A Streetcar Named Stillwater: Trolleys in the St. Croix River Valley
It wasn’t until 1889 that the first electric street railway began operation in Minnesota, and that was in Stillwater.
Trolleys go back many years. At first the trolley car was pulled on rail tracks by a horse or a team of horses. It wasn’t until 1889 that the first electric street railway began operation in Minnesota, and that was in Stillwater.
In June 1889 the first electric street railway got underway. The opening of the line was the highlight of S. L. Cowan’s party in Oak Park. Hundreds of people jammed into line to ride the streetcar from there to downtown Stillwater. The cars were new and “comfortable, and lighted by five incandescent lamps.” The cars moved up grades of 480 feet to the mile at a speed of six miles an hour. On the level street the cars could attain a speed of 20 miles per hour.
Even though the trolley started off well, soon the patronage fell off. The line was managing to keep afloat, but when Dr. E. D. Allen, the owner, started to dip into the Stillwater trolley line funds to support his line in Davenport, Iowa, the Stillwater line suffered. Employees were not getting paid. They hired local attorney Orris E. Lee and on May 31, 1894, the sheriff under mortgage foreclosure sold the electric streetcar line for $69,120 to Allen Curtis as a trustee for the Boston bondholders. What was left of the first streetcar line was sold on March 5, 1897, to Fred Flint of Stillwater. Flint tore up the tracks, had the wires taken down, and sold everything else.
This wasn’t the end for streetcars in Stillwater. On August 21, 1899, the interurban streetcar line made its first appearance in Stillwater. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company was formed to link the suburbs with the Twin Cities. The first passenger that day was a Mrs. Fitzgerald and this first car into Stillwater “attracted great throngs of people.” This time the trolley cars would be around for the next 33 years.
The trolley car has been remembered greatly by those who once rode on or drove the cars. The cost of the ride on the trolley was six cents from Stillwater to the prison, ten cents from Stillwater to Bayport, and 30 cents from Stillwater to St. Paul.
Allen W. Cooper, who was a motorman for the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, remembered working the Bayport-Wilkins Street and Owns Street line. He liked working it because the “Stillwater cars were nicer to handle. They had more power, were heavier and faster, and driving out through the country was relaxing compared to traffic through the city.”
Walt Fleming, another streetcar motorman, recalled “on Christmas Eve, we had to have a car in front of the Irish church [St. Michael’s] and wait for Mass to finish so we could take people home.”
Although the streetcars were romantic, they became less profitable with the onset of more automobiles and buses. So the end of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company came in Stillwater on August 10, 1932.
The last run was at midnight. Thousands of men, women, and children stayed up late and lined the route the final trolley was to take. Jerry Hagerty, the local superintendent of the streetcar lines, drove the last car out of the city. Stillwater Mayor Peter C. Lund, Joe Becker. Members of the city council, and leading citizens were at the loop awaiting the car.
The trolley was draped in black and each member of the city band, which had formed in front of the car, wore a black crepe armband. The trolley made its last tour of Stillwater. At the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets the band halted. The parade broke up and the Mayor and council members jumped onto the trolley. The car reached the car barn at Owens Street. “Let ‘er go, Jerry,” someone yelled from the crowd. With that encouragement Hagerty pulled on the whistle. After the whistle blew, the car went pulled out onto rattlesnake curve next to McKusick Lake and has never returned.
From Stillwater The Next Generation. By Brent Peterson. Available for purchase through WCHS.