Woodland streetcar facilitated growth in Duluth

As Duluth transitioned to the 19th century, the suburban sprawl that later became the Woodland neighborhood didn't even exist. During this tumultuous time in Duluth’s history, many people were trying to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Their escape vessel was the streetcar. “Fight starting for extension of railway,” read the headline of a 1890 article in the Duluth News Tribune.

By this time, Duluth had grown from a small township into a bustling harbor city. According to an article in "Duluth: Sketches of the Past," the population had spiked from around 3,500 to over 37,000 in a matter of a few years. To support the city’s flourishing citizenship, Duluth’s four-mile-long streetcar track was extended out of the city almost 16 miles.

Below is a current map of Woodland Avenue and the surrounding area, which is where the historic streetcar line once ran. View Larger Map

After transitioning to new management, the Duluth Street Railway Company also replaced the streetcars. These new streetcars were electrified, making them faster and more dependable.

Because of these new innovations, there was an outcry from Duluth’s rural residents for railway service. As people began to notice the possibility of a quieter home life outside of the city that also included an easy commute into work, they began to leave the city to occupy Duluth’s outlying areas.

This turned many sparsely populated places into busy suburban neighborhoods. Among those neighborhoods were Duluth Heights, Minnesota Point, West Duluth and Woodland.

“The streetcar offered people a lot of different services,” said Diane Oesterreich, a local historian. “It made life a whole lot easier.”

Over the years, Oesterreich has compiled a priceless collection of first-person accounts and manuscripts from Woodland residents, many of whom are now deceased.

According to Oesterreich, one of the streetcar’s most popular routes took people to and from the Duluth Driving Park, a horse racing track that was built by the prominent Hartley family and was located up Dairy Hill. The park quickly turned into Woodland’s main attraction, and the streetcars made it a short afternoon’s ride away.

“The streetcar got so crowded sometimes that people needed to get out and ride on the roof,” Oesterreich said. “One time, the car actually stopped moving [up Dairy Hill] because there was so much weight from the passengers.”

This was not the only time the streetcar stopped moving. The Woodland line may have been popular, but it wasn’t safe from youngsters who would try to make trouble. Local children would place rocks on the streetcar tracks, which would cause the streetcar to come to a screeching halt, Oesterreich said.

Oesterreich said that in one particular incident, some kids were pulling on the streetcar’s wires while it was parked in the front of the library. The streetcar operator, who was inside the library, came out to find the streetcar barreling down the hill away from him. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Click on the Duluth History logo to find more history on the hill.

The Duluth Street Railway Company’s records indicate that at one time streetcars were also used as a delivery service, a sort of precursor to FedEx. Woodland residents could place orders from vendors in downtown Duluth via telephone, have them placed on the Woodland car, and get them dropped off at street corners to be picked up.

This was especially convenient for store owners in Woodland who didn’t have access to the kinds of products that inner-city dealers had. However, the service was discontinued after repeated incidents of lost goods caused numerous complaints to the streetcar company.

According to an article titled "Duluth's Woodland Neighborhood: Shaped by Streetcars," which was published by the Zenith City Online, the Woodland extension was a single-track electric streetcar. To make it as accessible as possible to the neighborhood, the track was placed from Fourth Street and 24th Avenue East to the Forest Hill Cemetery. It also offered a limited number of rides past the cemetery to Austin Street every day.

Most of the old streetcar stations have been torn down or repurposed. According to an article in "Development of the Glen Avon-Hunter’s Park Area of Duluth," one was torn down to build a Super-One grocery store. Another was turned into a soda fountain in 1950.

Today, one of the stations can still be found at the corner of Woodland Avenue and Lewis Street, where it serves as a private residence.

The Woodland neighborhood became a fresh start for hundreds of people trying to escape the hustle of city life. One can still imagine the sound of the streetcar making its way up Woodland Avenue, and what it must have been like to see it pass. Perhaps it was a precursor to one of Duluth’s premier streetcar suburbs and a symbol for change.

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