August 2014 Article

This Month's Article:  August 2014
Tales of Schuyler, Virginia
The area now known as Nelson County, Virginia was settled by people either making their way up the James River in search of large spreads of land for farming or coming down through the valley into the western part of the county, many of whom were looking for religious freedoms.  Farming and Timber were the main occupations with ancillary jobs such as general store, hardware store, or professional positions such as dentist or doctor opening up in small urban areas.  If you were in the western part of Nelson County, you might have planted an apple orchard in the fertile land there. Or if you were near running streams or rivers you might have founded a mill.  Such was the area where Schuyler George Walker set up his mill.  The settlement around his property became known as Walker's Mill but by 1882 was formally named Schuyler after it's founder.  Industry in the area, outside of the small villages and towns was limited until Soapstone was discovered around Schuyler by Captain James Foster.  This led to the first quarries and subsequently to the soapstone mill being founded to support the mining operations and production of finished goods.  By the turn of that century, the Virginia Soapstone Company was a primary employer of the area.  Much like the Albemarle Soapstone Company, Virginia Soapstone hauled it's products by horse or mule team to the closest mainline rail junction.  Closest to Schuyler was the Southern Railway coming through the village of Rockfish on the rail line between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, Virginia.  Those early years were very good and employment grew and the competition was strong between the two main soapstone companies in the region.  Competition soon turned to 'coopetition' as those two main companies found reasons to join forces.  That merger led to the creation of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway to serve the combined soapstone industrial complex and ferry employees between homes in Alberene and the mill at Schuyler or delivery of finished goods to either Rockfish or Warren for shipments out to customers. By 1916 the quarries at Alberene were little used as the good quality, easily quarried stone had dwindled out.  People looking for employment in the area sought out jobs at the soapstone company and while many took up jobs there, many others, wanting to avoid the hard conditions of working with quarrying and milling the stone, would leave the area seeking positions in large cities like Lynchburg or Roanoke or Richmond.  The outflow of youth from the county was a fact of life and the influx of industry may have stayed the tide but could not support the number of people looking for jobs. 
Many other industries were started in the industrial sections of the county with many entrepreneurs taking a lead from the finding of soapstone by Schuyler.  Soapstone was a booming industry up through the mid-1920's and the number of people employed grew dramatically during those years.  However, the Great Depression ended the soapstone industry in Schuyler for some time as the orders dried up and the company entered receivership.  When the company was reorganized they were able to restart some of the production with US Government contracts but one of the primary products was no longer in favor - the soapstone-formed wash sink - with reinforced concrete and molded plastic sinks replacing them in the market.  The high days of the early 1920's was gone and so was the money that had modernized the mill and purchased new locomotives (#9, #10, #12, #14) and good quality used locomotives for the rail line serving Schuyler's mill.  The number of workers in Schuyler would never again reach those levels as seen leading into the 1920's.
  World War II did bring a resurgence of orders plus the post-war boom created enough orders that the Soapstone company could invest in new technology for the rail line, 3 diesel locomotives that would replace 30 or 40 year old steam locomotives.  A General Electric 44-ton diesel would replace the mainline use of tank locomotive #9 built by Vulcan in early-1920 restarting the locomotive numbering series at #1.  While tank locomotive #10 had been servicing the Alberene mill in it's early days before the entire line was pulled out between Guthrie and Alberene by the C&O, the 1922 built Vulcan would no longer be needed once General Electric 35-ton diesel (numbered as #2 in a line of #2's that included an unidentified 0-4-0T from the very early days of the N&A and the still-in-existence Old Dominion 0-4-0T #2 sitting idle in a wood yard in Goshen, Virginia) arrived on the properly. 
It would be #11, a used locomotive previously serving the Rockfish run, that would last into 1954 and be the last of steam in Schuyler. Georgia Marble ownership brought with it the eventual demise of the rail line.  Though truly a victim of the trucking industry, the short line ended it's 60 year run in 1963.  A short ownership by Jim Walter corporation never brought with it the modernization of the facility or any upswing in employment.  The soapstone industry's run at being a viable business in Schuyler may not have ended with the various owners that tried to manage the mill with various business models, but the current owners will never see the thousands or even hundreds of workers that supported this industry in the early days of the last century, making products that every household, laboratory, or school wanted to have.

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