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Piece of Charlotte’s transportation history moved to Spencer museum – for now

Streetcar No. 85 on flat-bed truck bound for North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer.
Streetcar No. 85 on flat-bed truck bound for North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer. courtesy of Steve Mersch

Charlotte quietly lost a piece of its history last week – at least for now – but its owners say it has gone to a good home.

Streetcar No. 85, the last trolley to run when Charlotte was a streetcar city in the 1930s, was safely trucked on Wednesday to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, north of Salisbury.

“The streetcar remains an interesting dimension of Charlotte’s history and really the state’s transportation history,” said Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Landmarks Commission, which owns the streetcar. “It’s in a good place, where it can be run and where people can see it and learn from it.”

For two years, a nonprofit group of trolley lovers has worked to come up with a sustainable plan to permanently put No. 85 on an abandoned piece of former streetcar track. They want to run it from Cedar Street in Third Ward uptown, 2 miles northwest to the 29-acre Martin Luther King Jr. Park in what some residents call the Historic West End community.

The streetcar’s relocation won’t stop Lakewood Trolley Inc., said J’Tanya Adams, a Lakewood board member and president of the Historic West End Partners.

“We knew the streetcar was going to the museum if we weren’t ready to run it yet, so it’s no surprise,” Adams said. “It’s in the best interest of the streetcar for it to be at the museum, where it will be under better conditions and better cared for. It’s been mothballed for years and it needs to be run. It needs to be energized and it needs to be visible.

“But we’re still very hopeful that we can put our plan in motion.”

That plan, she and others including Morrill say, would be transformative for the westside. The group received a $20,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to study its plan’s sustainability. That study could be presented soon.

The car had already worked its magic by 1938, when Mayor Ben Douglas and other dignitaries rode it from the Visualite Theater on Elizabeth Avenue to The Square uptown and pulled the plug on the city’s streetcar system that had been critical to Charlotte’s expansion. The event ushered in the era of city buses.

In 2005, Car 85 was returned to a spur of streetcar track from uptown to Atherton Mill on South Boulevard. It had been discovered as part of a condemned Huntersville house and restored.

Its new route, though short, helped develop the modern South End community and drew support for a light-rail line that starts in Pineville and churns into uptown – and in 2017 will run north clear to UNC Charlotte.

Morrill pushed to get the car moved to the museum, but said he hopes Lakewood Trolley can make their plan work.

“It’s going to be a high hurdle – it’s all about money,” he said. “But it would be a wonderful transformative thing for the westside.”

If Lakewood can sustainably pull off its plan, the lease allows for the streetcar to return to Charlotte with some reimbursement to the museum. It paid just less than $10,000 to have the car moved last week. A flat-bed truck drove it north on Interstate 85 to Spencer. There a crane put it on track at the museum.

Meanwhile, the museum plans to put the streetcar on display and run it on special trips, said Steve Mersch, president of the museum board.

“We’re excited to get it,” Mersch said. “We do have a smaller trolley, but this one is nicer. The trolley provides a whole difference view of rail transportation. That it gives us the ability to run people some day is exciting stuff.”

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