Tracking the past

In 1888, Asheville became one of the first cities in the U.S. to adopt the trolley as its primary means of public transportation.

Back in the day, trolley lines serving outlying parts of the city converged in downtown Asheville’s lively Pack Square, circling the Vance Monument like bees around a hive. Those times are long gone, but thanks to the vision of local renovation experts Vanessa Cram and Jason Eller, a remnant of that colorful past will soon be returned to productive use. In July, the two purchased one of the only two surviving trolleys from the fleet that navigated Asheville’s streets from 1915 to 1934, when they were supplanted by cars and buses.

The team is now restoring the vintage vehicle to its original appearance. The $25,000+ project is an adjunct to an even bigger undertaking: renovating a 1918 home on Kenilworth’s Forest Hill Drive. Designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith of Biltmore Estate fame, the stately structure is slated to find new life as a bed-and-breakfast; the trolley will serve as either a private suite or a cafe. Cram and Eller plan to hire an innkeeper to run the new business.

The trolley’s new owners first spotted its tail end sticking out of a shack beside Spirits on the River, a Native American restaurant on Swannanoa River Road. One day, after having driven by it countless times, they noticed a “for sale” sign. Seeing this as “the ultimate historical project,” the duo jumped on the opportunity, Cram explained. They bought the building just to get the trolley inside; shortly afterward, a wrecker rescued the car from the ruins and its rebirth began.

Mandatory repairs will include metalwork, glasswork and repainting, both inside and out. Kevin Creedy, a 22-year-old South African craftsman, will refinish the flooring and handle extensive other woodwork. He also designed all the Mission-style furniture for the Kenilworth bed-and-breakfast project, winning Cram and Eller’s confidence in the process. They believe Creedy’s experience restoring old boats should serve him in good stead with the kind of meticulous work the trolley will require.

The trolley project is expected to entail three to six months of intensive labor — at which point the owners figure the vehicle will be worth somewhere between $40,000 and $70,000. But according to lifelong trolley enthusiast Al Mankoff, the restored car could easily appraise at $100,000 or more, due to the rarity of authentic 1915 trolleys. The former Weaverville resident is the author of the five-volume series Trolley Treasures, as well as countless articles on the subject.

Love on wheels

Asheville’s love affair with trolleys traces back to 1888, when the growing city — inspired by rail cars created in Berlin in 1883 to serve as a tourist attraction — became one of the first in the U.S. to adopt the trolley as its primary means of public transportation. Up to that point, horse- and mule-drawn cars had been the norm. But buying and caring for so many animals was expensive, explains Hendersonville resident Joe Canfield, another longtime trolley buff. Electric rail cars, he says, were implemented partly to cut costs — thus sowing the seeds of the first suburban mass-transit system.

Trolleys dominated the roads until the early 1920s. Former U.S. Senate Counsel Bradford Snell has documented the highly successful campaign by General Motors (in concert with with oil and tire companies and others whose profits were also derived from automobiles) to buy up and then dismantle electric trolley lines in cities across the country. By the mid-1930s, cars and buses had essentially replaced trolleys as the principal means of urban transit.

Today, however, the trolley has become an icon of early suburbia in major cities worldwide, inspiring hobbyists, nonprofits and tourism-based businesses to resurrect these remnants of the early days of urban mass transit.

“Since 1960, there’s been a revival of light-rail vehicles both at museums and as tourist attractions,” Mankoff reports. In the U.S. alone, 146 cities now have trolley museums, he notes. And 45 cities run replicas on so-called “heritage trolley lines” that transport passengers by rail car from one major U.S. city to another. Gomaco, an Iowa-based company, builds modern trolley lookalikes that sell for prices ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. Such replicas, notes Mankoff, often boast air conditioning and other amenities.

And then there are the trolley buses, a common tourist attraction in many cities. Asheville Historic Trolley Tours, for example, does a loop that includes downtown, Biltmore Village, Montford and the Grove Park Inn in vehicles designed to look like old-time trolleys.

Authentic vintage trolleys, however, are in short supply. After being put to such diverse uses as a watermelon stand and a video-poker parlor, both of Asheville’s remaining cars were virtually destroyed by a 1984 fire that consumed the fruit stand adjacent to where they’d sat for more than 30 years.

Reviving the past

Cram and Eller are no strangers to the perils of historic preservation. Cram, who was featured in the September issue of WNC Woman, has a bachelor’s degree in interior design and formerly worked as a decorator with Dianne Davant Interiors. Two years ago, however, her entrepreneurial spirit inspired her to seek new challenges.

She and Eller, a longtime friend, decided to launch their own business buying, renovating and reselling vintage properties. In the early days, the two actually lived in a 1989 Volvo while they saved money for a house; since then, they’ve completed such restorations as the old Clingman Estate in west Asheville (where Cram now lives) and four other early 20th-century homes, all resold for a profit. The trolley project is just the latest venture for these passionate preservationists.

Joe Canfield is one mountain resident whose zeal for trolleys may match theirs. His novel Trolleys in the Land of the Sky (Harold Cox, 2001) tells the saga of trolley cars in Asheville from 1889-1934.

Like Mankoff, Cram and Eller, Canfield believes there must be other local folks who would support such restoration efforts if they knew that the local cars still exist. For the most part, however, these people are not in touch with one another — much less mobilized to raise funds and lobby public officials — so trolley projects tend to get pushed aside by higher-profile proposals. That lack of public awareness, argues Canfield, may help explain why the only other authentic local trolley remains neglected and slowly disintegrating in a junkyard on Choctaw Street.

“I’d like to see something happen,” he says about the idea of restoring the eight-wheeler. Apart from the trolleys’ sentimental value for a town as rich in history as Asheville, Canfield is convinced that, if restored, they could become significant tourist attractions — just as their counterparts are in major cities such as Berlin and Toronto.

That potential hasn’t been lost on our neighbors down the mountain, where the Charlotte Vintage Trolley Project, an ambitious (and pricey) trolley system, will soon be up and running. Two trolleys (rented from governments in and around Little Rock, Ark., for $112,000) are due to arrive in mid-January, with service expected to begin in late February. Streetcar No. 85 — a 76-year-old trolley that once operated in Charlotte and is now undergoing a $200,000 makeover — will round out the fleet. The rented cars are slated to be returned long about next August, once the Charlotte Area Transit System takes delivery on three new trolleys being built by Gomaco at a total cost of about $2 million. CATS is also spending about $150,000 for changes to enable the trolleys to run on the city’s 750-volt power line.

On the trail of the trolleys

To learn more about the trolley project, contact Cram or Eller via Mission Accomplished (225-9816), their home-decor business. (The part-time, appointment-only downtown store sells Mission-style concrete planters and wooden furniture designed by Kevin Creedy. The shop helps bankroll the pair’s ambitious restoration efforts.)

To learn more about trolley cars past or present, log on to, which includes full descriptions of each of his books plus contact info. To buy a copy of Canfield’s Trolleys in the Land of the Sky, contact the author directly at (828) 645-5320.

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