Shortline Railroads

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.

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.

Pennsylvania Narrow Gauge

My interest in the history of the soapstone business in Virginia has me out in the woods of Albemarle, Nelson, and Amherst Counties late every winter. After hunting season but before the last freeze I go out in search of signs of activity from long ago. Hopes are high to find clues as to what was once there. Maybe a stone foundation, a rotted crosstie, a short piece of wire rope. Any artifact at all is cause for much happiness and photo shooting. Finding something helps create a picture of the past.

I had heard and read about a narrow gauge railroad that ran in south central Pennsylvania, and decided to go see what was left of it. As I drove through Robertsdale, I saw a most amazing sight.



The rails were still in place. It was easy to trace the line through town and see a turning wye.

I hiked several miles of the grade, astounded that the line was still pretty much intact. As I followed the old right of way north, I eventually reached Orbisonia.



Orbisonia is a waking dream for someone interested in industrial history like myself. Facilities that only exist in faded photographs anywhere else are still standing at the East Broad Top shops.



At Mount Union, strings of narrow gauge hopper cars sit in the woods at the edge of town. I just could not get over how so much of the East Broad Top Railroad is still there.

Shenandoah Shortline

Elkton, Virginia is a small town in the Shenandoah Valley.



It is at the junction of the Norfolk & Western, and Chesapeake Western railroads. An old freight house stood near the interchange track.



The south end of the railroad was in Staunton, Virginia, where there was an interchange with the C&O Railroad. Near the junction was an old interlocking tower, dating back to the days when the B&O crossed the C&O here and continued south to Lexington.



In the summer of 1985, Chesapeake Western Alco T6 locomotives were being serviced in the ramshackle engine house at Elkton, Virginia.



This locomotive is now in Roanoke on display at the Virginia Transportation Museum.

Rails to Schuyler - Locomotive Shop

On the southern end of the Virginia Alberene soapstone mill complex stood the repair and maintenance shop for the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad.



The mill locomotives shared the same facility. There is no turntable here, so all locomotives always faced Warren Junction, which meant they were always backed into the shop with their smokeboxes pointing out the big doors.



The shop had two wings. The east wing was apparently storage space. The much longer west wing was equipped for doing repairs and parts fabrication.



The west wing extended to a concrete loading platform. At the far end of the platform was a small warehouse building. The warehouse, as well as the locomotive shop itself, was built from soapstone slabs laid up like masonry. Heavy stone lintels arch over the high wooden double doors.



The interior of the shop was black and sooty. The floors were at different levels in different parts of the building. Some were wooden, while others were concrete.



The concrete floor had rails embedded in it for rolling platforms.. Large shop machines were driven by an overhead shaft and belt system.



There was a blacksmith's forge with racks of tongs, pliers, and other tools.