Trolley tales

If you love Asheville, you’ll treasure Trolleys in the Land of the Sky — even if you’re not a trolley buff.

The book, by Weaverville author Joseph M. Canfield, contains enough photos, maps and text within its 96 pages to steam up anyone who has even the slightest interest in local history.

It’s all there, in the neatest wrap-up of local lore this writer has yet to see — people, places and things that haven’t been included in earlier books or newspaper articles. Much of Asheville’s earlier history as an urban center was intimately tied to the ways and means of getting to and from, and in and around, town. And Asheville’s state-of-the-art (for the time) streetcar system was one of the earliest and best in the nation.

The technology that today seems quaintly old-fashioned was the lifeblood of an era that predated private automobiles — an electric miracle that let homebound or farm-bound families shop, visit, go to school, see a stage show, go to a dance or an amusement park, or just lollygag around town for fun.

Canfield’s book covers trolley history from the earliest days (when Asheville’s citizenry numbered a mere 2,616) to September 1934, when the last city car ran and the town was firmly on the map — famous for its luxury hotels and pure mountain air, and a mecca for celebrities and common folk alike from all over the country.

Fifteen well-executed maps support the text, and 70 never-before-published photos evoke the trolley era with a clarity and a focus that’s unique for a book of this type. Only the cover photos are reminiscent of those seen before: They depict the hustle and bustle of Pack Square when it was the meeting place for all of the trolley lines that fanned out from downtown to points north, south, east and west.

One picture of the Laurel Park Railway’s “steam-dummy” streetcar is of particular note. Even before the advent of electric trolleys, attempts were made to develop workable streetcars to replace the malodorous horse-drawn models in use since the 1830s in most U.S. cities. One solution was a small steam locomotive designed to pull a four-wheeled car along a track through city streets. But the steam locomotives terrified horses, and runaways caused injuries and deaths. So the techies of the time contrived to cover the steam locomotives with dummy shells designed to look like regular car bodies — and it worked! Horses were calmed by the deception.

For a short time before cable street railways came into being, followed by electric cars in the last decade of the 19th century, steam-dummy lines blossomed all over the country. The steam-dummy line connecting Hendersonville with Laurel Park was one of the few to operate into the new century, and it ran, according to this rare photo, without the “dummy” car body — perhaps because Hendersonville had less horse traffic than in larger cities.

These accounts of the dimly remembered outlying streetcar lines are among the book’s most interesting features. Who, today, knows anything at all about the long-extinct Weaverville trolley line that once offered seven trips a day to Weaverville and eight trips back — beginning Aug. 2, 1909 — for 25 cents? Horse-drawn hacks provided continuing transportation from Weaverville to Mars Hill and the college there.

The Asheville trolley line lasted until Nov. 29, 1922. No one speeding along the soon-to-be-completed extension of I-26 will see any hint of the fascinating history of this line. Its story alone is worth the price of the book.

Author Canfield has wisely melded technical details with warmly human tales of the builders of the system, its riders and the countryside through which the lines ran, with numerous anecdotes and sprightly accounts of the personalities who peopled Asheville and its environs in these past generations. Trolleys in the Land of the Sky is historical writing at its finest: detailed but never dull, comprehensive without overkill, informative and interesting from the first page to the last.

PRODUCTION, PLEASE PLACE THE FOLLOWING IN A BOX

Trolleys in the Land of the Sky — written by Joseph M. Canfield, with graphics and layout by David C. Bailey — is printed and sold by Harold E. Cox, 80 Virginia Terrace, Forty Fort, Pa., 18704. The book (price: $14) is also available in local bookstores or through the author (call 645-5320).

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