HendersonvilleNews Stories

Golden Age of Train museum exhibit chronicles boom in transit, tourism

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By Pete Zamplas-When Nancy Hazzard Crozier marvels at the historically-precise model rail exhibit in the Henderson County Heritage Museum where she volunteers, she walks down memory lane of where she walked on the tracks as a young girl in the Fifties.

The Southern Railway route honored in HO scale by the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club (AVMRC) was, in real life, the steepest standard-gauge mainline railway in the nation. In 1879 it came to Hendersonville, opening up local farmers and merchants to regional and national markets and spurring modern commercial growth and a land boom until the Great Depression. The exhibit is entitled The Golden Age of Henderson County: 1879-1929, and the Coming of the Train.

Museum docent Crozier was born in 1946. She tells guests how, when she was five, she watched from her aunt’s yard as the train powered by a mere dozen feet from her. She waved to the train conductor and engineer, and they typically tossed her wrapped hard candy.

The model train square layout’s side by windows shows the (East) Flat Rock station and Charles Hill’s grocery. Crozier grew up nearby, by U.S. 176 and off Laurel Creek, a Green River tributary. She visited her aunt after picking berries, then walking a half-mile on tracks to sell fruit at Hill’s. Her uncle was a train engineer.

“It’s magnificent to get to show people where (on the train layout) I lived and the train went by,” and a mini-Lake Summit where she fished, Crozier said. She tells of a time before electricity, when oil lamps glowed.

The Carolina Special, Southern’s luxury passenger train, thrilled the senses with its whistle blowing, bell ringing, gears and wheels chugging, and black smoke marking its path.

Historian Tom Orr’s first train ride was on a Pullman overnighter to Baltimore for a visit, while in second grade. “What a joy that was,” said the retired English teacher who has penned historic plays as museum fundraisers. He noted Asheville-born author Thomas Wolfe used trains as metaphors. “I can see why. There is an absolute hypnotic quality in travel by train.”

Museum board chairwoman Carolyn Justus recalls as a child “we’d go into the train depot. The men let us listen to chatter on the headphones.”

This Friday, Nov. 29, marks lighting of two giant Christmas Spruce tree outside the Historic Courthouse that houses the non-profit museum. The event is 5:30-8 p.m., starting with caroling and carriage rides. Santa Claus will appear from the courthouse second-floor balcony, then greet children inside where cookies will be served. The museum will hold its first-ever Christmas bazaar. Local historical authors will sign their books.

The next Friday, Dec. 6, the museum hosts Ye Olde Christmas Gathering at the People’s House 5-7 p.m. with Christmas music, refreshments, Victorian era costumes, and reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” By then, the museum plans to again have an antique Christmas toy exhibit.

Exhibits on rail in the Thomas Room and early architects in back opened in May. Justus said she hopes rail and Civil War memorabilia remain a while.

Train artifacts exhibited include a train steam whistle, conductor’s pocket watch, rail spike, telegraph key, tunnel mask, $2 Pullman ticket and historic Baker-Barber photos. Many items are from Southern Railway, or the N.C. Transportation Museum.

A switch broom was for chipping and brushing off ice. A rail gauge measured track width, to see that it met 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches of standard gauge. Before radios, a Y-shaped train order pole held a written note such as a telegraphed schedule change. The conductor snatched it, while speeding by. Plaques explain how a steam engine works, and that the “fireman” shovels coal.

Rail service “opened up tourism, and provided a way to market produce throughout the South,” historian Tom Orr said. Mural graphics note the boom in farm markets, stores, hotels, summer camps, logging, furniture factories, mills, and mining zircon in Zirconia for incandescent light bulbs. By 1915, the Green River Manufacturing Corp.’s yarn mill in Tuxedo was the most prosperous business in Henderson County.

Tourism soared. Vacationers reportedly bought 50,000 tickets in the summer of 1914. Many stayed in Hendersonville as the end of the line, before it extended to Asheville in 1886 and linked to Cincinnati. Anderson Street, now Seventh Avenue, was busier than Main in the late 1800s with the main depot a socializing spot, Orr said. Main Street sparkled with electric lights in 1903, then two years later with the majestic Historic Courthouse. As Justus notes, “we flourished until the Depression.”

Rail service veered to her hometown of Brevard in 1895. The trip departed the “West Hendersonville” sub-station, at the south entrance to downtown. Orr, who spoke at the exhibit opening, said the trip to Brevard was often called “The Brevardy” or else the Tea Kettle for the train’s shrill whistle. This route led to Brevard’s rise of lumber mills, then the Ecusta Paper Mill in 1939 as a major area employer.

Historical researchers for the exhibit include Dr. George Jones, the Rev. Harold McKinnish, Helen Ingles, Ruth Kidd, Margaret Payne, Martha Ashley, Sandra Baumberger and Pat and Roger Bares.

Model Rail

The crowning jewel is the Saluda Grade Model Exhibit railroad the model railroaders meticulously and authentically loaned to the museum. More than 25 of the 75 club members researched or built the train layout and exhibit displays and graphics, according to AVMRC President Larry Morton. He and Terry Ketchum led the project, which lasted over a year. AVMRC’s main layout is in the historic train depot off Seventh Avenue.

These train enthusiasts scoured the real-life Saluda Grade to note landscape landmarks, even colors. The train runs continuously, during museum hours. So does Jim Hendley’s larger G-scale model train, zipping on track around walls up near the ceiling.

The smaller model train layout is circular, depicting the route from the Melrose community uphill to Saluda and to Hendersonville’s main depot. Stepping platforms enable visitors to look over glass walls, into the model railroad’s uncovered area overhead.

The marvel of the Saluda Grade route was “conquering” the steep mountain, noted museum new Executive Director Brenda Bradshaw. Saluda Mountain’s 5 percent grade is more than twice the climb of most steep rails. Most who built the railroad were inmates. Many were crushed by landslides, while bursting through the top of the Tryon-Saluda area’s mountain wall.

The route had to go straight uphill, lacking the usual foothills to wind through. Retired Confederate Capt. Charles Pearson oversaw building the Spartanburg & Asheville Railroad’s route from Tryon to Asheville, starting in 1877. The first train to ascend Saluda Grade did so July 4, 1878. Exactly one year later, track was dedicated in Hendersonville.

The steepest Saluda Grade stretch climbs 600 feet in three miles, from Melrose up to central Saluda. Typically, trains from Spartanburg were separated into sections to lessen weight. Then a “helper” locomotive pushed as the train engine pulled.

Speeding downhill led to many train crashes off curves and bridges, starting with a crash in 1880 killing 14 men. Yet viewing a train wreck is how Crozier’s parents met, in 1945. Her future father was home from the war. He was hanging around her future mother’s brother at this time, but had not known her yet. The wreck was by the (East) Flat Rock train station.

“There were lots of wrecks, on the grade” for decades, Crozier noted. The route added two switch-off runaway paths, in 1903. One was at a steep, sharp curve at Sand Cut. There was often a split-second decision if a train seemed out of control, and should be switched to the “safety track” by the switch “tender.”

Guiding him was the train engineer. He signaled the train was still under control, by three horn toots — long, brief, then long — once within 800 feet. Then the switchtender switched the train away from the default aim onto the safety track, to the main track.

The local route’s last passenger train rode in 1968, freight until 2002 when Norfolk Southern rerouted lines. Orr said by the Fifties, when he was a teen, “the train’s importance had diminished” with spread of highways and air travel.

A Southern Railway brochure lists its train Best Friend as the first locomotive operating in this country, departing Charleston, S.C. in 1830.

The museum is full-steam ahead, with a new exhibit each year. Justus, a state representative for eight years until 2010, succeeds Judy Abrell as board head. Justus said “I love it. This museum has weathered many (financial) problems” in its first half-decade. “We want the public to know we’re using money well, working hard, and teaching children and elders the importance of our diverse, wonderful heritage.”

Bradshaw, an Atlanta native who still works in marketing, has lived locally for 32 years. She has led the museum since September, after Bette Carter retired. Bradshaw touts the veterans display, in the new Social Services building annex. She hopes the museum revives and hosts a chapter of Tar Heel Junior Historians.

For more on the Heritage Museum, call 694-1619 or check www.hendersoncountymuseum.com. Check www.amvr.com about the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club.

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