Relic of Saint Paul's First Mass-Transit System Found
Crews digging under Fourth Street in downtown St. Paul for the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line unearthed a piece of its 1800s predecessor, the cable car. Officials have decided to preserve the U-shaped "iron yoke" and upon completion of the 11-mile Central Corridor, display it at the proposed Union Depot station in St. Paul.
Unlike electric streetcars or modern light rail, cable cars had no internal power supply. Their systems consisted of narrow-gauge tracks split by an open groove. Under the groove, a single continuous cable ran the entire length of the line, constantly in motion. Cable car operators controlled a device that grabbed the cable, which pulled the car along. The iron yokes sat U-side-up a few inches beneath grade, protecting the cable.
Yes, St. Paul had a cable car system. Though they were invented in San Francisco in the 1870s, they exploded across the United States. By 1889, St. Paul had two cable car lines operated by the St. Paul City Railway Co. One line ran along East Seventh Street from Wabasha Street downtown to Duluth Street on the city's East Side. The other ran along Fourth from Broadway to Seven Corners, climbed Selby Hill and followed Selby Avenue to Fairview Avenue.
There will likely be more artifacts found. Tracks from streetcars that ran along University Avenue remain and were simply submerged when the roadway was paved over years ago. If the light-rail project moves forward, those tracks are scheduled to be removed once the digging begins.
Cold facts: Cable cars were heated in the winter by small coal-burning stove.