For most locals, every attempt to navigate one of Asheville’s traffic-choked arteries — whether by car, bike or other means — is likely to bring the city’s transportation woes into sharp focus.
How did we ever come to this?
The long answer to that question begins at least in the 18th century, when travelers were preoccupied not with a glut of traffic but with whether they would reach their destination at all.
A few major milestones stand out along the way, notes local historian Mitzi Schaden Tessier, who’s written two well-known books, Asheville: A Pictorial History and The State of Buncombe. Those pivotal points include the opening of the Buncombe Turnpike, the coming of the railroad, and the launching of Asheville’s streetcars, all of which took place in the 1800s.
The advent of the automobile and, later, the interstate-highway system launched more recent chapters in the city’s ground-transportation saga. So did federal legislation, passed in 1991, demanding that communities consider all the different modes of transportation — not just cars — and the impact of transportation decisions on area residents.
Where the buffalo roam
Buffalo probably tramped out the first paths in Western North Carolina, John Preston Arthur surmised in his 1914 tome Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913. The Cherokee likely relied on those paths in creating their trading trails, he wrote.
European settlers went on to construct their own roads through the mountains, though this was no easy task. Because roads over ridge tops often proved too steep for overtaxed oxen and horses, these pioneer road builders preferred to follow creeks and rivers — though this created corridors highly vulnerable to flooding. There were other challenges as well. Sheer cliffs on one side of a stream could force the road to the opposite bank; cliffs on both sides would send the road into an adjacent holler. Boulders posed another problem. The road builders of the day would either try to go around large rocks, blow them up with gunpowder, or split them apart by heating them with a bonfire and then dousing them with barrels of water, Arthur wrote.
“These roads or trails, rude and rough, narrow and steep as they were, constituted the only means of communication between the scattered settlers of this new country, and were matters of first importance to its people,” wrote F.A. Sondley in Asheville Centenary, an 1898 account cited by Arthur.
Indeed, Asheville scarcely claimed a spot on the map until after the state legislature authorized a group of men to set up a company to build the Buncombe Turnpike and charge tolls for the road, which was laid out from Saluda Gap through Asheville to the Tennessee state line. Though the legality of the act was questioned (the state Supreme Court overruled those objections), the road was completed in 1828, according to Sondley.
“Of course, the Buncombe Turnpike made this nothing town into a center of community that was between Tennessee and South Carolina,” notes Tessier. “The Buncombe Turnpike allowed for the stagecoaches to run, which of course brought more hotels and really made Asheville more important.”
But it wasn’t just stagecoaches that traversed the Buncombe Turnpike. Drovers herded thousands upon thousands of animals from the mountains down to South Carolina along the road. Historians have estimated that, in peak years, as many as 100,000 or more pigs trotted the road in the fall, bound for Augusta and Charleston, reveals Tessier. The drovers also gave the local economy a jolt, since they’d stop at inns along the way.
Asheville got another boost when the Western Turnpike (from Salisbury to Murphy) came through town in 1850, says Tessier. But two decades later, Buncombe County was dealt a blow when East Tennessee’s newly acquired railroad connections with Atlanta and Mobile dried up the livestock traffic with that region, noted Ina W. Van Noppen and John J. Van Noppen in Western North Carolina Since the Civil War, published in 1973.
The lonesome whistle
The railroad’s arrival in Asheville in 1880 marked another milestone in the city’s transportation history, albeit one that came at great personal cost to those who built it.
The $2 million project to blast and dig out tunnels for 11 miles of track between Old Fort and the crest of the mountain cost 400 people their lives, note the Van Noppens. Almost all were convicts and almost all were black — many of them convicted of such petty crimes as vagrancy and loitering. (For details on the recently revived interest on this topic, see “Chance reveals piece of area’s black history,” March 8 Asheville Citizen-Times.)
Asheville virtually exploded after the railroad came through. In 1880, the town’s population stood at 2,610; by 1900, it had burgeoned to 15,000, Tessier wrote in Asheville: A Pictorial History. And in 1883, she noted, the town of Asheville officially became a city.
The ease of rail transportation, combined with plush accommodations (such as those found at the Battery Park Hotel) and a sought-after climate — praised around the world as the place to cure “consumptive ailments” — drew the ill and the wealthy to Asheville, Tessier wrote. George Willis Pack, one of Asheville’s greatest benefactors, and his wife, Frances Farnam Pack, neatly fell into both categories. Asheville’s climate completely cured Frances of a throat ailment after the family moved here from Cleveland in 1883, according to a letter her son wrote to the Asheville Citizen 50 years later.
But Asheville’s love affair with railroads eventually died. Southern Railway discontinued passenger rail service in 1975, Tessier wrote in Asheville: A Pictorial History. A group of locals, though, are determined to revive it (see “Rail redux”).
Meanwhile, politicians hadn’t given up on improving roads. Over the years, the responsibility for public thoroughfares had shifted from the individual and local level to the state and federal spheres. Before 1879, every “able-bodied man” in the state was obligated to work a certain number of days every year on road maintenance under the “labor tax” system, according to the Van Noppens. The “chain-gang law” allowed counties to put convicts on road duty beginning in 1887. Despite these measures, the Van Noppens reported that most roads remained abysmal.
The city of Asheville fared a little better: In 1891, it gained permission from the N.C. General Assembly to float a $600,000 bond issue to pave the Public Square (now Pack Square) and the main streets in town, Tessier wrote in The State of Buncombe. The last vestige of the days of brick streets can be seen on the section of Market Street between College and Walnut streets.
After the turn of the century, the so-called “Good Roads” movement gained ground in several states, including North Carolina. By 1913, the General Assembly had passed road-building laws, including one allowing voters to petition their townships to sell bonds — resulting in decent roads near county seats and wretched ones farther afield.
Progress couldn’t come too soon for Sol Gallert of Rutherford County, who had prepared a bill authorizing state aid for a new road between Asheville and Charlotte, the Van Noppens wrote. No doubt voicing the frustration of his fellow travelers, Gallert estimated that the residents of Buncombe and Rutherford counties had spent a half-million dollars in turnpike tolls “in the eternal damnation of their souls through cursing at being stuck axle deep in the mud, broken poles, and having to lead their horses up a wretched road they were paying the privilege of driving over.”
In 1915, Gov. Locke Craig (an Asheville man) appointed a State Highway Commission to advise counties about road building, according to the Van Noppens’ Western North Carolina Since the Civil War. Other changes were afoot as well. Federal aid for highways came in 1916. The General Assembly established the state-highway system in 1921, relieving counties, cities and towns of the burden of building, maintaining and repairing state highways. And in 1931, the state took over responsibility for secondary roads.
The rise and fall of Asheville’s trolleys got an enthusiastic telling in a set of stories Al Mankoff wrote for Xpress two years ago (see “Take me for a ride,” March 22, 2000).
Asheville’s trolley line — one of the nation’s first — began operating in 1889, replacing the horse-drawn omnibuses that shuttled rail passengers to the local hotels. Although a charter had authorized the building of a street railway eight years earlier, it wasn’t until E.D. Davidson of Huntington, Long Island sprained his ankle during a visit to Asheville early in 1888 that things really started moving. Stranded in the mountains, Davidson learned that a street-railway franchise was available. By May of that year, he had started construction on a line heading west on Patton Avenue and then south to the railroad depot, Mankoff recounted.
Then another visitor, John Barnard, heard about Davidson’s project and persuaded him to abandon the idea of horse-drawn streetcars in favor of a trolley line. Construction of the new joint venture was completed on the last day of January, 1889. Despite an accident during the test run, the following day — Feb. 1, 1889 — found Pack Square jammed with hundreds of shouting, whistling, cheering people as the first car inaugurated its regular run. Asheville’s first electric-trolley system was up and running.
The trolleys became so popular, recounts Tessier, that most Asheville families counted on them as their main means of transportation. Over the years, trolley service in the city was gradually expanded until there were eight major lines fanning out from Pack Square. Until 1910, a passenger could leave the square on a Merrimon Avenue car, transfer to another line and ride all the way to Weaverville and back, Mankoff wrote.
But the success of the automobile — plus other factors including national-level hijinks involving an organized scheme to replace trolleys with General Motors buses — killed off trolleys across the country (see “The great American streetcar scandal,” March 22, 2000 Xpress). On Sept. 6, 1934, five new bus lines began operating in Asheville over the very routes the trolleys had served. (Today, the Asheville Transit Authority provides 18 local bus routes.)
Most of the trolley tracks have since been taken up for scrap metal, reports Tessier, though now and then you might run across one.
The dominance of the automobile and the birth of the interstate highway system have loomed large in Asheville’s history — and across the nation.
“Across the country, one of the major shaping forces of the last 40 years has been the way the automobile has changed the way our communities look and the way we live,” says Dan Baechtold, coordinator for the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a public entity that does transportation planning at the local level and makes recommendations to the state DOT).
In a word, that means sprawl.
“Automobile travel make it easier for our growth patterns to spread out across the region to a more low-density kind of development, [which] also shapes the design of our community in terms of strip shopping centers and fast-food restaurants and gas stations, and uses that are really designed around and for automobiles,” Baechtold asserts.
In Buncombe County, Interstate 40 was pieced together in sections completed from the late ’60s through the ’70s, with the final section opening in late 1978. Interstate 240 opened on Oct. 31, 1980, once the open cut through Beaucatcher Mountain was finished, reports Division Maintenance Engineer Tony Moore of the N.C. Department of Transportation. Both the cut and the way I-240 sliced across town were controversial topics at the time.
Because the state owns most of the major roads in North Carolina, it has always played the strongest role in developing the transportation system, notes Baechtold. Over the years, the thoroughfare plan (which focuses exclusively on road and highway improvements) has been the guiding force behind the transportation system. Provisions for public transit, pedestrians, bicycles and land-use concerns have been considered separately.
But a historic shift at the federal level has affected transportation planning across the country. Federal legislation adopted in 1991 identified “intermodal transportation” (alternatives to cars) as the way to address transportation needs, says Baechtold. Known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, pronounced “ice tea”), the legislation aims to minimize highway construction and single-passenger car trips in an effort to curb traffic congestion and air pollution.
The legislation also requires that 16 planning factors be considered during transportation planning and project evaluation. Those requirements include involving the public in transportation decisions and considering the impact of transportation on all the different types of people that live in the affected community, Baechtold says. In 1999, the legislation was reauthorized as TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.
“Before ISTEA, there were efforts to move in the direction of more comprehensive transportation planning, but that legislation … I guess was responsible for really making it happen on all the different levels,” Baechtold reflects.
Car transportation still predominates, however. In Buncombe County alone, the state DOT spends about $36 million on road construction and about $10 million on maintenance annually. In contrast, the Asheville Transit System took in about $2.4 million in fiscal year 1999-2000 and spends about $2.3 million each year to operate its fleet (excluding school buses).
“We have to accept that cars and the travel by cars will continue to be one of the primary means of travel,” Baechtold acknowledges. “We have to balance that with the other ways of getting around and also with the overall goals of the community.”
Some of that balance, Baechtold says, can be achieved by means of alternate designs (such as four-lane divided roads with medians) and seeking funding to help pay for building sidewalks, adding bus lines or improving bus shelters.
Meanwhile, the city’s Planning Department is working to update the 2010 Plan (a long-range, comprehensive planning document completed in the late ’80s). The new version, to be called the Asheville City Plan 2025, will apply smart-growth principles to planning for land-use and transportation needs. The idea is to promote denser growth closer to the urban center to minimize sprawl and make better use of the existing transportation infrastructure.
“It’s a long-term effort to make some shifts in not only the way we travel but the way we grow and develop,” Baechtold explains.
Now there’s something to chew on the next time you’re stuck in traffic.