Railfans, train buffs, trainspotters, tetsu-oka, gunzels — whatever the moniker, train enthusiasts of almost any nationality would know the green-and-yellow 1950 Alexander Railroad Company ALCO diesel engine No. 7 parked at Craggy Mountain Line in Woodfin. They’d also find an open-air passenger car from the Tweetsie Railroad, a red Southern Caboose 488 and Car 9505, built in Sanford, N.C., for the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
And that’s just the highlights at Craggy Mountain Line, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving three miles of historic track first used in 1904 as a transit system in Asheville and Woodfin.
This past holiday season, children jumped on the nonprofit’s annual Jingle Bell Trolley Train Ride. They shouted greetings of “Merry Christmas!” and huddled together atop the restored engine while Bing Crosby's “White Christmas” rang through the still air and echoed down the track. It was a journey back in time, with folks dressed festively in Santa hats, clutching hot cocoa in mittened hands as they climbed aboard a parked 1925 trolley car that shielded them from the cold winter weather outside.
The ride did more than transport visitors (and two intrepid Xpress reporters) down a short section of the track in North Asheville and Woodfin. It raised much-needed funds for the nonprofit, founded by railroad engineer Rocky Hollifield in 2001.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” he says. “I came to Weaverville in the late ‘90s, and I saw this railroad, walked down here and fell in love with it. I began to pray and said, ‘Help me somehow to do this.’”
After 18 years as an engineer for the Great Smokey Mountain Railway in Sylva, Hollifield notes, “I’ve always loved trains. That’s what I do. I live, eat, breathe and sleep trains.”
How’d he come up with the holiday idea? “Honestly, the idea came from the song ‘Jingle Bells,’” Hollifield explains. “We’re an old-fashioned-type railroad. We’re trying to make you feel like you walked back into the 1940s.” He says to visitors, “Did y’all get that feeling? That you walked back in time? That’s our goal here.”
Hollifield and his all-volunteer crew have their eye on the long haul, with big plans for the future, including the addition of a ticket office, restaurant, retail store and museum, all set to inhabit the various collected antique train and trolley cars purchased and restored throughout the years.
“It takes a lot of money to do this,” Hollifield says of his restoration work on the historic track. “So we formed a nonprofit and got the track, but it took a long time to get it. After that, we brought it to life."
A team of volunteers have laid track, spread gravel, spruced up rail-car interiors and fixed engines. Their work is never-ending and always evolving. Original plans called for a large structure to serve as the depot, but Hollifield and his team have recently decided to go another route due to the lack of available space on the small, pie-shaped property.
"We went back to the original idea we had — to turn the railroad cars into our facility," Hollifield explains, pointing to a few of the parked train cars. "And these cars — this will be the depot. We'll build a loading platform, level with the cars, kind of like a subway platform. Each car will be something.
"The subway car will be a ticket office," he continues, referencing the American Car and Foundry Company 1935 New York City subway car 983 that’s an on-site work-in-progress. “Right now, we have 18-20 pieces, and on the train, we use about three to five cars. We don’t plan on making it any bigger. We don’t have that far to go. We’re not a long, tourist, scenic railroad [like the Tweetsie Railroad or the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad]. This is more of a museum ride. The green car will even be a walkthrough museum, where you can learn a little bit about the railroad history in Asheville.”
Visitors, he envisions, can learn about the first trains that rolled into Buncombe County in 1879 and, a year later, pulled into Biltmore Village.
While the Jingle Bell Trolley Train Run transported its last passengers of the season on Dec. 21, Craggy Mountain Line offers year-round train rides and excursions, from weekend group trips to private parties and picnics, which venture up the track to Woodfin Park.
"We’ve been able to restore the railroad to give passengers a 7.5 mile trip," Hollifield says. "The [Jingle Bell Trolley Train Run] trip just runs a mile — that's 'Santa's track.' During the summer, we run the whole line."
When visitors wish to rent the train for private parties, they “rent the train for two to two-and-a-half hours," Hollifield says. "Basically the railroad is yours [for that time]. And in the summer and in the fall and things, we have evening train rides."
One of the most pressing goals at the railroad is to electrify the track, which currently propels only trolley cars running on gasoline motors and the 1950 ALCO diesel engine. Once the track is electric, the deck is built and more cars are restored, the Craggy Mountain Line will be able to ride up to 100 passengers at once, with four or five trains running throughout the day, Hollifield says.
"Craggy Mountain line is one of the best kept secrets in Asheville," Hollifield says with a smile. "We haven’t done a lot of advertising on purpose. If 100 people show up at our door right now, it's going to scare us. We want a couple hundred people to come, but we want them to come in increments. We’re not going gung-ho yet. The facilities aren't ready yet. Once we get it a little closer to how it should be — handicap-accessible and all the things we plan on doing, then we’ll be ready to ride all day."
The Jingle Bell Trolley Train Run, which ran from Saturday, Nov. 30, to this past weekend, just completed its second year — and gained enough attention to put the Craggy Mountain Line on the region's radar for up-and-coming attractions.
The holiday run “does raise several thousand dollars for us, and all the money we get, from tickets and donations — whatever we do, is put right back into the railroad to make it grow," says Hollifield.
On the day Xpress got on board, the train shouted a warning, and passengers climbed out of the warm, parked trolley car, ambled across the street, and climbed aboard the two open-air cars on the opposite side of the road. Christmas lights and tinsel-garland swung from the roof as the 1927 Asheville streetcar began to roll and Hollifield waved goodbye from the sidelines with a smile.
“I have loved trains all my life,” he says, smiling. “My mom told me I used to sit up in the car seat and point at trains as they went by down in Biltmore.”
And it’s easy to see that lifelong passion in every tie on the historic track, as Hollifield and Craggy Mountain Line volunteers turn the original 1904 line into a functional railroad once again.
“Folks just want to see this come to life. They just want to see this railroad bring some history back to Asheville.”
For more information about Craggy Mountain Line, go to CraggyMountainLine.com.