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Virginia Association of Railway Patrons
Modern Transportation for the Virginias

Roanoke Considers Trolley Revival

By Noëlle MacKenzie

From VARP’s On Track newsletter, fall 2003.

An old-fashioned mode of transportation may be just the way to bring Roanoke into modern times. Roanoke City Councilman Bev Fitzpatrick has proposed bringing back the trolley system, which was the city’s main mode of transportation in the early 1900s until the last trolley ran in 1948. The trolley system would include restoring the incline that from 1910 to 1929 took passengers by cable car up to Mill Mountain’s summit, which is the home of the Roanoke Star and commands a sweeping view of the whole Roanoke valley.

Fitzpatrick said that the trolley system would be great for tourism by focusing on Roanoke’s train heritage. Roanoke, the state’s third most populated city, has a rich railroad history. In 1881, the Shenandoah Valley and the Norfolk and Western railroads picked Roanoke as a junction point. The Virginian Railway came in 1906 bringing coal traffic through the city and various shopping downtown. Lore has it that Mark Twain was a passenger on the first Virginian coach that entered the city.

Mayor Ralph Smith and Vice Mayor Nelson Harris endorsed the idea and asked City Manager Darlene Burcham to have feasibility data and cost estimates by early next year.

Fitzpatrick, a self-professed train buff, helped to start Roanoke’s Commonwealth Coach and Trolley Museum four years ago, and it already has one of the original trolley cars and is in the works to buy another. His plan would run the restored trolleys along a route that would encompass the transportation museum downtown, the top of Mill Mountain, and Crystal Spring at the base of the mountain. At present there are two roadways that access Mill Mountain.

In 1996, the council had approved $90,000 in funds to explore ways to get from downtown to Mill Mountain without using any of the main roads. So far it’s unclear whether the study ever commenced. Fitzpatrick cited a consultant’s study in 1997 that recommended reviving the trolley system.

Fitzpatrick said that Tampa, Florida, had qualified for federal funds to start its own trolley system and believes that perhaps Roanoke could do the same.