Duluth Street Railway Company

The first streetcar on Park Point. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Meanwhile, the Park Point Traction Company had been operating a horse-drawn trolley on Minnesota Point since it first organized in 1887 as the Minnesota Point Street Railway Company. Its line ran along what is today Minnesota Avenue, from the ship canal south, extending to Oatka Beach at Fortieth Street by 1899, the year it electrified and became the Park Point Company (it became Interstate Traction in 1912). Because of its location across the canal, which was not permanently bridged until 1905, Park Point was cut off from Duluth’s fire department. So the trolley company outfitted one car with fire-fighting equipment and the city supplied a firefighter to operate it. The rig was the only streetcar outfitted as a fire car in North America. According to Duluth streetcar expert Wayne C. Olsen, it was the “moral obligation of any male citizen along the way to jump on the [fire] car to offer whatever assistance was needed.” The trolley company also offered a freight service for its patrons.

The Duluth Street Railway Company absorbed the Park Point company in 1917. It had risen from receivership with an injection of cash from Luther Mendenhall and Guilford Hartley and new management provided by Herbert Warren. In 1900, the company teamed up with the Superior Rapid Transit Railway, itself in receivership, to operate a line between Duluth and Superior on the Interstate Bridge that connected the two cities. During the next ten years, Duluth Street Railway experienced another boom, acquiring the lines owned by land companies and expanding its system. A line along Piedmont Avenue opened in 1910, followed by one along East Ninth Street to Thirteenth Avenue East two years later. A western line to Morgan Park opened in 1916 and was  extended to Gary-New Duluth two years later. A line from East Eighth Street to Kent Road was completed in 1923. The streetcar system reach Crosley Avenue in Lakeside in 1926, the last line to be constructed. Duluth Street Railway also operated the entire Superior system.

Besides extending its reach, Duluth Street Railway reinvested in its cars. The electric trollies that had replaced the dinkies were themselves replaced in 1901. The new cars came from the Twin City Rapid Transit Company’s shops in Snelling, and were large, sturdy vehicles. Their bright paint jobs inspired the nickname “Yellow Horse.” Duluth Street Railway purchased 150 of them over the next twenty-five years, including the St. Louis, a private car outfitted with, according to Olsen, “elegantly upholstered chairs, thick rugs and ornate draperies…[and] an ice box stocked with a variety of refreshments.” The cherrywood-paneled car was at the disposal of company officials to “show visiting dignitaries the city.”

While it enjoyed financial solvency for a while, the going was hardly smooth. In 1912 employee conditions had not improved for the workforce, most of it made up of Scandinavian immigrants, and Herbert Warren did all he could to prevent union organization. According to historians Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, Warren kept workers under surveillance trying to identify union organizers and fined them for “petty infractions.” After the company fired nine men who had met secretly to discuss a new union, employees stopped work. They demanded that they be allowed to form a union, that their work day be cut to nine hours, and that their recently unemployed compatriots be given their jobs back.

The company refused and hired scabs. On September 9 three thousand people attacked the streetcar barns at Twenty-Seventh Avenue West and Superior Street. They derailed cars and mistreated scab workers. By the fourth day local papers were reporting 15,000 people at the site, and the violence increased. Strikers threw stones at scab crews, set up blockades on the tracks, and even overturned cars. On Friday, September 13, newspapers reported that shots had been fired at a scab motorman. Even with hired detectives along for the ride, attacks on scab conductors continued into October. Headlines declared the police helpless. But Warren dug in, refusing to negotiate. With the law of the day on the company’s side, the strike failed.

Until World War I, all of Duluth’s streetcar conductors were men. Duluth News-Tribune reporter Nathan Cohen, in a sentimental piece about the end of the streetcar line in 1939, asked readers if they remembered “the buxom lass on the steel plant route who used to drink beer with her lunch, and how the bottles used to roll all over the floor at every sharp turn?” Few women stayed on after the war, but two of them operated streetcars for at least ten years.

The streetcar system saw its peak in 1920, collecting 35,000,000 tolls. It saw its largest day the year before, when 178,700 riders used Duluth’s transit system to attend Independence Day celebrations. Eventually, the popularity of automobiles and the introduction of buses dramatically dropped ridership, and Duluth simply didn’t have a large enough population to support the system. The Great Depression didn’t help, and in 1930 the company went bankrupt. Lines started shutting down, replaced by buses first used in the 1920. First the Fourth Street Line shut down, then the Minnesota Point service. The Duluth-Superior Transit Company bought the Railway company’s holdings in 1933. Soon the Lester Park line discontinued operation, and in 1935, every foot of track in Superior. The last piece of the railway to be dismantled was the Seventh Avenue West Incline Railway, which came down the day after Labor Day 1939.

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