Davis-Murdoch Stone Company

Nelson County

A Guided Tour

The beginning of this saga can be found here.

A native of an old soapstone company town found my website

It happened that one day a guy named Jim saw my website and contacted me. We started emailing back and forth about soapstone history. Turns out Jim is from Nelson County, and his family worked for Phoenix Stone. He goes back to Phoenix occasionally to maintain a few family cemeteries. Jim offered to give me a tour of the Phoenix area.

Unloading the ATV on a frigid day

The day we picked to get together turned out to be windy and super cold. Jim brought his ATV for us to ride so we wouldn’t have to walk all over creation. As we were preparing to head out, Jim threw a pistol and a set of bolt cutters in the back of the ATV. “I know the kind of people we might run into.”

Ruins of the Phoenix mill and plant

Jim took me all through the woods, through people’s yards, across posted private property. We went all over the place. We saw the ruins of the “old” Phoenix Mill, the Virginia-Chesapeake Soapstone Co. quarry site, old company houses, old family cemeteries, and a talc quarry.

Phoenix Stone company house

I asked Jim if there had been a narrow gauge railroad at Phoenix Stone. He said yes. A 42 inch gauge railroad had run from the old mill site to the Virginia-Chesapeake quarry. It ran past the site of the old commisary, down past a row of company houses, along a creek to the Tye River, and all the way to Arrington, over 6 miles away.

Detail of USGS map of area surrounding the ghost town of Phoenix, Virginia. Red lines are speculations as to the location of the narrow gauge railroad.

Standard Soapstone Corporation

My suspicions about the abandoned grade I was following through the woods from Norwood toward Rucker Run proved to be correct.

Soapstone Shortlines, Garth G. Groff

Garth Groff, a librarian at University of Virgina's Special Collections, self published a small booklet on the history of soapstone in Virginia. In it, he makes brief note of the fact that Phoenix Stone was purchased by Standard. Standard had built the railroad to Norwood, and that railroad was standard gauge.

Railroad track hardware found near an abandoned quarry at Variety Mills, Va.

Investigating the old Standard Soapstone railroad grade was a lot of fun. I discovered a lot of old industrial sites and remains of the old track.

Boiler foundation built from dry laid soapstone slabs at Variety Mills, Va.

But the nagging question remained; had any of this been narrow gauge? Had some of it been dual gauge? Which parts? Had the quarry branches been narrow and just the line to Norwood been standard?

Concrete structure at boilerhouse site near Phoenix, Va.

What I needed was insight from a local resident. Someone with family ties to the Phoenix area who knew about the industrial history of the area.

Narrow or not?

USGS Buckingham , 1968. Utility map "narrow gauge track" shown in red
The utility company map did not indicate that the narrow gauge railroad went to a connection with the Southern at Arrington, but to a connection with the Chesapeake & Ohio at Norwood.

Tye River and town of Norwood
Norwood is a very small, very old town at the confluence of the Tye and James Rivers.

Concrete abutments along abandoned railroad grade near Norwood
Driving north along the Tye River from Norwood I couldn't miss the substantial remains of an old railroad grade.

Abandoned grade through the woods along Rucker Run
Thanks to local hunters that kept the grade clear, it was relatively easy to follow. Hiking over high fills and through deep cuts, I began to have doubts.

Abandoned soapstone railroad bridge abutment
The extensive grading and heavy concrete abutments impressed me as being too monumental to have been built for the sake of an industrial narrow gauge. This grade looked standard gauge to me.

A Map to Follow

Beyond old corporate records indicating Oliver Brothers had built a narrow gauge railroad, I wanted to see the old grade on a map.

Oliver Bros Narrow Gauge route 1888
USGS Buckingham 1892

My request for such a map from the Historical Society got me a detail of an old USGS quad showing Arrington and the general area of the old soapstone mill, but nothing connecting the two. I was not sure what I was supposed to learn from it other than the obvious fact that there is a mountain separating the town from the mill. The Historical Society may have meant the map to assure me the narrow gauge railroad was plausible because Arrington and the soapstone mill were not very far apart, but that mountain had the opposite effect on me, making the narrow gauge in fact seem less plausible.

I mentioned all this to a good friend of mine who works for the utility company that serves the Arrington area. He said the electric company had detailed maps of the utility easements for that area going back to the beginning of electrical service. Sometime later he handed over a pile of photocopies of old maps.


I worked my way down through the stack until I found one that showed a thin line marked ‘narrow gauge track’

More information, still no evidence

An inquiry to the Nelson County Historical Society asking whether there had actually been a narrow gauge soapstone railroad found its way to an attorney named Dick Whitehead who sent me copies of ancient DGMR reports on Phoenix Stone Company.DGMR-EconFile-884

The Phoenix Stone report mentioned that the narrow gauge ran to Arrington. So I collected my maps, gassed up the truck and headed out to Arrington and again came up empty. I saw nothing there to suggest an abandoned railroad grade or transfer point.
USGS Arrington quad

Coming Up Empty

I wondered if there had been any narrow gauge industrial railroads associated with the old soapstone operations.

There are scant few published resources on the history of the soapstone industry in Virginia. Only a few of those make any mention of associated rail operations. Paul Saunder’s book Heartbeats of Nelson includes an interview with Robert Harlow, who was hired by Phoenix Stone Company to build dual gauge track at the site of a new mill under construction in 1925.
Heartbeats Of Nelson, Paul Saunders, 2007

Time for a road trip. I managed to find the remote crossroads where Phoenix Stone had been. I drove out there and found almost nothing. No quarries, no mill site, nothing that looked like an old railroad grade. Just thick woods, rusty mobile homes, and mean dogs.
USGS Arrington quad

Nelson & Albemarle Railway

The Nelson & Albemarle Railway took a circuitous route between a connection with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and the Southern, serving mills at Alberene and Schuyler as well as the soapstone quarries along the way.

Charles Clegg photo - California Railroad Museum collection

The Nelson & Albemarle was a perfect complement to both the soapstone industry it served and the scenery through which it ran. Vulcan built saddle tank steam locomotives hauled short trains along a lightly graded right-of-way.

Alberene Stone Company and the N&A could certainly provide excellent inspiration for an On30 model railroad. But the N&A is standard gauge …

Virginia-Alberene Stone Company

One Company in particular was very successful manufacturing and marketing soapstone products.

Kierk Ashmore-Sorensen collection

In the early 1900s, Alberene Stone Company had 100s of workers in the mill cutting, finishing, and assembling a variety of soapstone products.

A Likely Candidate

As it happens, there is a unique and commercially viable stripe of soapstone deposits running right along the western Piedmont of central Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Virginia Minerals newsletter, April 1961

One of only a few places in the world where the quality of the stone is high enough for architectural and dimensional applications.

Compatible Industry

The idea of a complementary industry to the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia had crossed H. Reid's mind.

H. Reid - An Upcountry Romance

This quote from an old article that appeared in Steam Locomotives and Railroad Tradition magazine depicts quarry and mineral operations as being a good “fit” for the overall setting.

Looking for Inspiration

My autumn road trip routes take me up narrow creek valleys and through rolling countryside.


Wouldn’t it be cool if there had been an old, isolated industry around here that complemented the scale and nature of the scene, used old equipment, looked hand hewn and overgrown ...

Autumn in the Foothills

Autumn is my favorite season for driving the backroads of Nelson County.


My road trips have evolved from mad dashes trying to see as much as possible to focused trips to one particular spot in order to spend enough time there to really "see" it. My favorite places tend to be near railroads or abandoned grades. When I come upon a particularly modelgenic scene, I speculate on the possiblity of the narrow country road being built on an old narrow gauge railroad grade.

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