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Saluda Grade would be star attraction of new rail-trail

Saluda’s picturesque downtown is famous in railroad lore as the crest of the Saluda Grade. Saluda’s picturesque downtown is famous in railroad lore as the crest of the Saluda Grade.

SALUDA — Saluda is known for its historic downtown, old-timey general store and steep railroad grade. What the town atop the Blue Ridge Escarpment lacks is manufacturing jobs or in fact many jobs at all besides those related to retail, dining and tourism.

That’s why it’s welcome news that Saluda could be the western terminus of the 31-mile Saluda Grade Trail, giving the renowned grade down the hill to Tryon new life as a recreation amenity and tourist draw. A coalition of nonprofits in North Carolina and South Carolina announced last week that it is working together to purchase the inactive railroad corridor for a new rail trail from Zirconia, south of Flat Rock, to Inman, South Carolina.
This may be the one time when it’s a good thing to say it’s all downhill from here.
Saluda Town Manager Steve Orr is stoked about the prospect because of the prospect that the greenway could bring green to the town. He points out that Saluda in recent years has expanded the tourism base beyond its strollable Main Street, drawing adventure seekers on the ground, in the water and in the air.
“From the perspective of the city of Saluda, they’re behind it,” he said. “Elected officials are all very much in favor because of the fact that it goes right down through town and it would be a huge economic development (boost), especially for outdoor recreation, which is pretty much what the town has embraced with the zipline and Green River Adventures.”
He’s already talking to Henderson County officials and others about the project and encouraging support.
“I mean, the whole thing is, why would you be against it?” he said. It would spark economic development “in an area that has lost that. We don’t have the population, we don’t have the topography. That’s why we’re putting all our eggs in this basket because, just like when the train hit here in 1800 and something, it’s the same thing.”
“We get a lot of bikes. We get a lot of road bikes, we get a lot of mountain bikes, all that stuff,” he added. “So everybody thinks and feels and rightly so, that’s our bailiwick. We’ve got the Green River, we’ve got the (nationally known) Green River Narrows race.”

The three nonprofits partnering to purchase the rail corridor — Hendersonville-based Conserving Carolina, PAL: Play, Advocate, Live Well (PAL) and Upstate Forever — endorse that idea, too. Like the popular Swamp Rabbit Trail from Travelers Rest to Greenville, S.C., the Virginia Creeper Trail and eventually the Ecusta Trail, the rail trail would be expected to spur economic growth while providing new opportunities for outdoor recreation. The three land conservancies have made an offer to Norfolk Southern, which owns the rail line. Negotiations are ongoing. In its recently adopted budget, the South Carolina Legislature appropriated $5 million to support the purchase of the corridor.
Approximately 16 miles of the line are in South Carolina while about 15 miles are in North Carolina. The route would feature dramatic scenery along the Blue Ridge Escarpment and would pass through the historic downtowns of Saluda, Tryon, Landrum and Inma

Zirconia-to-Hendersonville gap

The only flaw Orr sees in the plan is that it does not connect to the Ecusta Trail starting point on King Street in Hendersonville. That part of the unused rail line is owned by Watco, the Kansas-based short-line freight operator that sold the Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail bed for the Ecusta Trail. From Saluda’s point of view, bridging the gap is critical.
“This section here (from Saluda to Hendersonville) is almost level,” Orr said. “That’s what people really don’t understand, because the hard part is just 200 yards out here. Our push is if we’re going to phase this thing, we want the first phase to be Hendersonville to Saluda. And they work from South Carolina up. Kind of like it was with the Transcontinental Railroad — come from the east, come from the west.”

There’s a long way to go before a golden spike moment happens. The conservancies and other trail supporters need to raise roughly $60 million — half that to buy the rail corridor, the other half to build the greenway. The South Carolina Legislator has already anted up $5 million. The project leaders are expected to follow the same path blazed by the Ecusta Trail effort: railbank the property through the federal rails to trails program and seek large grants from the state and federal government to cover the rail line purchase and construction.
“As we’ve seen with the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville County, trails like this are transformational economic engines,” Andrea Cooper, executive director of Upstate Forever, said in the land conservancies’ news release. “They bring money and jobs to the local economy, boost quality of life for residents, and offer a safe and accessible way to spend time outdoors. The Saluda Grade Rail Trail will yield a return far beyond any initial investment.”


‘Opportunity to tell history’

When active from 1878 to 2001, the segment from Saluda to Tryon was renowned as the steepest standard gauge mainline railroad in the United States.
Folks in Saluda care deeply about that railroad history, filled with tales of horrific train derailments but also stories of well-heeled tourists who disembarked at the town depot for summer stays and young mothers who made the trip to Dr. D.L. Smith’s sanitarium for babies. Some in town support the trail with an emphatic condition — as long as it’s a certainty that no train is ever going to climb the grade again.
“It would be good for the economy,” said Nita High, secretary of the town’s Historic Depot and Museum board. “Of course we would be sad to see the rails pulled up because that’s part of our history.”
A native of Spartanburg who has lived in Saluda for 30 years, High adds that people eager to climb the grade may not appreciate just how steep it is.

“If they’re thinking that they’re going to hike on this trail, it won’t be a hike going down (and back up) the Saluda Grade,” she said. “It’ll be a mountain climb, because it is steep. You’re coming a thousand feet in elevation from Tryon to here. That’s the Blue Ridge Escarpment and that’s very steep.”

Cindy Stephenson Tuttle, who chairs of the Historic Saluda Committee, has family roots that go back to the town’s earliest boarding houses serving travelers who arrived by stagecoach.
“I personally have kind of mixed feelings about it,” she said of the proposed Saluda Grade Trail. “But if there’s never a chance for the train to come back up the grade then it’s an excellent opportunity for people to enjoy the beauty and the scenery. It’ll bring people to town. It’s kind of a mixed bag. Us historians want to preserve the old.”
Even without tracks beneath their feet or tires, she said, pedestrians and bicyclists will likely be drawn into the lore of the steep grade.
“When they walk the trail, they’ll be reminiscing about the railroad, they’ll be more interested in stories about the railroad and there are lots of places along the tracks with good stories. So there’s opportunity there to tell history.”
Although the Saluda City Commission has not yet formally endorsed the proposed trail, Mayor Tangie Morgan says she expects it to have broad support. The South Carolina legislator who sponsored the $5 million appropriation to support the rail corridor purchase visited last week to fill her in on the progress in Spartanburg County.
“I think it’ll be a great thing,” Morgan said. “The railroad’s been neglected for years. I think it will help a lot of the businesses and I think it will help the citizens. It’ll be good for the community to get out and enjoy a little outdoor activity. It’ll link little towns together and it’ll be beneficial for all of us.”