“Go ahead and take your seats, folks,” says the driver, using a handheld microphone. “And welcome aboard the Lumberville Trolley. There are some empty seats in the back. Yes, I know the seats aren’t all that comfortable. They’re all made of wood, just like the trolleys of old. And you can open those windows if you get a little warm, though it’s a beautiful day here in the river valley.”
The driver looks over his shoulder and smiles at the customers. It’s the usual mix, visitors from the nearby big city, a few international tourists, and even some locals showing off their home town to their own visitors.
“Before we get rolling, let me give you a little bit of background about Lumberville,” says the driver. He wears a white ball cap that says Lumberville Trolley. He’s middle-aged, trim, and his smile is genuine.
“So,” he says as the voices begin to hush, “Lumberville is an old lumber town. It was founded in 1841 by Charles Carson McPherson Stewart. He came up this big old river, saw the towering white pines and knew here was opportunity. Soon, he had a small mill operation going, an operation that quickly grew and attracted other lumbermen and investors. Before long, Lumberville was bustling. We had five large mills, a prison whose inmates worked at the mills for bargain prices, and a whole lot of saloons and other dens of vice.”
“Would you call this the wild west?” asked one of the international tourists.
“It was wild, all right, but not the gunslingers and cowboys west of here. Not that it was tame!”
And the driver chuckles.
“Were there Indians?” asks the same person.
“Maybe,” says the driver. “Let’s move on.”
The driver adjusts himself in his seat, starts the trolley. Diesel fumes waft in from the rear and a few riders close windows.
“This old town has some wonderful history and some great old mansions built by the lumber barons. No place like it, no, not anywhere.”
“Now I assume you folks have walked around downtown Lumberville, and saw these old stone buildings and some great shops and speakeasies. Well, we are not going there. We are heading into the real Lumberville, up the hill, where the folks really lived.” He puts the trolley into gear and begins rumbling up a steep hill.
“How big was Lumberville back then?” asks a woman.
“Good question. About 30,000 people, all of them in the lumber trade or in the businesses that supported it. Right now, going up this hill, we are going through what was the old Italian neighborhood.”
“Were there other kinds of neighborhoods?” someone asks from the back.
“Oh, sure. Along with the Italians, you had your Polish neighborhood, your Irish neighborhood, your Swedish neighborhood, Norwegian neighborhood, French neighborhood, Czech neighborhood, and a bunch of others. And then the regular Americans lived where they had a view of the river, as you will see. We’ll steer clear of the old Danish neighborhood, as it is still a tough and unsightly place.”
The hill grows steeper and the trolley begins to cough and lurch. The riders are leaning forward. Finally, the driver turns left onto a quiet street, lined with large Victorian houses. The engine settles into a quieter din and the driver resumes.
“This is called Captain’s Row. This is where the riverboat captains lived, in these fine old homes. They all have a great view of the river from the second and third floors.”
“Why is there a fence on top of some of the houses?” asks a girl.
“Those are called the widow walks. The wives of these riverboat captains, they would get way up there and look down at the river to see if their man was ever coming home.”
“What, is the river dangerous?”
“Sure!” says the driver, animated. “You had your logjams, you had your whirlpools, and you had your tornadoes cruising up and down the river. You had your bad guys, robbing the river boats. And you had your uncertain tides, which could bring you some mighty big tidal waves.”
“We are over 1,000 miles from the ocean,” says one of the locals. “I don’t think there were tides.”
There is a moment of silence.
“Whatever,” says the driver.
They turn right up a gentle hill.
“See that huge home on the left there? We are on Tazwell Street, and that’s where Tazwell lived. Robert Burgundy Tazwell, one of the first to cash in with a lumber mill. He was known as the most gracious host in town and had some famous visitors.”
“Like who?” asks a young man.
“Like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edgar Allan Poe and Daniel Boone and Machine Gun Kelly.”
“When did he get here? I think Edgar Allan Poe died in the 1840s,” says the local. “And surely the original Tazwell was long gone by the time of Machine Gun Kelly.”
The driver ignores him. “In fact,” he continues, “Tazwell and some of the other lumber barons built an opera house here that was the biggest one in the world.”
“In the world?” asks the local. “Where is it?”
“Burned down,” says the driver. “Over there, that house with all the turrets, that one is haunted by Queen Victoria.”
“Did she live here?” asks a woman.
“For a time,” says the driver. “But let’s move on.”
“And I have a real treat for you. One of these great old homes, the Brockmeyer mansion, now a bed-and-breakfast, is open to the public and we are going to stop for a few minutes.”
Many of the riders smile.
“I have to pee,” says a young boy.
“Just wait,” says his mother. “I’m sure they have facilities in the mansion.”
The driver takes a few turns, passing some huge old houses without comment, and pulls up to an Italianate home surrounded by a decorative wrought iron fence. The driver gets up, stretches. “Be right back,” he says.
The riders watch him enter the house. The door closes behind him.
“Are we supposed to follow him in there?” asks someone.
“Well, he said he would be right back, so maybe he is setting up a tour for us,” suggests someone else.
They wait. Several flies buzz the passengers.
“I think that is a wasp,” says one woman, waving at the flying insect with her tiny trolley brochure.
“Let’s open the windows,” says the local. “Maybe it will fly right out.”
“I will kill it,” says one of the international tourist and jumps from his seat, pursuing the bug with his shoe. Riders duck, more from shoe than wasp. The wasp flies out the window. The riders applaud. The international visitor smiles and bows.
“I don’t know about you,” says a man, “but I think the driver is making some of this stuff up.”
“He’s making up most of it,” says the local. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think any of those people ever came to Lumberville. And if we ever had all those different neighborhoods, you sure can’t find them now. Although we do have one church that’s called New Germany Salem Lutheran, so I suppose there might’ve been Germans.”
“He did not mention Germans,” says someone.
Then they are silent, most looking at the closed door of the big house. Cars pass them. A couple with a double stroller walks by. The sun goes behind the cloud and comes back out. There’s a thump, thump from someone’s car stereo that grows closer and then fades away.
The door opens and the driver jogs back to the bus.
“That’s better,” he says, smiling.
“Can we go in?” asks someone.
“No,” says the driver. He starts the trolley, puts it in gear, and starts down the street.
I want to go back to the Indians,” says one of the international visitors. “I’d like to know more about them. There must’ve been some in the area.”
The driver shrugs. “Well, there are different theories. We know for sure the Vikings were here. I myself found one of their mystic runes carved into a brick on the street. And others say that this is where you could find one of the lost tribes of Israel. I am not so sure about that, but it’s what they say.”
“Oh,” says the international visitor.
“Where would you suggest we go eat dinner? Any recommendations?” asks a woman with a smile.
“Don’t do it,” says the driver, “I shouldn’t go into it, but I just wouldn’t eat here.”
“What’s the problem?” asks the local.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” says the driver, “but I know some pretty important people. We may or may not be a test site for certain kinds of chemical substances that may or may not be added to food. That’s all I will say.”
The trolley passes the Lumberville Library, which looks like a Greek temple, and more gigantic old homes. The driver does not comment.
The riders look at him expectantly.
“So, that library back there, can you tell us something about it?” asks a man.
The driver shrugs. “It’s a library, what can I say? But here, this will be fun. I don’t always do this, but we’ll head back downtown now and I have a special treat for you.” He quickly turns and smiles at the riders.
“You may have noticed that this old river town has some mighty steep hills. The steepest of them all is called Dead Swede Hill. Now what’s really fun is to take the trolley down that hill, not up for heaven’s sake, because I don’t think she would make it. But down, well, it’s just like a roller coaster, has a few dips and the like. And here it is,” he says, turning right. The front windows of the trolley seem to stare into space, into an expansive distant vista of the river valley. And then the trolley teeters downward.
“OK,” he says, “the brave ones, just put your hands up in the air and go ahead and scream if you like. It can ease the anxiety.”
A couple of the kids raise their hands. The other riders clutch their seats. The trolley, nosing downward, quickly picks up speed.
“No brakes!” says the driver gleefully. He lifts his hands into the air. “Look, he says, “no one’s driving!”
The trolley bumps and grumbles, squeaks and groans. It clatters and wind rushes through the open windows. Someone does scream, but the sound is lost in the wind and mechanical racket.
Suddenly the driver grabs the wheel, jams the trolley into a lower gear, and hits the brake. The brakes squeal and the trolley fills with the smell of hot metal. He turns right, a little too fast, and passengers clutch their seats even tighter. A couple of loose purses and bags tumble to the other side of the trolley as it leans dangerously to the left. Then it slows, straightens, and coasts to a stop at the big sign that says Lumberville Trolley.
“OK, folks,” says the driver, “that’s about it. Thanks for taking a ride with me on the Lumberville Trolley. I had a great time and I hope you did too. I am going to put the tip jar right here by the door,” he holds it up. “And I sure hope to see you again.”
Photo by Sam Dan Truong | Unsplash