Researched and written by Drex Bradshaw
Before we start a discussion regarding the Lone Star Cement Corporation it would be prudent to explain what the primary ingredients in cement are. Cement is defined by Webster as: Any of various construction adhesives consisting of powdered, calcined rock and clay materials, that form a paste with water and can be molded or poured to set as a solid mass. Marl as defined by Webster is: A mixture of clays, carbonates of calcium and magnesium and remnants of shells, forming a loam used as fertilizer. Calcined as defined by Webster : to heat (a substance) to a high temperature but below the melting or fusing point, causing loss of moisture, reduction, or oxidation.
These three definitions define the primary ingredients in cement and in some manner how it is made. Marl although listed as fertilizer is the prime ingredient in cement. As a fertilizer it is good because of its lime content.
The following discussion will take you through the process of digging the materials used in Portland Cement. Portland Cement was a trade name and as defined by Webster: A hydraulic cement made by heating a mixture of limestone and clay, containing oxides of calcium, aluminum, iron, and silicon, in a kiln and pulverizing the resultant clinkers.
In May of 1924 the Giant Portland Cement Company was conveying the property designated in chart number 1 (within Nansemond County and adjacent to Chuckatuck) to the Virginia Portland Cement Corp and in 1926 the same area was being transferred to the Lone Star Cement Corporation. Lone Star shut down its operation in 1971 when the cost of doing business, due to EPA requirements, made it non profitable. Pollution from the furnaces that heated the mixtures in South Norfolk was the main reason for closure. However, there was a marl pit and hammer mill on land owned by sister Annie and Lucy Upshur which we are sure predate that of the Giant Portland Cement Corporation in 1924. The Upshurs mined marl to be used for chicken feed, fertilizer and driveway materials. (SHOW PICTURE OF MARL HOLE WITH HORSE AND CART) The Upshur house was located behind the current Suffolk Water Plant and was ultimately torn down by Lone Star since it sat on the large vein of marl. We have no pictures of this house, but those who remember it were amazed at its size, its contents of old Indian paintings and items from the turn of the century. The house predated the civil war and Capt. Upshur had an integral part in the Powell Wharf which was either on or adjacent to his land. Lucy and Annie lived there until the early 1950’s when Lone Star Cement Corp. bought their land having dug very close to it up to that point. Alex Moore told Harvey Saunders Jr. that Miss Lucy and Annie had some high class parties at their house in the 1930’s. In later years it was run down with chickens and pigs living on the first floor of the home.
The information which follows comes from discussions with Harvey Saunders, Jr. whose dad worked for the Lone Star Cement Corp., and was their last employee in the Chuckatuck area. The pictures, commentary and drawings come from his collection/recollection of the Marl pit operations in and around Chuckatuck. Archie Fronfelter who had been working for Lone Star in Waverly, Virginia since he was 16 came to Chuckatuck in 1934. He lived in a company house that was next door to Mr. Willie Staylor, the superintendent on site. Archie was running the drag line when they encountered a grave yard fairly close to the Upshur home which we think was determined to have been a slave grave yard. That island is still in tact and visible now having been preserved by the marl company.
In 1938/39 Harvey Saunders, Sr. went to work for Lone Star as a mechanic having left his job as foreman of the Butts Farm. During his time there he compiled a record of all of the employees with their hire dates and their departure dates. He was responsible for overall maintenance on all of the equipment used in the digging/processing and shipping of marl and blue mud to the South Norfolk plant. During the war years the demand for concrete was such that Lone Star operations in Chuckatuck were on a 24/7 operation to meet the needs of the country. The number of employees of this company in Chuckatuck ranged from 25-35 at its peak. Mr. Saunders, Sr. was the last employee to leave when the company shut down its operation and sold off all of its equipment in 1971.
The two major components of cement were marl and blue mud. Both of these were readily available in the Chuckatuck area. Marl, having been created by being underwater some 35 million years ago, and blue mud, which was still within the river adjacent to Ferry Point farm and the surrounding area, were abundant and easy to mine.
Marl had been found by drilling test holes from the Nansemond River north all the way to the Nansemond/Isle of Wight County line and beyond. The vein as delineated on the charts was approximately 1 mile wide and 5 miles long from the river to the Isle of Wight County line. However, additional test holes were drilled all the way to Mogarts Beach, north of Smithfield with good results. Depth of this vein ran from 90-120 feet therefore the pits were within that normal depth range. The washer plant was built on the banks of the Nansemond River, in the area of the Pembroke house, so that once the marl was clean it could be loaded onto barges and sent to South Norfolk, a 5 hour one way trip, to be processed.
We believe it best to break the mining into three categories for ease of understanding. First we will discuss the mining of the marl, secondly the transport of the marl to the washer plant, and thirdly the washing of the marl and loading for transport.
Originally the equipment used for mining was a small drag line. Shortly after Lone Star purchased the mining rights they purchased a new 200 Ton Byrcus Erie drag line for 1 million dollars. (SHOW PICTURE OF DRAG LINE) This larger one was needed because of the depth they would be digging and the amount of material they had to move. This drag line was an electric unit that required a 2000 foot extension cord to bring in VEPCO power. The main power line was 11,000 volts and the extension cord to the drag line was 2300 volts. This extension cord was about 3 inches in diameter and was on a large spool attached to the undercarriage under the 200 tons of pig iron at the back of the drag line. The maximum distance away from the 11,000 volt power cord was 2000 feet. The cabin on the crane was three stories high and made of tongue and grove wood on a steel frame. It had a 140 foot boom and a 5 cubic yard bucket that you could drive a pickup truck in. Here is a picture of the bucket emptying marl into rail cars. (from collection of Harvey Saunders, Jr). The drag line ran on sets of rails on pallets which were moved by the drag line thus giving it unlimited mobility as well as a 360 degree swing. On occasion the drag line bucket would hit a very hard block of marl and would be unable to break it up without doing damage to the large teeth on the bucket. (SHOW DRAG LINE BUCKET)At this point Mr. Saunders, Sr. would get into the bucket and be lifted out to the general area (over water) near the trouble spot. It was here that he would lower a sleeve of dynamite down into the water onto the bottom. With primer cord attached the crane operator would slowly swing him away from directly over the blast area and on signal would push the plunger. A geyser some 200 feet high would erupt from the water pit. This was a real treat for Harvey Saunders, Jr. when he had the opportunity to ride with his dad. Mr. Fronfelter, one of the crane operators, would swing them around 360 degrees for a real thrill. Harvey. Jr. says “this was better than any Disney ride”.
The movement of the marl, once dug, was loaded onto side dump train cars that were moved by coal/steam powered locomotives, initially, then diesels. (SHOW PICTURE OF TRAIN WITH CARS ATTACHED) We only have pictures of the diesels and little to no information on the coal/steam locomotives except that they had a water tank adjacent to the natural lake for a water supply. Due to sparks coming from the coal burning there was always the potential for fires along side the tracks so Harvey Saunders, Jr. and Clyde “Buck” Kelly were the two unofficial firemen to keep track of the train movements and put out fires when they were started. We have several pictures of the diesel locomotives and the train cars in the archives at the GCHF. When you look at the pictures showing the tracks you will note that they were not very straight or level, but served the purpose and we know of no derailments. The locomotives were always moving slowly and several of the kids in the area, this writer included, would hitch a ride down to the washer plant and back every so often. I guess we thought of being a HOBO and jumping the train, but the operator would slow down for us to get on board the locomotive.
Once the cars reached the washer plant they first dumped each car into a large hopper adjacent to and just below the tracks and allowed the material to fall through a screen. (SHOW PICTURE OF WASHER PLANT) This allowed several workmen with jack hammers to break up the larger chunks of marl so the hammer mill could handle them. The hammer mill was nothing more than a crusher to break up larger particles into smaller ones. Once through the hammer mill the materials were sent to the washer which was a 50 feet long by 50 feet wide and 4 feet deep trough that had paddles with holes in them that went back and forth washing the impurities out of the marl such as clay, sand, rocks, etc. On one occasion a large blue rock about 3 feet long and 2 feet wide fell on the screen. With men working with jack hammers they could not break it up and asked Mr. Saunders what to do with it. He said just throw it into the hammer mill, then had second thoughts about that. It was removed and the Smithsonian Institute later identified it as a meteorite. It stayed out by the washer plant for years and ultimately disappeared. Unofficial rumor has it that some professor from UVA had a great interest in this rock and might know something about its location. Another item removed before the hammer mill was a whale vertebra, carbon dated to 30 million years ago. One of these vertebras is in the hands of Harvey Saunders, Jr’s son and one may be in Waverly, VA which was last seen being used as a door stop in a local store.
As the material exited the washer plant it was moved by conveyor belt over to the stowage area and awaited a barge to be loaded upon, if none were available. A mobile conveyor was used for this purpose while the one from the washer plant was stationary. Mr. Ozie Porter of Gloversville worked in the area of the washer plant and was responsible for moving any marl that fell from the conveyor belts back onto those belts. He worked for Lone Star for 31 years retiring in 1963. There were normally six barges loaded every two or three days and at least one mud barge to be picked up en-route to South Norfolk off of Ferry Point farm. The crane for the mud barge was also used to remove silt from the barge staging area as the current going in and out tended to fill in that area every few months. Arthur Joyner was one of the primary mud barge operators as well as a train operator. (SHOW PICTURE OF ARTHUR STANDING BY THE TRAIN)
Fresh water was needed to run the washer plant and the first hole that was dug just north west of the washer plant revealed sufficient ground water to do the job. The next fresh water area moving north west (toward highway 125 and Chuckatuck) was a natural pond and provided water for the steam locomotives as well as the best fishing hole in the area. The rails for the train would extend a fairly short distance in the beginning and remained south of highway 125 for a number of years. Once they had water for the washer plant they moved up to Highway 125 on the north east side of the track and dug two very large lakes. The second one was adjacent to Cedar Creek and ultimately the earth wall between the creek and the lake caved in making this a tidal lake. This lake was an excellent fishing area for all types of fish. Once Lone Star reached the washer plant they came back north and dug the last hole before crossing the road. This was the best swimming hole (adjacent to Mr. Glasscock’s field). We had a float and diving board all donated by Mr. Saunders. An overpass was built in 1945 so the train could remain out of the traffic at all times. That overpass has been updated but still covers the rail bed, now a road between the Suffolk water plant and the area of the washer plant. With the drag line across the road they had a long way to go to the Isle of Wight County line.
Between 1956 and 1971 the company moved further north up to and across the Chuckatuck Creek continuing to the Isle of Wight County line where they stopped digging.
Chart number 1 shows the original land area that was transferred from the Giant Portland Cement Company to Virginia Portland Cement Company, dated 1926.
Chart number 2 shows the movement of marl up until 1945 when they crossed the road. Between 1926 and 1945 the marl was removed from the Kelly farm and the area adjacent to Mr. Glasscock. Lone Star had to build a barn for the Kelly’s since they would destroy an existing one. The marl hole behind Marvin Winslow’s house on RT 125 was our later swimming hole and the one that got the most attention in later years.
Chart 3 shows the amount of marl removed from 1956 through shutdown in 1971.
Chart number 4 is color coded for ease of showing which areas were worked and where the power cable and rail road were placed.
Chart 5 shows the location of the washer plant in 1926 as well as all of the land owners where marl had been located and would be removed.
Between 1926 and 1971 the Lone Star Cement Corporation was an integral part of Chuckatuck. We have evidence of meetings with senior corporate officials at the home of Mr. Harvey Saunders (picture of such a meeting). Also once a month there would be a gathering of corporate officials in Gwaltney’s Store on a Saturday afternoon for informal discussion and consumption of some beer, so we are told.
For anyone who lived in the area during this period (especially the younger folks) the Marl holes provided some great entertainment. Swimming, diving, frogging, duck hunting, and, yes, a trash dump were all in the cards. There was only one accident, date unknown, when a young negro boy drowned in one of the lakes and it was then that Lone Star posted their No Trespassing signs. That, however, did not deter the younger group, this writer included, as we continued on swimming and hunting always trying to avoid the game warden and taking cover as the train passed by when we were swimming. I am sure the train operators knew we were there with all the ripples in the water from our swimming and diving. That is why the marl hole behind Marvin Winslow was so important to us because it was isolated somewhat from the road and railroad and we did not have to worry about the LAW. Skinny dipping was a natural for us as the urge to swim could come at anytime and a bathing suit was not a necessity. Rumor has it that one local girl would sneak down to this hole and announce herself as the boys swam in the nude that limited our trips to the diving board or getting dressed. On a number of occasions our clothes would take a short trip into the bushes from their original spot close to where we were swimming which made retrieval somewhat awkward but not impossible. Riding your bicycle off the diving board as fast as possible was also a great sport. After the first time we realized that a rope needed to be tied to the bike because it did not float very well even with two inflated tires. Frogging at night was a “real trip” especially due to some of the water snakes likes the water moccasin that were prominent in and around the marl hole shores looking for frogs as well. The principal at Chuckatuck High School, Mr. Lew Morris, loved to go gigging and had several encounters with the snakes. He always won these arguments as well as those as our principal.
Here you will find a list of personnel who worked for Lone Star with some specific data about each one.
Charts listed above will be available on the web site after book publishing.
(I am waiting for this data from Harvey, Jr.)