Nelson County

Space for a Railroad

There is a large barn-like Quonset building on the grounds of the Quarry Gardens at Schuyler. Plans were made to convert it into a Visitor Center, and to make space inside for an O scale 2 rail model railroad.

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I was surprised to find out just how large an area the quarry folks were willing to allocate to the railroad display. About 30 feet along one wall, from the planned entry foyer all the way to the back wall, and about 10 feet deep.

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Concept sketches and conversations with the architect designing the Visitor Center yielded a line of "shadowbox" style dioramas with a long, narrow utility closet behind the displays along the arching exterior wall.

The Quarry Gardens at Schuyler

My home On30 model railroad depicts a fictional quarry operation based on several that existed in central Virginia. Since the 1980s, I have been making road trips to southern Albemarle, Nelson, and Amherst Counties to hike through the woods to old quarry and mill sites. Back then, steel derricks still rose high above the treetops around Schuyler and outside Alberene. The stone cutting mill campus in Schuyler was still essentially complete, with a full blacksmith shop in the old engine house, and World War I era flatcars rusting away in the weeds. The architectural and mechanical details of the old facility were amazing to me. They struck me as being very "model-genic," but it took about 20 years for me to gain the experience and confidence I needed to rip out the model railroad I was working on and start building a soapstone operation.

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Quarry 27 is full of interesting visual compositions and view lines.

In the woods across the river from the town of Schuyler is a line of quarries known collectively as "Number 27." Quarry 27 will be the centerpiece of a new botanical garden that is scheduled to open in the Spring of 2017.

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Rough stone stairway built for the new gardens.

When I heard about the garden, it attracted me like a moth to a flame, and now I am working with the builders. They have enlisted me to build an industrial history exhibit depicting the era when the garden site was an active quarry.

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Scale mock up of proposed industrial heritage displays.

I somewhat inadvertently talked them into building a model railroad as an exhibit inside the Visitor Center for the Garden. I am going with a very simple O scale 2 rail layout with 4 shadowbox display scenes. The model railroad is based on the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad that once served the area.

Upcountry Romance

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

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"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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


N&A-History

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.

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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.

James River State Park



In visiting Nelson County over the years, I have enjoyed driving the winding roads and photographing the scenery. Ostensibly to do research for my model railroad, but primarily to just get away for a few hours.



Driving on a curving road is not the ideal way to study the lay of the land. Attention has to stay focused directly ahead almost constantly. If I do catch a glimpse of something interesting along the way, it is probably on private property with limited access. And the perspective of driving through the woods rarely provides an overall sweeping view of the landscape, which would come in very handy when planning the scenery for my layout.



These shortcomings are addressed beautifully by visiting
James River State Park. The park is directly across the river from the town of Norwood in Nelson County. It offers wide panoramic views of southern Nelson County and the old interchange between the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and Standard Soapstone’s industrial railroad.



James River State Park is a large, rural, wooded area along the river that is open to the public. It is an excellent venue for taking the time to study the subtleties of the scenery. Other than the high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Tye and James rivers, there is nothing spectacular to be seen. It is just a quiet, remote place for contemplating the landscape, the river, and coal trains following the route of the old Kanawha Canal.

Nelson County -Scenic Inspiration




It is a particular blessing to have Nelson County so close at hand this time of year. This is the season I am depicting on my model railroad, so I schedule frequent trips to the foothills to reacquaint myself with what I am trying to portray.



What I see while walking the backroads are trees and more trees. I need to come up with a way to imply all this color and texture without spending the rest of my life fabricating individual model trees.



This scenery is much of what attracted me to Nelson County as a setting for my model railroad. But as the time approaches to begin building scenery, I wonder if I can do it justice.



Once I saw it all as great potential. Now I am seeing it more as a great challenge.

A route through the woods

As I determined a plausible route for the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge through Nelson County, it was fun to find "the grade" and hike along it.



Walking this trail brought clearly to mind hiking old logging railroad grades in West Virginia, only this is much closer to home.



The railroad would have crossed the creek at this point on a light deck girder bridge.

Some Nelson County history along the route.



This would be an interesting scenic detail to include somewhere on my layout.

The hunters will have the run of the woods for a few months, so this is my last visit for a while.


Nelson County - imagining

I gave my clinic on backdrop painting at the MER convention in Lynchburg on Saturday morning, and drove back to Richmond in the afternoon by way of a scenic route that took me through Nelson County.

Like many "prototype freelancers", I have traced the grade of my fictitious railroad operation on Geologic Survey maps. So I can actually "hike the grade" of the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge, taking reference photos and gathering dirt and rocks for my model railroad layout that came from areas immediately adjacent to where the tracks once ran.

Over the years, I have lost the ability to immerse myself in the fantasy of picturing something that never was. But late on an autumn afternoon, along the Rockfish, the trail hugging the riverbank, it suddenly became very easy to see the grade, hear the distant flange squeal of a short train winding through tight curves, smell oil and coal smoke, and believe that it all really did happen.

Nelson County - Backdrop Inspiration

Having just presented my clinic on backdrop painting at the Mid East Region convention in Lynchburg, I had "backdrops on the brain" as I drove across Nelson County on my way home. On a scenic route that took me through Bagley Springs and Salem Church. I stopped and took a few pictures of how I think Nelson County should be portrayed on the backdrop of my model railroad.



Nelson County - Woodson Mill



Woodson Mill in Lowesville was built in 1794.