Last update: June 24, 2004 at 10:42 AM

What goes around ... a look back at streetcars

Peg Meier,  Star Tribune
June 20, 2004 CARVAR0620

Tom Lowry needed a loan -- again. He often was short on cash to build his Twin Cities streetcar company and to buy more real estate. This time, in about 1890, he went to New York City to hit on financier J. Pierpont Morgan.

Morgan greeted him with a stern look and this comment: "Young man, I am not accustomed to doing business with anyone who has whiskey on his breath, especially at 10 o'clock in the morning."

Legend has it that Lowry replied, "Mr. Morgan, I beg your pardon, but to tell you the truth, it never occurred to me that I could face a man of your prominence without just a touch of Irish courage."

Not only did he get the money, but the two men became good friends.

Another time, in the 1870s, Lowry's wife, Beatrice (gorgeous and from a rich family), returned home from shopping and was met on her doorstep by a white-lipped butler. She walked into the parlor of her Minneapolis mansion and saw it completely stripped of its contents. Gone were the carpets, the tapestries, the draperies, the paintings, the ottomans, the settees and the Tiffany lamps.

Timeline: From streetcar to light rail (requires flash plug-in)

When Tom Lowry got home a little later, an agitated wife confronted him. Their grandson Goodrich Lowry speculated in his book, "Streetcar Man," that Tom had found a deal he couldn't refuse: "To him it was the most natural thing in the world to swap the contents of a drawing room. . . . After all, Mrs. Lowry could always have the drawing room refurnished by Bradstreet's -- on credit, of course."

That was wheeler-dealer Lowry, so much associated with his streetcars that some Twin Cities people called the trolleys "Tom Lowrys."

His Twin City Rapid Transit Co. ultimately became one of the finest, best-run street railway companies in the United States. By the time of his death in 1909, the system stretched more than 48 miles, from Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka.

He started with little horse-drawn streetcars. Horses, however, made for messy streets (at a time when women wore street-length dresses), and they were expensive to feed and care for.

You can credit Lowry with foresight. After he had control of the Minneapolis streetcars, he bought out St. Paul's in 1884. In their early years, the two systems had little in common but dismal financial records. The cities were separated by five miles of open country. He must have believed the Twin Cities would someday grow together.

Then came the new technology of electric streetcars (also called trolleys). As soon as the frost left the ground in 1890, a crew of 1,200 men in Minneapolis and 1,200 in St. Paul built a new transportation system. They laid tracks and strung trolley wires supported by poles in the middle of streets. Powerhouses were built. The interurban line opened in December, linking the business districts of the two cities via Washington and University avenues.

And Lowry's company was broke -- again.

Fortunately for him, trolleys became fashionable, not only for riding to work but for picnic excursions to White Bear Lake to the east and Excelsior to the west. By 1906, the company's steamboats sailed on Lake Minnetonka in summer. The boats not only took fun-seekers to the Big Island Amusement Park; they also connected passengers with trolleys that took them to work in town.

The transit company was the area's largest employer. Its common stock tended to be a solid investment. It produced its own electricity and made its own streetcars. More than 360 miles of track were in service. Its streetcars were fast; they reached 60 miles per hour. As trolley lines expanded, land was developed, small businesses moved in and villages emerged.

Lowry's risk-taking and efficient management paid off. As a token of his wealth, he had a streetcar built just for him, with mahogany paneling and upholstered furniture. He delighted in carrying notable visitors such as Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley on sightseeing tours of the Twin Cities. More...

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