Friends of Esmont, a nonprofit that was established with the goal of revitalizing the village of Esmont in Southern Albemarle, this week announced two grants totaling $10,000 to start work on the undertaking. The Dave Matthews Band’s Bama Works Fund provided $5,000 for a study of the Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line Trail, and Virginia Humanities of Charlottesville granted the same amount for a local historian to research and write the history of the village.
Both those projects are in the organization’s master plan, which consists of seven proposals to bring back some of the former glory of the small village.
Populated since the 18th century, Esmont was once home to the nation’s largest soapstone quarry, had a depot for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad, several thriving general stores, and its own bank. At its peak, Esmont was a thriving town.
But in 1964 the railroad tracks were removed and the depot was demolished. Abandoned by C&O Railroad, Esmont lost part if its identity. The effect of that economic downturn was that in the following decades the village slowly deteriorated from a lack of attention from its residents and local officials. While neighboring Chestnut Grove and Porters Road have prospered to some extent, Esmont has not.
Established last year, Friends of Esmont wants to change that. The group consists of about 100 people who live locally and as far away as Illinois, New York, and Florida. Projects include rebuilding the train depot, creating a recreation trail on the former Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line, and publishing a definitive history of the village for educational purposes.
“Thanks to the grant we received from Virginia Humanities of Charlottesville, a historian is currently working on writing that,” said Friends of Esmont Chair Peggy Purvis Denby.
She expects this project will be finalized this year. The research includes the founding of Esmont, the impact of the Shortlines rail system, the quarrying of soapstone and slate, an overview of several old farms in the area supported by interviews with local residents.
“Researching and writing the rich history of the area has never been done and long overdue,” Purvis Denby said.
The 5.5-mile Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line Trail will by far be the project’s largest investment, depending on what surface is chosen. The trail would run between Esmont and the Alberene Soapstone Quarry using the abandoned Nelson-Albemarle rail line, which was used for stone transport when the quarry was active. Cost estimates range between $100,000 and $300,000.
“The one-year planning grant we received from The Bama Works Fund gives us the ability to research the feasibility of this trail,” Purvis Denby said. “We are working with a landscape architect to conduct a topographical study, identify properties that would be affected by the trail and talk to land owners to get permission to run the trail on their properties.”
According to Friends of Esmont, the benefits to the community of having the trail would be “tremendous”. The trail would connect to existing trails in the county and bring in both Alberene and Schuyler, taking visitors off the narrow roads and putting them on a scenic trail through historic farmlands and quarry sites.
Anna Boeschenstein, Friends board member and chair of the trails committee is pleased to have the opportunity to explore an idea that’s been brewing for several years.
“These landforms run through the Southern Albemarle countryside and are fascinating once you realize that they once were old railroad beds, trestles and turn tables connecting the Alberene-Esmont quarries to the James River and to the Charlottesville railroad. In many instances these rail remnants are now hidden in the woods, but they are historic infrastructure and a wonderful armature for a future trail system.”
Once the study is complete, and Friends of Esmont has a clearer idea of how the trail would run, it hopes to write a grant request to fully fund construction.
A project closely related to the Esmont-Alberene Quarry Line Trail, is the rebuilding of the Esmont Depot that was demolished in 1964. The group is currently investigating avenues to get the project off the ground. The newly built depot would serve as a trailhead and offer bathroom facilities and a refreshment area, the only such area available for miles. The costs for building the depot are estimated around $100,000.
Other projects that are part of the revitalization plans in Esmont are the restoration of historic homes, creating a wildlife wetland and restoring the Purvis Store, a historic property once considered the hub of activity in the village. All projects combined are estimated to cost around $1M.