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.