The Saluda Grade, Steepest Mainline Rail Grade in the U.S.

A circa postcard showing a train climbing the Saluda Grade. Image from N.C. State Historic Sites.On July 4, 1878, the first train to travel the Saluda Grade railway passage arrived in what’s now the town of Saluda in Polk County.

Construction of the railway passage began in 1877 under the direction of Capt. Charles W. Pearson. The railway was intended to link Salisbury, Murphy and Knoxville, Tennessee, and most importantly to provide a connection between Asheville and Spartanburg, South Carolina.

While railroad builders used tunnels to snake through the steep climbs found elsewhere in the North Carolina mountains, near Saluda they decided to the face the steep inclines head-on and built straight up the rugged terrain.

The engineering feat that made the project possible was unprecedented in the 1870s, and construction proved so dangerous and resulted in so many causalities that it sparked an investigation by the General Assembly.

Until taken out of service by Norfolk Southern in 2001, the Saluda Grade was the steepest operating mainline grade in the United States, with a 4.7% grade. Throughout the passage’s long history, it was famous for its high number of runaway train accidents.

Visit: the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer showcases our state’s transportation history and offers train rides for visitors throughout the year.

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