Early traffic woes spark updates to Asheville’s trolley system, 1923-24

GRIDLOCK: As the popularity of automobiles grew in Western North Carolina, traffic issues soon followed. One of the earliest problems involved drivers parking their cars on the trolley lines. By 1923, residents and city officials alike began seeking answers to the problem. Photo courtesy of the Buncombe County Special Collections at Pack Memorial Public Library

When it came to the issue of traffic, Asheville Mayor John H. Cathey did not mince words.

“I would be willing to allow the Asheville Power and Lights company to operate their cars through the City Hall if it would stop the congestion on Pack Square,” he declared to members of the Civitan Club during a luncheon on Nov. 7, 1923.

His words, reported in the Nov. 8, 1923, edition The Asheville Citizen, were echoed by others in the community throughout much of that year.

Eleven months prior, in a Jan. 6, editorial, the paper demanded action to remedy the issue. “Motor cars in motion often block the tracks, unavoidably in most cases, and when motionless, block trolley traffic by parking too near the rails, this without possible excuse,” The Asheville Citizen declared. “Many times a day street car passengers are delayed while motormen and conductors alight to push parked motors from the right of way — and the street car schedule is at once disarranged.”

By April, city planner John Nolen submitted a proposal to the Board of City Commissioners to reroute the streetcar system. Among the recommendations made, Nolen suggested eliminating the current transfer system, which required all trolleys to assemble at Pack Square at the same time. He also proposed that the trolley line be removed from Patton Avenue and rerouted down College Street.

On July 13, 1923, The Asheville Citizen reported that the commissioners were finally starting to consider the issue. The paper, however, seemed convinced there was a single solution.

“[T]he only hope of relief seems to lie in a radical re-organization of service which will involve abandonment of the square as a common transfer point,” the editorial declared. “This does not mean that there would be no transfers there but only that all cars would not meet there at fixed interval. We must confess to regret at the old order passing but conditions seem to make it obsolete and require a new arrangement despite the difficulties attending it because of lack of double track.”

Less than two weeks later, the paper reported on rumors that a revised streetcar schedule was imminent. “[I]t was learned yesterday from a source believed authoritative, that the heads of the Asheville Power and Light Company are just as anxious to relieve congestion on Pack Square as are the City Commissioners.”

But no new schedule arrived.

POKING FUN: On July 20, 1923, The Asheville Citizen ran this cartoon illustrated by Billy Borne.

Instead, on Sept. 19, The Asheville Citizen reported that C.S. Walters, the recently appointed vice president and general manager of Asheville Power and Lights, presented costs to the mayor associated with Nolen’s plan. The construction of a new line through College Street, as well as introducing new direct service to West Asheville, would run around $200,000 (nearly $3.5 million in today’s currency).

In the following day’s paper, The Asheville Citizen voiced strong support of the proposed plan, writing:

“That the Power and Light Company believes it can improve its transportation system so as to make it better serve the people of Asheville is proved by its willingness to invest no small sum of money in a transportation business on which the Company is now losing money. The Company believes that Asheville cannot dispense with street railway service, despite the increasing number of automobiles and other motor vehicles. The Company believes that if the service is reorganized so as to do away with the present delay and inconvenience of cars running off schedule, the public will naturally give the street cars a larger patronage. Mr. Walters proposes a far-reaching plan for more adequate service. He should receive the cooperation of the people in making his ambition a reality.”

Yet, subsequent coverage on the matter did not appear in print that year. Instead, on Dec. 21, 1923, The Asheville Citizen informed readers that a new schedule for the streetcars was set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1924, “to eliminate congestion on Pack Square[.]”

At the start of 1924, the updated schedule appeared regularly in the paper’s daily publication. Opinions on the matter were less frequent.

But on March 26, 1924, the topic resurfaced:

“While congestion on Pack Square has been greatly eased by the street car schedule inaugurated January 1, and general satisfaction has been expressed at the result, the need of new equipment is being urgently felt by the local utilities company, stated Mr. Cathey, and since every city which has employed the one-man car system has found it an improvement, Asheville contemplates following the example.”

Ultimately, the city would indeed act. On Jan. 13, 1925, The Asheville Citizen reported on the successful introduction of the new model:

“The one-man street cars now in operation give assurance of doing all for convenience and speedy locomotion that was promised for them by the officials of the Asheville Power and Light Company. Six of the new models are now in use and others will be placed on other lines, according to the present plans of the company, and Asheville may well look forward with satisfaction to the day not far off when it will have seven-and-a-half-minute schedules on all its car lines.”

The paper noted that the new models, constructed of steel, were also lighter than the old cars and evidently “fool-proof” in terms of operation.

“Their good lines and general appearance will do not a little to make the whole town more presentable to visitors and at the same time foster a community sense of having the best foot forward,” the article asserted.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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2 thoughts on “Early traffic woes spark updates to Asheville’s trolley system, 1923-24

  1. Mister Doublount

    “ seven-and-a-half-minute schedules on all its car lines”? So what happened to this miracle? Where did the streetcars go? Who decided to tear up the rails and replace the frequent trollies with stinky buses arriving ever 30-70 minutes? I know GM was involved with removing many trolly lines across the country… maybe try finishing the story? It could be interesting.

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