north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     Railroad builders in western North Carolina faced the task of laying track up the steepest mountain inclines in the eastern United States. At Old Fort in McDowell County, the solution involved the use of tunnels and numerous curves. At Saluda in Polk County, workers on the railroad met the challenge straight on. The rugged geography of the Green River Gorge just west of the town posed a separate challenge for highway builders in the 1920s.

     Few places approach Saluda in their significance to railroad history. The three-mile-long grade that crests at Saluda is the steepest mainline, standard-gauge stretch of track in the nation. It rises an average of 4.7 feet for every 100 feet in length. This far outdistances its nearest rival, the 3.5 percent Santa Fe Grade in New Mexico. By comparison the maximum grade on the Old Fort-Ridgecrest line is only 2.2 percent.

     Construction on the Saluda line in the 1870s marked the first use of convict labor on such a large scale. Casualties among the workforce ran so high that they prompted an investigation by the state legislature. The first train made its passage up the mountain on July 4, 1878. Originally built as part of the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad, the grade came under the control of Southern Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern) in 1895. The goal was to provide a rail connection for Asheville with Spartanburg, South Carolina, and points to the south, one to complement the routes to Salisbury in the east, Murphy to the west, and Knoxville, Tennessee, to the north. By 2000 the tracks had been abandoned with traffic shifted to other routes.

     The Saluda Grade is infamous for the number of runaway train accidents. When talking about Cape Hatteras and the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” seamen tell tales of mishaps, triumph, and disaster. When veteran railroaders speak of Saluda, they do so with similar hushed tones. In 1880 alone, fourteen men were killed on the three-mile stretch of track. During the summer of 1903, there were three separate crashes. Most of the derailed trains skipped the tracks as Slaughter Pen Cut near Melrose, about halfway down the mountain. The number of wrecks led to the construction of an escape ramp at Melrose. This permitted a runaway train to be switched onto a separate stretch of track running up a moderate incline, to slow its pace. The last major derailment took place in 1964.

     The small town of Saluda boasts a thriving antiques and collectibles trade. Every July, Saluda hosts Coon Dog Day. Most visitors approach Saluda from Interstate 26, taking the exit that bears the town’s name. Snaking through the town is old U.S. 176. That route, which leads from Hendersonville to Tryon, courses through some of the state’s most scenic and rugged territory.

John F. Gilbert, Crossties Over Saluda (1971)
Town of Saluda website:
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north carolina highway historical marker program

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources