Tryon’s tracks to nowhere

Published 1:05 pm Friday, September 17, 2010

Editor’s note: Christine Wilmanns of Landrum recently submitted the following article about the railroad in Tryon, written by her uncle, C. W. Hauck.

Walking down the street in Tryon, you might have noticed some railroad tracks nearby — seemingly idle, gathering weeds and rust. You might have stopped a passer-by and asked about the tracks what are they for? And he was likely to have answered, Tracks? oh yeah, there are some tracks over there, and that might have been the extent of the conversation.

Find a senior citizen, though, and he might have lapsed into nostalgic reminiscence about the old days when heavy railroad traffic came through Tryon on this, the old Southern Railway, and how many steam locomotives it took to battle trains up the famous Saluda grade.

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The “Saluda grade was the steepest part of the line from Spartanburg to Asheville, and Tryon was an important station mid-way. The part of the track from Melrose to Saluda about three miles was justifiably famous as the steepest stretch of main line railroad in the United States. To scale the flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains the line had to climb 600 vertical feet in elevation and that required a grade of 4.7 percent (that is, climbing 4.7 feet in every hundred). Most railroads try to avoid a grade even as steep as

1 percent, and the most spectacular narrow gauge railroads that scaled the Colorado Rockies did not exceed 4 percent.

And the railroad was historical. Railroads were the new “hi-tech idea in the 1830s, and pioneering railroad projects were being hatched all over mainly along the east coast, and often in fragmented short pieces between towns and cities. But bigger schemes were being hatched, too major port cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore thought it promising to plan railroad lines from their port city to the booming inland country of Ohio and Illinois. And so did Charleston whose entrepreneurial citizens incorporated the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad in 1836, to construct a line from their port city to Cincinnati, then the largest city west of Philadelphia and a major commercial and industrial center in the midwest.

Progress was slow, but the railroad reached Columbia by 1842, and halted there until another line, the Spartanburg & Union Railroad, extended operation to Spartanburg by 1859. Finally, still another railroad, the Spartanburg & Asheville, was incorporated in 1868 to climb over the mountains to Asheville.

Alas, progress was slow, and the railroad did not reach as far as Hendersonville until June first, 1879. The money had run out, and bankruptcy followed, but in due course the railroad was reorganized and new money found. Finally the important link to Asheville was constructed during 1885-1886. The Western North Carolina Railroad had already reached Asheville from the east and built a line north to Paint Rock. That connected to a line from Knoxville, and then to Cincinnati now, after 50 years, the dream of the Charleston merchants was realized: train service from their city to Cincinnati, Chicago and the developing midwest was a reality.

The railroad was busy and important for over half a century moving much freight and deluxe passenger trains. But operations were made difficult and expensive by the steep, tortuous line between Tryon and Asheville. Not only steep, but crooked many curves were exceptionally tight, only 10 degrees which would be unacceptable on a normal railroad. This was a problem for the large engines that were needed.

Used a great deal were 2-10-2 Santa Fe type freight engines: translated, this means there was a single-axle lead truck (two wheels) in front, five fixed axles for the [big] drive wheels (five wheels on each side), and a single-axle trailing truck. That was too rigid a driving-frame for the sharp curves so the first set of drive wheels were specially designed as floating drivers that would adjust to the track

All trains had extra engines added for the climb helper engines usually added to the rear to push, while the regular (road) engines pulled from the front. The steepness of the grade greatly reduced the pulling-power of the locomotive. For instance, one of the Santa Fe freight engines could handle a 2,000-ton train on the stretch from Hendersonville into Asheville, but only 500 tons on the Saluda grade. Thus all trains had to have at least one extra locomotive added going north at Melrose, just six miles above Tryon.

Freight trains negotiated the line through Saluda at from seven to eight miles an hour but when diesels arrived, this was increased to 11 miles an hour, as diesels produced greater power at low speeds. Passenger trains were faster somewhat! The 20 miles from Tryon to Hendersonville normally required between 55 minutes and an hour, going either way. The grade was so steep that the trains had to creep down under careful breaking control. If they got going too fast, there would be no stopping them short of having them decorate the landscape.

And unfortunately, prior to 1900, they did decorate the landscape a number of times, costing a total of 27 trainmen their lives. Holding back 2,000 tons of freight cars trying to rush down the hill, with inadequate braking systems, occasionally resulted in runaways. The most dangerous place was a ten-degree curve near Melrose; trains had so many derailments there that it became known as Slaughter Pen Cut.

This was clearly an unacceptable situation, so the Southern Railway took extreme measures to make the hill safe. Modern air brakes made a great difference, and they were used carefully. Trains stopped at the top of Saluda Mountain and all brake systems checked and activated and some light brake pressure applied even as the locomotive started downhill.

Then, two safety tracks were built to corral runaways 1800-foot sidings located partway down that were headed back upgrade steeply, ending in deep sand that was sure to stop a speeding train. Each safety track had a switch-tender, and the locomotive engineer was required to whistle loudly a quarter mile away to make sure the switch-tender was awake!

Piloting a freight train down a grade is not like driving your car, where a firm thrust on the brakes will bring it to a quick stop. Speed must be carefully controlled on a descending train, within the capacity of its braking system; once it becomes moving even a couple of miles an hour faster than the desired controlled speed, it becomes a runaway!

Passenger trains had better luck and a clean record. Traffic was busy in the years before widespread auto (and air) travel. In the ’30s there were three daily trains each way the premier train was the “Carolina Special” from Cincinnati to Charleston, and there was the “Skyland Special” that provided Pullman service from Asheville to Jacksonville, and a daily local.

The deluxe trains only made a few stops between Spartanburg and Asheville, at Tryon and Hendersonville and the most important stops (and Saluda, of course). But the daily local stopped at every one of the 24 stations on the 69-mile route, taking about three hours to make the trip (yes, thats a fast 23 miles an hour). If that seems slow, consider that the two limiteds also took three hours for the run. Considering all the station stops it had to make, the lowly local must really have been flying along.

But the Carolina Special was the deluxe limited on the route for many years. In the 1930s there were through Pullman sleepers from Chicago, via the New York central, to Charleston, and additional sleepers from Cincinnati to Spartansburg and Cincinnati to Goldsboro from Asheville. Dining cars served all meals, and coaches were included too, of course.

Going south, the train left Cincinnati at 7:20 at night, and reached Asheville at 9:10 a.m. That was about 14 hours for a 438-mile trip, a resounding 31 miles an hour – but over an equally famous and difficult main line, the Southerns famous Rat Hole Division so named because it had so many tunnels through the mountains of Kentucky that filled with smoke from the steam locomotives battling the grades. Engine crews found this series of smoky tunnels so disagreeable that they likened them to rat holes.

Columbia was reached by 5 oclock, and Charleston by 8:35 that night, if there were no problems and the train arrived on time. A bit over 24 hours for the 723-mile trip about 30 miles an hour overall.

As time passed, popularity and acceptance of passenger service over Saluda gradually diminished. By 1959 the Carolina Special carried just a sleeper from Cincinnati to Charleston; a combination diner and lounge car was added for the Knoxville-Columbia portion of the run. Traffic (and number of cars) clearly was reduced, and for the first long leg of the run out of Cincinnati the train was combined with an Atlanta train.

Finally, with the coming of Amtrak, the Southern declined to join (only one of two railroads to do that the Denver & Rio Grande being the other) and modern air service had replaced trains like the Carolina Special.

And the coming of diesel locomotives and more efficient operating practices and differences in traffic flows made it possible for the Southern to reroute freight traffic over other route combinations, permitting them to cease lifting trains over the spectacular but costly and inefficient Saluda Mountain line.

And thats why Tryons tracks today go nowhere.