In the decades before the interstate tore the guts out of Asheville, the town was a sleepy mountain paradise, isolated from the massive change that was shoving the country down the fast track toward fouled air, congested traffic and unending rounds of road-building. Today, Asheville has finally caught up with the rest of the world: We, too, must now grapple with deteriorating air quality and growing traffic snarls.
The original vision of the interstate system called for freeways to circle the cities in its path. But Washington politicians refused to fund the system unless local leaders permitted it to access downtown areas, which were then the commercial, financial and political heart and soul of every American metropolis.
The repercussions of that strategy have been massive; but even before the coming of the interstate, the clash of competing transportation technologies was changing the face of America’s cities. Early in the last century, tens of thousands of trolleys serviced millions of passengers per year; several decades later, only a few hundred cars were left. And, as evolving technologies continue to reconfigure our lives, the tale of the trolleys provides a cautionary note.
The nation’s first practical trolley system opened in Richmond, Va., in 1888, and the new technology spread like wildfire. Asheville’s trolley line — one of the nation’s first — began service early in the following year.
The idea had been brewing locally for some time. Asheville was growing, and visionaries were calling for a more extensive public-transit system than the secondhand, horse-drawn omnibuses that shuttled rail passengers to the local hotels. A charter dated March 9, 1881 had authorized Col. James G. Martin and Capt. T.W. Patton to build a street railway — with cars run by “steam, animal, or other power” — to connect the new railroad station with what is now Pack Square.
Not much happened, however, until E.D. Davidson of Huntington, Long Island, sprained his ankle on a visit to Asheville, early in 1888. 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.
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. The first test car left Pack Square overloaded with joyriding locals. On the way south, the car hit a 7 percent grade, followed by a 900-foot stretch of track on a 9 percent grade, ending in a 60-foot curve.
Totally out of control, the car ran right off the end of the track at the depot, bouncing over the rough, frozen road. The trolley pole, tangled in some tree branches, was torn loose from the roof, but no one suffered more than a brief shake-up. When the car came to rest, the passengers — some howling with glee — jumped out and shoved it back on the track.
The next day — Feb. 1, 1889 — Pack Square was jammed with hundreds of shouting, whistling, cheering citizens as the first car began its regular run. This time, everything went without a hitch, and Asheville’s first electric-trolley system was up and running.
By the turn of the century, trolleys totally dominated the American urban scene; with their required support-and-supply services, trolleys were the sixth-largest industry in the United States.
There were trolley cars of every kind. Funeral cars carried a casket in a special compartment, with mourners seated comfortably in plush armchairs for the ride from the city to the cemetery. Great snow sweepers and snowplows kept city streets clear in the foulest weather. Mail trolleys moved among the post offices in some big cities, picking up and distributing mail; patrons could hail these moving mailboxes and post a letter on the spot. The great interurban cars — some 60 or 70 feet long — reached speeds of 60 mph and more; in one highly publicized event, a trolley ran a five-mile race against an airplane — and won!
In Asheville, trolley service was gradually expanded over the years until there were eight major lines fanning out from Pack Square, heading in every direction. Until 1910, a passenger could leave Pack Square on a Merrimon Avenue car, transfer to another line, and ride all the way to Weaverville and back.
A strike of trolley operators in 1913 paralyzed the city and sparked sporadic outbursts of violence. But things soon calmed down again, and the negotiations won the operators a higher wage –19 cents an hour, increasing over time to 25 cents an hour.
For the most part, the system seems to have functioned effectively; when the Grove Park Inn opened in 1913, patrons could take a trolley from the inn into the city and continue all the way to the train depot, or take advantage of transfer privileges to travel east, west or north from Pack Square.
Competition and conspiracy
Nationally, the rapid spread of trolleys had repercussions for other forms of transportation. As trolley lines were extended from city to city, they increasingly competed with steam railroads. The more powerful rail lines often bought up trolley systems and ran them as adjuncts to their own service — or, in some cases, simply tried to run them into the ground.
Asheville’s trolley lines, however, continued to dominate local urban transit, despite occasional setbacks.
The great flood of 1916 put the city under 18 feet of water; trolley crews at the Southern Railway depot fled as the rising flood reached the roofs of the cars. The raging waters also destroyed a storage barn at Riverside Park, scattering special open-air cars (used to carry passengers to the popular recreational spot in the summertime) like matchsticks. Riverside Park was never reopened, but the trolleys were soon up and running once again.
For a brief period during World War I, women replaced men as trolley operators, as the armed services and strategic industries siphoned off many eligible young men. After the Armistice in 1918, however, the men returned — and the women workers were laid off.
But a more fundamental threat to the dominance of trolleys was quietly gaining strength. With the arrival of the Model T, even Americans of modest means gained a new freedom to come and go at will, even to the most widely scattered places. Automobile travel grew steadily during the early 1900s, and after World War I, the popularity of the new technology soared. Who’d want to ride a clunky old trolley car with wooden seats when you could buy a new flivver for less than $500 and roll along in cushioned comfort, with no need to worry about schedules? By the 1920s, cars had already begun knocking off some of the weaker trolley systems.
Ironically, bicycles — now touted as an environmentally friendly alternative — helped lay the groundwork for the eventual dominance of autos. The development of the coaster brake in the 1890s made cycling a great pastime for millions of Americans; “wheelmen’s clubs” pressured commissioners in rural counties to improve the heavily rutted, unpaved highways on the outskirts of major cities, so cyclists could board a trolley car with their bikes, ride to the end of the line, and then pedal along newly paved asphalt roads.
Ashevilleans, too, gradually succumbed to the siren song of autos. Despite the newer trolleys purchased after the war ended, the automobile made increasing inroads into trolley ridership (which was never comparable to that in larger cities, anyway). And when the boom times of the ’20s gave way to the Great Depression, there was simply no money to make needed changes (such as running miles of expensive double track, to cut down on delays). Buying a handful of buses seemed immeasurably cheaper — at the outset, at least — than maintaining and improving the trolley system. On Sept. 6, 1934, five new bus lines began operating over the routes the trolleys had served.
Meanwhile, across the country, a similar story was playing out. Congress dealt the trolleys another blow when, in 1935, it passed anti-trust legislation forcing power companies owning subsidiaries to divest all operations not related to the generation and sale of electric power. Many smaller trolley systems, marginally profitable at best, were owned by electric utilities that provided them with cut-rate power; cut loose and unable to pay the vastly increased costs, they foundered. One by one, smaller cities abandoned the failing trolley routes, unable to provide municipal subsidies to keep the trolleys running.
In bigger cities, however, trolley systems still flourished — especially after the arrival of brand-new, ultramodern “PCC” cars. These healthy systems showed every promise of continuing to prosper, insofar as any privately owned transit system could hope to survive the drastic changes in the transportation environment.
But a massive monopoly scheme involving several corporate giants soon sealed the trolleys’ doom (see sidebar). Beginning shortly after World War II, every mass-transit system in the United States would come under municipal ownership, as urban mass transit began its long downhill slide.
How are the mighty fallen
Today, there is virtually no sign of Asheville’s once-bustling trolley system. When the buses took over, a local man bought some of the cars and moved them to a location near Hendersonville Road, where they were set up as tourist cabins, remaining until they were squeezed out by the advent of local motels. One of those cars was then moved to Swannanoa River Road and incorporated into the Hensley Fruit Stand. There, it remains today, abandoned after a fire shut down the business. The car can be seen from the road’s westbound lanes, nestled between the river and the building itself.
Steve’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning in Spindale acquired two other cars, and another became a wing of the Trudy and Ivey King residence on Forest Street, south of Biltmore Village.
In the late 1980s, as heritage-trolley lines sprang up in cities across the U.S., a brief attempt was made to bring a heritage-trolley line to Asheville. A local group bought the Spindale cars and brought them back to Asheville in the summer of 1989. One, built in 1916, was put on public display, and a small group of citizens championed the idea of a revived Asheville trolley. But objections soon surfaced — among other things, to stringing overhead wires through Asheville’s gradually reviving downtown — and the dream quietly died.
A few years ago, my good friend Joe Canfield, of Weaverville, took me down to Lyda’s Garage, on Choctaw Street. There, sequestered in a dank, unlighted building with water dripping from the ceiling, we saw the remains of this once-proud streetcar. The paint was peeling, the wood rotting, the steel rusted; nothing remained of the exquisite workmanship but a dead, moldering shell. The owner of the storage area was surprised to see us. “Odd,” he said, “that you should show up today — tomorrow, I’m planning to haul this out and scrap it!”
At that, Joe and I hied ourselves down to City Hall to talk with then-Mayor Russ Martin, who had been involved with the trolley project. Surprised by our story, Martin asked the chief of police to visit the junkyard and arrange to keep the car in storage for a modest monthly fee, to be paid with the money remaining from the committee’s fund drive to restore the cars. There it remains: forgotten, exposed to the elements, its fate uncertain. And when this last relic of Asheville’s trolley days eventually disappears, a little-known era in the city’s history will finally end — not with a bang but a whimper.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the help of Joseph Canfield, who provided much of the material on Asheville’s trolley history. Mr. Canfield has written a book on the subject, now with a publisher in Philadelphia. For a detailed description of the streetcar scandal, go to: http://njtpa.njit.edu/trolley.htm. For more information on trolley history, go to: www.almankoff.com.