November/December 2015 Article

This Month's Article: November/December 2015
Photographers of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway, Part 1
A backwoods rail line with only 18 miles of track and miniscule motive power didn't attract the attention that large railroad operations such as Potomac Yard on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, & Potomac Railroad did.  For the Nelson & Albemarle Railway the events that attracted attention could be counted on just a few fingers.  Attention started with the Hollywood crew showing up to scout locations for the feature production, "Virginia", that came to Albemarle County, Virginia in the summer of 1940.  While the N&A had been around for 37 years, it was this critical junction that let people know that the little N&A had something to offer for photographers and rail fans that wanted to capture a bit of the nostalgia around short line railroading.  While the original plans for the film included filming opening scenes at the Esmont depot, the location was unfortunately changed to use the Howardsville depot on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway main line (appropriately renamed "Fairville" for the film).  Either Bert Glennon or William V. Skall (the two cinematographers on the film) were responsible for the opening sequence that had the Nelson & Albemarle Railway engine #9, an N&A-lettered boxcar, and a combine come into view and arrive at the station. It is this point in time that this author connects with the N&A and the movie as my grandparents (Sam & Laura Peters) were extras on the platform and are in the beginning of the film.  But for being noticed, the film really brought attention to the Nelson & Albemarle Railway.  Amateur photographers descended on Schuyler and the rail line became the temporary focus of rail fans when the movie was released in January of 1941.  Whether this was part of the influence to Archie Robertson in including the Nelson & Albemarle Railway in his 1945 book, "Slow Train to Yesterday" is anybody's guess.  Railroad Magazine added to the interest in the Nelson & Albemarle Railway in December 1945 with 'a short history' of the rail line in answer to a question from a reader.  Amateur photographers would again visit the area capturing vistas and quick, fleeting glimpses of those small engines.  For all the interest that rail lines could gather in those days so close after the end of World War II, it was the visit by Lucius Beebe and C. M. (Charles) Clegg, Jr. in January 1946 that saw 18 square-format photographs taken that now reside in the California State Railroad Museum.  Interesting side notes on the proof sheets mention in either Lucius Beebe or Charles Clegg handwriting on the value of each shot.  With the exception of one photograph, the original negatives are intact and available for copies (for those interested in having their own print or prints).  These two big events, the movie, "Virginia", and the publishing of a major book with a photograph of the Nelson & Albemarle Railway gave rise to other famous authors or rail fans making trips to capture the last of steam on the N&A.  In January 1950, the Nelson & Albemarle Railway ended passenger service and this event was captured by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. and others (such as Mr. Bill Gianninni who lives just outside of Howardsville, Virginia) and his recollection published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper on February 12, 1950.  During the next 10 years, many photographers (and authors) would visit the Nelson & Albemarle Railway collecting data and photographs to use in multiple books that would be published after the N&A ceased operations in January 1963.  Cessation of service was also noted by a photograph of the Esmont depot with tracks pulled up, a forlorn dolly cart, and old car parked next to the station in another newspaper article.  But it was that first big splash in a feature film that brought attention to the Nelson & Albemarle Railway and let people know how special their little world really was.  It started a rush to capture in photographs the story that we mention here of a short life with the occasional event that brought people around to remember the rail line in film and prints.  In Part 2 of this series, we'll delve into the individuals who brought attention to the N&A such as Richard Prince, H. Reid, August Thieme (a chemist by trade who also made amateur film of the N&A in action), and others.

Book Planning Update  The rewrite of the Origins of the N&A is still being edited with expectations to complete in January. Our publisher has recommended some format changes that will be incorporated into this edit and shared with readers when completed.

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