April 2010 Article

This Month's Article - April 2010

What if.....

the N&A were still operating?


One of the most defining moments in the history of the Nelson & Albemarle was the flood in 1944 along the Rockfish River including the creek that ran through the middle of the mill at Schuyler.  Within months, the line to Rockfish and the interchange with the Southern Railway (by rail) were abandoned.  But what if that flood never happened?  What if the need for soapstone grew further and additional quarries were opened?  While there would likely still be economic ups and downs, the look back on this revised history of the soapstone industry in Schuyler (and Alberene) might have lent itself to understanding how the Nelson & Albemarle Railway could have prospered with a resurgence in soapstone shipments.  It also would have chronicled how the soapstone company would have acquired additional motive power and expanded operations in the quarries.  The Nelson & Albemarle Railway had purchased its first diesel, #1 built by GE C/N 30856 in December 1950.  Followed closely by Alberene Stone purchasing #2, a GE 35-ton unit in 1952 and #3, a GE 25-ton unit in 1953, the soapstone works was primarily dieselized with only 3 locomotives.  Historically, the soapstone company would have boom/bust cycles aligning to wartime demand or the cycle of business recessions.  Imagining that there was no pivotal flood and subsequent downturn in business while the mill recovered from the devastation, Schuyler might have seen soapstone production boom into the 50’s with a real need to expand operations and move soapstone blocks not only from quarry to mill, but also to architectural firms for manufacturing into various building products.  We start the story with those first three diesels on the line and turn to the likely next steps.  History as we imagine it, has been altered…..  %%    In the mid-1950's, GM power was very popular with the introduction of the light road switcher GP-series, however, Alberene Stone in it's many iterations was always loyal to the use of Vulcan locomotives and subsequently GE diesels.  In 1955 with the Rockfish line still in existence, the last of the steamers was scrapped for an additional 44-ton GE switcher bought used that became # 4, easily handling the increased traffic along the Rockfish line.  It was during this period that the roadbed and bridges began receiving upgrades and improvements to manage the heavier loads going both east and west.  Noting a slight recession in the late 50’s, the stone company held off any additional purchase of a new or used locomotive, even as business remained somewhat steady.  The focus in the late 50’s became improvements and rail replacement was top priority from Rockfish all the way to Esmont.  %%  If you look at the pattern of purchasing equipment, Alberene Stone really liked bargains.  They’d had several in their existence including 2 used Forney’s bought secondhand from the Manhattan Railway through construction dealer, Patricius McManus.  The last steam engine purchased had also been a used locomotive.  So as times improved, and business expanded, the stone company needed to manage additional quarries including 2 new ones in Alberene (where the mill had been shut down in 1936) and an expansion of the quarries at Schuyler.  All of this meant more movement by rail and a realization that stronger motive power would create better handling of freight and higher profits.  With two 44-ton units handling mainline traffic and the 35-ton unit shuttling between reopened Alberene quarries (that were now east of the old mill location) and Esmont with loads for pickup, it became obvious that a couple of smaller switchers were needed to support general operations so the mainline engines could increase the number of runs between the endpoints.  A couple of used 25-ton GE units were picked up in the mid-60’s and started handling all of the quarry to mill runs in Schuyler as well as the constant shuttling of blocks to the gang saw operations.  They took on numbers 5 & 6 from the old Forney units.  The N&A now had 3 of these little diesels with the original one now stationed exclusively in Rockfish to handle switching duties there.  %%  For a time, things settled down pretty well, but while a small recession slowed operations in the mid-70’s, business rebounded dramatically in the early-80’s, with the introduction of new products based on soapstone and some new cosmetics products raised significant demand for talc, the by-product of all that soapstone.   New carloads of types not previously seen on the N&A were now becoming the standard instead of boxcar loads, flat cars with blocks, or gondolas with containers.  While hopper cars had made their way onto the line during the 50’s, now the covered hopper is a necessity to handle the talc shipments.  It was time for more motive power and an adjustment to assignments for the existing fleet.  %%  With business looking upward, GE came calling on the stone company to try to drive up interest in purchasing a stronger, more road-worthy engine, the U18B.  Now, the U18B would be a 2-step progression from the diminutive 44-ton GE switchers on the road and this led the N&A to think about turning locomotives at Schuyler & Warren for the first time in their existence.  GE had planned for Alberene Stone to order a new engine straight from the factory, and took the general manager and an engineer over to visit the Seaboard Coast Line in Richmond.  Seaboard had invested heavily in this branch line road switcher to the tune of over 100 units that they used in various operations up and down the lower east coast states.  This visit would lead to a dialog between the two railway companies that would culminate with the sale of their U18B # 252 to the N&A.  It wasn’t exactly what GE had hoped for, but it followed the Alberene Stone game plan of supplanting existing power with good used equipment when funds were needed elsewhere to expand and exploit soapstone sales.  In Schuyler it was rather simple to add two switches and create a ‘wye’ so the newest locomotive, # 7 could be turned there.  Initially, the N&A couldn’t get land in or near Warren to support having a ‘wye’, so they contracted with CSX to rebuild and reopen the abandoned turntable they had used in the 50’s just south of the town of Esmont while still the C&O.  That old 56 foot turntable was quite tight for the 54 foot, 8 inch U18B locomotive, and newer controls were added by GE to allow the unit to run backwards from Warren up to Esmont for turning.  In a year, the turntable proved too cumbersome for operations to be efficient.  It was the stumbling block to improving the number of runs per day, so the N&A bought land just north of Warren and added a two track storage yard and a ‘wye’ that would end the need for a turntable at Esmont…again.  CSX won the job of repainting the U18B from the black & yellow of Seaboard Coast Line to the ‘chocolate brown’ that had become the color of the soapstone line in the first repaint of the GE small diesels in the mid-70’s. [Editor’s Note:  Now that COLOR photos of N&A Diesel #1 have been secured, it appears the color of those GE small diesels was more “Great Northern” Green than ‘chocolate brown’, though some of the faded color photos seen still look more a shade of brown than green.]  Lettering for the U18B would be similar to the #1 diesel with one big exception – along the long hoods, the words, “Nelson & Albemarle”.  %%  Soon, it became apparent to Alberene Stone that more changes would be necessary to commit to meet the increased demand for both talc and blocks of soapstone being used for both architectural purposes as well as sculptors working with the soft stone to create architectural details for commercial designs.  Eight new covered hoppers appeared at the Rockfish interchange in September 1983 for outbound talc service.  In a strange twist, these would end up interchanging with the CSX to be destined for two cosmetic companies in the Cincinnati area.   With the large amount of orders, the multiple round trips to cover that demand both from the quarries as well as between the mill and the terminals, the N&A needed to increase capacity on each train.  The Southern Railway had always had some tenuous moments with servicing the N&A from the Rockfish depot.  Now the Southern would offer up the sale of one of it’s surplus locomotives, a GE B23-7 (yes, a Dash 7 series!).  This would have seemed unimaginable in the mid-50’s to think of this large a locomotive on the rails of the N&A, but 30 years later, the B23-7 was really just a step up electronically from the U23B – and that was just a step up from the U18B in power and capacity.  The improvements from rail upgrades, bridge rebuilds, and improved roadbed would now pay off with larger train consists and a significant increase in the amount of soapstone being moved by rail.  So Southern #3971, with it's high short-hood, arrived on the property still in the dark green & gold scheme of the freight service it had seen on the neighbor road though quite a bit dirtier than expected when the shop crew first saw it.  The B23-7 would make a first trip behind the U18B # 7 to interchange with CSX so that the Fulton Shops could have the unit repainted as the 2nd N&A #8.  Number 8 took up the prime spot of handling the heaviest loads between Schuyler and Esmont, adding on the Alberene traffic and bringing the largest trains into Warren.  The two-track yard now allowed #8 to stage the cars for service by the CSX local while U18B #7 took on the role of major two-way loads between Rockfish and Schuyler, delivering outbound soapstone blocks on flatcars and boxcars of dimensioned soapstone slabs for use in counter-top production for homes and businesses while bringing in most of the necessary supplies and equipment to handle mill operations at both Schuyler and the reopened Alberene factory.  %%  As July of 1989 came around, the N&A once again reached out to the Seaboard Coast Line and in an unusual twist, purchased a gently-used B23-7 from them.  This time the unit had one unique distinction.  It was a locomotive with a crew cab, allowing for a station for the conductor to manage paperwork while en route.  This GE BQ23-7, #5131, would become the 2nd #9 and in another unusual twist became the primary engine handling Schuyler to CSX interchange traffic as it’s predecessor #9 had done for thirty years.  Before arriving at Schuyler to take on it’s duties, the traditional repaint by CSX in it’s Fulton Yard shops would take place.  As of 1990, the shops had repainted every diesel on the line.  By maintaining an all-GE shop, the N&A general manager was considerate to the amount of maintenance support the units would require.  This minimized the number of differing parts stocked and also meant that once trained, the mechanics would be prepared to work on most any of the GE locomotives.  The similarities between the smaller switches, 44-ton, 35-ton, and 25-ton units was easy to manage and the larger U18B was closely similar to the B23-7 series locomotives as it’s electronics had been updated when the additional controls were installed in the unit.  The U18B, #7 soon began handling the Alberene to Esmont run bringing large loadings of soapstone out for transport over CSX.  Redistribution of power was in order and the 44-ton units, #1 and #4 were soon assigned to primary quarry duty handling larger flatcars and heavier loading to bring the soapstone out for mill use or to add to loads headed to one of the terminals.  The single 35-ton unit, #2, became the mill switcher at Schuyler handling all loads to satisfy the gang saws and making up trains for either direction on the mainlines.  The three 25-ton units now became celebrities in their own rights as #3, purchased back in 1953 served the Rockfish terminal tracks and used 25-ton, #5 had the honors of serving the expanded Warren tracks and interchange with CSX including a periodic run up to Esmont for a pickup from the Esmont Slate Company quarry (having closed by abandonment in 1957, prinicipals maintained ownership of the property and reopened in 1969 as demand for slate from the building industry made this a profitable venture again).  The last of the 25-ton units, #6 served with honor at the Schuyler mill shuttling cars between the car shop and putting flatcars into position for the overhead crane to pickup or deposit soapstone blocks or stacks of slabs.  This unit was also responsible for lining up a boxcars for loading or unloaded at the mill doors.  Schuyler was quite the busy place in the mid-90’s.  %%  And so it’s been over 10 years and the demand for soapstone has wavered some from the height of the late-90’s and still those same units keep moving soapstone on a very tight schedule.  Recently the N&A even hosted a passenger train, routed over the line behind the last remaining steam engine that served on the road.  The 2nd #2 which was preserved and finally restored in the mid-00’s to pristine condition handled the head end of this 3 car special as it moved along from the Southern interchange at Rockfish, having originated in Goshen, Virginia, to interchange with the CSX at Warren en route to permanent display at Clifton Forge in the C&O Historicial Society collection.


It’s been fun thinking about the what if’s for this article.  Hopefully, my imagination of things on the N&A (had it not been for one really bad flood in 1944), has left a visual picture in your mind of how expansive the future might have been for this little Virginia shortline.  As to the paint & lettering scheme for the N&A, maybe in some future posting in the Image Repository a ‘what-if’ photoshop’ed picture of a U18B might show up.


Please note any comments on "This Months' Articles" in the comments section either on the MAIN page or in the sidebar archives section.  Copyright 2010 - Nelson & Albemarle Railway Historical Society.
This month's query:  Okay if you read the article for April to the right, then you might wonder why my imagination turned to the possibilities of a Seaboard Coast Line U18B, #252; a Southern B23-7, #3971; or a Seaboard Coast Line BQ23-7, #5131 (a little odd-ball at that for this story....) and specifically why these numbered units.  Well, it has to do with my library of books which includes a Kalmbach Diesel Spotter's Guide UPDATE from 1979.....
BTW:  Purchasing used GE diesels has always been pretty popular and many units (including the real N&A #1) have riden the rails after some general maintenance and overhauls.  N&A #1 became Georgia Marble #1, then sold to Industrial Maintenance who resold to Hamburg Industries as their #2.  It was TTX - Hamburg Div. #2 and operating up into the early 2000's (50 years) before being 'parted out' to support 2 remaining 44-ton units at site and scrapped at Progress Rail in Patterson, GA.