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Saluda Grade stars in 'Golden Age' exhibit

Larry Morton talks about making of the Saluda Grade model as museum board chair Carolyn Justus looks on. Larry Morton talks about making of the Saluda Grade model as museum board chair Carolyn Justus looks on.

Like a lot of little boys, Larry Morton got a train set one Christmas.


GoldenAgeMuseum board members and exhibitors in Golden Age costume watch opening ceremony."You either became addicted or you wrecked it," he said of the usual options a toy train presented. "I became addicted."
Morton, a 70-year-old retired computer network engineer, has been fascinated with trains all his life. The manifestation of that is now on display in a splendid scale model of one of the most famous train lines on the East Coast, the legendary Saluda Grade.
Morton and other Apple Valley Model Railroad Club members joined artists, researchers, craftsmen and museum board members on May 18 to dedicate the newest exhibit of the Henderson County Heritage Museum, "The Golden Age, 1879-1929: The Coming of the Train."
People from the Upstate of South Carolina and elsewhere in the South could only get to the mountains by foot, horseback or wagon until the train tracks reached Hendersonville. The arrival of the locomotive on the Fourth of July 1879 changed everything.
"It opened up Henderson County to the world basically," said Morton, who is chairman of the model railroad club.
Tom OrrTom Orr as an early Hendersonville mayor.The passenger trains were important in bringing the first large flocks of tourists to the region but the freight trains were equally important to the economy of Henderson County, which was then 80 percent farm-based. Growers of fruit and produce for the first time had ready wholesale buyers based at the Hendersonville depot.
Morton and other speakers shared the history and the legend of the famous steep grade rail line during the opening ceremonies on the Historic Courthouse steps and in the old courtroom upstairs. The Saluda Grade model, depicting the train line from Melrose to Saluda to East Flat Rock to Hendersonville, is the centerpiece of the new exhibit, which also features a reproduction of an early Main Street merchant, the M.M. Shepherd store; a scale model of the Historic Courthouse by graphic artist Knox Crowell; an exhibit about the Mountain Lily, a short-lived passenger paddleboat venture of the 1880s; and an exhibit on the golden age architects of Hendersonville.
The coming of the railroad ignited the boom that built 17 stores and five hotels in Hendersonville. Tom Orr, a retired theater teacher, history preserver and Museum Board member, told an audience that the street names we know today were not the ones residents used back then. Seventh Avenue was Anderson Street, Sixth Avenue Shaw's Creek Road,;Fifth Avenue, Broad Street; Fourth, Academy Street; Third, College Street (for Judson College); Second, Chestnut Street; and First, Aspen Street.

'I've got it!'
By the turn of the century Southern Railway had become increasingly anxious about the loss of human life, trains and LarryWilliamsLarry Williams rode the last train up and down the Saluda Grade.cargo on the Saluda Grade. W.P. "Pitt" Ballew was the engineer who lost a train in yet another downhill derailment on July 13, 1903. The story goes that Ballew, recovering in an Asheville hospital, sat bolt upright in bed and exclaimed, "I've got it!" Get the president of Southern Railway on the telephone, Ballew shouted.
Thus was born the Saluda Grade safety tracks that saved many a train from downhill doom.
The default assumption was that a downhill train would be going too fast. The engineer was to time his speed between two markers. If he had the train under control — less than 8 mph ¬— he would blow a long-short-long whistle. That signal told the switch tender to switch the track from the safety track to the downhill line that would take the train to Melrose.
Uphill, trains could not pull the usual long loads. Engineers called for pusher engines, or helpers, to push the load from the base of the hill to the top at Saluda. Even then, the line of cars often had to be divided into thirds.

Last ride down the Grade

Larry Williams, who is now yardmaster for Norfolk Southern in Asheville, was the conductor on the last train to climb the Saluda Grade, in 2003. Trains heading down the grade would stop at Saluda, where the brakeman and conductor would set 50 handbrakes. From the bottom of the hill, "you'd see the big headlight and all you could see behind it was the blue smoke of the brakes."
The horsepower of the locomotives increased to the point where the railroad company could pull 85 cars up the grade — powered by "three on the head and two on the rear."
The last night Williams ran the train was like any other.
"We got home about 11 o'clock that night," he said. "The next morning about 7 o'clock we learned the mountain was closed."
From time to time, railroad men will hear that maybe Norfolk Southern will resurrect the legendary Saluda Grade line.
"There's some talk," Williams said, "but I don't think it's going to happen."