Davis-Murdoch Stone Company

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