A Landing a Day

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Posts Tagged ‘Alberene VA’

Keene and Alberene, Virginia

Posted by graywacke on October 12, 2016

First timer?  In this formerly once-a-day blog (and now pretty much a once-every-four-or-five days blog), I have my computer select a random latitude and longitude that puts me somewhere in the continental United States (the lower 48).  I call this “landing.”  I keep track of the watersheds I land in, as well as the town I land near.  I do some internet research to hopefully find something of interest about my landing location.  To find out more about A Landing A Day (like who “Dan” is) please see “About Landing” above.  To check out some recent changes in how I do things, check out “About Landing (Revisited).”

Landing number 2301; A Landing A Day blog post number 731.

Dan:  Your college state – Virginia – was a long time USer, and has established itself as a USer since I changed how I select my random lat/longs 85 landings ago.  And yes, this is my first VA landing in all of those 85 landings.  So, of course, my Score went down, from 650 to 632, a new record low.  (By the way, Dan went to the University of Richmond).

If the above paragraph is opaque and you’d like some clarity, go “About Landing (Revisited),” above.  If you really want to learn about the origins of this blog (like who Dan is), go to plain ol’ “About Landing.”

Here’s my regional landing map:


And my local landing map:


OK, OK.  So I’m not all that far from Charlottesville:


Here’s a very local streams-only landing map:


As you can see, I landed in the Walnut Branch (or Creek) watershed, on to the South Fork of the Hardware River (1st hit ever!); on to the Hardware (1st hit ever!).  Zooming back a little:


The Hardware discharges into the James (3rd hit).  I’ll zoom back even more, to show you that the James River Estuary is at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay:


It’s time for my Google Earth (GE) spaceflight to central VA.  Cllick HERE, enjoy the trip (with its non-traditional beginning), and hit your back button.

Here’s an oblique GE shot, looking west past my landing towards the Blue Ridge:


There’s no decent Street View coverage for my landing (after all, I’m in the deep woods).  But I could get a look at the South Fork of the Hardware River, just south of my landing:


And here’s what the Orange Dude sees:


Not much of river, eh?

A little further east, we get a look at the Hardware, just below where the S Fk joins the N Fk to become the plain ol’ Hardware:


And here’s what the Orange Dude sees:


Still not much of a river . . .

Before I leave GE, I want to mention that I was struck (as usual) by the dearth of eastern landings.  Here’s a map showing all 325 of my landings since January 2013 (when I got a new computer), with today’s landing circled.


See what I mean? East of a line from Ohio down to Louisiana, landings are clearly at a lower density.  It’s hard to blame my former less-than-random lat/long methodology (the basis for most of the landings on the above map).  It gave me a “northern bias,” which shouldn’t translate to an anti-eastern bias.  Oh, well . . .

You can probably guess that I found hooks for the two teeny towns near my landing.  Plus, I didn’t really want to feature Charlottesville (with the U of VA & Monticello), although I would have absent any hooks.

So, what about Keene?  Well, it sure ain’t much, based on this GE shot:


But Wiki had this tidbit:

The town is known for being the location of the last sighting of a passenger pigeon in the wild, by Theodore Roosevelt, who had a presidential retreat near here called Pine Knot.

I’m not really interested in Pine Knot, but the last passenger pigeon?  Now there’s a hook!  From Wiki:

The passenger pigeon or wild pigeon is an extinct species of pigeon that was endemic to North America. Its common name is derived from the French word passager, meaning “passing by,” due to the migratory habits of the species.


It mainly inhabited the deciduous forests of eastern North America and bred primarily around the Great Lakes. The pigeon migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 to 5 billion before its precipitous decline in numbers.

Here’s a description of migrating passenger pigeons, written by John Jay Audubon in 1813, in Kentucky.  This is really good, please read every word:

I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose and, counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes.

I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a hawk chanced to press upon the rear of the flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the center.

In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.

Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.

Wow.  Three days, untold millions (10s of millions?  100s of millions?) of birds passing by. 

This, about hunting the birds, and their extinction (still from Wiki):

After European colonization, the passenger pigeon was hunted more intensely and with more sophisticated methods than the more sustainable methods practiced by the native.

Americans killed pigeons with abandon.  Fifty birds could be brought down with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun; sophisticated nets were built, and thousands of birds could be trapped by a single net.  One way of luring the birds into the net was by the use of “stool pigeons,” which were live pigeons that were  blinded and tied on top of a stool.  When a flock of pigeons passed by, a cord would be pulled that made the stool pigeon flutter to the ground, making it seem as if it had found food, and the flock would be lured into the net.

By the mid-19th century, railroads had opened new opportunities for pigeon hunters. While previously it had proved too difficult to ship masses of pigeons to eastern cities, the access provided by the railroad permitted pigeon hunting to become commercialized.

An extensive telegraph system was introduced in the 1860s, which improved communication across the United States, making it easier to spread information about the whereabouts of pigeon flocks.

After being opened up to the railroads, the town of Plattsburg, New York is estimated to have shipped 1.8 million pigeons to larger cities in 1851 at a price of 31 to 56 cents a dozen.

By the late 19th century, the trade of passenger pigeons had become commercialized. Large commission houses employed trappers (known as “pigeoners”) to follow the flocks of pigeons year-round.  A single hunter is reported to have sent three million birds to eastern cities during his career.

The notion that the species could be driven to extinction was alien to 19th century Americans, both because the number of birds did not appear to diminish, but also because the concept of extinction itself was yet to be defined.

The bird seems to have been slowly pushed westwards since the arrival of Europeans, becoming scarce or absent in the east, though there were still millions of birds in the 1850s. The population must have been decreasing in numbers for many years, though this went unnoticed due to the apparent vast number of birds, which clouded their decline.

By the 1870s, the decrease in birds was noticeable. The last large nesting was in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878, where 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months. The surviving adults attempted a second nesting at new sites, but were killed by professional hunters before they had a chance to raise any young.

The last recorded nest and egg in the wild were collected in 1895 near Minneapolis.  The last fully authenticated sighting was in 1900 in Ohio, although Theodore Roosevelt claimed to have seen one in Virginia [presumably in Keene] and another in Michigan in 1907.

Some number of years ago, I read a book entitled “1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by Charles C. Mann; I recalled that he put forth a very interesting theory about passenger pigeons and buffalo. 

He supports the position that there were many 10s of millions of Native Americans in North & South America prior to Columbus (maybe even more than 100 million).  He also supports the notion that the culture was much more advanced than is commonly thought. 

He believes that 90% – 95% of the Indian population died of white man diseases (primarily small pox) and that for the most part, they died without even seeing any white people!  The diseases spread so quickly and were so devastating that by the time white explorers reached interior regions, the Indians were long dead; the civilizations long collapsed.

So what (you might ask) does this have to do with passenger pigeons (and buffalo)?  Everybody knows that buffalo were a staple of the Plains Indian’s diet.  But it turns out that passenger pigeons were as well (for the more eastern tribes).  From Wiki:

The passenger pigeon was an important source of food for the people of North America.  The indigenous peoples ate pigeons, and tribes near nesting colonies would sometimes move to live closer to them and eat juveniles, killing them at night with long poles.

Many Native Americans were careful not to disturb the adult pigeons, and instead ate only juveniles as they were afraid that the adults might desert their nesting grounds; in some tribes, disturbing the adult pigeons was considered a crime.  They always left a significant number of juveniles to assure future breeding populations.

Away from the nests, large nets were used to capture adult pigeons, sometimes up to 800 at a time.  Low-flying pigeons could be killed by throwing sticks or stones. At one site in Oklahoma, the pigeons leaving their roost every morning flew low enough that the Cherokee could throw clubs into their midst, which caused the lead pigeons to try to turn aside and in the process created a blockade that resulted in a large mass of flying, easily hit pigeons.

OK, OK, but I need to get to my point.  From ScienceBlogs.com, here are some excerpts from an article about the 1491 Charles Mann book by Chad Orzel:

Mann cites a bunch of people arguing that epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases wiped out better than 90% of the population of the Americas in the decades after first contact with Europeans. This seems like a shockingly high number– even the Black Death in Europe didn’t come close to that level– and he argues that there was a genetic component to this. The claim is that all of the inhabitants of the Americas were descended from a relatively small group of initial settlers, and thus had a narrower range of some key immune system responses than European or Asian populations.

If this is true, that would mean that the post-contact collapse of all these civilizations was as much a matter of fantastically bad luck as anything else. Had their ancestors had a different set of immune responses, European colonization would’ve turned out completely differently. Which is kind of weird and shocking, really.

The other big claim of the book is that the landscape we have come to think of as “unspoiled wilderness” was, in fact, being managed on a grand scale by these civilizations, through controlled burning and other techniques. He suggests, in fact, that the vast herds of buffalo and flocks of passenger pigeons that were wiped out in the 19th century were not the natural state of North America wildlife, but were themselves an anomalous situation caused by the collapse of the civilizations that had previously been keeping them in check.

I find this sort of information to be fascinating.  According to Mann, those indescribably huge herds of buffalo and those indescribably huge flocks of passenger pigeons were not part of a natural ecosystem; rather they were the result of a crazily-out-of-whack population swing caused by the nearly instantaneous death of millions of Indians, the main predatory population.

The suffering of the Indians is impossible to fathom.  Imagine entire populations of families, tribes, villages and nations being summarily wiped out by a mysterious, horrendous disease. . .

Phew.  All of the above paragraphs were triggered by one sentence in the Wiki entry for Keene.  Well, what about Alberene?

There’s no information about Alberene in Wiki, but there is an Alberene Soapstone Company.  Here are some excerpts from a 2013 article in The Rural Virginia (by Heather Harris):

to 1883 when New York businessmen James H. Serene and Daniel Carroll, along with John Porter, purchased a 1,955 acre tract of land beside Beaver Dam Creek. A deed dated Jan. 31, 1883, states that the property was purchased by the trio for a sum of $30,000.

That same year, the men founded the Albemarle Soapstone Company and, after several legal battles, were able to begin quarrying their recently-purchased property, making use of the massive soapstone beds found on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Around 1890, the business changed its name to the Alberene Soapstone Company, a combination of the surname Serene and Albemarle County. The name Alberene was also given to the company town that had formed in the surrounding area.

Completely self-sustaining, Alberene had everything that any small town would have—a post office, two-story school, a commissary, and several churches.

Alberene has shrunk quite a bit since its heyday:


And what about Stump Town?  Just a little town (way past its prime) named after an early settler, Michael Stump.

So what is soapstone?  It is a talc-rich metamorphic rock.  It likely started out as a shale hundreds of millions of years ago (a billion, maybe), and heat and pressure partially melted the shale.  It probably went through multiple cycles of heat and pressure and partial melting.  Sometimes (based on the particular minerals present in the shale & surrounding rocks), presto chango! Out pops soapstone.

True confessions.  I’m a geologist, but I don’t have a clue on the details of soapstone.  A metamorphic petrologist I ain’t.  All I know is that it’s a very soft rock, and can have a greasy or soapy feel because of the talc.

Anyway, the quarry near Alberene played out back in the late 1800s, and a new quarry was opened a few miles south (which operates to this day).

Soapstone has a variety of uses, such as cemetery headstones, counter tops and outdoor landscaping.  And then there’s this, from Wiki:

Soapstones can be put in a freezer and later used in place of ice cubes to chill alcoholic beverages without diluting. Sometimes called ‘whiskey stones’, these were first introduced around 2007.

Here’s a picture of a soapstone counter (the white lines are quart veins):


Personal story:  We have friends with beautiful new soapstone counters.  My wife Jody and I were invited to dinner at their house, and I was tasked with opening a bottle of wine. 

As is my wont, I placed the bottle on the counter, and spun the bottle while holding the corkscrew on the cork (thus embedding the screw into the cork). 

As I should have known, glass is much harder than soapstone, and the bottle left an ugly circular scar on the counter.  Quickly and calmly, I moved a plate of hors d’oeuvres to cover the scar. . .

Lesson learned:  With a soapstone counter, always spin the corkscrew, not the bottle . . .

P.S.  Since the new counter-owners are friends, I admitted my gaff.  Fortunately, the counter top came with instructions to repair such scars.

It’s time for some GE Panoramio shots.  I landed right next to the Walnut Creek Lake (which is the result of a dam across the Creek), and here are a couple of lake pics.  First this by Milo1978:


And this, by Yuseneotype:


Also by Yussy (Yuseneotype’s nickname), here’s a shot of Walnut Creek just downstream from the lake:


I’ll close with this sunrise view by Satheesan Kochicheri taken a few miles north of my landing:


Heck of a job, Sathie!

That’ll do it . . .




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