If you love to see the country passing by through a big Pullman car window and your favorite phrase in all the world is “All aboard,” you might be a train nut. If so, you must rush on over to the Henderson County Heritage Museum to see the spectacular new exhibit commemorating what was at one time the steepest mainline railroad track in the U.S. Known as the Saluda Grade, it began at the timber overpass in Melrose and climbed up three miles, rising over 600 feet in elevation, to what would become the town of Saluda. At one point, the grade was as high as 5.03 percent. That might not seem steep if you’re walking, but since trains are so heavy, a grade of even two percent is considered steep. On a one percent grade, for example, an engine can pull only half or less of the load that it can pull on a level track. The Saluda Grade was actually as steep as the famous Khyber Pass track that connects Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Building the Saluda Grade was an arduous engineering miracle. The labor was mostly black convicts from local prisons, many of whom were killed in construction accidents. Once the grade was in operation, 29 railroad men died in downgrade runaway freight trains, until an injured engineer came up with the idea of building two safety spur tracks that would stop runaway trains in a 60-foot pile of solid earth.
Completed on July 4, 1878, the Saluda Grade marked the coming of the railroad to the region and the beginning of its Golden Age (1879 to 1929). Farmers expanded their produce markets, hotels were rushed to completion, vacationers escaped hot South Carolina for the cool mountains, new businesses popped up like wild flowers. When the grade was in operation, up to 30 coal trains, averaging 100 cars each, carried close to 32,500 tons of coal a month. The Norfolk Southern closed the Saluda Grade in 2001, so you can’t actually ride it any more (though there are hopes that might change). Since the Saluda Grade closed, the steepest American grade now is the comparatively puny 3.3 percent of the Raton pass in New Mexico.
When former House Rep. Carolyn Justus became chair of the Henderson County Heritage Museum, she decided to spearhead the Golden Age commemorations with a display depicting the Saluda Grade. At the renovated Hendersonville Train Depot, the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club (AVMRC), a large and active club, had already made a popular diorama of over 2,000 feet of track depicting Western North Carolina railways in the 1950s. Would the club be interested in building an HO scale Saluda Grade exhibit for the museum?
“Absolutely!” answered club president Larry Morton, fearlessly going where a more timid railroad lover might not have tread. As project manager, Larry utilized the planning skills he gained from 25 years as an NCR executive. He wrangled up nearly half of the club’s 77 members to work on the project — which would show the journey from Melrose to Saluda, where the Saluda Grade crested, then onto Flat Rock and ending in Hendersonville. It would be 16 feet of track representing 15 real-life miles.
Extensive, detailed research ensued to make the diorama as historically accurate as possible, including actually walking the tracks to better understand the terrain. The period of the 1930s was chosen because model train builders don’t make trains from earlier periods. Autumn was chosen as the season to portray because the trees would have most color then. As you walk around the diorama you feel like an eagle soaring over an extraordinarily detailed view of the train and its surrounding countryside.
An estimated thousand hours of work went into the project, which includes the stunning diorama and the extensive wall displays. Model railroad builders specialize — some like to do animals and people, others like to build structures, still others favor building vintage cars and trucks. Larry himself likes to plan the whole picture and do the scenery. Then there are the members who run the track, and design the electrical parts, including the buttons that light up different parts of the display. At the end come the handmade display cases that protect the diorama from the many hands that would be pressed against the glass.
A piece of cake, right? Not! But it was fun, Larry insists. In fact, “This project is one of the highlights of my life,” he says. One of his favorite contributions is the wrap-around background near the ceiling, past which a garden-size train runs. It’s actually a composite of photos Larry took from his deck in Laurel Park.
While the diorama was in the hands of experienced model builders, the equally daunting task of designing what would go on the walls in the display room went to a rookie — Sally Ruhf, one of the three women members of the club. Ordinarily such an assignment would be handled by a trained history specialist, but Sally did it with nothing but instinct, dogged perseverance and lots of prayers. She researched and wrote the story boards, begged and borrowed photographs from public and private collections, found memorabilia such as linens and china and tools and timetables, even a smoke detection tunnel mask that would make Darth Vader jealous. The end result is an informative and beautifully designed display that can hold its own with the highest museum quality exhibits.
All told the entire project took a year to complete, finished just in time for the May 18 grand opening. “Never in my wildest imagination could I have believed they did what they did,” enthuses Carolyn Justus. “I’m so proud of them and so proud we have their work in the museum.”