Saturday, April 18, 2009

Saluda North Carolina, the Saluda Grade, and a Friend Who Helped Me Learn to Ride

It was another Saturday with the mountains beckoning, so I started out to see what I could near Saluda North Carolina, particularly related to the steeply-graded railroad that passes through there.

I have been to Saluda a few times, always on the bike, never in the cage. It is a nice little town in the mountains. Tourists from the lower part of South Carolina used to come and stay for the summer because of the cooler temperatures at the higher elevation. Today, tourists still come and there are many surprisingly expensive houses as well.

The first time I visited Saluda was with a fellow I met indirectly through the Christian Sport Bike Association (CSBA) forum. I was looking for someone to ride with and made a posting to that effect. One forum member posted back that he knew of someone about thirty miles away from me who rode mostly dirt, but some street. I signed up on the Thumpertalk dirtbike forum and made a posting. The right guy, Ryan, posted back (miracle of the Internet -- thank you Al Gore! -- not), and we set up for a ride.

Ryan gave me directions to his house, but I missed a turn, so got there late. He suggested a ride up the Greenville Watershed road to Saluda. Since I had never been there before, I didn't know what to expect. This was back on March 1, 2008. The weather was about forty degrees F in the morning, but got to the upper sixties later in the day. The winds were gusty up to about 16 MPH.

The road to Saluda is in part through the watershed for the North Saluda Reservoir that provides Greenville South Carolina and the surrounding area with drinking water. Therefore, there are signs along the road that forbid stopping for any reason except emergencies. (Thus, no pictures.) This also means that there is no development on that portion of the road -- about eight miles in length -- so there are no intersections or driveways. It is heavily used by bicyclists, motorcyclists, and people out for a pleasant trip in their cars.

The road is fairly curvy in some parts, and dumps directly into the downtown of Saluda.

View Larger Map

I breathed a sigh of relief that we had arrived somewhere safely, and suggested that we have a soda pop before returning. Ryan was in a bit of a hurry because of family obligations, but he took a few extra minutes nevertheless.

Before we mounted up again, Ryan asked if I was up for a slightly more spirited ride back down the same road. I said yes, and he gave me some instruction. Before the first turn, he pointed down at his shifter, then held up four fingers indicating that I should select fourth gear. I did so, and proceeded to follow his lines the best I could through the curves. I remember thinking that I must also make myself look ahead of him, in case there should be something for me to react to. A couple of times he slowed for reasons that were not immediately apparent to me. He later said that he had been cautious in those spots because of gravel washed across the road.

He guided me safely to the other end of the road, turned to look over his shoulder at our first stop sign, and in a questioning posture and with a thumbs-up, asked if I was OK. I returned the thumbs up signal with a nod. I had made it!

Since that time, I have learned that Ryan has benefited from much more experience on the street than I, as well as many years of dirtbike riding. As a result, he is much faster and more confident than I am on the street. I confess that one time after that I became very depressed about my slowness and inexperience, almost to the point of quitting riding. Ryan gave me some encouraging words that helped me through that time. Thank you, brother.

Some history of the railroad through Saluda:
"In the year 1832 it was becoming clear that a rail line was needed to link Spartanburg, S.C. to Asheville, N.C. There was significant traffic, both passenger and freight, between the two cities and points farther west." [From Railfan website.]
"In 1877, the railroad between Tryon and Asheville was planned by the late Capt. Charles W. Pearson for the Spartanburg & Asheville Railroad (later named the Asheville & Spartanburg Railroad). [From Polk County website.]
The solution to the problem of climbing through the mountains came to be called the Saluda Grade, a three-mile section of track running between Melrose and Saluda with an elevation change of more than six hundred feet. The nearly five percent grade is the steepest section of standard gage railroad in the United States.
"On July 13, 1903, engineer W. P. "Pitt" Ballew was seriously injured in a runaway accident involving a steam engine with 13 cars of coal. It wasn't until a wreck on August 13, 1903, and another a week later that Ballew, from his hospital bed, thought of a solution to the Saluda Grade problems. Ballew's vision was to install two safety tracks - one near Sand Cut and another near Slaughter Pen Cut." [From Polk County website.]

"When the grade was in operation, there were between twenty to thirty coal trains using it each month. Each train averaged one hundred cars. Each coal car weighed around 135 ton. So, each train carried about 1,300 ton of coal. That means the grade carried close to 32,500 ton of coal a month. That is 390,000 ton of coal a year.

"The most difficult task was to get a fully loaded coal train from the top to the bottom, all the while retaining control of hundreds of ton of coal and steel. In order to safely run the grade, each train was required to make a stop in the town of Saluda, N.C. Here the train was prepared for the trip down the grade. The first step was to completely lock down the brakes on the first several cars of the train. Then the retainers (devices that hold the maximum force of the brake thus far applied and allow brake air pressure to be rebuilt) were set up on each of the rest of the cars. This was all done by hand by the brakeman. This process took close to an hour as each car had to be set up and then checked to make sure it was ready for the trip down the mountain." [From Railfan website.]

"Trains are restricted to 8 m.p.h. coming down the mountain and 20 m.p.h. traveling up the grade. Since improvements in braking equipment and adding two safety (runaway) tracks on the grade, no major derailments have happened in 30 years.

"Consider that if you lose brakes on a five percent grade, a loaded 90-ton train will accelerate to 60 MPH in 60 seconds." [From Polk County website.]

The maximum grade on any other standard-gage railroad in the country is slightly less than five percent, but usually much less. The main cargo going down the Saluda Grade was coal, with empty cars coming back up. Passenger service was also available, ending in 1989.

Even with the precautions listed above, there was the possibility of the train running away. After several such happenings where life and equipment was lost, the two runaway tracks were engineered along with an operating protocol. In essence, the runaway tracks work like runaway truck ramps on highways: The train is directed up a hill that is sufficiently sloped and long enough that the train is stopped by gravity and a pile of earth at the end. The rule for manipulating the turnouts (called switches by non-railroad people) was that the runaway turnout was normally in the position that would direct the train onto the runaway track. Upon approaching each runaway track, a train whistle signal was interpreted by a switchman at the turnout leading to the runaway track that the train was under control. Acting on that signal, the switchman would switch the turnout to the mainline so the train could continue on its way. If the whistle signal was not forthcoming, the turnout was left in position to direct the train onto the runaway track.

Today, only one of the runaway tracks still exists, near the adjacent bridges over the North Pacolet River and over Pearson Falls Road. We'll see that place later.

Now, on to the story about my current trip to Saluda:

Since I am trained as a mechanical engineer, I am interested in things that are engineering related. I have recently learned about the Saluda Grade, so I venture out to Saluda and its surroundings again.

It turns out that the railroad through here, built in 1878, has not been used since before 2003, but the tracks and signals are still in place. It is now owned by the Norfolk Southern Railway.

The Grade runs for three miles between the lower end at Melrose to the east of Saluda, with the crest in downtown Saluda, rising six hundred feet in that stretch. That amounts to a grade of almost five percent, and actually slightly more than that in one section.

I reach Saluda along the Watershed road. I feel more confident as I ride today than I did the first time through here with Ryan. I decide to ride around a bit before looking at the trackage.

I find a road west of Saluda off US-176 called Camp Creek, and turn across the tracks west of The Grade and follow that road for a couple of miles. It is a fairly nice two-lane road, but there is a one-lane bridge with no guardrails and little warning. Vegetation obscures the presence of the stream on either side of the bridge as well. One could easily drive off the side and into the stream.

I wouldn't want to be driving through here at night.

I turn around and go back toward US-176. I stop at the grade crossing and look toward Saluda. The double tracks above The Grade are snaking away from me. The crossbucks have a small sign that gives instructions should a vehicle become stalled on the crossing, as there would be no stopping a heavy train.

I ride closer to Saluda, and see the overpass above the tracks. I stop at a grade crossing just west of the overpass. It is probably the original crossing before the overpass was installed. This crossing must have been a real traffic stopper when the trains were still running, although the length of the train when stopped might have been such that the crossing would not have been blocked.

This is the view toward the crest of The Grade, which is just beyond the overpass.

I park my bike on the downtown street that parallels the tracks, about even with a historical marker at the crest of The Grade. This view is looking west at the overpass from the other side of it compared with the previous photo.

I spot a fellow wearing a summer hat sitting across the street in front of a real estate office, Saluda Realty, and an antique shop, Summer House Antiques. There are a number of garage-sale-looking items situated in the parking lot in front of the building. I introduce myself and discover that this gentleman's name is Roy Eargle, a real estate agent and building contractor. He is overseeing the items for sale in the parking lot.

I sit with him for a spell while he tells me how difficult it had been for him to break into the small town culture as an outsider in 1981. Actually, Roy has probably done pretty well for himself over the time he has been in Saluda. I found out that he is responsible for saving the train depot by moving it from its original location to a place across and down the street. It is now a retail property.

Before paint.


And after paint. I wonder where the utility pole was when the first photo was taken.


He has also developed a number of other historic properties, including The Little Red Caboose--A Storybook Garden Shop, housed in a Central of Georgia caboose, #X61.

Mr. Eargle tells me that he likes to record the history of the area. He recites to me some info about the Saluda Grade. His business website includes some good detail about the trains that went through here, listed under "Saluda Articles."

I ask to snap Mr. Eargle's picture, and he agrees.

I walk down the street, leaving my bike parked at the crest. The town is said to have changed little over the years. I think I might agree with that.

The building with the red and white awning is interesting. It is owned by an old-line Saluda family, the Wards, and includes a hardware store, a grocery store, and a grill -- a veritable shopping mall right here in little Saluda! The grill is where Ryan and I had that soda pop on my first trip here.

Note the Coca-Cola bottle cap table in the foreground.

There is a restaurant called the Saluda Grade Cafe, and a children's playground complete with skateboard ramps just across the tracks from the storefronts.

There are attractive old houses up the hill behind the retail stores. One can imagine tourists and summer residents enjoying the mountain breezes from the wide, inviting porch of this one.

I return to my Ninja and examine the historical marker. This is the place where the trains stopped to set the retarders and brakes for the trip down The Grade. The Grade is in the background, and you can see the steep slope begin just around the bend.

This is a view back toward the crest. It is obvious that the town was built around the railroad's presence. It is the central feature of the town. I can imagine the noise and activity of trains stopped here before the trip down The Grade, and locomotives straining into town, pulling their loads up The Grade.

The crossing signals are covered, since there are no trains through here now.

This is the start of The Grade toward the east and Melrose.


This is the route I take today to see as much of The Grade as possible.

View Larger Map

A winter ride would have revealed more with the vegetation off the tress, but I am here today, so I see as much as I can.

I proceed down Pearson Falls Road, just east of the downtown section of Saluda. I immediately note that it is gravel. I hesitate a little as I survey the road ahead. It seems to be hard-packed with little loose stone -- here anyway. I proceed cautiously. I am glad I did. The road has some interesting scenery.

There is a house perched on the hillside with a waterfall right next to it. In fact, these homeowners have built a little deck near the waterfall to enjoy the view and the sound.

Next, a short distance further on, I spot a tunnel under the railroad. I am confused by the warning sign preceding it, however. It says that this is a One Lane Bridge and that the clearance is 7'-8".

Why does it say bridge? I don't see a bridge here, only a tunnel. Anyway, I look above the tunnel and spot The Grade along with a railroad signal tower (circled). There is also a fine blue line on the photograph paralleling The Grade, which slopes downward to the left.

I explore the tunnel entrance some more and find something odd. The stream paralleling the road disappears beneath the road at the tunnel entrance. The side road to the left slopes uphill, so it doesn't appear that the stream goes that way. Hmmmm.

Well, I don't know what is going on here. Nevertheless, I examine the prolific graffiti on the tunnel retaining walls and interior. Lots of artists have been busy here. The concrete makes a good canvas, apparently.

My Ninja waits patiently to enter the tunnel while I look around.

Only when I have emerged from the far side of the tunnel does it become obvious why they call this out as a One Lane Bridge. The stream flows beneath the floor of the tunnel roadway! It really is a bridge and a tunnel. Clever, those engineers of years ago.

(There is a fine blue line parallel with The Grade in this photograph as well.) The grade is downward to the right.

Here is a picture of the advisory sign on the downstream side of the tunnel.

Further on, I find a bridge with a picturesque stream running beneath it. The road ahead -- to the east -- is visible on the right.

I mount up again, and ride along. The road is still mostly hard-packed gravel and stone dust, and not too hard to ride on. No ruts or washboard, surprisingly. There are patches of loose stone, but not too many, and they are not deep.

I pass a group of adults and kids who appear to be examining the roadside vegetation. It also appears that some of them are using a shovel to extract some specimens for themselves. I don't think they are supposed to do that.

The Grade is still visible above me, now to my left after having passed through the tunnel.

I reach paved road again, and shortly the entrance to Pearson's Falls Glen. There is a man who comes out of a small house to greet me and collect my three-dollar entrance fee. He offers a map of the glen, which I take.

From the Pearson Falls website:

"This area has been owned by the Tryon (NC) garden Club since 1931 when they bought it from the son of the young engineer Charles William Pearson who discovered the falls while scouting a route for the railroad. A military man, farmer, and an engineer, Captain Pearson bought the Glen as part of a large tract of land that he wanted for his family. For years he and his heirs allowed generations of young people to picnic on the great stone table-rock that you will see at the foot of the falls. Botanists and bird fanciers from all over the country have come to discover and catalogue the wonders of this Glen area."

The road in is gravel again, so I switch to the weight-on-the-pegs posture again, and let the bike squirm and wiggle beneath me. I don't feel nearly as uncertain on this type of surface as I used to. The bike really does better if you don't fight it.

I park the bike. It is fairly hot today, so I shed my jacket, armored shirt, and helmet. I leave them with the bike. This is not very secure, but I arm the alarm with its proximity sensor and trust that the other visitors are honest.

A sign at the start of the trial reminds us of our manners here.

A pretty multi-tiered rock ledge holds many types of wildflowers. It is the Frances Lightner ledge, perhaps named after a benefactor or president of the Trion Club. A bronze plaque declares that this was dedicated in 1938.

The trail passes parallel with the stream leading downstream from Pearson Falls.

A dam becomes visible. I wonder what it was used for.

Some rapids.

The path leads closer to the falls, visible in the distance.

Finally, here is Pearson's Falls.

I savor the view and the sounds for a few minutes.

I then start on my way back to the parking lot. The glen is a cool place of respite from the city life. The travelers, of old and of today, can enjoy some of God's great creation here.

I reach the lot and find that my gear is untouched. I like to think that that means that none were tempted to take rather than that they were scared away by my alarm.

I have a drink of water and a granola bar, then put on all my gear. The engine starts easily as it always does, and I motor slowly out of the place.

For you whitewater fans, the North Pacolet River is a deceptively difficult river to run. The American Whitewater website says that the four miles between Pearson Falls along Hwy 176 and Tryon are level IV-V rapids.

"The North Pacolet is an odd run. From what most boaters can see from the road the creek is not terribly exciting. Don't be fooled, because almost all of the big drops are hidden from the road. Almost every turn on the road or place that is blocked by trees has a good-sized rapid. The put in for the run is almost across from the Pearson Falls private park. All of the rapids can be run on this river but there are some very scary undercuts and you are almost guaranteed to see some strainers. The most dangerous and largest rapid is downstream of the bridge."
Well, I hadn't thought about running it today anyway.

I turn right out of the falls parking lot, and make my way east. At the juncture of route 1100, there is an overpass taking the railroad over the highway. Just to the west of the overpass, there is the bridge over the river.

Best of all, I spot an interesting trackage pattern to my right just up route 1100. I park my bike in a driveway (hope they don't mind), and decipher what I am looking at. It is one of the safety or runaway tracks I had read about! Only one of the runaway sidings still exists, and this is it.

This photograph is looking to the east. The right-hand track, overgrown with weeds, is the runaway track. It goes uphill to retard the downhill momentum of a train. To the left are two tracks that were used to switch the helper engines, used for uphill travel, from one track to the other.

The overpass and bridge over the river are behind the photographer.

This picture is taken looking toward the start of the Saluda Grade. Pearson Falls is to the left down at the stop sign. Trains coming down were brought to a stop here to disable the retarders and release the brakes that had been set up in Saluda at the crest of The Grade.

The bridge over the river was a wooden truss design and became weak in later years, so the trains were pulled ahead far enough so that the cars were not on the bridge. This required that the locomotive pull the train up the grade to the east with the brakes on -- a difficult task. The bridge was rebuilt with steel underpinnings to remedy this weakness.

Here is a motorcyclist coming down the hill on 1100. I wave at him as he passes. I feel a camaraderie with him, even though I have no idea who he is. I like that, and get satisfaction from it, for some reason.

This is a closeup of one of the turnouts. Note the light-colored strip on the outside of the near rail. This is a gas heater to thaw ice that might form at the switch points in winter. There is one like it on the outside of the far rail and on the other turnouts. The LP gas tank in the background provides fuel for the heaters. Note also the shanty for switchmen and engineers, and the signal house beyond it. The black mechanism is the turnout motor.

I leave the area, and travel further to the east to follow more of the railroad. Route 1107, Country Club Road, runs past -- you guessed it -- the Tryon Country Club. It also crosses the track and parallels it for a short ways.

The crossing is in the middle of a sweeping curve of the rails, with the road continuing uphill beyond it. There are only a few houses served by this nicely maintained road. Note the rust on the rails, indicating their lack of use.

This cute gate is on a private driveway across form the country club. This is horse country, and there is an equestrian center nearby.

Horseshoe Curve Road is another one that comes close to the railroad. This is a shot of the track coming from the east.

And this is the horseshoe curve turning to the right, toward the north. Somebody parked his motorcycle at the crossing for some reason.

A short way further, the embankment of the curve is visible. It is quite impressive, towering over some houses below it. I forgot to take its picture.

I make my way through Tryon, NC. The tracks are high above these businesses.

Then I go through Landrum, SC. The tracks have been cut at Landrum as well as near the crest of the Saluda Grade. This probably means that the railroad intends to abandon the line running up The Grade.

Note how flat the terrain is near Landrum.

I continue through Campobello, Inman, Lyman, Greer, Taylors, Greenville, and finally back to Easley. This part of the ride is not as interesting, consisting mostly of straight roads, and getting into more traffic.

I have traveled 135 miles today, and seen some wondrous beauty as well as some engineering wonders. It was a day well spent.


Watch a Google Earth video as though you were flying up the Saluda Grade at an elevation of six hundred feet.

"From Google up Norfolk Southern's famous Saluda Grade, one of the steepest mainline grades ever built. So steep, in fact, last I heard it's not being used because it's too dangerous. From Landrum, SC to Saluda, NC it gains elevation without the use of loops."

Here is a SIMM simulation of a train going down the Saluda Grade.

"Follow a Norfolk Southern train heading down the now closed Saluda grade from Saluda to Melrose. This route is available from and is done by Kent Weissinger."
Other web pages for reference:

Trivia about the Saluda Grade.

The rail modeler's Guide to the Saluda Grade.
The Polk County Saluda Grade website.
Article in the November 1984 issue of Trains magazine describing the operations on the Saluda Grade. This is a must-read for fans of railroading operations.


1 comment:

mary said...

Very nice. My husband and I rode the bike on 176 this pass weekend . I think I might ride mine in the next few weeks. this was before we found your blog. it is very helpful thanks