East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad

Scenery Reference

Autumn JRSP

James River State Park
Bent Creek, VA
Reference for scenery color and texture.

Upcountry Romance

A Reminiscence in an old railfan publication - "An Upcountry Romance"


"The heartland of Virginia is rolling and rural, a green countryside given over to small farms, gentlemen's estates, and a quarry or mineral working here and there."

Tom Sullivan ran across an article about the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad by H. Reid in the May 1963
Steam Locomotive & Railroad Tradition magazine, and was kind enough to pass it on to me.

The article is illustrated by a cartoon created by H. Reid himself, portraying many events in the colloquial history of the line in one non-linear jumble of movie stars, rabbit hunts, escaped livestock, and smooches. An N&A train is shown traversing an apparent loop of track connecting Rockfish to Warren.

A rambling, florid story based on the facts but heavy on suppositional dialogue and local legends, the article brought two old impressions back into sharp focus for me. The first is that the N&A was a perfect compliment to the area through which it ran. The little locomotives hauled short trains on a lightly graded right-of-way through the woods and pastures of Piedmont. The mill that provided freight for the railroad was surrounded by a campus of beautiful, small stone buildings that looked transplanted from Cornwall or Wales.

The embellished history in the article also depicted the N&A as an excellent railroad to model. I could imagine that the article had actually been written about a model railroad, an illusion supported by the circular track plan illustrated in the cartoon. "An Upcountry Romance" describes an idealized inspiration for my own model railroad, making me want to develop a backstory that might serve as the text for a pictorial article for a hobby publication.

Wingina and Norwood

A scenic stretch of the James River with a long history - Norwood to Wingina

Area included in the survey

I recently attended a meeting of the Nelson County Historical Society held at St. John’s Baptist Church in Norwood. The program was a presentation of the Survey of Architectural Resources in the Norwood and Wingina Vicinities in Nelson County, Virginia.

This stretch of the James River along the southeastern border of Nelson County has long been one of my favorite trip destinations. The road connecting Norwood to Wingina is one of the few that closely parallels the river in the floodplain, offering a long, wide view of the bottomland, railroad, and the wooded bluffs of Buckingham County along the south side of the river. My impression of this area is what I hope to impart on the section of my model railroad that I call Winwood. The name of my fictional river town of Winwood is a contraction of “WINgina-norWOOD.

The old C&O depot in Wingina

While the entire length of the James River through the central Virginia Piedmont is full of historic mill sites, canal remains, and old farmhouses, I learned from the HistoryTech survey that Norwood and Wingina are the bookends of an area with an unusually high concentration of historically significant architecture, prompting the discussion of creating an Historic District.

Norwood is a great source for small structure detail reference

I learned a great deal about the history of the area from attending the HistoryTech presentation. I also learned that one of my primary interests in the area is not considered very historically significant; there was no mention made of the standard gauge industrial railroad of the Standard Soapstone Company. The concrete abutments and bridge piers standing in a field just outside of town had always riveted my attention. Not everyone finds them as interesting as I do apparently.

abandoned railroad bridge abutment at Norwood

Presentation at Schuyler

In a rather roundabout way, an opportunity came my way to participate in a meeting of the Nelson County Historical Society.

The subject of the meeting was to be the soapstone mill town of Schuyler, the location Schuyler Baptist Church. The folks responsible for finding speakers wanted a knowledgeable person to present a history of the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad. Their first choice was Rob Peters, and rightfully so. Rob has done a superb job of accumulating information about the N&A on his
website, but at the time of the meeting, Rob was traveling and would not be able to make it.

With Rob unavailable, the next choice for a speaker on the history of the Nelson & Albemarle would be Garth Groff. Garth is a talented researcher and rail historian who is widely published, having written the definitive history of the N&A,
Soapstone Shortlines. But Garth was not available the day of the meeting, as his historical interests have now extended beyond Nelson County to the castles of 15th Century Scotland. Garth is now very active in the Isenfir Shire of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Going back to the bullpen for the third time, the Nelson County Historical Society finally got a commitment from me to give a presentation on the history of the N&A. I was thrilled at the prospect, but my schedule was tight for that weekend. Being in Schuyler for the meeting would mean getting on the road early that morning and heading east from Grayson County, where I attended the
Wayne Henderson Festival the day before.

I don’t know a great deal about the history of the N&A, but I know enough to be able to put together a 20 minute Power Point presentation.


Meeting these relatively light requirements was all I needed to do in order to get a seat at the front. 80% of what I presented came directly from the sources of Rob Peters and Garth Groff. I appreciate the effort they have put into researching the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad and making their findings available.

The NCHS presented me with a copy of Mary Lyon’s book
The Blue Ridge Tunnel.


Along with this book, I left the meeting with pages of notes on the subjects covered by the other presenters. For many years I have driven to Schuyler and the surrounding area, fascinated by its rugged isolation, always being very self conscious about being an outsider catching brief glimpses of a unique town whose history and setting I found compelling enough to want to model. To be able to participate in a sanctioned discussion of the history of the town in the town itself was really a dream come true. Thanks to Dick Whitehead and the Nelson County Historical Society for the opportunity.

Touring Phoenix Soapstone

The Phoenix Soapstone Company in Nelson County closed up in the late 1920s.

A family cemetery and a few quarry sites are all that designate the old Phoenix town site.

Phoenix is a long lost soapstone town in an isolated corner of Nelson County. There is almost no sign of the stone operation left. I would occasionally drive down there and look around. Hunter’s shacks, trailers, yards full of junk and mean dogs, impenetrable woods. I never knew much about it.

An opportunity to learn more about Phoenix presented itself when a gentleman contacted me through my website. Jim Farrar was born and raised in the old town of Phoenix. He is related to many people still living in that area. Jim is interested in the history of the old soapstone operations, and he was willing to meet up with me and show me the sights.

Jim unloads his ATV on a bitter cold February morning. Time to see the sights!

Jim returns to the Phoenix area occasionally to maintain several family cemeteries.

A family burial site in the woods near Phoenix that Jim maintains.

Jim’s family connections to Phoenix extend back to the soapstone quarrying days and beyond.

Jim’s father is buried in Phoenix

In all the years I have been keeping an eye out for information regarding the soapstone operations in Nelson County, I had never been able to find out much about Phoenix. Jim’s recollections and records have made me aware of how interesting an operation Phoenix was. I really appreciate him taking the time to show me around and relate some of his memories of growing up there.

As is typical when trying to piece together a picture of the past, one question answered leads to three new questions. I am looking forward to heading back up to Phoenix with Jim to find out more about the area.