Full Steam Ahead

From hogs to logs to jogs, N.C. railways track region’s history

You’ve likely hiked on them, bounced your mountain bike up and down them, and cycled on freshly asphalted updates of them. You could also safely bet that you wouldn’t live in The Cliffs communities in Upstate South Carolina or Western North Carolina without them.

We’re talking about railroads. Their tracks — along with so many railbeds that have long since been abandoned — run through the region’s rich history and into the future.
Train hopping may be a thing of the past, but the notion of riding the rails is full-steam ahead. Minus the trains and tracks, multiuse rail trails are created along abandoned railroad corridors providing wide, flat paths ideal for biking and walking.

Several cities and towns within a few miles of many of The Cliffs communities already blow their horns about those already firing their economic development. Those rails-to-trails include the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, South Carolina, and the Doodle Trail in Easley, South Carolina, a 20-minute drive from The Cliffs at Keowee Falls.

More are coming, namely the Saluda Grade, a 31-mile rail-trail planned from Inman, South Carolina to Zirconia, North Carolina, just south of Hendersonville, North Carolina; and the Ecusta Trail, a 19.4-mile pathway connecting Hendersonville with Brevard, North Carolina.

As Kieran Roe, executive director of the nonprofit Hendersonville-based Conserving Carolina, told Greenville Journal in August 2022, “We think that’s part of our mission: to get people outdoors and get them inspired about what nature can do for us.”

Those initiatives have been a “phenomenon in Western North Carolina for a long time,” says Dr. Dan Pierce, Mountain South Distinguished Professor of History at UNC Asheville and an expert on the railroads’ colorful history in these parts.

“So many people don’t realize it,” he adds, “but so many of the trails — the hiking trails and biking trails in the region are old railroad grades that were built by the logging folks.”

Wood, of course, goes into building homes and businesses and factories — and making paper. In the 1880s, he says, the world’s most-desired paper started chugging more and more into the area: dollar bills, greenbacks.

“Western North Carolina had the largest old-growth hardwood forest, really, anywhere in the U.S., and so very quickly — kind of like coal in West Virginia — the money, the entrepreneurs, huge investment from outside the region came in to build spur railroads off of the main Western North Carolina Railroad and up into about every cove and holler.”

But before that, railway investors and operators faced more than just some risky fiscal cliffs: they had to construct lines around and over cliffs and under mountains. Take, for instance, the Saluda Grade, “one of the scariest and most daunting sections of main line anywhere in the country.”

Soon, the undaunted rail lines began hauling in “money, power, and a taste of affluence to Western North Carolina.” In other words, Asheville, a mountain hamlet that was little more than a cow-and-hog town, was “emerging as a magnet for tourists seeking the healing climate.”

And we’re not talking about just any tourists. The area, which had already established itself as a hotspot place to visit, became a magnet for the elite, Pierce says.

Among the “fat cats,” as he calls them, he namedrops George Vanderbilt, the zillionaire New Yorker who amassed his fortune in steamboats and, yes, railroads. In 1888, Vanderbilt built himself a fine mountain retreat: the 250-room Biltmore Estate, whose entrance just so happened to be steps away from the Southern Railway Depot.

As for Western North Carolina’s railroads today, Pierce, who lives about a half-hour drive from The Cliffs at Walnut Cove, sees three or four trains a day roll out of the Swannanoa Gap Tunnel. The 1,832-foot-long burrow opened in 1879, opening the way for, well, how folks got here in the first place.

Nowadays, Pierce says, “A lot of people have been pushing for the restoration of some sort of passenger service. I think it’s probably unlikely,” he says, adding, “I guess the best way to look at it is what Asheville was prior to the coming of the railroad and what Asheville quickly became after the railroad.”

This story was featured in Cliffs Living Magazine. To see more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.