The demise of the Twin Cities’ streetcar system

A streetcar at Emerald and University in Prospect Park.

Photo by courtesy the Minnesota Streetcar Museum

Correction: This article — which was written but not published before exact ridership numbers were released on Jan. 29 — originally estimated Metro Transit ridership for 2008 at 88 million. The actual number was 82 million, according to Metro Transit.

The years soon after World War II were especially challenging for transit systems across the country. Ridership peaked in the 1920s and began declining with increasing competition from the automobile. During the depression, little money was available for expansion or even maintenance. When WWII started, the Twin Cities’ newest streetcars were already 24 years old. Ridership exploded during the war, but shortages of labor and materials meant little maintenance took place. When the war ended, our streetcar system needed massive investments in new equipment and rehabilitation of its physical plant.At the same time, America’s love affair with the car was rekindled, and transit ridership was plummeting.

A sample of yearly ridership for Twin City Lines (TCL — also known as Twin City Rapid Transit) over 30 years shows how this played out, and a modern Metro Transit ridership number adds some perspective:

1922 – 226 million, nearly three times today’s ridership
1940 – 104 million, the depression takes its toll
1946 – 201 million, WWII shortages and rationing limited driving
1953 – 95 million, America’s love affair with the car takes off
2008 – 82 million, in a region three times larger than in 1953

An additional problem was that most streetcar lines ran down the middle of the street. When a streetcar stopped and the doors were opened, no cars could pass on the right side. This allowed passengers to make it to and from the sidewalk safely. Imagine the impact on the growing traffic on University Avenue when streetcars as often as every three minutes were stopping every block. One of the big advantages that the “modern, progressive” buses offered was that they got out of the way of traffic when they stopped.

An old transit adage states that it’s cheaper to run an empty bus around than an empty train, and it’s cheaper to run a full train around than a full bus. As ridership dropped, there were more and more empty trains/streetcars and buses.

The fall of the streetcar empire

On the national scale, there is some belief in a conspiracy led by National City Lines (NCL) to destroy all the streetcar systems in the country — a debate that is still going on. NCL was bankrolled by GM, Standard Oil and Firestone, and they made a practice of buying up struggling transit systems and replacing all of the streetcars with buses. We do know that NCL, except for one connection, played no role in the scrapping of the Twin Cities’ streetcar system. We did that ourselves, thank you.

D.J. Strouse was president of Twin City Lines from 1936 to 1949. Under his leadership, profits were plowed back into the company. He was a strong believer in streetcars and began a modernization campaign with the purchase of 141 new PCC streetcars in the late 1940s.

Charles Green was a Wall Street financier who owned some TCL stock. He demanded that TCL start paying dividends and waged a proxy fight in 1949 to gain control. Once in charge, he drastically slashed service and maintenance and was determined to convert to an all-bus system by 1958. His legal counsel was a local lawyer, Fred Ossanna, who had connections to local mobsters.

Green’s tactics were a public relations disaster and, in 1951, Ossanna waged a successful battle against him for control of the company. However, Ossanna continued to slash service and at one point threatened to terminate all service in St. Paul. Ossanna reportedly raised enough money to buy 25 new buses and went to GM, which offered to finance a complete conversion from streetcars to buses on very favorable terms. Thus began, in 1951, a 25-month conversion during which 758 streetcars and 351 older buses were replaced by 838 new GM buses.

The link to NCL was “Barney” Larrick who was hired by Ossanna to speed the conversion. He had overseen NCL’s conversion from streetcars to buses in Los Angeles.

It turned out, however, that Ossanna and others had been taking kickbacks from scrap dealers as hundreds of miles of steel rails and copper wire were salvaged. In addition, hundreds of older streetcars were burned to salvage the scrap metal. Ossanna, Larrick, and others were convicted and sent to prison. Lyndon Johnson pardoned Ossanna in the mid 60s. Barney Larrick appeared in a documentary Taken for a Ride in the late 90s. He remained adamant that every decision made in LA and the Twin Cities had been necessary.

Some dispute remains; and recommended reading

The National City Lines conspiracy theory remains controversial after half a century. Numerous volumes and documentaries have been produced. Was NCL part of a conspiracy or was it simply aggressively seizing competitive advantage?

The demise of our streetcar system is also subject to dispute. One local historian, well steeped in transit history, argues that the Strouse administration was blind to plummeting ridership and should have been much quicker to undertake a wholesale conversion to buses. Its procrastination set up TCL for the Green takeover.

Another historian, who actually worked for TCL just prior to Green’s takeover, reports that many of TCL’s managers understood that it would be futile to preserve the existing streetcar system. But some did believe that three lines, most likely the Interurban Line (University Avenue), Selby-Lake, and Chicago-Fremont had ridership that justified continued streetcar operation. Cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia did successfully preserve their busiest streetcar lines, which remain operating to this day.

Two magazine articles from the era highlight the controversy:

The September 29, 1951 issue of Collier’s magazine printed an article, “How Mobsters Grabbed a City’s Transit Line.”

The July, 1954, issue of Mass Transit Magazine printed an article, “Rapid Conversion Changes Twin City Transit Picture.” The article praises Ossanna and his colleagues for a rapid streetcar to bus conversion that returned TCL to profitability.

For those who would like to know more about the streetcar system we once had, I recommend Twin Cities by Trolley – The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Published in 2007 by University Press, it can be found at local libraries and bookstores.

The Minnesota Streetcar Museum is located at 4921 Queen Ave. S., near Lake Harriet. Call them at (952) 925-3543.

More on streetcars, ridership and where the lines ran

A comment from MN150 notes that the interurban electric streetcar line from St. Paul to Minneapolis started in December 1890.

The “Interurban Line” as it was known, did operate from 1890 to October 31, 1953 when the streetcars were replaced by modern, progressive buses. It had been serviced by the Twin City Lines newest streetcars, called PCC cars, for the last few years. In 1943, it was the third busiest line in the Twin Cities after Selby/Lake and Glenwood/Fourth Avenue South. Thirty of the PCC cars that ran on University Avenue until 1953 spent the next 50 years running in Newark, New Jersey. Muni in San Francisco recently bought 11 of those cars and they should be running on Market Street and the Embarcadero in the near future. Our loss, their gain.

As nearly as I can figure out, nearly 20 million people rode the line during the year 1943. That works out to about 55,000 riders a day. Today, the #16 [bus] carries about 15,000 riders a day, the #50 about 5,000 and the #94 buses another 5,000 for a total of 25,000, less than half of what it was in 1943.

Prospect Park was also served by two other streetcar lines: the Oak/Harriet and the Franklin/11th. The Oak-Harriet was the same as the Como/Harriet from Southwest Minneapolis and Lake Harriet as far east as 15th Avenue in Dinkytown. There, the Oak/Harriet continued east on Fourth Street to Oak, down Oak to Fulton, then east to Erie, down to Dartmouth, east to 27th, and down 27th Avenue to Yale by the Red & White grocery store (where today’s apartment building stands). Much of our end of that route was obliterated by I-94. The Oak/Harriet line ran from 1891 to 1954.

The Franklin/11th line ran on 11th Street downtown to 4th Avenue S. and then down to Franklin and east to the Mississippi. Initially, it terminated just west of the river but in 1924, the new Franklin Avenue bridge over the river was completed and the line was extended east to meet the Oak/Harriet line at 27th and Yale. The streetcar line was replaced with buses (some call it “bustitution”) in 1940 and the buses started running up Franklin to Bedford. I have a vague recollection that they used to turn around at Bedford and later started using Emerald up to University. At one time long ago, there was talk of running the streetcars up Franklin to Arthur Avenue and then east into St. Paul to connect with the Rondo Avenue line.

— John DeWitt is a Prospect park resident, PPERRIA’s Transportation Chair, and a founder of Transit for Livable Communities.

last revised: June 29, 2009