Just as it was done a century ago, Jim Vaitkunas rang the signal bell, released the heavy, hissing brakes, and ratcheted the throttle lever back a couple clicks.
Minnesota Streetcar Museum‘s streetcar number 1300 effortlessly lurched its 23-ton frame forward; its steel wheels clanking a familiar rhythm down the single mile of track between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun (now, Bde Maka Ska).
In years past, the Como-Harriet line stretched for 20 miles from St. Paul to Linden Hills and was sometimes bumper-to-bumper with streetcars carrying loads of Minneapolitans to and from shows at the Lake Harriet Band Shell on warm summer days. Car 1300, which today runs an abbreviated track with a handful of other old-time trolleys, served throughout most of Minneapolis’ streetcar heyday. But unlike most streetcars, it escaped dismantling or burning, allowing it to ride the rails just as it did when new.
Of 1,100 streetcars of its type built by Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) between 1898 and the WWI era, car 1300 is one of two to survive intact – its sibling is in a Maine museum. Car 1300 rolled out of a St. Paul assembly plant in 1908.
“It’s been lovingly maintained since 1954 when the company donated it [to the Minnesota Railfans Association] and it’s just a rush; it’s a blast to be able to run this thing,” said Vaitkunas, chief of operations for the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. The museum was born from the Minnesota Transportation Museum, which was founded in 1962 specifically to restore car 1300.
From its bright yellow exterior to its wicker seats and mahogany furnishings, the car is as it appeared when the Twin Cities’ trolley system was shut down in 1954.
It’s been completely stripped and refinished during its life, which, except for about a decade during the 1950s and 1060s, has been spent in service.
“Minnesota Railfans Association in 1962 took it out of retirement and took it to the yards of the Minnesota Transfer Railway,” said local streetcar historian John Diers, who co-authored the book Twin Cities by Trolley, the Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul. “They ran the car and it attracted so many people that they thought they should find a home for it.”
A mile of track was laid between Lake Harriet and Lake Bde Maka Ska where the original line used to run, a garage was built, and, in 1971, car 1300 was riding the rails again. The garage, called the car barn, has been improved over time and the Linden Hills transit station was added in the 1990s.
Car 1300 has run every year since the track returned, in recent years carrying about 30,000 passengers annually.
Aside from the track, the most significant change from its glory years is the cost of riding – the fare is now $3 instead of a nickel or a dime (children under 3 ride free).
The Minnesota Streetcar Museum’s all-volunteer staff maintains and drives the car daily from May through the end of October. All money made from fares goes to car, track and station upkeep, as do grants and donations.
So what’s driving the volunteers?
“It’s fun. It’s just fun,” said volunteer conductor Bill Arends, whose official title on the trolley is motorman. “And the more I get involved, the more I learn about streetcars and trains.”
Without hesitation, Linden Hills resident Scottie Watson, said driving the car is something she wanted to do.
“I think as you get older you need to keep creating adventures in your life,” said the first-time museum volunteer. “I also have eight grandsons and they’ll be impressed.”
As streetcars fade further from memory, fans of car 1300 and trolley history hope others will continue to step up and keep it alive for future generations.
“The way I look at it is I’m doing my little part to carry on a tradition – a Linden Hills tradition actually – that’s been going on since the early 1880s,” Vaitkunas said.
Visit https://trolleyride.org/como-harriet-streetcar/ to learn more.
Here’s a video created by the Minnesota Streetcar Museum to showcase when the streetcar was in operation.
Jake Weyer was a reporter with the Southwest Journal.