Let’s talk of the Saluda Grade

Published 10:20 am Friday, May 20, 2011

The continuing saga of the quest to use the Saluda Grade rail right of way has been of interest to me for several reasons.

My grandfather, L. C. Goodwin, was an engineer who operated a steam locomotive to haul freight trains out of Durham. My father became a brakeman, did not like that work, but retained an abiding interest in trains.

Daddy used to take me up to Melrose where a “helper” engine was always waiting to push the next train up the grade. He would take me by the hand and lead me right up to the engine! I was a wee lad and fearful of those big fire-breathing dragons. I could see the flames licking around in the firebox from my low vantage point, and there were all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds coming from the beast as it waited with steam up.

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We would chat with the engineer until a train chugged up from Tryon, watch the helper get behind it and then huff and puff mightily as both locomotives took the train on up the steep incline to Saluda. Then daddy would show me that the switch of the rails was always set for the safety track. The yardman would switch it to the main line for a descending train only if the engineer had his train under control. If it were going too fast, it was sent up a very steep inclined track to dissipate its energy.

Over the years, several trains went off the end of the safety track and plunged into a ravine. In one case the fireman jumped clear but the engineer died in the wreckage. That engineer was part of the late Louise Averill Thompson’s family, so it became personal to me because she was my friend.

When the diesel engines replaced steam locomotives, four units could pull trains up the grade without additional help. I understand also that the engineer descending the mountain could then throw the switch to the main line from his cab. On visits to Pearson’s Falls I have heard the earth-shattering squeal of the brakes as a long freight was being eased down the grade at maybe 10 miles an hour.

A train leaving Asheville for Spartanburg would be inspected 100 percent before departure. Then at Saluda it got another complete inspection, and might be split into two sections if very long. The trainmen all had great respect for the Saluda Grade! I think the rails have been “banked” mainly because the “short” route down the mountain actually takes longer because of the extensive precautions necessary for safety.

When the rails were first cut and the talk of running an excursion train on the grade began, I mentioned all of this to some of those enthusiasts, but I think they did not want to hear my words. I believe it would be difficult to find people to operate even a single self-powered coach on that mountain, let alone a passenger train!

With the change from train to trail, the matter of use of the right-of-way has come into play. Ownership of land is an interesting concept in itself. I understand the Native Americans (Indians? No, this is not India! And since I was born here, I feel that I am a Native American, too. Why not?) felt the Great Spirit owned the land and they all shared in its benefits.

As a child growing up here, I thought the mountains belonged to everybody. When I asked Uncle Ethan (Rippy) about the big white square visible even in summer on White Oak Mountain, he said that it was the huge Skyuka Hotel. Naturally, I wanted to see it, so my mother packed lunches for my brother Bill and I and we set out with Uncle Ethan to climb the mountain.

There were well-marked bridle trails all over the area, including the mountains. Riding and hiking on the mountain was a cherished activity enjoyed by all able-bodied folks back then. We drank water from the streams and waterfalls. No one ever got robbed or killed that I heard of. There were indeed some places that we “knew” not to go because moonshiners were active there and did not welcome “visitors.” Maybe that’s why the bridle trails were well marked.