Saluda Grade

The Steepest Mainline Railroad Grade in America.


Saluda Grade

A historical marker marks the top of Saluda Grade.

Photo taken by Joseph Hinson

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Saluda Grade is the steepest standard-gauge mainline railroad grade in the United States. It begins in Melrose, North Carolina on Norfolk Southern's W Line at 1,081 feet and climbs to the town of Saluda, cresting from the steepest ruling grade of 5.1% in the center of town at an elevation of 2,097 feet.

The idea for a rail line to connect Spartanburg, South Carolina and Asheville, North Carolina had it's genesis in 1832. Surveying work began that year under the helm of Captain Charles Pearson. However, the planning of the new line proved to be an uphill battle, literally, as Asheville is at a higher elevation than Spartanburg and a mountain stood between the two towns. Going around it mountain was not viable. Going through the mountain via a tunnel was also not possible, so the decision was made to go over it.

The history is scant on why it took so long between the time the surveying began and when the first train ran, but building the line proved both costly and deadly. Many workers fell off cliffs during construction and others wore down physically. But on July 4, 1878, the first passenger train ran up what is now called Saluda Grade.

If building Saluda Grade proved dangerous, then so did the act of moving trains over the grade. Many downhill trains became runaways, trains unable to stop on their own power only to wreck near the bottom of the hill. By 1903, some twenty seven men had died as a result of wrecks on Saluda Grade. However, somewhat remarkably, all of the wrecks were of freight runs, not passenger trains.

When the Southern Railway took over for the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad, they considered giving up the line and building a new route. But an egineer who had survived one of Saluda Grade's runaway trains came up with the idea of building a series of connecting tracks along the hill. The tracks would end with a huge mound of dirt able to stop the trains. Trains would still derail, but the thought was the wrecks would be less severe and lives would be saved. The runaway tracks would be manned by crew members who would listen for a specific train whistle which would tell him the train was under control or out of control. Depending on which signal he heard, he could line the switch to either the runaway track or the main line. It is said that nearby residents also listened for the signals and would breathe easier when they were sure the train currently on the hill was under the control of her egineer.

More than a few times during the operation of Saluda Grade, there was thought of closing it down. It finally happened in December, 2001 when the last Norfolk Southern train went over the hill. However, the railroad has not officially abandoned the line and the tracks are still in place. NS did cut the track in Landrum, SC as well as place a mound of dirt over the rails, but reconnecting the tracks here would not be hard. However, in the decade plus since the closing of the Grade, there has been at least one wash out reported. But rumors still persist that the line will one day see another train and as long as rails are in place, the rumors could eventually prove true.

Update Log 

  • November 11, 2015: Photo imported by Michael Miller
  • March 14, 2013: Updated by Joseph Hinson: Two new photos with trains on the Grade; two new relevant links
  • March 14, 2013: Photo imported by Joseph Hinson
  • February 19, 2013: Added by Joseph Hinson