Captain Charles W. Pearson was assigned in with the task of selecting a route for the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad to ascend the Blue Ridge front; the area of land where the rolling hills of the piedmont come to an abrupt end at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Despite numerous surveys of the area, no suitable land was available for a railroad to ascend the mountains at a tolerable grade, and the best route found followed the Pacolet River valley and gorge. The line begins its climb at the bottom of Melrose Mountain, where the town of Tryon can be found today at , and continue on the southern side of the Pacolet valley. At Melrose, what is known as the Saluda Grade begins and climbs to the town of Saluda, cresting from the steepest grade of 5.1% right in the center of town at an elevation of .
Because of numerous accidents involving downgrade runaway trains in the late 1880s, the then Southern Railway (the line's original owner) built special safety tracks along the route. This is a manned spur junction, which, for safety reasons, is always switched to a pile of solid earth, which is capable of stopping downgrade runaway trains. Only upon the application of a special whistle signal from the downgrade train will the signalman manning the spur junction throw the switch to lead the train safely to the main line. Special elaborate rules were made by Southern, and later Norfolk Southern, in dealing with operations on this route.