If you watched the TED-XTryon performance by Aaron, you heard him sing “Carolina Special/Pennies on the Tracks” (It’s also the first track on Refuge, his latest CD.)

He sings about the Saluda Grade, a section of railroad that is the steepest standard-gauge mainline railway grade in the United States. It’s a sort of ballad that tells the story from the perspective of one of the men who worked on the dangerous project of building the railway.

Pennies on the Tracks


August 20, 1905, mist burning off and the sun’s rising high

Steam from the engine mixes with the fog  ’til one’s just like the next

both cut by the whistle’s call

mind your job men, and take your work to heart

One wrong move and we’ll all be torn apart

No room for error, sure death for mistakes

If pride in your work won’t guide you let the fear of God today

In 90 days they took the line up the grade

A hundred men, convicts, little more than slaves

All gave their days, many gave their lives

To cut a flat above the river for this luxury line

They crushed the rocks and they cut the earth away

And they crushed those men as the progress was made

Every white man lost since is written down

But not the scores of men of the kind we didn’t count

200 tons rolling down the line

cold steel cradle for a hundred lives

Screaming down the mountain, chaos controlled

All aboard praying the brakeman keeps hold

Flying by the graves of those who came before us

The men who shaped this ground and were buried in the forest

Their spirits (they) call to me as we pass by

“some men live and some men die” (2x)

The Carolina Special is the finest line

of the finest steel and the finest design

I think it’s going to get us through safely today

and keep those spirit’s calls at bay

I think we’re going to make it today

I think we’re going to make it today

My wife begged this morning, said “please don’t go”

Your family needs you more than they need you on that railroad

I said, “Darlin’ settle down, don’t you worry”

I lied and said that nothing could happen to me

A man wants to be a part of something bigger than he is

And leave a mark that showed that he lived

He might dance with danger, he might dance with death

And I might today before I’m home to rest


mind your job – pay attention to your work

convicts – prisoners found guilty of a crime

we’re going to make it – we’re going to stay alive

settle down – calm down

Conversation questions

Can you think of other examples of people subjecting themselves to danger in order to “be a part of something bigger?”

Are you interested in the history of trains and railroads? If so, you might enjoy reading more about the Saluda grade and seeing some photos of the train in action.