East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad

Soapstone in Virginia


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.

Touring Phoenix Soapstone

The Phoenix Soapstone Company in Nelson County closed up in the late 1920s.

A family cemetery and a few quarry sites are all that designate the old Phoenix town site.

Phoenix is a long lost soapstone town in an isolated corner of Nelson County. There is almost no sign of the stone operation left. I would occasionally drive down there and look around. Hunter’s shacks, trailers, yards full of junk and mean dogs, impenetrable woods. I never knew much about it.

An opportunity to learn more about Phoenix presented itself when a gentleman contacted me through my website. Jim Farrar was born and raised in the old town of Phoenix. He is related to many people still living in that area. Jim is interested in the history of the old soapstone operations, and he was willing to meet up with me and show me the sights.

Jim unloads his ATV on a bitter cold February morning. Time to see the sights!

Jim returns to the Phoenix area occasionally to maintain several family cemeteries.

A family burial site in the woods near Phoenix that Jim maintains.

Jim’s family connections to Phoenix extend back to the soapstone quarrying days and beyond.

Jim’s father is buried in Phoenix

In all the years I have been keeping an eye out for information regarding the soapstone operations in Nelson County, I had never been able to find out much about Phoenix. Jim’s recollections and records have made me aware of how interesting an operation Phoenix was. I really appreciate him taking the time to show me around and relate some of his memories of growing up there.

As is typical when trying to piece together a picture of the past, one question answered leads to three new questions. I am looking forward to heading back up to Phoenix with Jim to find out more about the area.

Employee No. 645

Some very interesting information regarding Standard Soapstone Corporation was provided to me by Jesse Bryant of Big Island, Virginia.
Research into his genealogy turned up the fact that his grandfather had worked for Standard Soapstone.

Standard Soapstone checktag number 645 was carried by Jesse’s grandfather, Paulus E. Bryant, Sr.

Paul and his wife Myrtle are listed in the 1920 National Census. Paul's occupation is recorded as "quary laborer."

Family history indicates that Paul worked for the Southern Railroad prior to going to work for Standard Soapstone. Therefore, he may have been hired to work on the dual gauge quarry railroad operated by Standard.

Tools owned by Paul Bryant, Sr. that are from the timeframe when he worked for Standard Soapstone

When Standard Soapstone shut down, Paul and Myrtle moved from Nelson County to her family homeplace at Big Island. Paul went to work for the paper mill there, and eventually became the powerhouse supervisor. A photo of his retirement party is posted at the Lynchburg History website.

Thanks to Jesse for providing these unique insights into the history of the soapstone industry in Virginia.

Relics of an Old Soapstone Plant

For years I casually searched for a soapstone mill in the woods of Nelson County.

The old Standard Soapstone railroad grade was obvious where it left the town of Norwood and headed up the Tye River. It was an easy hike along Rucker Run on the old grade until it reached the site of a high bridge over the creek. But beyond that point, I had great difficulty determining where the railroad had been, and could not find the site of the soapstone mill the railroad had served.

A good friend who knew I was interested in Nelson County soapstone gave me a pile of old, obsolete maps of the area. I worked my way down through the pile and found one that showed the Standard Soapstone railroad. It was identified on the map as “Narrow Gauge Track.”

This was the best clue I had ever found as to the location of the Standard Soapstone plant. The railroad shown on the map ended in the woods off Cedar Creek Road. I drove out to this remote area to try to find the end of the line.

I followed a rutted trail through the woods that led to a long, low wall of laid up soapstone slabs.

The wall led to a wide expanse of scaling, pitted concrete. The crumbling slab stretched into the woods, broomsage, cedars, and scrubby pines growing up out of every crack.

These were the brittle bones of the Standard Soapstone plant, the surrounding woods quickly encroaching on all sides.

The largest standing structure was a concrete frame that apparently had supported the boilers in the powerhouse.

I found rails in the tangled underbrush immediately adjacent to the plant, but the grade disappeared a short distance away.

Relics of an Old Soapstone Railroad

For a few years in the 1920s, soapstone rode the rails along the Tye River and Rucker Run in Nelson County.

Looking across the tops of old bridge abutments at Rucker Run

Several soapstone operations were consolidated by Thomas F. Ryan to form the Standard Soapstone Corporation.

Bridge abutment just outside Norwood, Virginia

Ryan built a new stone cutting and assembly plant, and a new railroad to connect the factory to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad at Norwood.

Railroad grade along Rucker Run

The new railroad was built across rugged country and required extensive grading, with high fills, deep cuts, and tall bridges.

Railroad track hardware on a soapstone boulder near Variety Mills

The new railroad shared a few miles of right-of-way with an older narrow gauge railroad. Dual gauge track was built to handle the narrow gauge trains from the quarries, and the standard gauge traffic connecting to the C&O.

Bridge abutment on the bank of Rucker Run

Ryan’s Standard Soapstone was in operation for a very short time. Shortly after his death in 1928 the entire operation was shut down and scrapped.

Alberene Soapstone

It had been over 25 years since I last wandered the campus of the old soapstone plant in Schuyler, Virginia.

Back then, the operation was all but abandoned, though a small amount of stone was still being cut there by someone. Several owners took over the plant in the intervening years, and security around the property was upgraded. I was never inclined to attempt to get permission to visit until I discovered a new book about Alberene Stone by Kierk Ashmore-Sorenson. Kierk is the owner of Alberene Soapstone, and made it clear through his book that he is interested in the history of the soapstone industry in Virginia.

And so, not long after making contact with Kierk, I was in the office of Alberene Soapstone being given a hardhat and permission to roam the grounds. Being welcomed has opened a new chapter in my interest in soapstone as a modeling subject. My visit renewed my awareness of how interesting the portrayal of a soapstone operation in Nelson County could be -- the setting, quarries, mill, and company town provide an engaging opportunity for both research and rendering.

Piedmont Soapstone

In the woods of Nelson County on the bank of the Buffalo River lay the earthly remains of the Piedmont soapstone mill.

The location of the old mill is most clearly marked by a dam across the river.

Stone was supplied to the mill by two nearby quarries. One quarry is high on a ridge, and delivered stone to the mill by way of a steep incline tram. The other quarry is at the end of a well graded, relatively level path along the creek. Try as I might, I could not find any sign of a tram or rail operation to this quarry.

The site is littered with pieces of soapstone that show signs of having been cut.

The creek below the mill site is choked with soapstone scraps and cutoffs. Piedmont mill once suppled soapstone components to a cooking appliance manufacturer in Toledo, Ohio.

Piedmont was eventually purchased by Virginia Alberene.

The milling equipment and many of the company houses were moved to Schuyler. The old mill site on the Buffalo River was abandoned by 1925.

Rails to Schuyler - Quarries

The vast majority of soapstone quarries in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are abandoned. But they were abandoned at different times, and some were active into the 1960s.

Alberene, Virginia is the site of both the oldest and newest of the abandoned quarries. Deposits of stone that were considered to be too hard early on were worked later. Later quarries were worked using more modern equipment, and the walls are marked with drill bore grooves, while old quarries have smooth walls.

Enormous AH&D derricks lifted the stone out of the quarries and loaded it onto trucks or railroad cars.

The hoist house near the base of the derrick contains the spools of cable and control levers.

An old Caterpillar tractor was left to rust in the weeds near the quarry.

The obvious signs of heavy industrial activity makes the flooded quarries seem deeply silent.

Rails to Schuyler - The Mill

Even though the old Virginia Alberene Soapstone mill looked abandoned and run-down, the main assembly mill was still in use.

Consequently it was securely closed and locked, and I did not make any serious attempt to get inside to look around. The only part of the main building easily accessible was through the carpentry shop.

The rails and walkway allowed heavy loads of lumber to be rolled into the shop. The I-beams hold the walkway up above Ivy Creek, which runs directly adjacent to and under the buildings at this point.

Walking down the walkway and into the dark mill, two carts were in the shop. One was partially loaded with lumber.

There were no carpentry tools in the shop. The place appeared to have been cleared out for use as a warehouse.

Pallets of machinery were scattered around under the skylights.

A large inventory of pipe and pipe fittings were in the mill. I was not sure at the time whether the owner of the building might be leasing space, or if this pipe had something to do with quarrying and cutting soapstone.

Rails to Schuyler - Sorting Yard

The abandoned grade of the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad crossed under the overhead crane.

Looking north from under the overhead crane, the abandoned railroad grade is to the right, and the offices/depot for Virginia Alberene Soapstone are to the extreme right. The overhead crane has been used to dump scrap cutoffs and broken pieces of soapstone on the abandoned grade.

It is also apparent in this view that the mill is built practically on top of Ivy Creek, which passes under the exposed I-beams in the foreground. Lumber for building shipping crates is stacked near the end of a push cart track that leads into the carpentry shop.

At the extreme west end of the overhead crane was the point where cut stone from the gangsaws actually entered the mill. The overhead crane placed the slabs on a cart that rode rails in a trough that dropped the floor level of the cart even with the floor level of the sorting yard.

It was apparent from the structure above this portion of the sorting yard that this area had once been under roof. It became obvious as I looked around that this part of the mill had burned. Since there are charred beams laying around in the photo above, my visit must have been not too long after the fire occurred. The upper portion of all the structural steel was black, and the walls of the buildings in the background appear to be blackened and charred as well.

Rails to Schuyler - Gangsaws

Along the path of the overhead crane was a long line of gangsaw sheds.

Large doors opened out onto a concrete platform littered with soapstone slabs and old machinery.

Running out from the gangsaw shed doors were rails embedded in the concrete. Small carts with flanged wheels were used to roll stone blocks and slabs in and out of the sheds.

Inside the gangsaw sheds were enormous rocker arms connected to crankshafts that were driven by large electric motors.

The rocker arms moved a bank of crosscut sawblades back and forth over a block of soapstone. Everything in the area of the saws was coated with silt, so water must have been circulated over the stone while it was being cut.

Rails to Schuyler - Overhead Crane

Running above and between the jumble of buildings at the Alberene Soapstone Mill in Schuyler was the traveling overhead crane.

The crane was used to move stones to the mill from quarries close by at either end. It also removed quarry stone from flatcars spotted underneath. The stone was sorted and stacked until it could be could be cut, at which time the crane moved the stone to the gangsaw shed. Cutoffs and waste stone from the mill was in turn loaded by the crane into railroad cars for removal to the Dust Mill.

Overhead cranes are one of the most characteristic structures of stone handling industries.

The overhead crane at Alberene Soapstone was also used to move lumber, and to load and unload trucks.

Rails to Schuyler - Boilerhouse

The boilerhouse was on the edge of the mill complex, hard against the bottom of a steep hill. Steam lines ran from it to the adjacent buildings.

The exterior of the main boilerhouse was soapstone. Even the tall smokestack was made of soapstone slabs.

This part of the boilerhouse was a composite of soapstone, corrugated metal, and cinder blocks. The cinder block wall surrounds a coal pile. Coal was delivered by rail car. There was a steep spur line that ran along the hillside behind the boilerhouse. Several rail cars could be pushed up the spur, with one positioned over an unloading trestle, and the brakes set. Once that car was emptied, the brakes would be released and the next car would roll onto the trestle for unloading.

Rails to Schuyler - What is it?

Sitting on a siding adjacent to the engine house loading platform was a flatcar with an unusual load.

The load consisted of a wood sheathed box with a tarpaper roof, and some unidentifiable machinery mounted on I-beams.

Historian and author Garth G. Groff knew what this unusual flatcar load was.

The mysterious contraption was a marine steam turbine that had been moved to the mill in the 1970s. Whatever use the mill foreman may have had in mind for the turbine apparently never materialized.

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.

Rails to Schuyler - Dust Mill

As the quarry spur of the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad approaches Schuyler from the southeast, it passes the Dust Mill.

Here railroad cars were loaded with finely milled soapstone dust, which was sold as industrial grade talc. Used in the manufacture of tires, paint, and concrete, the dust was ground from waste stone from the quarries, and cut-offs and scrap slabs from the mill.

The north wall of the existing dust mill building clearly shows the roofline of an adjoining building that is no longer standing.

The "missing" building stretched far to the north, and apparently contained the actual milling machinery that was used to grind the soapstone. The milling machinery was moved to Schuyler when Virginia Alberene bought Old Dominion Soapstone, who had built their mill at Damon, Virginia.

There is a railroad grade along the top of the retaining wall at the upper left, and along the far right.

By the time I first visited Schuyler, the Dust Mill had already burned, and most of the equipment had been scrapped.

Most everything inside the existing Dust Mill building had been removed and scrapped also.

Following the railroad grades toward the main mill, the tracks past close by the shops.

Rails to Schuyler

This soapstone quarry is near Schuyler, Virginia. It is one of a series of quarries in a line along a hillside east of the Virginia Alberene soapstone mill.

The quarries were connected to the mill by a branch of the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad. This is my unscientific way of determining that the rail used to serve the quarries was about 3 and a half inches tall.

Sitting in the brambles on the quarry spur is an old railroad car. This is a Chesapeake and Ohio pre-World War One vintage flatcar. The Nelson & Albemarle Railroad leased flatcars, a ballast car, and a passenger combine from the C & O. Over the time these cars were leased, they became the oldest cars owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio that were still in service.

Little locomotives were knocking these flatcars around between the quarries and mill long after arch bar trucks had been banned from the interstate rail network.

Looking toward the soapstone mill from the deck of the flatcar.

Old Dust

Construction of my layout was progressing without my having one necessary ingredient at hand, which was soapstone dust. Any depiction of a stone quarry and cutting operation would need to be very dusty. I wanted to have real soapstone dust as a primary ingredient in my scenic and weathering applications.

My recollections of the soapstone operation in Schuyler, Virginia go back 25 years to when I first stumbled across the old stone cutting mill. On the far south end of the property stood a solitary building that I learned was a dust mill. Scrap soapstone boulders and cutoffs were milled into fine powder at the dust mill. This powder was very similar to talc, and was used in most of the same industrial applications.

On one of my recent passes through Schuyler, I came armed with a few buckets, hoping to find some old soapstone dust.

The dust mill is still standing adjacent to the old railroad grade, close to the Rockfish River.

The underbrush around the mill is littered with interesting old pieces of machinery.

There is evidence that there once was a long structure that ran along the hillside abutting the mill. The roofline of the missing building is visible on the north exterior wall of the dust mill.

The back wall of the structure is soapstone and still stands, but the rest of the building may have been destroyed by a fire. This long structure may have contained the actual stone crushing equipment. The mill building that still exists may have been primarily for powder storage and bagging.

Inside the old dust mill, I found plenty of dust and "crusher run" sized pieces of soapstone on the floor, where it had settled at least 50 years ago.

Schuyler - old tanks

Processing soapstone required a lot of water, which was used in both the cutting and polishing of stone.

Abandoned water tanks high on the ridge above the Virginia Alberene soapstone mill in Schuyler have become perforated crusts of rust.

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.