Streetcars of Saint Paul

Selby-Lake streetcar in the 1940s advertising war bonds and stamps (Photo: Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune)

In the early 1940s, we lived on the East Side of Saint Paul near Hazelwood and Seventh streets, where streetcars stopped almost in front of our house. One of my earliest memories is of waiting for the streetcar to bring my grandfather and aunts home from their downtown jobs at the central post office and The Emporium and Schuneman’s, two of the large department stores.

In those days Minnesota had no shopping malls, and Dayton’s was a Minneapolis store. In Saint Paul, downtown Seventh Street boasted the Golden Rule (another department store), the Orpheum and Paramount theaters, Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Parlor, and many other shops along the way from Jackson to St. Peter.

To reach this bustling destination, our family, like most others, used the streetcar nearly all the time. The wicker seats were shellacked to a high gloss and had brass fittings. The bell clanged loudly when the cord was pulled. On the front of the car was a large, heavy mesh semicircle located a couple of feet above the tracks. It was called a cowcatcher. My grandfather told me it was there to catch the cows that jumped over the moon.

As we traveled to downtown Saint Paul, the motorman would call out the names of the intersecting streets, like Johnson Parkway and Arcade. I was mystified when, as we passed the jungly hollow where we played Tarzan, swinging on large vines, he called out “Etna” and “Birmingham.” (When we moved back to Saint Paul in the late 1970s, we settled on the east side of Lake Phalen near Arlington Avenue, and lo and behold, there were those missing streets, Etna and Birmingham.)

Sometimes we didn’t go all the way downtown. Grandfather might take us to an early evening show at one of the neighborhood theaters, the Radio. It was a few blocks west of Johnson Parkway. We’d walk there and return on the streetcar. The swaying of the car put me to sleep by the time we got home.

The Radio is closed now, and the building houses a floor covering business, but the arched doorways into the theater are still there. Those doors used to be covered with heavy velvet to block the light and noise. I can still feel their softness and weight when I used to push through to find a seat.

Sometimes the Radio raffled off live poultry. One night, my grandfather won. That night we didn’t take the streetcar home. With a duck waddling behind, we slowly made our way up Seventh Street, the duck tied by a string held in one of Grandpa’s hands, and my hand held in the other. It was a long walk home.

It was sad when the streetcars were replaced by buses. There was nothing picturesque about buses. They were smelly; they didn’t rock (as in motion); and, worst of all, they didn’t have cowcatchers. I guess by then cows had stopped jumping over the moon.

One Comments

  • Dot Drake 16 / 12 / 2010 Reply

    The above article is a wonderful description of the downtown area and city streetcars. I lived on Louis and Iglehart in the Rondo District (which is no more), and had my choice of taking either the Rondo-Stryker or Selby-Lake streetcar. Both were just a few blocks walk. The Selby-Lake was more fun because of the route it took — through the dark tunnel to the busiest part of downtown.
    My mother worked at the Emporium in the grocery department. When there was more than one bag of groceries for my mom to carry home, it was up to me to help out.
    Seventh Street was was an exciting street. Photographers would randomly snap pictures and offer them to the person for 25cents. There were the beautiful theaters, the dime stores and small shops with women and girl’s clothing. A teenager could spend all day window shopping, but I’ve got to get going to pick up the groceries.

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