March 2007

Crossing the Creek

In March I drove up to Nelson County to try to find more signs of the long abandoned railroad of the Standard Soapstone Company.

In the woods near Variety Mills, a rural and remote area, abandoned railroad grades and soapstone quarries can still be found.



This soapstone railroad grade runs between the soapstone mill near Phoenix, and the transfer yard on the C&O at Norwood. Not far from where this picture was taken is a junction with a branch line that ran to a pair of quarries.

The pair of quarries are close to each other, separated by a creek.



The quarry to the left of this photo was served directly by the railroad, with the old grade up on the hillside above the quarry leading to a switchback down to the area where stone was loaded onto railcars. The loading track angles directly to this creek in the direction of the second quarry, so I searched for signs of a trestle that carried the loading track across the creek.

I found no signs of a trestle, but right where I expected a trestle to be, I found two large cables crossing the creek.



I traced the cables to a heavy foundation near the second quarry.



Nearby was a taller foundation that was shaped roughly like a cradle to hold something cylindrical that was about 6 feet in diameter. And near the "cradle" foundation I found the remains of a metal pipe.



I believe the metal pipe may be a smokestack for a boiler that was mounted in the "cradle". It may have driven a winch that was mounted on the foundation near the cables. Framework may have held the heavy cables up above the winch.

An aerial tram may have been used to get the stone from the second quarry over the creek to the railroad spur. If so, is this an unusually short distance to haul stone via aerial tram? The trip over the creek to the rail spur may be 100 yards or so. Also, is it unusual for a carriage to ride on 2 heavy cables? All the information I have on aerial trams indicate one cable carries the weight.

Variety Mills - quarries

Variety Mills is a small group of houses in the shadow of Turner Mountain near Canada Gap. There is nothing there now to suggest a busy industrial past except two abandoned soapstone quarries.


The soapstone quarries are silent ponds in the woods. Not much else is left as evidence of the work done here.


The flooded quarries are surrounded by piles of soapstone boulders.


There are foundations and footings in the underbrush. This one apparently supported a large horizontal boiler.


This may have been a pumphouse.


The quarries were served by rail. This section is about three and a half inches tall. Rail this size is most typically used in industrial and narrow gauge applications.


The old railroad right of way connects the quarries to the mill, and the mill to the C&O Railroad along the James River.


Some of the soapstone around the quarries appears to be sawn. Apparently the mill was supplying rough cut soapstone to the quarries as construction material.

Less than half a mile southwest of the quarries in Variety Mills is another one.


I found no evidence of railroad tracks near this quarry. It may have been owned and operated by a different company.


The boulders from this quarry are piled in a long line on the ridge of the hill. Having to transport these stones to a mill on unimproved rural roads would have been difficult.


The floor of an old shed in Variety Mills is being supported by a stack of scrap soapstone slabs.