The N&A Is Up and Running

The N&A Is Up and Running

The development of the Nelson and Albemarle Railroad model has been three years in the making, and although still not quite finished, it’s up and running for the entertainment (and elucidation) of visitors to the Quarry Gardens.

The original intent was to have four bays at the Visitor’s Center devoted to the model: Rockfish Junction would be displayed in the westernmost bay, as seen in 1925; next, the stone plant in 1935; then a representative quarry in 1945; and finally the village of Esmont in the easternmost bay, as seen in about 1955. During the long incubation period (two years), we came to the harsh realization that we had too much space in the Visitor’s Center devoted to the railroad model and not nearly enough devoted to bathroom facilities, which led us to cut the railroad down to two bays-worth: The first, as seen below, has both the stone plant and a representative quarry (of indeterminate vintage but about 1935).

  The second bay is devoted to the little town of Esmont, with its bank, store, and train station, in about 1950.

Detail number 1, below, has the later, diesel engine and a bit of the goings-on at the factory.

  Detail number 2 shows town life and the lovely bank building (still extant).

The final detail is of the engine, itself. You might notice that the lettering misspells “Albemarle” as “Albermarle” on the railroad’s name. We are told it ran all (or most) of its life that way.

Notice, also, that the engine is running backwards. That’s because the N&A had no turntable, so could not reverse its engine, which always pointed west and so had to pull backwards when traveling east.

(I made some nice little movies, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to upload them to WordPress. In any event, the model is not quite fully finished. The consist–that is, the makeup of cars–of the train is not quite right: So far, for example, we have been unable to find a proper passenger car. Although boxcars were sometimes pulled, the train ran mostly with engine, passenger car, flatcar, and caboose. Stay tuned: we’re searching. Better yet, come visit and see for yourself.)

School Along  the Trail

School Along the Trail

This has been a week for young visitors. On Monday, six of a Madison County High School Environment Studies class, along with teacher David Matchen, spent Earth Day with us. They had two assignments: to gather ideas for final papers on habitat creation, and to help us eradicate a big patch of Japanese honeysuckle along the East trail. (In the feature photo, above, we have quarry dog Skyla making a new friend. So happy to have volunteers—Bobi, Mona, and Cora Chlebnikov—to help guide.)

Here’s QGs guide Bobi Thornhill setting off with the group for a circumnavigation of the two quarry pools.
The sycamore bench on the landing between flights up the North Quarry face is a favorite spot for group photos. 

After the walk and lunch, the students set to work on the honeysuckle, finding in the rock pile off the East trail a large, blackened half-rotted pair of work pants and rusted springs from a mattress—legacy of the site’s years as a dump. As a conservation area, the East trail is getting only clean-up—no planting. Many interesting species have been found there; we’re glad they’ll have less competition from the honeysuckle. A similar effort last year with Garlic mustard seems to have been effective: Only three plants found (and pulled) this spring. 

On Wednesday, 48-49 (we lost count) HEMS homeschoolers aged 18 months to teens, along with moms, joined us for a walk.

We divided them into two groups. Here’s some of Group One about to set off from the Visitor Center with Bernice. Note the earbuds. (Photo by Mona Peglow)
The South Quarry niche is a good spot to take note of the varied geology and quarrying techniques—and pose for a group shot.
The trail sound system we introduced late last season has been a hit. It allows visitors to string out along the trails and keep their own pace without missing any narrative. (Photo by Mona Peglow)

A few plants spotted along the route—a riot of Pussytoes (two species in bloom now); Dwarf crested irises in several spots; likewise Golden ragwort; Wild geranium near the Giant’s Stairs.

Among the many others in bloom now: Solomon’s seal, Ginger, Toadshade trillium, Dwarf larkspur, Golden Alexander, Silene, Blue-eyed grass, Birdsfoot violet, Woodland phlox, Black haw viburnum, Dogwood, Paw paw—all native to within 15 miles of Schuyler. And so much more to come!

Lunch followed—in the parking area.

Opening Day of 2019 Season!

Opening Day of 2019 Season!

Today was the opening day of the 2019 season of the Quarry Gardens—our third. It rained, of course, but eight of the seventeen souls who had signed up for the tour came with their umbrellas and rain gear, and seemed to have a good, if soggy, time walking the trails newly covered with fresh wood chips, gawking at the early risers of the spring ephemerals. 

A bright spot for the new season is that a couple of important modifications to the Visitor’s Center were completed in time for the opening. Visitors during the first two years were introduced to an unfinished  model of the Nelson and Albemarle Railroad that had to be explained as a “work in progress,” which they would have to return to see completed. This winter we decided we had to modify and compress the display anyhow to provide  some much needed additional bathroom space, so we reduced it from four bays to two and, mirable dictu, got those two bays furnished and completed in time. The layout now comprises one bay depicting the New Alberene Stone plant along with a representative quarry, and a second bay depicting the village of Esmont, through which the N&A ran on its way to the B&O junction at Warren.

In the first picture are (from left to right) the steam powerplant, several auxiliary buildings, a great hoisting crane lifting blocks of soapstone from a quarry to place on a flatcar, and the plant, itself, where the blocks were slabbed and fashioned into laundry tubs or laboratory countertops, or whatever. 

The second picture shows the same scene from a lower eye level, emphasizing the track layout.

The third picture shows the village of Esmont in the other bay, depicting the B&O-standard train station (now gone) with the bank in the background (now the post office and apartments) and the general store to the right (now vacant) .

The last picture is of the siding system used to get the engine from one end of the train to the other so that it would always be pulling the cars, although the engine itself would be running backwards in one direction. (The N&A had no roundhouse.)

Apologies that there is no actual train shown in these pictures. That’s because it is off being weathered for authenticity.  

Go to the visit page to sign up for a tour to see these new displays and what nature has to offer along the trails. If previous visitors are to be believed, it’s worth it.

Quarry  Gardens Rocks!

Quarry Gardens Rocks!

A new book has joined Mountain Press Publishing’s series of state-by-state guides to the best geologic sites to visit—and we’re in it!

Virginia Rocks! A Guide to Geologic Sites in the Old Dominion, by Albert B. Dickas, introduces readers to 50 of the state’s most compelling and accessible geologic sites and to the great variety of rocks, minerals, and landforms created over the course of its more than one billion years of geologic history.

From the Eastern Shore to Cumberland Gap, Virginia stretches across five distinct regions, each home to unique and amazing geology. The book is organized by region. In the Piedmont section, The Quarry Gardens (#10) entry describes the soapstone associated with the 900-550-million-year-old metamorphic rocks of the Lynchburg Formation.  In the Blue Ridge Section are two nearby sites: Crabtree Falls (#21) and Humpback Rocks (#22).

Virginia Rocks! may be purchased directly from the publisher, via Amazon and other sellers—or, from April on, found at the Quarry Gardens Visitor Center. 

2018 Report, 2019 Outlook

2018 Report, 2019 Outlook

[Cover photo: View of the North Quarry by Steve Edgar]

During a busy second season, we guided more than 1,100 visitors, grew our roster of volunteers and official Friends of the Quarry Gardens, mounted educational exhibits in the Visitor Center, adopted advanced sound technology for the trails, added many species of locally native plants, shared seeds with propagators, became a research site for mycologists, continued adding to the biota—and saw 17 young bluebirds take flight from houses monitored by Bluebird Society volunteers.

Visitors: Despite tour-canceling heavy rains, visitors came from throughout Virginia and scattered states from coast to coast. They included gardening educators, naturalists, native plant enthusiasts, school groups, garden clubs, professional landscapers, birders, history buffs, geologists, lifelong learners, hikers, rock gardeners, photographers, and plein air painters—among others.

Rachel Floyd (left) with Rivanna Master Naturalist volunteers Ruth Douglas and Victoria Dye

Volunteers: Our corps of volunteers—which includes Rivanna and Central Blue Ridge Master Naturalists–was joined by Nelson County Master Gardeners. As guides, they help us make visitors’ experiences more rewarding; as land stewards, they stretch our maintenance dollars by assisting the Center for Urban Habitats staff (

Exhibits: The Visitor Center experience now includes exhibits on the site’s history of quarrying, its remarkable soil types, and principles of landscaping with native plant communities. This year, we’ll add exhibits of geology and dendrology. We’ll also add to the much-loved Blue Ridge Young Birders’ show of QGs birds a series of changing digital displays of plants in bloom and resident fungi.

Trail technology: We now have a digital sound system that allows visitors to wander a bit on the trails—and still hear the guide. Because of its popularity, we will experiment this year with increasing the maximum number of visitors per guide to 20. 

Younger members of the CUH research team, Theo and Ezra Staengl and Drew Chaney stalking a butterfly. 

Research: Ten research beds have been placed near the South Quarry and will be planted this spring for a native lawn grass study. The Blue Ridge Mycological Society’s forays have added 14 fungi species to the biota (which may be found at They continue to foray and meet monthly at the Visitor Center, sharing discoveries with the North American Mycoflora Project ( This year, they will offer workshops on growing and dyeing with mushrooms. A summer survey by the CUH team of the abandoned beaver impoundment area southwest of the quarries added 31 species of plants and animals to the biota, including two Nelson County firsts. CUH studies of upland areas and old forests are continuing. (The total of QGs species now exceeds 700, of which 40 are county records.)

More plants: The planted galleries now include 198 species—97 of which are native to the immediate area but new to the site. (See the list at This year, as plants become available, we will continue building out the demonstration gardens at the Visitor Center and the Quarry Overlook platform. Fields around the grass research beds and along the entrance road will be seeded as prairie. 

Margaret and Will Shaw collecting seeds in the Demonstration Garden in September

Propagating afield: Last fall, members of the Virginia Native Plant Society collected seeds to propagate for their annual spring plant sale. This year, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants ( will begin test-propagating QGs’ genotypes toward discovering distinctive local plants that might be offered at Monticello.

Amenities: Since most of our visitors come from a distance, we’ve  added two restrooms to the Visitor Center—making three—and this year, the former dynamite shed will be converted to make an outdoor one.

. . . and on that note, our update ends. 

The 2019 season of regularly scheduled tours begins the first week of April, and 14 groups have already scheduled spring visits. 

We hope you will  join us and be part of the fun of discovery.

Tasting an Orchid  in Winter

Tasting an Orchid in Winter

January views at The Quarry Gardens are open, revealing much that cannot be seen in the verdant months. In the gray-brown landscape, green is now an accent color contributed by pines and junipers, hollies, the unwelcome Japanese honeysuckle, some evergreen ferns, and emerging points of skunk cabbages in the wetlands—and some orchids.

One green presence is the Cranefly orchid, Tipularia unifolia. Cranefly orchids are easily recognized in winter, as their single 2-4″ leaves are deep green on the front and brilliant purple on the back.

Now, they may be seen all along—even within—the trails, where they are subject to being trod upon. Why there? Cranefly orchids depend on mycorrhizae generated by decaying wood—and what decays better or faster than wood chip trails?

The leaves persist into spring before senescing. Then, sometime in late July, after we’ve forgotten about them, the orchids will bloom. On spikes 8-12″ tall, they will produce small, pale beigey-green flowers that appear to swarm around the stems—hence the name “cranefly.”

Common in forests throughout the southeastern U.S., Cranefly orchids are pollinated by night-flying owlet moths, which transfer pollen on their eyes. The roots are a connected series of edible corms. Armand and I tried the tiny corms: They’re crunchy like potatoes but taste a little sweeter, and leave a persistent, slightly astringent, unpleasant mucilage in the mouth. (Once will be enough.)

Deer commonly eat the entire leaf, leaving the plant without a means of accumulating enough carbohydrates to bloom and make seed the following summer. Fortunately, Cranefly orchids are perennial, so they persist—and, so far, our deer have mostly found other plants of interest.

Other orchid species found at The Quarry Gardens include Puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale; Downy rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera pubescens; Lily-leaved twayblade, Liparis lilifolia; Nodding ladies’ tresses, Spiranthes cereus; and Southern slender ladies’ tresses, Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis.