November-December 2013 Article

This Month's Article - November/December 2013
Tales of Alberene, Virginia

As the story goes, James Serene visited Albemarle in the early 1880's and observed outcroppings of Soapstone that looked promising to him. He would return to the area of Johnson's Mill Gap and in 1883/1884 open the first quarry along Beaver Dam Creek.  Building the Albemarle Soapstone Company mill in this small community brought jobs and much fame. 
So much so, that the product, Alberene Stone, became the basis for a name change for the village to "Alberene" in the late 1880's.  The company built communities of their own to support the need for workers in both the quarries and the mill.  Alberene would grow in those early years with a company house being built in town.  While the company house was built to provide a residence for visiting company officials, it was primarily used as a guest house. 
The company house was the subject of architectural study by the
University of Virginia as a unique building and one that deserved to be documented for future generations.  **  After several years of hauling soapstone and products over Fan Mountain by mule team to North Garden, a railroad would get built to support the mining and other interests in the area.  Much discussion surrounds the formation of the rail line, with the major theory that principles of the Hamlett Slate Company in Esmont approached soapstone interests with the proposal that the line be built to provide an outlet for their products (and also that it be connected to the C&O at Scottsville).  However, you must understand some of Albemarle County history to know that the seat of county government was for many years west of Scottsville and that Warren was in close proximity to the center of commercial activity.  There was also a mill already situated at Warren.  The award of the contract to build the rail line to Lane Brothers Construction of Esmont led to the route along Ballenger Creek running with the best grade to Warren, not Scottsville.  The Alberene Railroad would immediately be leased by the C&O Railway upon completion (1898) and bought outright in a few short years (1902).  The C&O would use 'light' equipment to service the line but even some of it's more traditional equipment (such as used for weed spraying) would occasionally make it's way onto the line (even after N&A started up) providing quite a contrast from the diminutive tank engines used for quarry operations and delivery of goods to terminals. 
The town of Alberene would have it's ups and downs and one of the mixed outcomes was the merger in 1903 of Albemarle Soapstone and Virginia Soapstone (founded 1893) companies which led to the creation of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway to serve both operations.  The N&A would take over operations of the Alberene Railroad (and also the Schuyler Railway) and in a unique arrangement pay for the use of the leased portion by maintaining the line and ope
rating through to Warren from the terminus at
Esmont.  The boom period for Alberene lasted well past the turn of the century but once easily harvested soapstone became depleted in the mid-teen's,
the operations would take an interesting path of closing the mill and continuously transporting workers via rail to Schuyler where that mill was adjacent to multiple quarries and a good supply of stone.  Eventually more stone would be quarried at Alberene, but for many years this became a bedroom community for the companies main facility.  By the mid-1930's Alberene was truly a ghost community of what it had been.  What's left of the little community still has some dirt and gravel roads and there are plenty of original 'company' houses still there, but for the most part the village looks to be in decline (possibly in an always declining state). 
The closest business operations are Scottsville and Charlottesville with farming and fruit growers nearby.  The era of small villages having their own hardware, grocery, bank, and other miscellaneous stores has been over for some decades and Alberene is no different.  The company store has been closed and torn down decades past.  Houses once owned by the 'company' are now private residences; homes for those people fortunate to have home ownership. On a recent visit it was noted that the 'laid-back' feeling of a country community long removed from the heavy industry of mining and quarrying soapstone and milling operations could not revert to those days that would now be heavily supported by large truck and tractor-trailers constantly bringing products out of the small town.   What remains, though shuttered at last visit, is the Company House, awaiting someone to perform a full restoration and bring it to the standard of hosting important townspeople and officials for special events and holidays.  While those days may never be captured again, the memories of the vibrancy this small community held early in it's life remains valuable in how the world's largest deposit of soapstone was first tapped.

Reference:  Copies of the last two photographs are available from the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library of the University of Virginia Library and photograph quality prints can be purchased by mail or a visit to the University.  The M. J. Flynn postcard and the Maple Avenue, Alberene postcard are used here with permission of current owner and copies are NOT available.  Company House diagrams are available from the Library of Congress and the State Library of Virginia.

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