East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicle of an On30 quarry railroad

Soapstone in Virginia

Moving Materials

The soapstone mills were built in remote areas close to the Soapstone Belt.

Quarries supplying stone to the mills were scattered through the surrounding countryside.

Kierk Ashmore-Sorensen collection

At the time local roads were built to handle agricultural wagon traffic. The high volume of stone from quarry to mill and finished products from the mills to the outside world necessitated the construction of rail lines.

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.

What is Soapstone?

Soapstone is a term used to describe a range of minerals with the common characteristic of high talc content.

Abandoned soapstone quarry, Albemarle County, Virginia

Talc gives the stone a slippery feel when wet. Soapstone is not particularly rare. Stone from most deposits is milled into powder for its high talc content. But the soapstone in central Virginia is unusual in that it has a high density, consistent grain pattern that allows it to be cut, carved, drilled and routed.

Native Americans carved cental Virginia soapstone into bowls. In colonial days it was used for foot warmers. With the advent of indoor plumbing, there was a huge demand for Virginia soapstone. It is still used for kitchen and bathroom applications, and is well suited for labratory countertops.

Soapstone slabs for countertops

Abandoned quarries in the woods are silent reminders of what was once a flourishing industry in the Blue Ridge foothills.

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.


Did I climb a steel guy derrick?

I have no specific recollection of taking this photo. Apparently I climbed up one of the steel guy derricks at Alberene in order to get a better perspective on the shape and size of the flooded soapstone quarry.