April 2013 Article

This Month's Article - April 2013
Tales of Esmont, Virginia - Part One 

It’s 1869 and the War Between the States has been over for almost 4 years.  The devastation borne by Virginia as the state hosting the Capital of the Confederacy was immense, yet opportunities abound to reconstruct the state and its industries.  On a larger scale, the transcontinental railroad is under construction with plans to complete in May.  And local to Virginia and the small foundling village community of Esmont, the Lane Brothers build a store.  

In the photo shown here (from the late 1960's when the building was 100 years old), you can see Main Street Esmont beside the structure and a car parked opposite the side of the building at the Esmont Depot (though not shown in this picture).


Esmont, as a community, began in earnest around 1840 as land was acquired from Esmont Farm (founded circa 1819-21).  The Lane Store building was constructed in a location that would place it across the road from the future depot site (though the depot may have been positioned there as a logical development since the builder of the rail line was Henry L. Lane, a partner in the store).  The world started experiencing a long depression in 1870 that would impact people until about 1890.  As financial conditions eased, industry started a growth cycle that would bring jobs to the area. The discovery nearby of soapstone in Johnson’s Mill Gap would see several quarries and a mill built.  By 1893, the Albemarle Soapstone Company is hauling it’s product over the Fan Mountains into North Garden, Virginia to ship via the Southern Railway.  Not too far away, south of the soapstone mill, the Hamlett Slate Company hauls it’s product out onto a dirt road (that would become State Route 19 circa 1918 and later, in 1933, State Route 6) for a seven mile trek to link up with the C&O Railway at Scottsville, Virginia.  Neither of these routes, using teams of horses or mules trekking large boxed slabs of soapstone or crates of slate were viable during rainy season.  So it became a necessity to find a new path to market for their products.

  In the photo shown here, taken by W. E. Burgess, a turn of the 19th to 20th century photographer from Scottsville, Virginia, the Esmont Main Street is depicted from left to right starting at the Esmont Depot in the image at far left with the Lane Brothers Store across the road in this 'fisheye lens' view of Main Street which appears slightly curved though actually very straight through town.  A roadway runs adjacent to the next building but in front of the Lane Brothers Store.  This next structure is the Esmont Bank Building.  Adjacent to the Bank, is a General Merchandise Store, and then at the far right in the picture is Steeds Store with it's quonset hut style roof.  


For the longest time, it appeared that the Nelson & Albemarle Railway came into existence because the Albemarle & Virginia Soapstone companies merged.  However, if there had been no Alberene Railroad to bring Albemarle Soapstone Company's goods to the C&O railhead at Warren, Virginia, the N&A might have found it's connection at Scottsville!  Were it not for the efforts of a civil engineer, R. E. Shaw, in the late 1800's, and the desire of the Hamlett Slate Company of Esmont to shift from wagons to rail, the rail line coming through Esmont to Alberene might have branched off of the C&O at Scottsville which was only about 7 miles from the slate mill near Esmont. The traffic from the Slate Mill alone may not have been sufficient to support building a branchline railroad, but when the major shipments coming in & out of the Soapstone Mill north of Esmont at Alberene were added and knowing that this would avert shipping via the competition (Southern Railway nee Virginia Midland), the new rail line was started with the blessing of the C&O as witnessed by their immediately leasing the line and soon purchasing the branch.  The choice of Warren, Virginia as the terminus may also have been tied to the Ferry at that location connecting southern Virginia below the James River with the main east-west Richmond & Alleghany line that had been purchased by the C&O.  With H. L. Lane as the general contractor, the easy grade along Ballenger Creek may have also influenced the route design. 


Next month we'll continue with more on Esmont before moving on to Alberene in June as we continue our Terrain Series.  Copyright 2013 - Nelson & Albemarle Railway Historical Society.