Vern Weckwerth recalls his first trip on the old University of Minnesota intercampus trolley in the early 1950s as having a rural feel to it.
“I thought I was lost in the country as we zipped through the wooded area by ‘Professorville,’ just before reaching the St. Paul campus,” he says.
“Professorville” was the University Grove neighborhood and Weckwerth went on to become a professor himself. Today he is retired and lives in Falcon Heights within a stone’s throw of the one-time right-of-way, traces of which can still be seen 60 years after the trolley’s last run.
In the early 20th century, university officials were seeking a cheaper and more efficient means of delivering coal and other bulk supplies to the St. Paul campus. The shipments arrived by rail at a freight yard just west of where Larpenteur Avenue and Highway 280 now intersect. Supplies had to be unloaded, then loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and unloaded again at their final destination.
If the university had its own section of track, the thinking went, a locomotive could move individual freight cars directly to campus.
But why stop there? Why not extend the exclusive right-of-way beyond the spur to the freight yard and make it possible to transport people between the Twin Cities’ branches of the university as well?
“Perhaps no other one recent step in the development of the University of Minnesota has been more important than this linking of the two campus centers,” said the Board of Regents in its 1914 report to the governor.
The trolley started running that year, ending the isolation of the “farm school” and making it possible for students to attend classes on either site. The line was owned by the university and operated and maintained by the Twin City Rapid Transit Co. The cars ran every 15 minutes on the 3 ½-mile route, from about 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The initial fare was 7 cents.
Riders would board near today’s St. Paul campus Student Center on Buford Avenue. The trolley traveled north on an exclusive right-of-way, curving west on the south side of the agricultural fields and through an underpass at Cleveland Avenue.
The car continued west parallel to Folwell Avenue, turning sharply south along Eustis Street, until it reached Como Avenue. There it switched onto the regular streetcar tracks, proceeding westward to Southeast 15th Street and south again to the intersection with Pillsbury Drive on the Minneapolis campus.
The trolley became a fixture of university life and probably nobody had more to do with that than its beloved conductor, Ralph Waldo “Skipper” Spencer.
Thor Kommedahl, university professor emeritus and Falcon Heights resident who died a few months ago, once shared memories of Spencer from his student years in the 1940s on the university alumni association website.
“As Skip punched our tickets, he also learned and memorized our names,” Kommedahl recalled. “It wasn’t long after the fall quarter began that Skip was welcoming each rider by name. During the trip, he often talked with students, learning of their experiences on campus.
“Skip was a checker champion at the University and once played against 12 students at a time in Coffman Union and won all 12. Skip was a legend and friend to all students,” Kommedahl said.
Popular though it was, the trolley was destined to meet the same fate as the rest of the Twin Cities streetcars, replaced by buses in 1954.
To see a portion of the old trolley route, find University Grove Park on Coffman Street in Falcon Heights, just south of Larpenteur. A sidewalk coming from the park ends at Coffman, but follow that heading west and parallel to the 10th hole on the university golf course.
As you proceed, you’ll see some of the old railroad ties, as well as several hundred yards of retaining wall, interrupted at one point by a staircase that passengers used as access to and from Folwell Street. The concrete platform for the one-time trolley stop can be found there, as well.
Continuing west, the route continues downhill on an elevated roadbed through a ravine, passing a pond at one point and ending in an apartment-building parking lot at Carl Street in Lauderdale.
This is near the spot where the trolley nearly came to grief on a frosty winter’s day in the 1920s. As Coates P. Bull Jr. of Vero Beach, Fla., recounted to the Park Bugle in 1986, “Our motorman was noted for driving as fast as he dared. There was a long steep grade down toward Eustis Street—and then a 90-degree turn to the left to head for Como.”
The driver applied the brakes, but the tracks were iced and nothing happened. The passengers steeled themselves for what seemed to be the inevitable.
“Somebody’s prayer must have been heard,” recalled Bull, “for we made the turn, the trolley swung around like a whirling dervish, and we came to a stop. It was a very shaken motorman who got out and replaced the trolley on the wire and we all breathed a sigh of relief as we proceeded on our way.
“Yes, the Inter-campus Special was a very important part of our lives, one which brings back many happy memories,” Bull concluded.