Duluth’s Streetcar Railways

A streetcar along Superior Street at 13th Avenue East. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Authorization to build Duluth’s first streetcar line—which by grant had to consist of at least one-mile of track with rides on cars of “the best quality” costing no more than a ten-cent toll—was granted in October 1870, but no one rode on a Duluth streetcar until 1883. The Duluth Street Railway Company incorporated in 1881 and work began on tracks along Superior Street from Eighth Avenue West to Third Avenue East in September 1882. Small trolley cars or “dinkies” pulled by mules began service on July 6, 1883. The ride cost a nickel. The mules sometimes pulled the cars off the tracks; passengers had to help lift the cars back on track before the trolley could proceed. The company stored its cars and mules in a barn built at Eleventh Avenue West. By 1889 horses had replaced mules as the streetcar engines.

Those first small cars had open cabs, so early motormen had to dress for all kinds of weather, even if it meant covering their woolen uniforms with buffalo coats and slickers in the winter. The cars were soon adapted with closures, but that didn’t make the job easier: a motorman was not allowed to sit, speak to patrons, nor smoke cigarettes while operating a dinky. And until 1922, when a token system was introduced, they had to make change for customers. The pay was low, and conductors and those in the machine shops were often expected to work sixteen hours a day. Most employees were immigrants. During the winter, operators had to fight the cold and wet, as slush often clogged machinery. Operators of later electrified streetcars had to also contend with ice forming on wires, which reduced conductivity, and therefore power. Along the way they had to constantly tend to the coal fire of the trollies’ heaters.

When Duluth regained its city charter in 1887, surrounding townships folded in to create a much larger city. As neighborhoods developed, the streetcar system developed with them. Often streetcar lines were built by land development companies who created the neighborhoods, but their operation would be handled by the Duluth Street Railway Company. In 1890 the dinkies were replaced with electrically powered cars. Overhead wires were strung along the tracks and a power station was built at the Eleventh Avenue West car barn. By 1892 the entire line was electrified, and the railway had increased from four to nearly thirty miles of track. Major arteries included lines along Superior Street, Fourth Street, and Eighth Street. They were extended to Twenty-Second Avenue East, Twenty-Third Avenue West, and later up Woodland Avenue to Hunter’s Park and out to Lester Park. The Highland Park Tramway line, connected to the Incline Railway (see page 188), served Duluth Heights. Electrical substations sprung up along the lines to provide them with power. Land Companies added stations to their lines, including the Glen Avon station at 2102 Woodland Avenue (it is now a private home). But like so many other businesses in Duluth and throughout the United States, the financial panic of 1893 put great financial strain on the streetcar operation. It had invested heavily during the boom, and now its revenues had suddenly been cut in half. The company reduced operations, leaving new equipment idle. They tried cutting employee wages to stay alive, but that resulted in an employee strike, even though the work force was not organized in a union. The work stoppage resulted in the resignation of manager Fred S. Wardell. In 1898, the company entered receivership.

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 (pictured on next page, top right) 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 (see page 194). 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 1920s (below). 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 Incline Railway, which came down the day after Labor Day 1939 .