February 2016 Article

BONUSThis Month's Article - February, 2016
Chapter 11 as written for the new book on the Nelson & Albemarle Railway

Chapter 11 – What if the N&A were still operating?

            One of the most defining moments in the history of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway was the flood along the Rockfish River on September 18, 1944 that included the tributary, Ivy Creek, running through the middle of the property at Schuyler adjacent to the mill.  Traffic ceased using the route to Rockfish where significant damage took out roadbed and bridgework.  The interchange with the Southern Railway (by rail) was abandoned officially in 1947. But what if that flood never happened?  What if the need for soapstone grew further and additional quarries were opened?  While there would have been economic ups and downs, as the soapstone industry faced year-over-year, the look back on this revised history of the soapstone industry in Schuyler (and Alberene) lends itself to understanding how the Nelson & Albemarle Railway could have prospered with a resurgence in soapstone sales and other by-product shipments.  It could also chronicle how the soapstone company would have acquired additional motive power and expanded operations in the quarries and mill. 

The Nelson & Albemarle Railway had purchased its first diesel from General Electric or GE as it’s commonly known.  Construction number 30856, a 44-ton unit, with twin Caterpillar D17000 diesel engines, was built in December 1950 and would become N&A #1, the third #1 to ride the shortline’s rails.  The end was near for steam as Alberene Stone closely followed the 44-ton acquisition with the purchase of a 35-ton GE diesel in 1952, construction number 31768, which would become Alberene Stone #2 though reasonably assumed to be N&A #2, the third #2 on the line.  Then in 1953, a smaller, GE 25-ton diesel, construction number 31778, was purchased as Alberene Stone #3 (in what would be considered the 2nd #3 on the Nelson & Albemarle Railway).  The soapstone works was primarily dieselized with only 3 locomotives and the last steam locomotive left the property in 1954 for the scrapper’s torch.  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 of 10 feet of water and mud, 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 understood it; has been altered…..    

In the mid-1950's, General Motors’ Electro-Motive-Division locomotive power was very popular with the introduction of the GP-series light road switcher.  Alberene Stone in its frequent iterations had always been loyal in the use of Vulcan steam locomotives and subsequently GE diesels.  In 1955 with the Rockfish line still in existence and the last of the steamers already scrapped, an additional 44-ton GE switcher was bought used that became the 2nd # 4.  This new-to-N&A diesel, purchased secondhand from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, easily handled the increased traffic along the Rockfish line.  The N&A had a history with the AT&SF as they were the source for secondhand flat cars used to move soapstone from the quarries to the gang saw building that were purchased years earlier. AT&SF #465, GE construction number 18153 built in December 1943, was relatively well-maintained and visited GE in Erie on its way east to be serviced, repainted dark green, and lettered for the N&A. It was during this period of the mid-1950’s that the roadbed and bridges began receiving upgrades and improvements to manage the heavier loads going east to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at Warren and west to the Southern Railway at Rockfish by the almost twin 44-ton locomotives.  Noting a slight recession in 1958, the stone company held off any additional purchase of a new or used locomotive, even though business remained somewhat steady.  The focus in 1959 became general drainage improvements and pulling up lighter rail for replacement with heavier rail to support the priority of expected growth coming out of Schuyler headed to Rockfish and Esmont/Warren. 

If you look at the pattern of purchasing equipment, Alberene Stone really liked bargains.  They’d had several in their existence including two used Forney’s bought secondhand from the Manhattan Railway through construction dealer, Patricius McManus at Cape Charles, Virginia.  The last steam engine purchased had also been a used locomotive, originally built for the Chile Exploration Company but never delivered and destined to become N&A #15.  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.  Two used 25-ton GE units were picked up in 1964 from the Panther Valley Coal Company in Coaltown, Pennsylvania. GE construction number’s 32237 and 32238 were built in February 1955 at Erie.  Taking on numbers 5 and 6 from the old Manhattan Railway Forney units, they were stationed in Schuyler with #5 handling runs between the quarries and the Schuyler yard including staging for the gang saw operations.  Making up trains for east or west shipments, #6 would also assist #5 with feeding the gang saw operations.  It quickly became apparent that a new siding for the shipments to Rockfish was necessary and Alberene Stone contracted to extend the Schuyler yard past the engine house at the east end of the property before the line turned south then west to follow the banks of the Rockfish River.  The N&A now had three of these little diesels with the original one now stationed exclusively in Rockfish to handle switching duties there.  The 70’s came in quickly with business flourishing. 



It was during this time in the early 70’s that the entire small switching fleet, one-by-one, had their Caterpillar D17000 diesel engines replaced with the newer Cummins diesel engines found in current GE-model switchers, along with pulling out their original GE 733 traction motors and installing new GE 752E6 gear.  Units #1 and #4 received new GE replacement wheel-sets and then took back-to-back trips to Richmond to visit the now-Chessie System paint shop for a new livery.  Next, the 25-ton units including the most recently purchased used ones received their new GE 752E6 traction motors as their power plants completed rebuilding.  Each of these units, #3, #5, and #6 would also take their turn in the Chessie System paint shop in Richmond where they were provided a similar paint scheme to the 44-ton units. Finally, the last of the small fleet, #2, the rare GE 35-ton unit, was given a major overhaul by rebuilding its diesel power plant, refurbishing the frame due to some damage, and installing new electrical gear as minor problems had become an issue while switching in Alberene.  The company never considered replacing the 35-ton unit as it well-served the Alberene quarries delivering loads to Esmont for shipment to points east or west. While #2 was in Richmond being refurbished, Alberene Stone decided to build a connecting track that could hold up to 10 flat cars in the form of a wye junction at Guthrie, Virginia giving #2 a straight shot into Esmont without having to back into the yard there.   During the 35-ton’s absence, 44-ton #1 did double duty serving the Alberene quarries (a 25-ton couldn’t handle the trip down to Esmont with multiple cars) and temporarily staging trains in Alberene rather than Esmont.

For a time, things settled down pretty well, but while a small recession slowed operations in 1974 and 1975, business rebounded dramatically starting in 1981 with the introduction of new uses for soapstone.  New cosmetics products caused a significant increase in demand for talc, a by-product of processing all that soapstone.   Alberene would have to add capacity to its crusher at Schuyler to handle the large amount of stone needed for talc production.  Creating the talc was a bonus for Alberene Stone as any scrap stone, any stone of poor quality, or just tailings from the mill could be input to the crusher.  Carload types not previously seen on the N&A were becoming the standard instead of boxcar loads, specifically flat cars with blocks shipping direct to customers and gondolas with containers of specific soapstone products.  While hopper cars had made their way onto the line during the 50’s, now the covered hopper became 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 called on the stone company to try to drive up interest in purchasing a stronger, more road-worthy locomotive, 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 that model branch line road switcher to the tune of just over 100 units 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 a specific U18B, their # 252 (previously used in Alabama and Tennessee), to the N&A.  #252 had been purchased with a specific design of a small fuel tank allowing it to be used on light-weight branch lines which was a perfect fit for the N&A Railway.  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.  The U18B rode on FB-2 trucks (GE Floating Bolster 2 axle design) unlike many of the SCL units which were riding on traded-in EMD Blomberg trucks.

In Schuyler it was rather simple to add two switches and create a ‘wye’ so the newest locomotive, # 7 could be turned there at the west feeder to the yard.  Initially, the N&A couldn’t get land in or near Warren to support having a ‘wye’, so they contracted with the Chessie System to rebuild and reopen the abandoned turntable they had used before turning operations over to the N&A just south of the town of Esmont while still the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.  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. 

Chessie System won the job of repainting the U18B from the black & yellow of Seaboard Coast Line to the ‘Western Pacific Green’ that had become the color of the soapstone line in the first repaint of the GE small diesels in the mid-70’s.  This was ever so lighter a green than the original DuPont paint the diesels received at the GE works.  Lettering for the U18B would be similar to the #1 diesel with one big exception – along both sides of the long hoods, the words, “Nelson & Albemarle” were boldly emblazoned. 

Soon, it became apparent to Alberene Stone that even more changes would be necessary to commit to meet the increased demand for both talc and blocks of soapstone being used for architectural purposes as well as sculpting by artisans working with the soft stone to create architectural details for commercial designs or statues. 

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 Chessie System 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 its 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 its high short-hood, arrived on the property from Greenville, SC 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 now four-track yard north of the interchange at Warren 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 now-reopened Alberene factory.  With plenty of space to add track at Rockfish, the N&A added a wye so that the U18B wouldn’t have to run backwards back to Schuyler.  

As July of 1989 came around, the N&A once again reached out to the Seaboard Coast Line (now a part of CSX) 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 quarters cab, allowing for a station for the conductor to manage paperwork while in route and possibly exclude the use of a caboose on runs.  This GE BQ23-7, originally Seaboard #5131 but partially painted with a bright-yellow nose and CSX markings as #3001, would become the 2nd #9 on the Nelson & Albemarle Railway.  In another unusual twist, the BQ23-7 became the primary engine handling Schuyler to CSX interchange traffic as its predecessor Vulcan steam locomotive #9 had done for just over 30 years.  Before arriving at Schuyler to take on its duties, the traditional repaint by CSX in its Fulton Yard shops would take place.  CSX would also perform a swap of sorts as the SCL had purchased all 10 of the BQ23-7’s with Blomberg trucks from EMD locomotives they traded in.  When the new-to-N&A engine arrived in Richmond, the N&A foreman mentioned that the only issue he had with this specific GE unit was the Blomberg trucks. CSX kindly offered to trade them for FB-2 trucks coming off a recently wrecked U23B, refurbishing them in the process and only charging the N&A with the additional labor to make the swap.

As of late 1990, the C&O/Chessie System/CSX 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 its 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, while #8, the B23-7, now ran strictly between Rockfish and Schuyler where another wye was added to turn the diesel east of the yard.  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 continued to serve 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.   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 pick up or deposit soapstone blocks or stacks of slabs.  This unit was also responsible for lining up boxcars for loading or unloading at the mill doors.  Schuyler was quite the busy place by 1995. 


 Alberene Stone had survived many bad economic times and yet continued to find new markets for soapstone or soapstone by-products.  During the 1990’s they saw unprecedented growth yet stayed cautious when it came to capital expenditures having seen their success and failure at different times not predictable.  In 2001 everyone experienced a shock from world events yet the largest difference in soapstone operations was awareness that people far from Schuyler, Esmont, Alberene, and Warren had no regard for the simple way of life in rural Virginia or elsewhere in the country.  Many times, dark events had foreshadowed loss of contracts followed by loss of jobs but not this time.  In an unusual twist, business actually grew and more demand for talc as an ingredient to products would take on the largest amount of sales for the first time.  By 2003 the company was thinking it was time to rethink its motive power strategy, but cool heads prevailed and the company rode out the boom cycle with the locomotives on hand.  Wishful thinking on how the boom could keep growing was not to be.  Across the nation a crisis was brewing that would take many people’s homes and destroy many a business.  With good management, Alberene Stone had stayed solvent, never borrowing more than needed to maintain operations that met the current sales.  Suddenly 2008 would turn out to be an economic downturn for the employees of the company who lost investments or their homes or both. 

As 2009 drove on, the company downsized significantly, but never removed the schedule of trains whose shipments were the lifeblood of the company.  But talc would again save the day when in 2010 and 2011 when business boomed riding on the coattails of talc shipments.  The shipments had become the primary target for business success not only for Alberene Stone but for its wholly-owned subsidiary, the N&A.  It was evident that a dedicated trainset was needed to take advantage of what might be a limited opportunity.  The Nelson & Albemarle Railway took over this plan and decided to lease from another entity, CSX.  Bold ideas took hold and the availability of a newer, GE ES44AC Evolution series locomotive was acquired on a year-to-year lease proving 4400 HP in a single diesel and riding on 6 axles (a C-C truck arrangement) to lighten the load on the rails.  CSX #876 would become N&A #10 (with small lettering below the number, “CSXT”.  Built in April, 2008, the GE diesel (construction #58562), was good business for CSX to lease to the N&A as it fed all of the talc shipments  direct to their James River Line.  Rather than a full repaint, CSX put large yellow letters down both sides of the blue locomotive, “NELSON & ALBEMARLE”, similar to how they had lettered the U18B, the B23-7, and the BQ23-7 in past years.  The letters “N&A” were painted on the nose in blue contrasting against the standard yellow nose of the leased diesel.  Accordingly, Alberene Stone upgraded track between Warren and Schuyler to specifically prepare for this locomotive.  Train control had never been an issue with the Nelson & Albemarle Railway.  Their schedule defined each train movement and with the use of cellular technology, all trains were now controlled through Schuyler on the top floor of the former General Store.  While signaling was not purchased, there was a distinct fear of miscommunications between train crews or misreading train orders.  And so it was these considerations that led the N&A to double-track the line between Esmont and Schuyler and station the leased #10 at Esmont to bring in materials to Schuyler and return twice daily with a 20 car talc train.  A new yard based just south of Damon, Virginia allowed for making up the talc trains out of Schuyler.  The double-track main line truly doubled capacity for all afternoon trains as they used both tracks eastbound to deliver shipments to an expanded south-Esmont yard where #10 would add them onto a long drag into the yard at Warren for transfer to CSX.  Realizing the increase in business, CSX decided to double-track their portion of the rail line between Warren and Esmont including the addition of a double crossover just north of Warren and two additional sidings to store cars waiting for the local to switch the covered hoppers into trains for the journey to manufacturers in Cincinnati. 


Nelson & Albemarle “Leased from CSX” Roster






Comment / History






CSX #876 Leased by Nelson & Albemarle as their #10



In 2013, the Nelson & Albemarle Railway celebrated their 110th anniversary with the dedication of a train-themed park in Schuyler and a similar park in Alberene.  The only surviving steam locomotive, the 0-4-0T Vulcan built in October 1909 as construction #1436, was brought to the park in Schuyler for the dedication, being not far from its original home rails on the Old Dominion Soapstone Company tracks at Damon. With a recently constructed replacement water tank (the original having been removed many years past so the tank engine could be displayed at a motel in Marion, Virginia), the engine would be reconstructed/refurbished at the Roanoke Shops of the Norfolk Southern in time for the return of passenger service on the N&A albeit for only one weekend in the summer of 2015.    The 2nd #2 was restored to pristine condition handling a 3-car lightweight passenger car special six times in two days as it moved from the NS interchange at Rockfish down through Schuyler past Damon and on to Esmont where it posed for photographers including several photo run-by on the line south of town before heading into Warren and meeting up with the CSX and then retracing it’s route back to Rockfish.  The diminutive locomotive would spend time in Goshen, Virginia to remember the people that saved her from the scrapper’s torch and then in a fitting tribute, would become part of the C&O Railway Historical Society’s operational collection on display at Clifton Forge, Virginia.


The fog starts to lift and the realization that this was just imagination sets in as the fantasy of continued operations gives way to an overgrown trail through the woods with dilapidated bridges and washed out roadbed.  While it was fun to think about the “What if’s” for this article, the reality is much more harsh.  Gone are the sounds of steam whistles in the deep cuts and hollows of lower Albemarle and the Rockfish valley.  The diesel horn is silenced as well and the sound of trucks travelling up and down Route 6 is all that you hear in the distance.  Overgrown vines and weeds cover most of the original roadbed and trying to traverse the pathway is near impossible today.  But the dream of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway continues


Author’s Note:  Many thanks go to Jerry A. Pinkepank and Louis A. Marre, authors of “Diesel Spotter’s Guide UPDATE from 1979 for providing much of the inspiration in this fanciful tale.  They included photographs of SCL #252 on page 16, Southern #3971 on page 27, and SCL 5131 on the cover and page 27 which became the basis for thinking about this “What If…”.



Copyright 2016 - Nelson & Albemarle Railway Historical Society.