July 2012 Article

This Month's Article - July 2012
The Alberene Railroad
In December 1895, the Virginia general assembly passed an act to incorporate the Alberene Railroad.  Finally, a plan was coalescing to build a railroad to easily move supplies and materials into Alberene.  Significantly, the ability to move raw soapstone blocks and finished goods from the Albemarle Soapstone Company to their markets would dramatically improve.  There had been serious plans to connect a railroad line between the company and the Virginia Midland Railroad (before being joined as part of the Southern Railway) junction at North Garden, Virginia, but the issue of how to cross the Fan Mountains that lay between the mill and the junction had stymied the plans progression.  The ACT to incorporate Alberene railroad company provided that the new company “…build, construct, equip, and operate a railroad, either standard or narrow gauge, from Alberene post-office, in the county of Albemarle, to any point on the Southern railway company in the said county of Albemarle where the said Alberene railroad company may be able to make, by agreement, most suitable connections with the said Southern railway company…  which followed the basic understanding that the Albemarle Soapstone Company had for years worked to effect – a connection with the Southern Railway at North Garden where they had always transported goods to the outside world.  Logically, the ACT to incorporate provided the continuity of continued use of the Southern Railway.  But the ACT also included a provision to allow the railroad to connect “…from the Alberene post-office to any point on the southern boundary of Albemarle County…”  which recognized the sale of the Kanawha Canal properties along the James River to the Richmond & Alleghany Railroad.  Now, a new route to transport soapstone emerged with no mountains to scale.

A Textbook on Civil Engineering by the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania provided instruction on selecting a ‘choice of lines’ and specifically explained the ‘advantage of valley lines’ in its text from the 1897, 1898, 1899 copyrighted edition.  “Wherever possible, stick to the valleys.  Bottom lands, though low-lying, are generally above flood line, or, if below it, are only covered by back-water” were messages to the civil engineer in preparing a plan and executing on the survey and mapping of a new railroad.  Henry Lane was contracted to build the line.  The easy grade from Warren connecting with the C&O was mapped to follow along Ballinger Creek wherever possible creating new stops at Boiling Spring and Dawson’s Mill as it wound it's way to Esmont where land had been purchased from the surrounding plantation to form the village.  Esmont's existence had begun many years before, but It would only receive a post office in the mid-1890’s and become a focal point for the Alberene Railroad as it, like most railroads of the day, worked to add traffic to the line and increase business. 

As reported by R. E. Shaw, secretary and chief engineer, in Railway Age, volume 25 of March 11th, 1898, “Alberene Railroad – Work is being pushed on this road from Alberene to Warren, Virginia 11 miles and it is expected to have it ready for operation by April 1st.”  The line would be completed in 1898 starting operations on April 14th, but was immediately leased and operated by the C&O Railway until the full purchase of the line was completed in February of 1902.  It’s interesting to note that there is no clear understanding of the purchase that is recorded well enough to clarify if the C&O purchased all of the line or just the tracks between Warren and Esmont as reported in some historical accounts.  For anyone who has traveled mountain roads, you can imagine the ups and downs as well as the tight curves that slipping through the mountains entail for any driver.  The line to Alberene is much the same with the exception of the wide-sweeping curve leading into the town that swings by 'Esmont', the namesake homestead of the town.  Warren Depot is 295 feet above sea level and the rise to get into Esmont at the station would be another 167 feet arriving at 472 feet above sea level.  Going on to Alberene rose only 69 feet higher arriving at 541 feet above sea level. By contrast, the cut through the Fan Mountains that could have been used to connect Alberene to North Garden on the Southern Railway is at 656 feet above sea level - a challenging attempt at crossing that grade would have been a continuing operating cost that the route to Warren avoided.
In writing this commentary on the terrain it became obvious that much of this historical detail doesn't allow any more than speculation that the Alberene Railroad, though leased by the C&O, may have been operating it's own dimunitive locomotives to handle raw soapstone and finished goods at the mill or possibly bring finished goods and raw materials into Esmont to be deposited on a siding to await C&O locals 57 or 58 originating from Gordonsville or Richmond to arrive and drop empties and pick up the waiting cars from the Albemarle Soapstone Company.  The likely C&O locomotives to traverse the relatively easy grades up from Warren were either 2-6-0 moguls or 2-6-2 prairies which were much used engines assigned to support the local subdivisions.  Those engines would easily meet the needs of transporting the soapstone cars from the minor sidings at Esmont but could also have been serviced by Class G 2-8-0 (Richmond Locomotive Works built many of the series) in the years after the Nelson & Albemarle Railway but before the N&A took on trackage rights handling it's own trains into Warren.  Other industries on the line would include an ice plant and a slate quarry/mill in Esmont.  Some records indicate a 56' turntable may have been located along the siding south of town (more on this when we discuss Esmont as a town in a later article series).  By 1905 with the Nelson & Albemarle Railway in operation across the combined soapstone companies holdings, the basic railroad line that would continue until the branch to Alberene was closed in the late 1930's was in place.  
Railway Age of July 19th, 1901 reported that “KE Shaw C.E. Alberene Virginia writes that it is proposed to build from Alberene to Charlottesville, Virginia 15 miles but that work will not be started at present.”  Of course that connection would never be made, but it had been the source of much discussion without benefactors to finance the endeavor.  In August's Article, we'll delve into the terrain, buildings, and general roads in the area of Warren, Virginia before discovering more about Esmont and Alberene in the following months.
Send email to NelsonAlbemarle@comcast.net if you have any comments or questions or wish to contribute to future articlesCopyright 2012 - Nelson & Albemarle Railway Historical Society.
Add-On to July's This Month's Article:  Map of Alberene Mill1:
1 Alberene Mill map #41 documented from University of Virginia collection of SANBORN MAP COMPANY.  (2006). 1920 Charlottesville - Charlottesville Sanborn Maps. Retrieved 30 July 2012, from the University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center: http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/maps/sanborn.