Saluda Grade train model donated to Saluda Historic Depot

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, March 31, 2016


Dr. McConnel with the Saluda Grade train model

Dr. McConnel with the Saluda Grade train model

After studying the engineering feat and history of the Saluda Grade, Dr. Fred McConnel (Mac), has held a passion for Saluda and the role that this section of the railroad played in the transformation of western North Carolina. Dr. McConnel, an Asheville native who resides currently in Atlanta, Ga., has captured this railroad history in a multi-tiered, interactive train model that he donated to the Saluda Historic Depot.


Having a passion for the trains traveling through western North Carolina since he was six years old, Dr. McConnel would go down to Old Fort with his father to his father’s factory and watch the Southern Railway engines get ready to climb the loops around Andrew’s Geyser up Swannanoa Mountain to Ridgecrest.


For the last 30 years, he has modeled this area in his basement in Atlanta. Since his family wanted to stay in Atlanta instead of moving back to Asheville, he created western North Carolina in his basement. He studied the history, walked the tracks and collected types of every engine used for trains in the western North Carolina mountains. If he could not buy an engine type that ran in this region, he built it.


Just like building a railroad up a steep grade, Dr. McConnel was challenged building a train model of the Saluda Grade because of the space limitations in the depot building. Instead of drawing the O scale model to scale in width, he would go up and layer the different sections and eras of the railroad.


The Saluda Grade Train Model donated to the Saluda Historic Depot is of a O Scale diorama that illustrates different scenes of the railroad eras starting with the first passenger steam locomotive pulling into Saluda in 1878 complete with convict laborers and Captain Charles Pearson, chief engineer of the building of the Saluda Grade.


Scenes also include the logging trains, a model of Melrose and the safety tracks, The Carolina Special, a reproduction of the 611, and a replicate of the train crash with Pit Ballew who first thought of how to make the grade safer and probably saved the grade from abandonment in 1903.


Engineer Ballew’s concept of safety tracks is probably the most important contribution of Saluda to transportation safety. Even though the track now lies in rust, lives are still being saved on highways that have run-off areas to save trucks that have lost their brakes.


The depot is open to the public Thursday through Sunday 12- 4 p.m. and holidays.  You are invited to visit the depot and view this interactive train model that will take you on a trip back in time when the railroads were our major mode of transportation. There remains a certain romance brought to mind when you hear the whistle of an engine in the distance, brought to you by the self-guided video, of course.


For more information, please contact Judy Ward at 828-674-5958 or, or Cathy Jackson at 828-817-2876 or


-Submitted by Cathy Jackson