The older men on the Southern Railway System's Carolina Division still remember the night the radio crackled, "This train is gone." In the dispatcher's office in Asheville, in the Saluda station, in locomotive shops, on other trains, railroaders heard and froze in horror.
No one needed to ask. Saluda Mountain was claiming another victim.
Out on the Saluda grade, a runaway coal train gained speed, squealing and bucking at the curves, its wheels rimmed with fire as its overheated brake shoes gripped in vain. D.K. Lewter, the man at the throttle who radioed the hopeless post-midnight message, had no more time for radio conversation. He and his crew swung off the locomotive into the night, hurtling into briar patches and breaking bones.
On the caboose, rookie flagman Howard Shirlin watched the brake pressure gauge fall precipitously, then drop to zero as Lewter threw the emergency brakes. "He's shot it," Shirlin shouted into the radio.
An older, wiser conductor, Charlie Benfield, told Shirlin, "Lay down over here boy, and get you a good hold."
At the bottom of the grade at Melrose, the speeding coal train shot across the North Pacolet River bridge and heaved onto the auxiliary track installed to divert runaways. It ran up the side of the mountain, derailing and scattering thousands of tons of coal over the hillside.
And -- at 1:50 a.m., Sept. 20, 1964 -- it also wrote itself onto a page of the legend of Saluda.
When seamen gather to talk shipwrecks, they talk of Cape Hatteras. When pilots dare to talk crashes, they whisper Tenerife. And when railroaders spin yarns of courage, triumph and disaster, they turn to Saluda.
This steep, three-mile passage down the Blue Ridge, the wall that separates the North Carolina mountains from the piedmont, is the steepest main-line grade in North America, rising an average 4.7 feet every 100 feet. It far outdistances its nearest rival, the 3.5 percent Santa Fe grade through Raton Pass in New Mexico.
As a highway, it would be merely a heavy grade, but it is the railroad equivalent of an advanced ski slope.
Young Shirlin did as he was told and survived -- with the rest of the crew -- to become a division official. Death stalked Saluda almost from the day the first train blasted up the narrow gorges between Melrose and Saluda on July 4, 1878. The teakettle locomotives, pulling cars with hand brakes that brakemen twisted as they ran from cartop to cartop, were often no match for Saluda, and dozens of men died in runaways over the next few decades.
The railroad built "safety tracks" to take runaway trains steeply up nearby hillsides in hopes of slowing their momentum. Usually trains would derail anyway on the safety tracks, but this was preferable to the alternative: Slaughter Pen Cut, a sharp curve just beyond the grade bottom that became a graveyard for dozens of men.
Slaughter Pen Cut was not named for men, however. It was named for cows. In 1893, a carload of cattle died there with three crewmen.
Tales of heroism are common, such as the one about the engineer who jumped just before a derailment, then wore the flesh from his hands trying to dig his fireman from a mountain of coal that had crushed him against the boiler.
But Saluda has taken on a life beyond the yarns of railroaders. It has become part of the folklore of a region that thrives on folklore. The dogwood and laurel that dot the mountain in spring no longer mingle with the coal smoke and hot grease that native son Thomas Wolfe wrote about in an earlier day, but with diesel fumes and the burnt smell of smoking brake shoes.
The coming of diesels in the 1950s, and the growing sophistication of train-braking systems, have helped make runaways a contemporary rarity. The last one occurred in 1971 when a coal train spilled its load on the runaway track at Melrose.
Even now, no one takes Saluda lightly. Every train that eases down its slopes could be the next disaster, and that fact dominates the working lives of the men who run the Carolina operating division between Asheville, N.C., and Spartanburg, S.C.
The speed limit on the grade is 8 mph, enforced by a timing circuit that switches faster trains to the safety track. All trains are stopped at the top of the grade for inspection. In the howling snows of winter and the warm nights of summer when rattlesnakes crawl up on the roadbed to absorb the heat brakemen walk beside the train before it begins its downward journey.
A company officer always rides -- and usually operates -- every trip down the mountain. These officers or road foremen are former engineers who proved themselves over a decade or more on the mountain, and almost always they are sons and grandsons of Carolina Division railroaders, a near cult of mountain men running a mountain railroad.
Occasionally a train seems to develop a mind of its own, and road foreman's skill becomes the only hope of saving it. "We have a few trains that will aggravate you," foreman Melvin D. Warren said.
"Saluda is unforgiving," said Eugene Green, now chief road foreman for the railroad. "You don't play with it, and you don't violate instructions."
From the locomotive cab, Saluda doesn't look that steep as train 172 and its 79 cars with 5,043 tons of freight roll into the night. But the grade is etched in the face of the man who eases the train over the lip and sets off a symphony in the braking systems. Air brakes, manipulated by an air hose running throughout the train, take hold and release slowly, and every car seems to have its own opinion of how much it will hold back.
Conversation ceases. The eyes of the road foreman -- tonight, Keith Edwards -- dance from the air pressure gauges to the railroad ahead and never stray far from the speedometer. Trains vary, but usually anything faster than 8 mph is a problem, 12 to 16 is dangerous and at least bad form and 18 to 22 is a runaway.
The headlight crawls from tie to tie ahead, occasionally glancing off a mountain wall or staring into a void above a chasm. The relief is audible as the signal in the grade's distant bottom goes green, indicating that the train's speed has satisfied the timing mechanism and the switch has shifted from the runaway track to the main line.
At the bottom, 22 minutes out of Saluda, Edwards rises with a smile and gives the controls back to the regular engineer.
"It's an accomplishment if you can get down this grade and nobody's scared," Green said.
James T. Stanberry, engineer on the 1971 runaway, said he had no time for fear when the road foreman looked up from the throttle and said, "Mr. Stanberry, I don't believe we're going to be able to stop it. Get the crew off."
"I wanted to get all those boys off safe," he said. "When you see all those faces at the bottom of the hill, you know you've done a good job.