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Slaughter Pen Cut: A ghost’s nightmare

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During the summer of 1877 a railroad appeared at the doorsteps of Tryon, N.C. and a business decision was made to extend the tracks up a mountain that was referred to at the time as the Saluda Mountain (Melrose Mountain). Times were different back then, when decisions could be made in short order and work would begin in earnest. Within six-months, railroad men cut a 21-mile steep trench up the mountain and through the wilderness to Hendersonville.

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When the steep grade was completed, the rail system would be used to bring coal down from Andover V.A., through Tryon, into Spartanburg and then finally to Belmont, N.C. where a Duke Power plant was waiting. Most of the 620 mile round trip was considered routine but the Saluda Grade was far from it.

Under safe and controllable speeds the 14-mile stretch of track between Saluda and a Tryon could be done in around 20 minutes; however the ghosts that accommodate the now infamous points along the track might attest that their trip was fast and ferocious.

The grade of the railroad strengthened the definition of the word steep; in fact the grade set a record for being the steepest standard gauge railroad track in the U.S. It was so steep, that several horrendous train wrecks described both human beings and livestock being driven into the earth with such force that it took days and even weeks to exhume their burnt and demolished remains.

The trains that traveled the track were dreadfully long, some measuring more than a mile, pulling more than 13,000 tons of coal. The massive trains, armed with three lead engines would craw into Saluda station where they would set their dynamic brake systems, check their safety mechanisms and say their prayers. A road-foreman-of-engines from Hendersonville dedicated to piloting the massive amount of machinery down the grade would board the train and take over the controls and do whatever he could to prevent a free-wheeling ride into eternity.

According to officials of the Southern Railway, Saluda was considered a train engineers nightmare, where each train car would struggle over a 1.4 percent upgrade then contort each car, one-by-one, over an apex destined to a maximum 4.9 percent downgrade plunge. According to Norfolk Southern track officials, cars were known to snap apart at the couplings as the men in the caboose watched in horror as they radioed the road foreman a mile ahead at the front of the train with the bad news.

Mother Nature created another rail man’s dare when torrential rains washed out an area of the track at the climax of an 11-degree curve rendering a danger-name Sand Cut. It wasn't until enough lives had been lost through crude trial-and-error rail runs that Norfolk Southern Railroad began installing expensive safety features.

At first the railway employed full time switch-men who were posted at run-off points to listen for blaring train horns screaming for help as the train charged out of control down the grade. Signalman manning the spurs would pull the switch just in time to keep the train from tumbling into doom.

Later high-tech CTC signaling systems were installed, armed with automated timers and switching circuits. But even with the advancing rail technology in place, train wreaks continued to happen up until the mid-70.

Near the foot of the track close to Tryon Station, ghosts of the unfortunate souls may still exist but few have the opportunity to visit them. Slaughter Pen Cut lived up to its name after a wreck took the lives of more than 35 cattle and several men. The notorious location made railroad history where in 1903 at least two out of control trains entered the curve at speeds reported by some accounts as being between 60 and 100 miles an hour. Everyone from engineers, fireman, cattle and hobos lost their lives in the mangled wreckage.

Today the track sits dormant with most of the railroad signaling equipment covered in fabric, smashed and weathered out of commission along the track. There have been discussions of passenger train companies once again traveling the tracks and Rails-to-trails conversions projects but to date, the plans remain pipe dreams. The dormant tracks still remain under the guardianship of Norfolk Southern with no intentions of abandoning the line in the distant future.