July 4, 1878 was more than just Independence Day in the village of Pace’s Gap on Saluda Mountain. At eleven o’clock that morning the first passenger train of the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad panted up Saluda Grade, the culmination of a seemingly impossible engineering feat which had cost thousands of hours, several bankruptcies, and many men’s lives.
The Outer Blue Ridge Mountains, of which Saluda Mountain is a part, are some of the oldest in the world but in spite of their extreme age, they still form a steep barrier between the gently rolling Piedmont and the fertile valleys of the Western Appalachians. Though they are not technically as high above sea level as the Smokies, their crags rise sharply, formed in a giant upheaval before history, then leveled, then thrown up once more against the newer mountains farther north and west. Many of their slopes are still unstable, the earth slipping and sliding as though they still have life within. Saluda Mountain is stable but steep. Saluda Mountain is the name used for the group of mountains in the area.
In 1877 Capt. Charles W. Pearson, late of the Confederate Army, undertook to project the line of the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad across the Blue Ridge from Tryon to Asheville. Rejecting a route along the old trading path and wagon road by Howard’s Gap because of the instability of the ground and the necessity for a series of tunnels, Pearson routed the roadbed up the steep gorge along the Pacolet River, up an almost vertical mountain wall, devoid of foothills and cross crenelations. “Even with high fills, deep cuts and a total of fifty curves—many of them giant horseshoe bends—the average gradient was nearly twice that of the more northerly road (of the Western North Carolina Railroad, through Swannanoa) to Asheville”. In 1879, when the project nearly bogged down for lack of money and labor, the North Carolina legislature ratified a bill giving financial support and allowing convicts to be sent to help build the grade. Sickness and accidents plagued the men, both free and convict, so that the death rate of workers was high. However, the tracks finally reached the top of the grade three months after the convicts went to work. They had built the steepest mainline standard gauge railroad in the United States, the three mile slope ranging from 3.70 to 4.70 percent.
As the huge iron monster came puffing into view that Independence Day in 1878, smoke spewing from its stack and whistle screaming in triumph, the people of the village cheered, the children hid behind their mothers’ skirts, and horses reared in terror, dragging wagons away from the horrifying sight.
It was the beginning of a new era on Saluda Mountain, bringing prosperity and a new way of life. It would be another year before the rails were built to Hendersonville, but long before that time, travelers from the lowlands swarmed into Pace’s Gap, some of them going by stagecoach to Flat Rock and Hendersonville but many of them staying on in the boarding houses built to house the railroad people while others built homes and boardinghouses of their own to take advantage of the cool mountain air. In February, 1881 the village had become so prosperous that it was chartered as the town of Saluda.
And from the beginning, the railroad was the center of it all. People soon learned to run their lives around the schedule of trains. Stores and barber shops, a bank and theater were built along the main street which paralleled the track. Passengers debarked to find most of the populace gathered to see who had arrived that day. When the track was opened to Hendersonville, many of the passengers would jump off for long enough to buy “soda water” or candy at the general store. Freight trains stopped to check brakes before descending the dread Saluda Grade, or after puffing up the grade to let the “helper” engine disconnect, ready to go down to Melrose to push another freight up the hill.
The “Helper” was a necessity. Built for traction rather than speed, with larger cylinders and with ten small driving wheels instead of the eight larger drive wheels that were used on gentler slopes, the helper engine was stationed in Saluda and was parked on the siding, ready to hurry down to Melrose when word was telegraphed that a freight was on its way from Tryon. In Melrose, the helper was connected to the rear of the train and with its regular engine pulling and the helper pushing, the freight came puffing up the grade. Different engines were stationed in Saluda over the years, but there was always a helper engine waiting for freights. Sometimes it took several tries to get up the grade, with the engines starting again from the bottom and gathering speed and traction till they finally made the grade. Old timers remember lying in bed in the dark hours of the night and hearing the steam engines puffing up the Big Hill like the “Little Engine that Could”, seeming to say, “I think I can! I think I can!”, then slithering and slipping back down the grade only to come puffing slowly back and finally, with the whistle tooting in triumph, pull into town.
Railroading over Saluda Mountain was far from peaceful. In the early days, engineers on freight trains dreaded the trip down the Big Hill from Saluda to Melrose more than any other part of their job as the stretch became famous for wrecks and runaways. Between 1880 and 1894, there were four bad wrecks where men were crippled and killed. In 1880 fourteen men were killed, in 1890 three were killed, and in 1893 three men were killed and one lost his leg, and a carload of cattle was killed outright when #559 “dashed down the Saluda Grade and ended up in a conglomerate mass of iron, coal and timber”. The curve where the wreck occurred has been known ever since as Slaughterhouse Curve.
In 1903, after his engine and a trainload of bituminous coal plunged over the embankment at Big Fill with engineer and crew only jumping to safety in the last few seconds, Pitt Bellew, the engineer, who had been crippled in his jump, came up with an idea that saved the railroad millions of dollars and many lives. The Southern Railroad, which had taken over the route of the Asheville and Spartanburg, was ready to give up Saluda Grade and try another route. Twenty-seven men had been killed crossing Saluda Mountain! Bellew went to his Superintendant saying, “You’ve seen or heard of the old switchbacks. My idea is to build spur tracks up the mountain and put gravity to work when a man gets in trouble.”
So Number 1 Safety Track was put in on the curve west of Big Fill, and another at Slaughterhouse Curve. These tracks were so steep that a train would slow itself down and stop rather than plunge off the mountainside, and for many years, they were left open at all times unless a train signaled to the switchman on 24-hour duty that the switch could be closed to send the train on down the main track. The last bad wreck happened in 1940 when a runaway freight was going so fast that even Safety Track Number 1 was not enough to stop it. That rainy afternoon in September, the engine went clear over the top of the hill and down the slope on the other side, carrying the tender and two freight cars. The engineer and brakeman were injured and the fireman was killed by the tons of coal that pitched over on him. And another carload of cattle was buried in the pit dug by the engine, with one lone surviving cow wandering sadly among the steaming wreckage.
Luckily, there was never any life lost by passengers. The luxury “Carolina Special” brought passengers to Saluda from the lowlands for many years, and “Summer People” now in their seventies and eighties remember the trip from Charleston and Savannah with steamer trunks, wicker hampers and suitcases, dressed in their best linen suits and dimity dresses. Cinders blew into open windows and everyone was excited, with mothers and nursemaids struggling to keep the children clean for arrival at the top of the Saluda Grade.
The advent of the automobile and the building of superhighways so decimated the clientele of the luxury trains that the Southern Railroad took the last cars of the Carolina Special off the line in late 1968. But for many years the big events of the day in Saluda were the arrival of the Special from Asheville in the morning and its return from Spartanburg and the lowlands in the afternoon.
Courtesy of Clark Thompson, here are a couple of expansive and highly-informative articles about the railroad and Saluda. The Trains article is from 1984 and was written by the incomparable Frank Clodfelter. The Railmodeler’s Guide, as the name suggests, is designed for the railroad hobbyist yet is still a very serious and thorough study of the challenges of the Saluda Grade.
Click on either magazine to read the entire articles, in PDF format.
And here’s something you don’t see everyday: