When Trolleys Were The Main Mode Of Transportation - TribPapers

When Trolleys Were The Main Mode Of Transportation

Historic marker recalls a time when trolleys were the dominant means of transportation. Photo by Clint Parker.

Asheville – Asheville’s streets were lined with train rails, and a testament to this fact is found on the west side of the Haywood Road bridge, which has a marker that reads:  First electric trolley system in N.C. opened, February 1, 1889, bolstering regional tourism. Served train depot 1/4 mile S.E.

In the late 19th century, the introduction of railroads to Asheville marked a pivotal moment in the city’s development. The year 1880 witnessed the arrival of railroads from Salisbury, followed by another line from Spartanburg in 1886. This newfound accessibility propelled Asheville into the spotlight as a burgeoning tourist and health resort destination. 

However, despite its growing popularity, a significant challenge remained – the arduous two-mile journey from the train depot to the downtown core, characterized by a daunting 10.5% grade uphill climb. This formidable slope rendered horsecar operation infeasible, necessitating an innovative solution.

E. D. Davidson, a visionary from Long Island, New York, who had previously funded a successful horsecar system in Halifax, Canada, ventured to Asheville in 1888 to explore prospects. Recognizing the need for improved transportation, the city swiftly granted a charter for an electric railway. This visionary plan encompassed lines extending from Public Square, known today as Pack Square, to various sectors of the city, including the depot that served the Western North Carolina Railroad. Davidson formed a collaborative partnership with Frank Sprague, renowned for constructing the Richmond streetcar system. Overseeing the construction was John Barnard, who assumed the role of the company’s general manager.

On February 1, 1889, the electrified line to the depot commenced operations. Extending from Pack Square, the route meandered along South Main Street (now Biltmore Avenue) and Southside Avenue before navigating Depot Street, located west of present-day McDowell Street. This innovative rail system offered efficient and convenient access to the depot, strategically positioned within the railroad yard on level terrain.

As the electric railway network expanded, various railway companies emerged to cater to the burgeoning neighborhoods and outlying areas. Notably, connections were established to the Sulphur Springs resort and Biltmore Village, further enhancing the connectivity and accessibility of Asheville. By 1907, the city stood as a leader in North Carolina, carrying an impressive three million streetcar passengers, surpassing even major urban centers like Charlotte and Wilmington, each with two million riders. 

This robust growth culminated in 1915, with the street railway network reaching its pinnacle—a sprawling network comprising forty-three rail cars traversing eighteen miles of track. Asheville had the second-largest trolley system behind Richmond, Virginia, says Rocky Hollifield, president of the Craggy Mountain Line, the last of the trolley systems still operating.

Noteworthy routes included one leading to the newly inaugurated Grove Park Inn, nestled amidst an upscale neighborhood, the Weaverville Line, and the Craggy Mountain Line. Thomas Wolfe, a prominent author, immortalized the streetcars in his short story “The Lost Boy,” vividly describing the scene as they converged in the square, momentarily pausing in their synchronized quarterly-hour rhythm.

Asheville’s strides in electric streetcar service spurred a wave of innovation across North Carolina. Winston followed suit in July 1890, with Charlotte launching its electric streetcar operations in May 1891, followed by Raleigh in September 1891 and Wilmington in 1892. The momentum of progress culminated in 1900, when many of Asheville’s railway systems were amalgamated under the Asheville Electric Company, later renamed the Asheville Power and Light Company in 1912. This consolidation aimed to streamline operations and further enhance the efficiency of the electric rail network.

However, as the years rolled on, the winds of change were observable. In 1926, the Raleigh-based Carolina Power and Light Company acquired the Asheville Power and Light Company, marking a shift in ownership. The 1930s witnessed the transformational transition from electric streetcars to buses and cars, rendering the once-vibrant streetcar system obsolete by 1934.

The legacy of Asheville’s electric streetcar era remains etched in history, a testament to the city’s vision, innovation, and adaptability. The streetcar system, once a lifeline connecting neighborhoods and communities, has given way to modern modes of transportation, yet its impact on shaping the city’s development and fostering connections endures as an integral part of Asheville’s rich historical tapestry.

Those wishing to experience what street trolleys were like can still ride the rails laid in 1904 at the Craggy Mountain, which features a three percent grade up a mountain flanked by Beaver Dam Creek. The trolley also gives riders a taste of street running as it travels through the old Burlington Mills along the French Broad River, where trolleys and cars mingle. To find out more details about the Craggy Mountain Line, call 828-808-4877.