Get Rail!

Back in 1867, when Minneapolis businessman (and the city’s first mayor) Dorilus Morrison began laying tracks for a horsecar line on Second Street from Hennepin to Cedar, the city was teeming with enterprising businessmen eager to turn the bustling river town into a city of some prominence. Colonel William King soon joined the fray, slapping a horsecar line on Third Street between Fourth and Second Avenues. A year later, the two men combined forces with other local businessmen to create the Minneapolis Street Railway, with the intention of operating the two lines.

On a certain level, the horsecar lines made perfect sense for early Minneapolitans hoping to roll comfortably along the rutted downtown streets from point A to point B, unencumbered by the old-fashioned constraints of horse and buggy. It was a thoroughly modern idea. On another level, they apparently made no sense at all, because the line went pretty much nowhere for the next eight years.

In 1875, the Minneapolis City Council granted the company a 50-year franchise to operate the lines, but with the stipulation that they had to be up and running in four months. Morrison and King turned to a local lawyer and rising real estate mogul named Thomas Lowry to put the financing together, and the first horsecar line finally opened for service on September 2, 1875, linking the downtown train depot with the University of Minnesota campus.

Lowry saw the bigger picture, though. In 1886, his company acquired the St. Paul City Railway Company and envisioned uniting the growing transit networks into a single entity. In 1887, Lowry and others toured cities around the country that were shifting from horsecars to cablecars. Pulled along by cables rather than by often-recalcitrant horses (riders regularly were asked to climb down from the trolleys to give the beasts a push), cablecars were briefly viewed as the future of transit in the Twin Cities. That is, until winter set in, and the machinery balked.

In 1889, they began investigating the feasibility of reconstructing the system to use electric streetcars. Through it all, investors waited patiently for dividends, as profits were plowed back into the system. Electrification of the lines meant complete reconstruction of the network; those who ponied up for the earlier horsecar lines and the ill-fated infatuation with cablecars lost their entire investment.

As a concession to New York bankers, from whom Lowry eventually secured the financing for the new electric streetcar lines, the St. Paul and Minneapolis railways were merged in 1890 to create the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. Some $6 million later ($3.5 million over budget—a very modern 116 percent cost overrun), TCRT had doubled the number of miles served by the new electric system, and an interurban line on University Avenue connected the two downtowns.

For the next 40 years, Lowry and TCRT ruled the local transit scene. He bought up the three competing bus lines as well as the Yellow Cab Company, and by 1926 essentially controlled all public transportation in the Twin Cities. At its peak in 1931, TCRT operated 1,021 streetcars on nearly 530 miles of track in the metropolitan area. It was said that no resident of Minneapolis lived more than 400 yards from a streetcar stop.

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