History of Saluda and the Railroad
When the first passenger train of the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad chugged up the Saluda Grade on July 4, 1878, Pace’s Gap was forever changed. By February, 1881, the growth and prosperity of Pace’s Gap had escalated to the point that it was chartered as the town of Saluda, named for Saluda Mountain, which is actually not a mountain but a group of mountains with the Saluda River at its foot. It is said that the Saluda River was named for an Indian chief whose name means “corn river” in Cherokee, which sounded to white men like “Saluda.”
Spread over seven hills, Saluda has an elevation between 2,096 to 2,200. Considered an enchanted destination, it is rich with history, arts and entertainment, fine dining and plenty to see and do. Saluda, located primarily in Polk and partially in Henderson Counties, celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2011, and has a population of just over 700 people.
Though the Saluda Grade opened to rail traffic in 1878, the idea for tracks across the mountain came about as early as 1832, when the demand became great to move goods, livestock and humans up the mountain away from the stifling heat of the thermal belt of South Carolina and Georgia into the new settlements further west. When surveying began, it became apparent that the best route was the one taken by the early settlers to travel to the new lands. This trail traversed the rolling foothills of the Piedmont and continued up the steep grade into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It wasn’t until 1877 that Capt. Charles Pearson, former Confederate Army officer, was assigned chief engineer. Pearson’s ultimate goal was to bring the line of the Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad across the Blue Ridge from Tryon to Asheville. This created quite a challenge since the early surveys revealed no route was available to ascend the mountains at a reasonable grade. Rejecting the route along Howard’s Gap, the old trading path, due to the instability of the ground due to underground springs, Pearson selected a route which followed the Pacolet River up the steep gorge, an almost vertical wall. This route begins at the bottom of the Melrose Mountain at 1,081 feet and climbs to the town of Saluda cresting at an elevation of 2,097 feet. In 1879, due to the depletion of financial resources and manual labor, the North Carolina legislature ratified a bill to provide financial support and to allow convicts to work on the construction of the line. The price paid by all workers, free or otherwise, was high, due to sickness and accidents resulting in a high death rate. Despite this adversity, the tracks reached the top of the grade three months after the convicts began work on the project, resulting in the completion of the steepest mainline standard gauge railroad in the United States.
Built by the Brotherhood of Clerks for Southern Railway in 1926, a simple farm-house style lodging named, “The Mountain Home,” was created as a summer getaway for railroad employees and their families. This is now the elegant mountain retreat, The Orchard Inn and is on the National Register of Historic Places as the Railway Clerks’ Mountain Home.
The Saluda Main Street Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with the depot listed as a contributing structure. Here is a description of the depot from that listing:
The exact date of construction for the former Saluda Depot is not known, but it was likely built during the first decade of the twentieth century. Some local tradition claims that it replaced the earlier depot, which had been located on Main Street in the center of town, in 1903. The “new” depot was built about a quarter of a mile away, parallel to the north side of the tracks and west of the present U.S. 176 overpass. In a town which owed its existence to the railroad and which depended on the railroad to transport its many summer dwellers and tourists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the depot was one of the most important buildings in town. In 1983 the depot was moved to its present location in order to assure its preservation. Although the depot is now positioned perpendicular to Main Street and the railroad tracks, it is architecturally very intact. It is a long rectangular structure defined primarily by its flared hipped roof with eyelid vents, widely overhanging braced eaves which cover the encircling platform walk, and stick style detailing. The combination passenger and freight station has German siding on the exterior, bay windows; six-over-six sash windows, and large freight doors as well as pedestrian doors. The well-preserved interior retains its unpainted vertical beaded board sheathing and paneling and some counters. In its new location, the depot has new chimneys, a new foundation, and an added railing around the outside.
When Southern Railroad discontinued use of the depot and it was falling into neglect, they sold the depot building to the City of Saluda for $1 with the condition that it would be moved from its original location west of town below the overpass. In 1983, the Eargle and Talbot families agreed to purchase the building from the city for $1,000 and move it to its current location on Main Street. Another condition of the sale to the Eargle and Talbot families was t “restore” it to its authenticity and thanks to the Eargle family the depot is well-preserved. It has been used as retail space since 1985. When agreeing to sale the depot, the city commissioners also asked that a space within the depot be reserved for a display of train memorabilia which has never been done with so many other priorities by the city. Finally, the citizens of Saluda have purchased the building and have begun to make it a museum. This long sought after dream has finally been realized.
Thanks to Historic Saluda Committee, authors of 100 Years, Saluda, NC, Citizens of Saluda, and National Registry of Historic Places for contributing to this history.