Weekend Tourist: Who is Thomas Lowry?

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May 9, 2011
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky

He’s got a street, a school, a neighborhood, a park and even a tunnel named after him, but what do you really know about Thomas Lowry?

Born in 1843, Thomas Lowry grew up on an Illinois farm. Shortly after earning a law degree, and enamored by the expanding Northwest Territory, he moved his practice to Minneapolis — a blossoming metropolis. Just a few years earlier Minneapolis became the seat of Hennepin County with a population of only a few hundred people. Flour mills and other industries flourished along the river at St. Anthony Falls and our population increased to 165,000 by 1890. People needed homes and they needed to be able to get to their jobs.

With a group of investors, Lowry formed the Minneapolis Street Railway Company in 1873. Fourteen passengers faced one another on a wooden car pulled on rails by a horse. A wood stove kept passengers warm in winter. The initial four miles of track soon doubled, then tripled, and within a dozen successful years, the company took over St. Paul’s fledging system and reorganized into the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company.

The first electric cars appeared in 1889. Heavier rails were installed stretching more than 300 miles — all the way from Lake Minnetonka to White Bear Lake. Imagine getting on a streetcar Downtown and riding all the way to Wayzata then hopping one of six streetcar boats to spend the day on Lake Minnetonka’s Big Island Park! It was fun in addition to being an efficient way to get to and from work.

Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company carried more than 200 million passengers in 1922 — their best year. It was considered one of the greatest interurban systems in the United States.

If only we could have kept it intact. More people were moving to Minnesota, the suburbs were growing in every direction, and then came the automobile. People wanted to get there on their own. They wanted independence. Streetcar use declined for years. In 1952 the last tracks were removed or covered up and Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company remained in business with gasoline powered busses and evolved into today’s Metro Transit.

Thomas Lowry lived through the greatest days of streetcar life in Minneapolis. His home was where the Walker Art Center is today. Route 1 traveled past his house onto Douglas Avenue. A park on Douglas and Mount Curve Avenues is named after him. Lowry died in Minneapolis in 1909. What would he think of light rail today?!

A private group of citizens raised funds to create a tribute to Minneapolis’s father of transportation. Designed by sculptor Karl Bittner, the memorial features a bronze statue of Lowry in front of a carved granite backdrop. Two allegorical figures on either side ponder civic life. The small park has trees and flowers, decorative light posts and numerous park benches. But the memorial wasn’t always located in Smith Triangle. When it was dedicated in 1915 it was on a piece of land near Lowry’s home. When I-94 cut through town in 1967 the memorial was moved.

Visit one of the city’s smallest parks and ponder our history of transportation. If you need a way to get there, take a very popular lime green, Nice Ride bike — there’s a rental station right next to the memorial. Lowry would be proud.

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Lunch tip

Spyhouse Coffee’s mission is to produce the finest coffee from artisanal micro-roasters, support local farms and create a brick-and-mortar social network. Go there for a strong cup or an entire lunch. 2404 Hennepin Ave.