Streetcar Tokens

by Josh on February 15, 2006 · 7 comments

in House History,Journal

At a time when Minneapolis’ suburban fringe consists of cul-de-sacs connected by miles and miles of highways, it’s hard to imagine that 80 years ago our house a few dozen blocks from downtown represented the edge of suburban development.

Today’s large lots in far-flung suburbs would be unthinkable without two or more cars per family, but our neighborhood was built on a different transportation paradigm: the streetcar. Many Twin Citians don’t know that from the early 20th century until 1954, Minneapolis and St. Paul had one of the finest and most extensive streetcar networks in the country. Streetcar service covered all areas of the cities and linked to some nearby towns as well.

Minneapolis Collection M4083

During a few dramatic years in the early 1950’s the streetcars were decomissioned and infamously burned, or sold to places like Newark and Mexico City. Twin Cities mass transit began an era of bus-only service and declining ridership that concluded in 2004 with the opening of the Hiawatha Light Rail line, 50 years after the last Minneapolis streetcar was pulled from the rails.

The old streetcars may be long gone, but they are not forgotten. In many places the rails were simply paved over. As the asphalt ages, cracks and chips away, glimpses of the rails are visible like fossils exposed in a streambed.

Another reminder of the streetcars are the tokens once used to pay fare. These show up on Ebay from time to time, and I recently won an auction for three Minneapolis Street Railway tokens to start a little streetcar collection.

streetcar tokens

This year the Minnesota legislature will be evaluating proposals to expand light rail and commuter rail service, but many legislators have balked at the expensive development costs of rail transit. It’s fascinating to think of how different our transit system could be and how much money could have been saved if only the old streetcar network had been maintained and expanded as the area grew.

More Streetcar Links

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek February 15, 2006 at 1:05 pm

Our house was near the end of the streetcar line in Vancouver. I think it disappeared in the 40’s. I’ve heard some conspiracy theories involving GM


Kristin February 15, 2006 at 3:40 pm

Streetcars are just so much more charming and fanciful than buses.


Josh February 15, 2006 at 2:22 pm

They’re more than theories. Twin Cities Rapid Transit executive Fred Ossanna and associate Barney Larrick were convicted of fraud in 1960 for activities stemming from the sale of the streetcars and purchase of GM buses.

The Minneapolis Public Library link above shows a famous photo of Ossanna accepting a check as the last streetcar burns in the background.

I’m also updating the post to include a wikipedia article on Twin Cities Rapid Transit that has a good historical summary and some nice photos.


Becky October 14, 2010 at 10:03 am

I found two street car tokens among my Dad’s stuff. He died in l997 at age 97. Printed on them is
Nashville RY.& LT. co. Perhaps of some value to a collector.


Mpltan February 26, 2012 at 2:00 am

I found a token in my grandfather’s stuff. It’s interesting I regard this little token to be of great historic and important value, as if finding gold. Yet I’m sure he’d think them as ordinary as the Metro Transit transfers that fly through our fingers every day.


GailMarie May 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Anyone in the Twin Cities who wants a streetcar token from Minneapolis or St. Paul can go down to the Lake Harriet terminus (the replica Linden Hills station) at 42nd Street and buy a ride on the streetcar for $4. What you do with the token is up to you.


Sherrie November 5, 2012 at 7:33 am

I found a Minneapolis street car token this past week while thoroughly sweeping out the fireplace of my parents old home in a renovation (rental property since 1991). Does anyone know how to find out the year(s) when certain tokens were made? I have the one with the ‘M’ in the middle. Also Josh, anyone, are you interested in buying the token? –just noticed some of the links above and I’ll check them out–GailMarie, are tokens from the Lake Harriet terminus the originals?


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