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The Saluda Grade in Polk County, rising an average of 4.7 feet for every 100 feet in length, is the steepest standard-gauge mainline railroad grade in the country. The three-mile grade which opened in 1878, crests in Saluda. The line was built in some of North Carolina's most rugged mountains.
Southern Railroad's tracks crisscross North Carolina, but in McDowell County the tracks gained fame. The railway to Asheville experienced several height grading problems in the 1880s. The elevation grade prevented direct service to Asheville. Major James Wilson took control of the project and experimented with unique ideas of increasing track length between grade points, which allows for longer distances of travel to climb the proper elevation. The tracks even use a round valley as a type of centrifuge point to gain altitude and became famous for the unique ideas used to solve railway problems.