Map of the Wilmington to Ocean Trolley

Rebuilding the Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach Trolley

Map of the Wilmington to the Ocean Trolley

A Short History

Photo of Passengers Boarding a Trolley bound for Wrightsville Beach

Trains, trolleys and streetcars have a certain magic about them that draws the unwavering interest of children and adults alike.  Watching my three year old son light up when one of the many cargo trains passes through our neighborhood always makes my day.  I was not immune to their draw growing up, and we would play around the creek and woods surrounding a CSX line that ran through our neighborhood in Wilmington, NC.  Certainly some of the most exciting summer days as a kid where when a train lumbered on by, letting us squash pennies or do any number of idiotic things that children are want to do around dangerous things.

While Wilmington has a rich railroad history stretching back to the 1830’s, it also had a complex streetcar and trolley history starting in the 1880’s with a steam train running from Wilmington to Wrightsville Sound as the Wilmington Sea Coast Railway.  The train transitioned to an electric version, extensions and additional lines were built, separate lines merged and names changed and eventually a fully built streetcar and trolley system emerged around downtown Wilmington and out to Wrightsville Beach with a number of additional stops along the beach itself, titled Stations One through Seven.

It’s hard to move around town without seeing reminders of and references to the line.  Trolly Stop Hot Dogs, actual Trolley Stops on Park Avenue, the horsedrawn Trolley Tours, remains of the trolley bridge crossing Bradley Creek, Station One condos, the Wilmington Trolley Company, Trolley Pub and more.  As the first automotive route made its way to Harbor Island (then known as the Hammocks) and cars and busses took over the town, the old streetcar lines disappeared, similar to most towns and cities throughout the country.

A number of news outlets and historians have done a great job of documenting the basic history of the trolley, which is linked below the story, but what I’m really interested in is what it would take to rebuild the line.  The idea bounced around in my head for a long time, but it really took root while I was living in Dallas, Texas about a decade ago. In the 1980’s, Dallas rebuilt an old streetcar route around town and refurbished some cars from the early 1900’s.  The service is free to use, and hopping on a trolley to head to a bar or restaurant always left me feeling like a giddy 10 year old as the car click-clacked around town at a leisurely pace.  I could park my car on a Friday afternoon and not worry about using it again until Monday morning.  Seeing a system running well really made me think we could do it in Wilmington.

Call it a Comeback

Rebuilding an old streetcar system is called a “heritage” or “vintage” system and cities like Dallas, Tampa, New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Charlotte and others have rebuilt heritage streetcar systems or managed to keep their originals in place.  Smaller cities similar to Wilmington have also opened heritage streetcar systems.  Places like Savannah, Kenosha, Wisconsin, Astoria, Oregon, and Fort Collins in Colorado all have systems up and running, so it’s certainly possible for Wilmington to rebuild and run a successful system.

Southern view from Oceanic Hotel of Wrightsville Beach with Trolley Tracks

I do realize I am approaching this from the angle of an excited optimist wanting something novel and fun.  With private funding I’m sure most Wilmingtonians would say go for it, but there is also something to be said for some improved public transportation around town.  A new trolley from downtown Wilmington to the beach certainly won’t solve the traffic problems in the greater Wilmington area, but the Bradley Creek bridge apparently sees more than 36,000 thousand cars every single day, whereas a century ago the trolley line carried up to 8,700 passengers on a peak day.  Instead of loading the family up in a car and heading to the beach, fighting traffic and looking for parking, you could park near a trolley stop and take fun trip through town out to the beach for the day.

I bounced the idea off of a long time resident and business owner who estimated it would cost twenty to thirty million dollars to rebuild.  That sounded like a good starting point, so I decided to dig a bit deeper to find if the project was feasible, and if so calculate the cost of the project in a little more detailed manner.  Most of the old trolley path still exists as or alongside the River to Sea Bikeway, and a lot of the electrical lines are still in place as you drive along Park Avenue, granted with newer poles and wires.  So we can actually use most of the original route, although there would still be plenty of issues to deal with.  And don’t worry, we can keep the bikeway running next to the rail line.

Crunching the Numbers

Postcard of the Old Causeway in 1929

The Old Causeway in 1929, Now Site of the Drawbridge. 
The historic Babies Hospital is visible in the back right.


The American Public Transportation Association has looked at a variety of streetcar projects and new track construction ranged from two million dollars per mile in Kenosha Wisconsin to thirty million per mile in San Francisco, with the majority in the two to eight million range.  Wilmington is luckily closer to the Kenosha model of operation as much of the infrastructure is still in place and construction would be minimally disruptive to streets.  Mapping out the route from Front Street to Lumina Avenue is approximately ten miles via the old trolley route.  The system would move along city streets downtown, possibly on Ann Street from Front Street, then turning south to head towards the intersection of Colwell Avenue and Castle Street near 17th Street.  From there, Approximately six miles of the old route is undeveloped parallel to Park Avenue until it reaches the remains of the old trolley bridge crossing Bradley Creek.  From there to the beach is the trickiest part, crossing Oleander and taking Wrightsville Avenue or Airlie Road to the drawbridge.  Crossing the drawbridge may be the most expensive portion of the endeavor, involving building a bridge to simultaneously raise with the car bridge or find a way to use the existing bridge.  From there the system could take Salisbury Street and reverse at Johnny Mercer’s Pier, which has more room for a station than near Station One, or the system could simply loop around the Loop and head back into town. 

The route would include three bridges (four if we loop the Loop) with a total combined length of approximately two thousand feet, including one drawbridge approximately four hundred and fifty feet in length if we cannot use the car drawbridge.  A railroad bridge north of Wilmington from Morehead to Beaufort was estimated at around $8,000 per linear foot, so the bridge infrastructure looks to be around twelve to thirteen million total for the two standard bridges, and maybe the same amount for the single drawbridge if we triple or quadruple the cost of a regular bridge.  So combined with a two million dollar per mile estimate for the rest of the track, we are looking at a rail infrastructure of a minimum of forty five million dollars.  If we can use one or more of the existing car bridges, we could reduce that number significantly.

Photo of Newell's Concession Stand at Station One

Newell’s Concession Stand at Station One on Wrightsville Beach


I am not sure what exactly APTA includes in its average cost per mile, but it looks like it includes most of the construction, such as moving utilities, buying property, building stations, legal issues, getting permits and more.  In addition we would need to purchase four or five cars, build a trolley barn, add in parking and other infrastructure as needed and more.  Trolley cars range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the features.  A trolley barn and a handful of parking lots would be a few hundred thousand each.

In the end we may be looking at thirty to seventy million dollars or more to rebuild the trolley line completely depending on routes and bridge construction.  As far as annual operating budgets go, it’s tough to tell.  Looking at the Dallas trolley line, its annual budget appears to be around one million dollars.  What would you pay to ride a trolley from downtown to the beach, or in-between?  A dollar?  If we go by the 1907 estimate of up to 8,700 passengers per day, we’re looking at one to three million dollars in fares alone per year.  Add in advertising and other revenues from streetcar rentals and events and the system could definitely pay for itself and maybe even make some money.  

As for cons, I am sure people will find some that I have not.  The Dallas Trolley system ran by the front door of my apartment for four years and the noise wasn’t a big issue, but operating hours would definitely be set.  For example ending at 10pm on the weekdays and midnight on the weekends. Safety is always something to keep an eye on, from operational safety surrounding the equipment and roads to personal safety for the travelers and drivers in the cars and around stations.  We are lucky that a large portion of the route still exists and is not located on a street, but rather medians and grassy areas similar to many of the New Orleans routes.  So travel on actual city streets would be limited to mostly downtown and possibly some portions of Wrightsville Beach, and we could use less-traveled roads for routes to avoid adding to congestion.

That’s a Wrap

In the end, would a trolley make a huge difference in town?  Maybe not, but it would add to Wilmington’s character, and heritage trolley systems themselves have become a tourist and event destination.  While my estimates come from quick searches, I feel they are still decently accurate and give the discussion a jumping off point. The main question that will probably come up is “where is the money coming from?”  While I do think this could be a money-making venture for the area, it would take a big capital investment.  There are some state and federal transportation dollars available for a project like this, but not a lot.  So the rest would need to be raised through local public and private fundraising via whatever means make the most sense, such as municipal bonds or other investment vehicles for the rail line that don’t necessarily need to be taxes.  I feel citizens would be more excited about a project like this than many others that have come before, and all arguments aside, a trolley would be just plain fun to ride.