Ghosts of transportation past: Duluth trolley's leave tracks

By Laura Prosser First horse and buggy paths were replaced. Next went the trolley tracks, and then down came the electric wires of the trolley buses. These modernizations in transportation are now reduced to newspaper clippings, history books and memories; all buried just like the old trolley tracks in Duluth, Minn.

A 1939 Duluth trolley bus. Trolley buses like this used to run from one end of the city to the other. All of the trolley buses were done away with in 1957. Photo courtesy of Duluth Transit Authority.

The first electric trolley was introduced in 1931.

“It was smooth because it was on rails, had electric so there was no motor noise or anything. It was a quiet ride,” said Paul Saari (91), a retired 52-year employee of the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA).

Saari recalls riding the trolley as a kid, saying, “It was nice and fast. You got from one place to another rather quickly, but it was limited to [main streets with rails].”

Today’s trolley technology is relatively the same as it was in 1931.

Aaron Isaacs, historian and board member on the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, described in a phone interview how the new technology is simply more sophisticated.

“You can take the 100-year-old trolley car and put it on the tracks of the Hiawatha Light Rail,” Isaacs said.  “The light rail is just simply an updated version of the old [trolley].”

Amidst economic depression in 1930, trolley technology was derailed.

Duluth was hit the hardest of any city in America by the Depression when the steel and lumber industries crumbled.

“The city had something like 40 percent unemployment rate and [it] hit the city so hard,  ridership on the transit system plummeted,” said Isaacs.

Transit companies cut costs, knowing their only source of income was the fares. Part of cutting costs was the introduction of the trolley buses in 1931.

The Duluth transit system had a mixed fleet of 110 trolleys, two electric trolley buses and nine gasoline powered buses by 1933.

“Trolleys went out and then they got the trolley buses,” said Saari. “They were more fun riding because they bounced around a little bit and they were fast. They could outrun any car in Duluth at the time.”

Trolley buses were the main changeover during the 1938-‘39 transition in Duluth’s transportation.

“It wasn’t an abrupt change,” said Tom Elwell, the current director of marketing at the DTA.

The last Duluth trolley #248, before it was wrecked and taken apart by crowds at its final destination. Photo courtesy of Duluth Transit Authority.

In a 1938 Duluth News Tribune article explaining the modernization, Homer Collins, then president of the Duluth-Superior Transit Co., said the phenomenon offers “greater ease of operation of buses and the resulting better service to the public through their serviceability.”

The revolutionary gas bus’ life expectancy was six to eight years and each cost around $325,000, while trolleys were going for $125,000.

“[They] could really run anywhere from 20-50 years,” said Isaacs. “If you maintain [one] you can almost run it forever.”

Overall, costs to run buses are lower though. They only had to keep them running.

The trolleys’ expenses went beyond running the cars. They built and maintained the tracks, wires, power generating systems as well as plowed the systems lines.

“[Trolley buses] could go right up to the curb. It was like the modern buses except they were limited to the streets that had the trolley lines of electricity for it,” said Saari. Veering from the lines meant being left stuck, unplugged and embarrassed.

Rider’s Digest was a publication created to communicate with the public transportation community. Costs were among topics discussed.

In the Feb. 14, 1941, publication, they explained that “the abandonment of the heavier, more expensive-to-operate [trolleys] made the service more adaptable to declining income [of the company].”

Trolley buses derailed in 1957.

The people wanted freedom. Public transportation fed the people’s hunger with trolleys and gas buses.

“Once they saw the new buses on the street everyone wanted to [ride them],” said Saari.

“Everyone thought the buses were the wave of the future,” said Elwell.

On July 8, 1939, Trolley #248 was the last of the trolleys to leave the tracks.

The DTA’s website said #248 was destroyed by waiting crowds at the “Car-house,” its final destination. Anything not bolted down became mementoes taken home by the crowd.

Soon after, the Rider’s Digest advertised the old trolleys in their Aug. 25, 1939, publication. “Make us an offer,” it read.

The rest were burned, scrapped or sold by the company.

“They became cabins, farm buildings and chicken coops,” said Isaacs.

What remains today of this once great transportation system are buried lines, scrapped metal and instant buildings.

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