The Minnesota Streetcar Museum Provides Riders with a Window to the Past

Minneapolis residents do not need to look far to see streets lined with cars.  They whiz by windows—in shiny blues, golds and whites, boxy or sleek or family friendly. They have settled into the landscape, as plainly as a grassy yard or a rippling river. But years ago the streets of Minneapolis looked starkly different—this was a time when streetcars ruled the roads, connecting the city through movement and transportation, and shaping neighborhoods wherever the rails connected.

“Technology really shapes how people perceive the world,” says Aaron Isaacs, head historian for the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. “Technology today is based on customizing to the individual, and that is a radical departure from the streetcar era. When you were in it, it was a shared experience, you were out in public,” he says.

Every year, from May through October, this piece of Minnesota history springs to life. The Como-Harriet line of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, nestled into a shed-like building framing Lake Harriet, feels like a window to the past. The museum is interactive, and it gives visitors a chance to re-live the streetcar days by riding one of the museum’s three operating streetcars (there are three more at the Excelsior location). As soon as visitors step up onto the streetcar, they are sure to feel transported. Vintage ads line the walls—including one for the classic Minnesota delight, lutefisk. With a few dings of the bell to alert the surrounding area of its presence, the streetcar, manned by volunteers, begins to glide down the tracks. The scenery seems to ease by—pedestrians walking around the lake with their dogs, the cool blue water, the soft patter of the streetcar connecting with the tracks. In this writer’s opinion, it’s easy to feel like a kid again when riding the streetcar.

The 1950s saw the end of streetcars as the community had known them. Cars had become an integral part of society and times had changed. But in 1962, a dedicated group of individuals came together to save streetcar number 1300 which had been preserved but did not have a permanent home. “Kind of like fan boys, if you will,” says Isaacs, talking about the group. “My dad was one of the guys who did it. I was 13.” A portion of the right of way had been preserved because it was on land owned by the Minneapolis Park Board, and after the museum added the rails back, that section of rail would become what is now the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. The museum runs with the help of about 310 members, 115 of them active, and all of them volunteers. They operate the cars, maintain and restore them. All of them are dedicated to preserving a history that played a huge hand in shaping our city.

Back in the streetcar days, in places where the rails crossed, city centers sprang from the ground like wild flowers. Linden Hills and the Uptown area are just two examples of neighborhoods built by the streetcar. Residents were attracted by the ease of transportation in these areas, and as people began to migrate, businesses and the home market began to prosper as well.

Streetcars also provided an accepting environment for women to work. In 1943, the streetcar company hired its first woman, and the company went on to hire over 500 more women, 474 of them running the streetcars. They called these women Motorettes. In 1993, Isaacs tracked down 75 former Motorettes through cold calling names in the phone book and through publicizing of the event done by Metro Transit. The museum hosted a reunion for the Motorettes, years after they had worked on the streetcars. Isaacs even offered them a chance to operate the cars. “One of them was blind and she ran the car,” he says, explaining that because the car stays on the track, much of driving it is based on muscle memory. “They all remembered how to drive,” he adds.

Present day volunteer Linda Ridlehuber proudly calls herself a Motorette. When Ridlehuber moved back to Minneapolis years ago, she would watch the streetcars from the museum go by near her house, and eventually she became inspired to volunteer. Both Ridlehuber and Isaacs hope to recruit more volunteers—both streetcar operators and mechanics. “Working on 100-year-old equipment is no small thing,” Ridlehuber says, but then goes on to explain that the museum trains all new volunteers. They hope to find more young people interested in the craft, to continue the legacy and preserve this piece of interactive history.
 
Many of the museum’s visitors are of a much younger generation, and the attraction that the streetcar has for kids will likely be apparent to any adult rider as well. The museum caters to kids with a variety of events throughout the year including a story time where kids dress in their pajamas and listen to a children’s story while riding the rails. And as long as there is a little bit of kid in all of us, the streetcar, in all its glory, is sure to live on.