The Choo-Choo That Didn't Make It

On Labor Day weekend my son, Ken, and I flew to South Carolina to attend a memorial service for my sister, Ruth, who died in May 2014, at age 93. This took place in my small home town of Landrum. I have frequently written stories about this little town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge chain, and bordering the North Carolina line and town of Tryon.

Leaving the airport we took a back road which enters Town Center at the crossing of old Route #176 (Spartanburg to Ashville). Railroad tracks run adjacent to the highway. We stopped at the traffic light and crossed the tracks where there were no crossing bars or lights. The tracks were rusty. So, here is my story.

On the way North from Florida about 8 years ago, we stopped to visit cousins but did not go into town. This visit extends to over 20 years, and we were shocked to learn that this train had been eliminated 12 years ago. The main line had been rerouted and no longer travels through the towns of Landrum, Tryon and Saluda.

Historians often say that the steam engine train made America. It certainly made life wonderful for my brother and me. As tots we would walk the 1/4 mile from home to the tracks. Several trains sped through day and night. We would count the number of freight cars, sometimes well over 50. Noisy and smokey these trains tooted the steam whistles. This unique sound seemed to be constant. There were passenger trains with one to three cars that stopped in Landrum several times per day. Small black cinders flowed from the smoke stacks. Ray and I walked to town, put pennies on the tracks. With a few coins we would ride 3 miles to Tryon and back. That was a six mile thrill.

Right after the Civil War, railroad men planned the Spartanburg to Ashville line that would be part of the Charleston to Ohio River line. The chief engineer chose to run the tracks up Saluda Mountain instead of through a gap with underground streams. The grade was over 2200 ft. in 13 miles. it was a monumental task, with dozens of workers killed by falling off cliffs. Once completed in 1879 it was the steepest railroad grade in America. To climb the grade, freight trains with large numbers of cars would need engine assistance. Sometimes two engines pulled and one engine pushed. On a clear night we could hear these choo-choo-choos. In more recent years diesel did replace coal.

The huge problem with Saluda’s grade was the big trip down the hill. Engineers did not look forward to this hill that was known for wrecks and runaways One idea was to build spur tracks up the mountain at bad curves. Hopefully these spurs would stop engines out of control by gravity. It did not always work. There were 50 sharp curves. Slaughterhouse curve was one of these. Here a trainload of beef cattle was once destroyed. By 1902, 27 men had been killed by engines going out of control and jumping the tracks.

On the positive side, the passenger train was a delight. At the turn of the century many people found Saluda as a refreshing summer retreat. Such celebrities as Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dix and other writers and artists stayed in newly built inns. More recently many of these, including Perry Como, were summer home residents. Even without the trains, Saluda is a wonderful tourist attraction. One must get here by auto on almost the same number of curves.

I noticed that in the 1890s a W. T. Daniel was mayor of Landrum as well as the train depot agent. He served many years. In checking my father’s family tree, a volume of 252 pages, I determined that this W. T. Daniel was my father’s uncle.

For information to write this article I wish to thank my nephew Bill who lives in North Carolina. He researched from various sites on the internet.

David T. Daniel
Southbury, CT © 2015

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