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Long before the railroad cut through the steep gorge along the Pacolet River to what is now Saluda, North Carolina, there was Pace’s Gap or Pace’s Ridge. Located on Saluda Mountain, Pace’s Gap was a crossroads for traders who carried goods and drove livestock along the path where the old Howard Gap wagon road to the Blockhouse Fort met the Winding Stairs Road down to the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia. Pace’s Gap was home to a drover’s inn run by the Pace family, which provided accommodations for weary travelers and provided pens and fenced areas to secure their livestock for the night.

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. 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. 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. The Saluda Grade is silent now when Norfolk-Southern discontinued the trains running up the Saluda Grade in 2001.  The Saluda Historic Depot is now a treasured landmark and has become a museum to memorialize the railroad, the Saluda Grade, and Saluda’s heritage with exhibits and artifacts.

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Saluda Thrives

In the early days, the new settlement of Saluda had to accommodate the needs of the railroad workers who were in demand of food, lodging, and supplies. Since the line to Hendersonville was not completed until 1879, Saluda was at the end of the line on the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad for a year. Travelers going west to other resort towns beyond, such as Flat Rock and Hendersonville, had to stop in Saluda to transfer to other modes of transportation, such as the stagecoach. These people had similar needs as the rail workers as they continued their journey, increasing the need for commerce in Saluda.

For many, Saluda remained the end of the journey once they discovered the natural beauty, pleasing weather, and the ozone rich healthy climate.  Thus began, the legacy of the grand inns, hotels, and boarding houses, providing fine accommodations for railroad workers and passengers alike.

By 1896, a thriving mercantile had grown in Saluda with a post office, three general stores, a drug store, one doctor, one private school and eight board houses.  In 1914, Dr. Lesesne Smith from Spartanburg built a baby hospital and started a pediatric seminar where doctors came from all over the country to learn how to treat babies with respiratory problems.

For the first four or five decades, Saluda was one of the most exclusive resort towns in Western North Carolina, primarily due to the influx of wealthy families from the low-country, midlands, and even from the north. Many built grand Victorian summer homes that survived the Great Depression and even today many are still in the possession of the original families. During this time work was plentiful and many came to Saluda to find work.

The Great Depression had a huge impact on the inns and boarding houses. Many mysteriously burned and it was rumored, burned for insurance money. However, several were rebuilt and remained opened until WWII put a stop to extended road and train travel. With the end of the passenger trains in 1968 and with the modernization of the highway system, Saluda has seen its ups and downs since then. Though despite difficult years, Saluda has always managed to reinvent itself making it an attractive and pleasing place to live year round or seasonally. In 1996, the downtown district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In Saluda, whether exploring the past or present, it is hard not to feel connected to those glorious days of yesteryear.

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