A New York artist mapped the Twin Cities' 'lost' streetcar system
The 1893 map shows colorful lines bursting out of the gray boxes representing downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, connecting the Twin Cities through a web of paths traversed by millions of commuters each year.
It was the dawn of the electric streetcar era.
By 1948, the streetcar map had become even more tangled, but its intricacy and rainbow hues mask a transit system on the brink of collapse, a plight brought on by plans for massive construction projects and cities connected by new highways instead of cables and electric tracks.
“I like people to think about what might have been and to consider what choices were made that their transportation network ended up like it,” said Jake Berman, a New York-based artist who is mapping the “lost subways” of North America — including the Twin Cities’ old streetcar system.
“Every kind of city faced similar influences because technology is the same, but they don’t necessarily react to these pressures in the same way,” he said.
Inspiration struck Berman while he was stuck in traffic behind a Jeep on Los Angeles’ Hollywood Freeway. Frustrated, he thought to himself, “Why can’t I take a train?”
A trip to the library revealed that, in the past, he could have. An old map showed L.A.’s Pacific Electric Railway in the 1920s, when it was the largest electric railway system in the world.
Berman’s curiosity grew, and soon he was researching the transit histories of other cities in his free time (during the day, he works as a contract lawyer). Eventually, he decided to couple his findings with his artistic abilities to create designs of subway maps and streetcar routes from years gone by — a project he hopes to one day complete by compiling his renderings in a book.
After creating maps portraying some of the nation’s most famous transit systems in their early years — including New York City’s subways, Chicago’s “L,” and Boston’s “T” — Berman pivoted to the Twin Cities in response to a suggestion from Minnesota friends that he take a look at the inseparable sagas of the Minneapolis and St. Paul public transportation systems.
They were particularly interesting, Berman said, because they had “a lot more continuity” than many of the other cities he researched. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company was formed when the two cities’ networks merged in the mid-1880s under the leadership of real-estate mogul Thomas Lowry, according to “Transit and the Twins,” a history of public transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul written in the 1950s by Stephen Kieffer. A Lowry relative remained at the helm of the company until 1931, when Thomas’ son Horace died.
During those decades of Lowry leadership, the Twin Cities’ streetcar system flourished. In 1892, municipal leaders from around the country flocked to Minnesota to check out the Minneapolis-St. Paul transit system, which the mayors of Brooklyn and Boston dubbed “the finest anywhere in the world,” Kieffer wrote.
Ridership peaked in 1922, when the company carried 226 million passengers. By 1940, however, that number had dropped to 104 million.
A New York financier named Charles Green took over the company in 1949 and began to “lop off” streetcar lines that weren’t economically viable, Kieffer wrote.
Buses, which were cheaper to operate and required less maintenance, soon ruled the Twin Cities transportation scene. They maintained that dominance until the light rail was built in the early 2000s.
“Transportation was a business,” Berman said.
Some communities, like San Francisco and Boston, pushed back against efforts to build freeways through their metro centers, ultimately leading to the conservation of their old public transport systems and city cores. Others, like L.A. and Dallas, were transformed by decades of road construction that created the sprawling urban giants of modern day.
The Twin Cities fell somewhere in between, Berman said. Though thousands of residents rely on public transportation today, the current light-rail lines have a tiny footprint compared with the streetcar system in its heyday.
Berman has sold about 750 of his prints showing the lines and routes that have come and gone from cities over the years on his website, https://fiftythree.studio.
His next design will include a Twin Cities subway system that was proposed in the late 1960s. By sifting through old city documents and tour guide books, he is plotting a map of the underground train lines that never came to be.
In addition to his 1893 and 1948 maps, Berman designed a rendering of today’s Twin Cities transitways. A green line stretches east to St. Paul’s Union Depot, and a blue line shows the southward route to the Mall of America. There’s a stripe running north — the commuter rail — and a few faint gray bus routes.
The simple blueprint provides stark contrast to the chaotic maps of the Twin Cities’ streetcar past. But walk the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Berman said, and evidence of the old infrastructure and its influence can be found all around.
“That history is there in plain sight,” he said, “but it’s not often something that really screams out at you.”