August 2011 Article

This Month's Article - August 2011
Vistas of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway
With good fortune the Nelson & Albemarle Railway has been captured on film quite a bit by railroad historians.  After Archie Robertson's "Slow Train to Yesterday" was published in 1945 and Lucius Beebe's "Mixed Train Daily" appeared in 1947 (with Charles Clegg's single photograph) many railfans were enticed to travel to Virginia and visit the shortline.  There was even a large amount of motion picture taken of the N&A during the 1940's by August Thieme from Richmond, Virginia who would sell that film to JMJ Productions for later release as part of a compendium, "Steam Locos on Industrial and Short Lines - Volume 2" in 1990.  Those several minutes of watching the N&A run through the countryside brought to life the day-to-day operation of moving freight back and forth between Schuyler and Warren.  Most prominent of the motion pictures though was the use of the Nelson & Albemarle's tank engine, boxcar, and combine in the full-length feature film, "Virginia" released in 1941 by MGM starring Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll.  While the few moments of footage with the train clamboring over the rails into "Fairville" (the renamed Howardsville/James River Line depot) was awesome in capturing the 1940 view of this mixed train, it would be a Scottsville, Virginia photographer, Willie E. Burgess that would be most noted for the earliest publication of hand-tinted postcards featuring parts of the N&A (see "Birdseye View of Scottsville" to left). His work brought to life a period that heretofore was only found in the builder's photo of a locomotive or a casual photograph from an amateur.  While later postcards would capture black & white photo views (like Schuyler's soaptone works), it would be this early work of Willie Burgess that would stand out in the hearts of postcard collectors nationwide.  His work in the early 20th century before his death in July 1935 from a heart attack has become valuable to those postcard fans and many of the scenes photographed for self-publishing of those postcards were of the immediate area near Scottsville which included the small Virginia town of Alberene.    ^^     Recently purchased at auction, a W. E. Burgess postcard shows two views of Alberene, Va. in an era of great activity that must have been before the decline of soapstone quarrying in the immediate area.  The postcard, titled "Views of the Virginia Soapstone Company's Works, Alberene, Va." are split horizontally.  The enlargement of this postcard on the left shows the segment noting the "Line of the N&A Ry." where stacks and stacks of soapstone blocks are located.  (See the Image Repository in the left sidebar for a better copy of this postcard and any others displayed in This Month's Article).  Other postcards of the same era (though in Black & White printing) show single views of Alberene most notably one published for M. J. Flynn (#1193) which features a part of the Alberene Soapstone Mill.  It is this postcard publication that starts to give good detail on the mill view and it's building layout while the nicely tinted view of Alberene from Willie Burgess shows small white dots when enlarged which is due to the method of printing.  This view from the M. J. Flynn postcard is depicted in a segment of the Willie Burgess postcard in the bottom view to the far left.  These wide angle vistas taken by Burgess are the only know photographs of the entire mill area as present during the active years of the Alberene works.  Nearby vistas were also captured by another postcard company, the Souvenir Post Card Co., New York, which printed a view of Maple Avenue in Alberene though the postcard itself was printed in Germany!  ^^^^   Other views of the Nelson & Albemarle provided in postcard form include Esmont and Schuyler though none of the cards displayed are from Willie Burgess.  Industrial themes seemed to have had interest to people of that period and the postcards evidently sold well when published and have become greatly collectible since then.  Moving up the line to Esmont, a photograph found in the National Archives was the basis for the postcard, "Esmont, Va. (Line of C&O Railway)", though the postcard cropped off both sides of the photo.  This was not so much an industrial photograph, as it represented the small town that Esmont had become with the C&O line running through the town.  The view is southbound along the rail line with the depot shown in the distance.  The taller two-story building still stands and was a bank building / post office during it's history.  Of interest is the quonset building at the right foreground of the postcard that was a local store at the time the photograph was taken.  People are actually shown standing in the doorway there.  ^^^^   Finally, we move to Schuyler where a vista of the "Virginia Soapstone Company's Plant, Schuyler, Va." is shown in postcard #3259 though the publisher is unknown.  This view is looking eastbound from a bluff and shows the main mill building and the depot (on the left).  There are many photographs of the industry here, but this is the only one found in postcard form.  ^^^^   While these few postcard views provide a glimpse into the earliest and most active periods in the history of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway, there haven't been any postcards found of Rockfish, Virginia on the Southern Railway line or the other industries along the line such as the Blue Ridge Slate Company spur out of Esmont, Virginia. 
Send email to if you have any comments or questions on "This Month's Article" or wish to contribute to future articles.  Copyright 2011 - Nelson & Albemarle Railway Historical Society.