Book Review: Twin Ports by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Duluth–Superior

Twin Ports by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Duluth–Superior
By Aaron Isaacs
University of Minnesota Press, Suite 290 111 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55401; 320 pages, 366 b&w photos, 18 maps; hardcover, 9 x 10 inches; $39.95

The “Twin Ports” of Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., are popular destinations for people interested in the region’s ore-hauling railroads and lake boats. The area is well known as a place where trains bring iron ore taconite pellets to the harbor where they are transferred to lake boats for onward shipment.

Many visitors to Duluth stop by the Lake Superior Railroad Museum where they can ride on trolley car No. 530, an import from Lisbon, Portugal, built from American parts supplied by Brill Manufacturing Co. of Philadelphia. This non-native trolley car operates along the main street of “Depot Square,” an exhibit portraying a 1900-1910 Duluth street scene. After seeing that exhibit, those wishing to learn more about the streetcar era in the Twin Ports should read Aaron Isaacs’ “Twin Ports by Trolley” which covers the region’s transit system from the horsecar era to the early buses and trolley buses of the mid-20th Century.

Aaron Isaacs is well-qualified to write this book, having worked for the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit for 23 years and being involved with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum for 40. Additionally, he has written several works on Minnesota’s streetcars and is editor of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums magazine. His latest work “takes us into the workings of the Duluth–Superior streetcars: politics and corporate maneuvers, engineering and maintenance, scheduling and setting routes, running and riding the trolleys,” according to the publisher. The book contains more than 300 pages of history and illustrations plus 12 appendixes and suggestions for further reading.

The Twin Ports and their streetcar system are introduced in the preface, which is followed by a glossary of streetcar terminology and an excellent all-time track map of the system showing construction and pre-1935 abandonment dates. Duluth Street Railways was affiliated with the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. and the latter built much of Duluth's fleet. This streetcar system quit relatively early in 1939 and was untouched by the GM/National City Lines controversy of the post WW2 period. The first chapter provides the historical overview of the system beginning with the horsecar era of the late 19th century and progressing to end of service in 1939.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 take a topical approach in explaining various aspects of the operation and examine the role of various employees in keeping the operation running. In addition to operators and conductors, maintenance workers were essential to daily operations. Chapter 4 examines the labor intensive work necessary to maintain a streetcar operation in a challenging environment where there are only two seasons, “winter” and “construction.” And no look at a Minnesota streetcar operation would be complete without a discussion of snow-fighting operations which are well documented in this chapter. There is also coverage of incidents and accidents, including a fatal 1927 collision between a streetcar and train in Superior.

About half of the book is devoted to a line-by-line tour of the DSR system. Because Duluth is bounded by water on one side and hills on the other, the majority of service was concentrated on lines closely paralleling the waterfront. Some lines extended up the city’s steep hills to serve residential neighborhoods and on 7th Street a funicular was necessary to climb 509 feet up a steep hill, after which passengers could transfer to the isolated Highland line to continue their journey. Other interesting operations include the isolated Park Point line, which served a small isolated community separated from Duluth by a ship canal and the Interstate line which connected Duluth with Superior.

The book’s 366 photos and 18 maps present the Twin Ports as the existed in the early 20th century. The author had access to a number of prominent photo collections which results an excellent selection of illustrations. And although the region has changed since the time covered in this book, the current transit system retains key routes. It’s an interesting exercise to print the current Duluth Transit Authority map to see how the Twin Ports’ transit system has evolved in the intervening years.

Although the main narrative ends with the demise of streetcars in 1939, Chapter 6 covers early buses and trolley buses up to the creation of the transit authority in 1968 and Chapter 7 discusses surviving remnants of the streetcar system, including two cars that operate at the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. Twin Ports by Trolley will appeal to the student of urban public transportation as it does an impressive job of documenting the streetcar era in Duluth and Superior.
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