Board assumed ownership of the right of way, but much of the grade lay untouched. MTM negotiated a lease, and – in order to be as unobtrusive as possible – erected a simple metal carbarn out of sight under the Linden Hills Boulevard bridge at the south end of the line. The first block-and- a-half of track was laid as far as the old Lake Harriet station at 42nd Street. Part of the original concrete platform was all that remained of the Swiss Chalet-style building. Operations began in 1971 sans overhead wire, using a noisy but reliable generator.

Overhead wire was strung in 1973. Gradually the line grew to one mile, reaching its present northern terminus at Lake Calhoun in 1977. With #1300 running daily all summer long, there was clearly a need for a second car to share the load. As streetcar service wound down in the 1950s TCRT had sold dozens of carbodies for use as sheds or other structures. MTM members had made a small industry out of locating them and stripping any usable parts as a hedge against the future.

One of these forays into the north woods uncovered Duluth Street Railway car #265. TCRT’s owners had also controlled the Duluth-Superior system and built most of its cars to standard TCRT designs at the Snelling Shops. #265 was actually built as TCRT #1791 in 1915, and was sold to Duluth in 1916. It ran there until the system was abandoned in 1939. The body was sold for use as a cabin at Solon Springs, Wisconsin. Despite its long slumber, the body remained in good shape thanks to a separate roof that was built over the original car. In 1973, #265 was transported to MTM’s new restoration shop in a corner of Burlington Northern’s sprawling ex-Northern Pacific Como Shops complex in St. Paul. It helped that TCRT cars were designed to be stripped down every few years for repairs. #265 was completely disassembled and every piece of wood and metal was either repaired or replaced. The classic problem of no running gear was solved by what model railroaders would call kit bashing. MTM acquired two unpowered trailer trucks from Chicago Transit Authority 4000-series L cars and motors came from third-rail steeple cab locomotive #20 that once served the company’s steam plant at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

Both #265 and #1300 had been built as “gate cars”. All entry and exit was through large manually operated wire gates at the rear of the car. During the 1920s and 30s streetcar systems everywhere converted to one-man crews as an economic move. TCRT and Duluth were no exceptions, but rebuilt their wood cars differently. TCRT installed air powered double-stream doors fore and aft, so the car could be operated with or without a conductor. Duluth had no use for conductors and put a double-stream door in front and a treadle-operated narrow exit door in the rear. As part of the rebuilding, the front window configuration was modified and as a result, the front end of #265 looks lopsided.

#265 entered MTM service in 1982. The restoration crew next tackled an even more ambitious project, Duluth Laclede single trucker #78, built in 1893. Retired in 1910, it had survived as a backyard shed. A typical car for its era, all that was left was the shell of the body. In fact, the work on #78 correctly should be called a replication, since only half of the original wood was retained and all of the running gear, electrical system and interior furnishings were new or from other sources. The 1905 vintage Brill 21E power truck came from Belgium. Nonetheless, after five years of diligent rebuilding and replication, #78 made its maiden trip in 1990.

Among large streetcar systems, TCRT was unusual in never owning a steel-bodied car until the first PCC arrived in 1945. By 1949, there were 141 PCC’s, but all were sold in 1953 as new management prepared to convert to bus. They went to Newark, Shaker Heights and Mexico City and proved to be a durable group. Mexico City rebuilt theirs into unrecognizable articulateds, and all have been retired, as has the Shaker Heights fleet. Thirty of the PCCs were sold to Newark and provided all of the service on the #7 line until they were retired in 2001. Eleven have since been sold to San Francisco, completely rebuilt and now run on the F Line to the Embarcadero in the livery colors of several different streetcar systems which previously operated PCC cars including one in TCRT colors. Others have been donated to eastern trolley museums and one was recently returned to service in San Diego.

In 1977 Shaker Heights bought two of the Newark cars. Other than repainting and a few minor appliance differences, this pair, TCRT #322 and #416, had never been rebuilt like the other Newark cars, which made them a better choice for restoration. MTM always had a good relationship with the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC, now Metro Transit), and used that connection to buy the two cars in 1991. During the period 1992-2000, Car #322 was completely rebuilt by MTM and MTC volunteers. The work was done at the Metro Transit Overhaul Base in St. Paul until 1997, and completed at Lake Harriet. Car 416 was sold to Shore Line Trolley Museum.

One note of interest — all TCRT cars were single enders, with simple backup controls on the rear platform. All TCRT car lines had wyes or loops so backup movements were minimal. MTM had no turning facilities on the Como-Harriet Line, so cars had to run backwards against the pole in one direction of each trip. Fortunately, TCRT used seven-inch trolley wheels, which permitted speeds of up to 20 mph in reverse.

MTM gets too big

Even before opening the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line, MTM had expanded into railroad preservation. The Milwaukee Road’s ornate 1874 wood “Princess” depot had served Minnehaha Falls Park in south Minneapolis. It was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1964. In 1967 MTM restored it and staffs it to this day. Now on the National Register of Historic Sites, it is open to the public every Sunday during the summer.

The great success of operating streetcars led to a desire to run steam. There were two park locomotives in the Twin Cities area and MTM leased them both. Northern Pacific #2156, a Baldwin 4-6-2 built in 1909, was pulled from St. Paul’s Como Park. Unfortunately, disassembly revealed a cracked cylinder casting and the locomotive remains in pieces to this day. Northern Pacific #328, a Rogers 4-6-0 built in 1905, spent its final operational years assigned to the extremely scenic branch to Taylors Falls, Minnesota. The line was abandoned in 1948, and #328 was retired shortly thereafter. In 1955, it was turned over to the city of Stillwater. It spent the next 22 years in the riverside park, during which time it was flooded to its cab floor at least once.

MTM negotiated a 30-year lease for #328 in 1976 and moved the engine to the Como Shops for restoration. It was in fairly sound condition despite the flood and steamed again in 1981. MTM began acquiring a passenger train. From 1981 through 1985, MTM ran a series of short excursions and shuttle operations in the Twin Cities area, never venturing more than 50 miles from home.

The steam excursion period was a heady one for the MTM. Whole towns would turn out to welcome the steam engine. Huge crews of 50 or more volunteers were marshaled for three, four, and even 10-day marathons. Through it all, #328 proved to be a generally reliable and very gutty little engine.

During 1984 and 1985, the number of operating dates increased to 18 and 16, respectively. It was too much and the logistics began to unravel. Planning, publicity and crew coordination, which had been well disciplined in the beginning, became haphazard and last minute. As the train returned to the same sites year after year, the novelty wore off and ridership dropped. The steam excursion program ended in 1986. About that time, the insurance crisis hit, and all the local railroads stopped handling excursions. MTM was in debt and most of the cars were bad order.

The Rise & Fall of the Stillwater & St. Paul Railroad

During the late 1970s, there were abortive efforts to acquire a permanent railroad site, but none were successful.

Burlington Northern owned a former Northern Pacific branch from White Bear Lake to Stillwater, the early lumbering center of Minnesota. Although Stillwater was almost bereft of shippers, a few miles south in Bayport were the Andersen Window factory and a coal-burning power plant. They were served by BN, C&NW and Soo (ex-Milw) branch lines and generated carloadings in abundance. The BN decided, as the Milwaukee Road had earlier, to abandon its own line in favor of trackage rights over the C&NW.

BN retained the Stillwater yard in order to sort Andersen cars. It abandoned completely the western half of the line from White Bear Lake to Duluth Junction. The eastern six miles from Duluth Junction to a point about a half-mile north of Stillwater was donated to MTM, thanks to a friendly BN executive. MTM took possession in 1983. Entrance to Stillwater itself was via trackage rights over the BN.

So long as the mainline excursions were successful, there was little enthusiasm for developing the Stillwater site. MTM ran occasional trips at Stillwater from 1983 through 1985, and by that time it became clear that mainline trips were fast becoming an impossibility for the future. MTM then turned its efforts towards developing Stillwater into a regularly scheduled operation every summer weekend.

An unexpected additional source of revenue came in the form of the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train. Originally, it was located on Dakota Rail in the western Minneapolis suburb of Spring Park. Two partners had a falling out and one took over sole ownership. He approached MTM about running at Stillwater and a contract was executed in fall 1987.

With a stable, if not huge, source of revenue, MTM began to repair the tired track at Stillwater. Eventually the entire line was brought up to FRA class 2 standards. In 1989, a small yard was built at Duluth Junction, the west end of the line. Annual ridership started at 5,000 in 1987 and stabilized around 20,000 by 1989.

Railfans tend to believe that everyone loves trains, because most people seem to. However, neighbors along the line organized and convinced the county to declare the railroad a non-conforming land use. A two-year political fight ensued that pitted the museum against the residents. The MTM board was unwilling to submit to county control by applying for a conditional use permit. Taking the issue to court might have succeeded, but the resources simply weren’t there. The 1992 operating season was canceled, and in 1993 MTM sold its railway rights to the Minnesota Zephyr, which continued to operate until 2009, when it went out of business. The line has since been purchased by the DNR and replaced by the Brown’s Creek Trail in 2015. Ironically, the residents now have many more people in their back yards than when the trains were running.

Railroad Rebirth at Osceola

During MTM’s annulled 1992 operating season, it began assessing its options. MTM was approached by a delegation from Osceola, WI, 20 miles north of Stillwater on the opposite bank of the St. Croix River. The Osceola Historical Society was negotiating with the Wisconsin Central (WC) to buy the town’s former Soo Line brick and stone depot. Would MTM consider moving to Osceola?

The railroad in question is the 39-mile Dresser Subdivision. It leaves the former Soo Line Twin Cities-Chicago mainline at Withrow, MN and at the time stub ended at Amery, WI, since cut back to Dresser. Until the early to mid 1980s, it was the original Soo Line main line to Sault Ste. Marie. At Dresser, the Soo’s line to Duluth, since abandoned, split off. In 2001, Canadian National (CN) purchased WC. The only shipper is the large trap rock quarry at Dresser. Besides the lure of a restored depot for an operating base, the railroad runs down a very scenic valley. The track was in good condition, there were few grade crossings and few houses near the right of way.

A new non-profit corporation, the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Ry. (O&StCV), was created to run the line. It is a jointly controlled subsidiary of MTM and the Osceola Historical Society. MTM’s first train on the O&StCV ran on September 5, 1992. Trains run on the 15 miles from Dresser through Osceola to Marine, MN. Operation continues today.

Jackson Street Roundhouse

The Great Northern’s Jackson Street Roundhouse is located near where Minnesota railroading began in 1862. The current brick roundhouse was build in 1907, one of the last roundhouses built by the “Empire Builder”, James J. Hill. It replaced a smaller wooden engine-house of the St. Paul & Pacific. The roundhouse was part of a larger shop complex built in the 1880s. Located near downtown St. Paul just north and east of the State Capitol, the complex had been sold by the GN in 1960. The roundhouse was remodeled as a warehouse/industrial building, all the tracks were removed, and an addition was built where the turntable used to be. Today, twenty of the twenty-five original stalls remain.

MTM took possession of the roundhouse in 1986, acquiring a substantial mortgage. Jackson Street was restored as an operating roundhouse, but with several changes. It is MTM’s backshop, but it also houses static displays, archives, an audio-visual theater, a meeting room and offices. The turntable was re-installed in 2001, and the connection with the BN has been reinstalled, along with five yard tracks.

The museum at Jackson Street opened in 1999. The museum’s administrative offices moved into a renovated space, along with tenants, the Great Northern and Northern Pacific historical societies.

The Steamboat Division

From 1906 to 1926, Twin City Rapid Transit ran its own fleet of steamboats on Lake Minnetonka, a large resort lake located 15 miles west of Minneapolis. The seven 70-foot “streetcar boats” were so dubbed because they were painted the same yellow color as the streetcars, and had many of the same interior furnishings. Seats were identical and the drop sash windows very similar. Lake-bound passengers rode TCRT’s 60 mph interurbans to boat docks at Excelsior, Deephaven or Wildhurst, where hourly steamboats on four different routes served most points on the huge lake. In addition, from 1906 to 1911, large side-wheel ferries traveled to the company-owned amusement park on Big Island.

Their business gone to automobile and bus competition, six of the boats were stripped of the cabins and engines and sunk in the middle of the lake. One survivor lasted in charter service until 1949, when it too was scrapped.

A diver discovered the hull of the TCRT steamboat Minnehaha in Lake Minnetonka in 1980 and raised it. A local group formed to restore the boat, but soon disbanded. It sat exposed to the weather until 1991, when a new group was organized. They became the Steamboat Division of MTM, made astounding progress, and launched the rebuilt boat in 1995. The startup of scheduled service began in May 1996.

The Excelsior Streetcar Line

With the initial goal of recreating the transfer between steamboat and streetcar, a half-mile trolley line was built from downtown Excelsior to a block from the new Minnehaha boat dock. Unlike the original line, which followed Water Street and Lake Avenue, the new line – opened in 1999 – uses the curving Minneapolis & St. Louis (M&StL) right of way, now owned by Hennepin County and used as a trail. Because the railroad was double tracked, there is room for the trolley and bike path to share the space. Additionally, a four-space carbarn was erected on the right of way for storage, maintenance, repair, and restoration. The Water Street end of the line is next to the Excelsior Historical Society, which occupies the former M&StL depot.

Streetcar #78 was moved to Excelsior from Lake Harriet in 1999. The body of streetcar #1239, another TCRT wood standard, built at the 31st Street Shops of the TCRT in Minneapolis in 1907, had been rescued from use as a cabin near Big Lake, MN. Like most of the TCRT cars, it had been rebuilt for one-man operation. As part of the restoration, the car was backdated by enclosing the front platform and replicating the rear wire gates. It was restored in the Excelsior carbarn and returned to service on the Excelsior line in 2006.

The big split

By 2004, it was clear that MTM had grown too big and unwieldy to manage. In December of that year, the MTM membership voted to “spin off” the Traction and Steamboat Divisions as independent organizations. The steamboat became the Museum of Lake Minnetonka. The Traction Division became the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. MTM retained all the railroad activities, as well as the vintage buses. The split has been amicable, and all three museums are doing well.

MSM today has 300 members, of whom about 110 actively volunteer, an unusually high percentage. It is run entirely by volunteers. Its streetcars carried almost 40,000 passengers in 2015, 33,396 on the Como-Harriet Line and 6461 at Excelsior. Ridership has remained fairly stable in recent years, although special events and charters have increased as a percentage of the total.

The museum has undertaken three large capital projects. In 2005, funded by a federal Transportation Enhancement grant, we completely replaced the Como-Harriet Line’s mile of track, which had been in poor condition. In 2015, we expanded the Como-Harriet carbarn to include a new machine shop, the first ever office/library, and expanded storage space. The storage space freed up room in the existing carbarn for Winona streetcar #10, under restoration since 2004.

The latest restoration project is Winona #10, a single truck car built by St. Louis Car Company in 1914 for Winona Railway Light & Power. The company became Mississippi Valley Public Service, which also ran the LaCrosse, Wisconsin system. The two systems shared rolling stock and a common color scheme. Number 10 was the last car to turn a wheel in Winona in 1938. Its body became a cabin outside of town. The LaCrosse cars continued until 1947.

The car has been restored at the Excelsior carbarn. Plans were located at Washington University in St. Louis. A streetcar at the Museum of Transport in St. Louis had the correct seats, and one was borrowed for replication. The steel underframe was badly rusted, so a new one was fabricated.

Although there are plenty of “chicken coop” carbodies available, power trucks are in woefully short supply. As built, #10 had a Dupont 46 truck. Research revealed that only two Dupont trucks still existed. One was part of a complete car at Ohio Railway Museum. The planets aligned to make the other one, an earlier version from the 1890s, available to MSM. It had been under an electrified former Lancaster, Ohio horse car that survived to become part of the Ohio Historical Society collection. They decided to backdate the car to its horse-drawn form and the truck found its way into the Trolleyville collection.

Following the death of its founder, Gerald Brookins, Trolleyville had to vacate its site. The Brookins family reorganized it as the Lake Shore Electric Museum and attempted to relocate to the Cleveland lakefront. The timing was wrong, in the middle of the Great Recession. Lake Shore folded and its collection was dispersed.

MSM acquired the truck. The motors were sent out for rebuilding and the rest of the truck went to Lyons Industries in Pennsylvania, an established rebuilder of vintage streetcar trucks. Lyons lengthened and strengthened the truck to more closely resemble the later model Dupont 46, replaced a number of components, and reinstalled the rebuilt motors. The truck was placed under Winona #10 in 2015. Meanwhile, the car is in the final stages of wiring and reassembly. Test runs will begin in 2016.

MSM owns two other car bodies. Fargo-Moorhead #28 is a single truck Birney body built by American Car Company in 1923. Mesaba Railway #10 is a 1912 Niles interurban that ran on the iron range in northern Minnesota until 1927. As part of a multi-museum buy, MSM acquired a pair of Japanese copies of Baldwin trucks that are close to Mesaba 10’s original equipment. It’s unclear when either car will be restored.

As trolley museums go, MSM is on the small end, with five operating streetcars, one almost-complete restoration, and two chicken coops that are future projects. The emphasis has always been on quality over quantity. The cars are kept in top condition, cleaned and maintained regularly. There is little debris or clutter in the carbarns. The crews are friendly and well trained.

Publications and access to archives

In 1976, MTM published Russell Olson’s authoritative 600-page book Electric Railways of Minnesota. Olson had researched the book for 25 years and remains the dean of Minnesota traction historians. His research papers are now in the Russell J. Olson Library, housed inside the George K. Isaacs Carbarn. The library also houses many other TCRT drawings and documents, MSM magazine back issues and a comprehensive collection of books on North American electric railways.

The museum was instrumental in publishing three recent books, Twin Cities by Trolley (2007 University of Minnesota Press), Twin Ports by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Duluth-Superior (2014 University of Minnesota Press) and Twin Cities Trolleys in Color (2017 Morning Sun Books). The museum also publishes Twin City Lines, a quarterly, heavily illustrated history magazine for its members. It has gathered and digitized two hours of vintage TCRT video. Four lectures on the history of TCRT can be found on Youtube.

The museum’s extensive photo collection has provided much of the material for the museum’s Twin City Lines quarterly history magazine and the books. Almost 2000 of the best photos can be viewed in the historic resources section of the museum’s website, thanks to a link to the Minnesota Digital Library.