A journal following the history, design, construction and operation of Bernard Kempinski's O Scale model railroad depicting the U. S. Military Railroad (USMRR) Aquia-Falmouth line in 1863, and other model railroad projects.
©Bernard Kempinski All text and images, except as noted, on this blog are copyrighted by the author and may not be used without permission.

November 25, 2009

Updated Track Plan

I did some work refining the modified track plan. Here it is. You can find a higher resolution version by clicking here.

The turn back curve will be 30 inch radius. I made a mock up of the curve with cardboard and decided that punching through the wall into the HVAC closet will create the best scene.

I also updated this drawing with the as-built configuration of track and bridges. The big bridge at Potomac Creek is about 50 percent complete.

I like the fact that I can model a town in this design. In this case, the town will be Brooke. In actuality there was just a church and perhaps a store there. But I plan to add a mill, tavern and a couple houses.

I will depict the town as largely abandoned and now occupied by the Union Army. The blacksmith will be a Union operation for repair of wagon, horse shoes, etc.

The first photo illustrates the mill scene. Since it will be toward the rear of the scene, I may try some selective compression on the structure.

I can't remember where this mill was actually located, but I believe it was someplace in eastern Virginia.

The foreground items shown in the plan at Aquia Landing are piles of supplies such as lumber, barrels, artillery pieces and military stuff. I also read that Haupt had prepared several prefabricated truss bridges for use in the planned drive on Richmond. So I will need to have several of those laying about ready for action.

The Aquia Landing area will be considerably reduced. Fortunately, there should be room for a nice harbor scene. Most of the structures on land will end up being flats. The second photo is about what I hope the building flats at Aquia Landing will look like. Note the track buried in the dirt. A high resolution copy of this photo is available from the Library of Congress. I love to study the details in all the various uniforms and dress of the men depicted in the photo.

The current church at Brooke looks like this, but I am not sure it was there during the 1860s.

November 20, 2009

Big Design Change Coming

Two nights ago my brother Marco was working on extending the roadbed from Potomac Creek to Aquia Landing. We discussed several possibilities for adding the wye to Burnside's Wharf at the south end of Aquia, none of them satisfactory. See here for the original plan.

After he left I began to look at the layout, then I started squinting. Since a wye was not going to work, I dropped the idea. That freed up some possibilities.

I did some measurements, and decided that Aquia Landing would fit on the shelf in my workshop adjacent to the main layout room. I had planned to use this layout footprint in my previous N scale layout. I think it will work here.

The advantages are several: a longer run, room for a long siding at Brooke, the possibilities to model a small town where the harbor would have been, room for more structures and scenery.

The main disadvantage is that the harbor area won't have as much room for ship models and structures, but the track arrangement would stay about the same.

There would also need to be a non-prototypical tunnel to let the track loop back around the HVAC room to the work shop. I'll make it look like Crozet
Tunnel, since I have the laser artwork for that tunnel done and the actual tunnel predated the ACW.

I still need to work out the details, but it looks promising. Note that for the sections of the layout already completed, there are slight changes from this plan. At some point I will update the complete drawing with the as-built design.

November 18, 2009

Interesting Backdrop Painting

The conventional wisdom on backdrop painting is to keep it indistinct and neutral. But when a good artist is able to paint a backdrop the effect can be spectacular. The best backdrops I have ever seen in person were Mike Danneman's and Ed Louiseaux's. Ed hired a professional artist to do his, while Mike, a professional artist, did his own. Mike's backdrop and layout lighting is so skillfully done, that a visitor has a hard time discerning where the layout ends and the backdrop starts.

I happened to see recently Troels Kirk's blog that is documenting the construction of his layout. Troels is a Danish professional artist living in Sweden. His backdrop is stunning. Click the link to see more. He models the 1930's along the Maine coast in On30. (Photos by Troels Kirk)

are I tried something similar over my harbor scene? This is a Photoshop file I did as a test for a backdrop. The ships are composites from photos I took of contemporary ships with editing to backdate them, such as removing radars and antennas, and some artwork from a book on civil war ships. Brian Kammerer volunteered the artwork for the car ferry after he saw my original, unsatisfactory attempt. The water and distant tree line is from an actual photograph of the Potomac River taken last March.

I need to practice my painting techniques if I hope to capture this scene. I could try a large computer print as before, but I am concerned about how to blend it with the rest of the backdrop. Maybe a combination of cutouts and hand painting will work.

November 17, 2009

Etched Switch Stands arrive

The test etches arrived for the new switch stands today. We tried two thicknesses of stainless steel, .010 and 0.008 inches.

I had trouble soldering the first 0.010 inch sample using the paste flux I had on hand. But, when I switched to liquid flux the job went a lot easier. Of course being liquid in a bottle and all, I spilled the flux all over the work bench. Drat!

It looks like the design is good. I may make a few tweaks to improve it. But overall I am pleased. The stainless steel is quite strong, but I may switch to phosphor bronze to make soldering easier.

The switch stand kit includes parts to allow use in either a normal two way switch or a three way switch using a different guide plate . These switch stands are very close to scale size. Combined with the bridles, these turnouts will be as close to scale as I can get. Hopefully they will be a product for Alkem Scale Models.

While I was soldering Paul Dolkos and his son Todd stopped by to help out (they were actually escaping ladies' book club night back at Paul's house.) Paul spiked about 12 inches of rail, while Todd supervised my initial feeble attempts at soldering the switch stands. They didn't stick around to see my more successful effort.

November 16, 2009

Adding Arches to Potomac Creek Bridge

Work continues on the bridge. I finished making the arches and swaybacks. I started adding them to the bridge trusses. Each span gets four. With 3 spans I need twelve arches.

Both trusses are complete. I also prepared the floor beams and made a trip to Pearl Arts and Crafts to pick up some long sticks for the stringers. I could have cut them on the laser, but decided to use some scale lumber. They are supposed to be 5" by 10" by 32 feet. I couldn't find that exact set of dimensions, so I went with 1/8 by 1/4".

The bridge will be about 2 inches lower than in this bottom photo. I have not yet cut away the ground where the abutments will be, so the bridge is riding a bit high.

When I installed the arch cover plates I noticed that the bottom pieces that cover the sway backs are too short. They should extend to the below the bottom chord and abut the adjacent arch. I can cut new ones and install them separately, so it's not a big deal.

November 14, 2009

Third Time is the Charm! Or was it the fourth time?

After several nights of work building a total of 16 linear feet of truss in tests of different dimensions I have coalesced on a final design in the third version (actually the forth if we count the first short section of truss using 50 percent reduction.) The drawing below shows the actual Potomac Creek bridge compared to the design of the selectively compressed version I am building. 

The actual bridge had 3 arched sections at 120 feet each, with a short length of truss at each end for an overall length of about 400 feet. The overall dimensions of my bridge are 192 feet long in three arched sections of 64 feet. The actual truss is 20 feet tall, the model is 13 feet. As such, the model truss could not be used as a through truss, as there is insufficient clearance.
Another key change in version three is that I used 3 inch treenails as pins, just as in the
prototype, instead of using the commercial dowels I bought. A 3 inch treenail scales out to 0.0625 inches. The model hobby industry does not sell dowels that small. The nominal 1/16th inch dowel actually measures about 0.085 to 0.090 inches. This meant the holes in the braces and chords to accommodate this size were too large, weakening the braces and looking clunky.
Ship modelers have long faced the problem in needing various sized dowels for masts. Actually they have an even bigger challenge as they frequently need to taper their dowels.
They use a draw plate to reduce the diameter of the dowels. I made my own draw plate by drilling a series of ever decreasing sized holes in a used hack saw blade with 1/16th being the smallest. It worked very well. I laser cut strips at 0.070 wide in 1/16th inch thick basswood. These passed easily through my homemade draw plate to make the 0.062 inch dowels I needed for the treenails.
I have one truss of the third design done. It takes several hours to assemble this truss as there are hundreds of parts, though many of them are the same. I'll post photos later.
Just for kicks, we placed some of my HO scale ACW freight cars on the bridge section. They looked really cool. If I was modeling in HO scale, I could have modeled Potomac Creek full size with no compression! Such are the trade-offs in modeling in a larger scale.

November 12, 2009

Haupt's encounter with Hooker about the rebuilt Potomac Creek bridge

Here is an excerpt from Haupt's autobiography about the rebuilding of the Potomac Creek bridge. He didn't describe the actual process, but I now believe they built it over the existing trestle as I described in an earlier post. Haupt's reply to Hooker gives some insight into his personality. I find it somewhat condescending and possibly disrespectful way to talk to a superior, but he got away with it. Hooker died in 1879 and did not write a memoir, so we have no record of his version of the story.

After leaving General Hooker I determined at once to build a new bridge across the Potomac run. One of the Corps commanders had, very unwisely, as I thought, cut down all the timber in the valley above the bridge, which, in case of a freshet, would be carried against the bridge and sweep away the trestle-work. I therefore gave orders to E. C. Smeed to proceed at once to erect a new military truss-bridge in spans of 120 feet resting on the stone piers, and remove the old bridge.

As soon as the work was commenced I was summoned again by General Hooker, who wished to see me immediately.

I reported at Headquarters, when he said rather excitedly: "I understand you are going to take down that large bridge at Potomac Creek and build another."

"Yes, sir."

"Well! I cannot permit it. I am now loading my wagons, and cannot allow any interruption to the trains."

I rejoined: "I do not propose to interrupt the trains."

"Why, how can you take down that bridge and build another without stopping transportation for some days at least ?"

I said: "General, it is your place to indicate to me what you wish to have done, and mine to carry out your wishes in such manner as will best secure the results desired. If you wish a detailed explanation, I will make it; but I say to you now that the bridge will, before you are ready to move, be replaced by a more safe and substantial structure, and not a single train will be detained for a single hour."

"Well!" replied the General, "if you say so, go ahead; but I don't see how you can do it." His chief of staff, General Butterfield, echoed: "And I don't see how you can do it either."

The new bridge was erected and was in use for some weeks before the forward movement commenced, and no train was delayed during its construction. I cannot find the report of the time required in its erection, but my impression is that it did not exceed three or four days.

Note that Haupt describes the spans at 120 feet. That contradicts other reports that list the bridge at 400 feet total.

November 8, 2009

Selective Compression of the Potomac Creek Bridge

I spent the weekend getting the dimensions of the Potomac Creek Bridge to my liking. A problem you sometimes encounter in building model railroads structures when you can't build a full sized replica is, how do you scale it down to make it fit and still look like a believable structure. Model railroaders call this process selective compression.

This drawing is from Haupt's book on military bridges. It is a good drawing of the arch-truss bridge similar to Potomac Creek, though there are some differences.

No scale is given for this bridge, but using the track spacing at 4' 8.5" yields a total span of about 160 feet. In O Scale this bridge should be about 40 inches long. This is actually longer than the arch spans at the bridge at Potomac Creek. But it does show the general construction details. It is also a through truss while the Potomac Creek Bridge is a deck truss (i.e. the tracks ride on top of the bridge instead of inside the truss "tube.") It's hard to believe that wood trusses can be so long and still carry the weight of a train.

So how big should I make both the overall bridge and the individual members? As I mentioned in an earlier post the direct scale down by 50 percent resulted in a bridge that was too spindly (though it would work for HO Scale). To resolve this dilemma I built two more versions of the truss.

Using the guidance from Haupt's book, I built a 48 inch long truss using chords and braces at 0.064 by 0.25 inches as this works out to 3 by 12 lumber in scale. That ended up looking like a grade school Popsicile bridge. This shot shows the laser-cut 0.25 inch pieces being assembled on the workbench. The pins help hold it place while the glue dries. I tried making pins from brass rod, homemade brass washers and solder, but that was a lot of extra work that is not needed for strength. I'll just use NBWs on the final model.

I rechecked Haupt's book and sure enough, he says the braces should be 2 by 10 and not 3 by 12 lumber. Thus the braces should be slightly more slender than the chords. I redrew the model bridge and decided that even that was a bit too wide in my reduced to fit span.

So the compromise I ended up with is selectively compressed in a couple different ways. The chords remain at 0.064 by 0.25 inches (3 by 12), but the braces are reduced in width to 0.186 inches which works out to about 3 by 9-by lumber. I also changed the number of stations in the bridge. Instead of 16 as in the prototype, I now have 10. In this case "stations" is used in the civil engineering sense where each vertical brace is a station. This shot shows all three trusses next to each other. The middle one is the one I am going with.

The bottom photo shows the final dimensions in the intended location, though it stills needs to be fitted to the scene.

One of the disconcerting things I noticed in reading the Googlebooks version of Haupt's Military Bridges book is that the plates cited in the text do not match the plates in the appendix. The scanned Googlebook also has some plates missing. For example, Plate 3 is in the paper copy of the book, but not in the Google scan.

Also, I noticed one other perplexing trait of this book. In the text, plates are cited with Roman Numerals, but in the appendix the plates are listed with Hindu-Arabic numbers. I noticed that Official Military Atlas to the Civil War does something similar but opposite. In that period book of maps, the plates are listed with Roman Numerals while the index is hindu-arabic. In any case, I find it weird at best and confusing at worst.

November 6, 2009

Arched Truss at Potomac Creek

I have reaffirmed my decision to build the arched truss. I got some interesting feedback from several folks about how a spindly trestle might look cool. It's true that most of the USMRR building projects were by necessity expedient. But in the case of the Aquia and Fredericksburg line, the Union Army was encamped for several months. That whole time the highly industrious USMRR construction crew under the command of W.W. Wright and Herman Haupt were hard at work.

If you look at the pictures on this blog you'll see a RR that for the most part is built to a high standard. The first trestle, the “bean pole” one, was built quickly and it captured Lincoln's imagination. But it was gone by the time I am modeling. Over that winter the new trestle was substantially better built using sawn lumber as opposed to local logs. In early spring Haupt replaced that trestle with the truss to avoid washouts that he worried could take out the trestle. It utilized the existing stone piers and abutments.

Also consider that the USMRR Aquia and Fredericksburg line used the existing roadbed of the RF&P. It was built before the war with good drainage, stone abutments and a level right of way. The roadbed did suffer damage when the confederate cavalry churned it up during their retreat, but the USMRR construction crews quickly re-graded it, albeit using compacted soil and not gravel ballast.

So having a sturdy bridge, as opposed to a flimsy bridge, better suits the image of a railroad serving a powerful army with nearly unlimited logistic might behind it.

I did a quick spreadsheet calculation to see what the truss will involve. Each section of arched truss will require about 438 individually cut wood parts and over 600 pieces of hardware including about 256 NBWs. Multiply by three for three sections. That's a lot of pieces. Thank goodness for the laser.

Wood Part

No. per panel

Number of panels

Total per section

Diagonal Braces and Uprights




Top & Bottom Chord




Arch Laminations




Vertical Hanger




Horz sway braces




Lateral Hanger




Sway Braces




Main Stringers




Bridge Deck




Rail Stringer




Bridge Ties




Arch Spacers




Chord spacers




Total wood parts


Metal parts & Hardware





Vertical Rods








0.015 Pins




I built the first panel of truss last night. My approach was to scale down the bridge by 50 percent, both in

overall layout and individual members. This keeps the overall look correct, but I am concerned that the truss members are too small for an O scale bridge. For example, the prototype chord is a lamination of 3x12 beams, 4 on each side of the truss members for a thickness of 24 inches of wood across the chord. That works out to 8 pieces at 0.062" thick and 0.25" inches tall. I used 0.062" by 0.125". The overall proportions are good, but the individual members look too flimsy.

I consulted Haupt’s book (I was able to borrow a copy of the original print run from 1864 – reading 145 year old source material is cool) and determined that even for shorter spans the chords should be 12-by lumber. That means I need to rework the drawings with thicker chords. I also now better understand the means of fabricating the chords, so I should be better able to replicate it.

As to proportions, Haupt says that trusses, be they deck or through, should be 16’ - tall enough to clear a locomotive. This allows the use of standardized parts in either type of design. That works out to a truss depth of 4 inches in O Scale. I think that won’t look right in my application. I need to do some more mock-ups to check it out.

November 3, 2009

Potomac Creek Bridge Mock-Up

I was in the mood for some CAD time tonight, so I started the drawings for Potomac Creek Bridge. This mock-up is to help me decide which type of bridge to build. I currently think the truss will be the best bet, but the bean pole and corn stalk trestle has a strong historical appeal- any bridge that amazed Abe Lincoln has got to be cool.

What do you think, truss or bean pole trestle? To refresh your memory, the bean pole is similar to the picture in the blog header image.

This mock up is essentially a half scale version of the actual bridge. The dimensions of the truss are 2.5 inches tall and 48 inches long in three arched sections. The parts will be all laser cut with precise drilled holes for the pins, so it will assemble fairly easily. The arch will be cut from 1/8th inch plywood and then laminated together to get the proper thickness and spacing for the vertical members. Not all parts are shown in the mock-up.

The piers will also be laser cut plywood and then faced with plasticard stone.

I had a Eureka moment last night. As I studied the bridge photos and started drawing the bridge parts it occurred to me how they built the truss bridge. I now believe that they built the truss over the existing trestle. The truss uses mostly identical parts that could be lowered in place with a light crane, possibly mounted on a flat car so it could be moved. These would be nailed or bolted together piece-by-piece while the existing bridge hosted traffic. The lower story of the trestle would have supported the chords as they built them out. Essentially the trestle would act as scaffolding for the truss as they erected it. Once the two walls of the truss were completed and able to bear weight, they would have removed the trestle sticks, if any, that were in the way to allow the diagonal sway braces to be installed.

Now, how about this as a scene, showing the bridge in a state of construction? The pencil sketch posted earlier provides a clue on how it would look.

November 2, 2009

Track laying reaches Stoneman's Station

A busy weekend on the layout while listening to the John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman broadcast the NY Yankees in the World Series on MLB.com, a great combination that I have been enjoying all summer.

The terrain forms at Potomac Creek are roughed in. I used a combination of pink foam, pre-cast urethane castings and heavy flooring paper on cardboard strips to build up the gorge. The brown rock casting is a urethane rock that I got from Scenic Express originally intending to use in an N Scale Rocky Mountain scene. I never used it because I thought the texture of the rock was too big for N Scale, but it works well here as the rock out cropping under the bridge abutments. I cut the urethane rock into three pieces and fitted them as best I could to the scene.

I also plan to add a pre-formed rubber rock casting that I purchased several years ago and never used. This will allow me to avoid having to carve rocks in the deep part of the gorge that is hard to reach. I don't want this to resemble a deep mountain canyon, but due to selective compression, the river crossing is starting to look like a canyon. While not entirely accurate, it should be a neat scene.

I first saw heavy flooring paper used for scenery at Howard Zane's layout. He crumples up the paper and then paints white glue on it to create his hills. I used a web of cardboard strips to support strips of paper. I dipped the paper in a solution of white glue and water (50-50) and then laid them on the strips to form the hill. I applied about 3 layers. It took 24 hours to dry, but the end result is strong and light.

While the paper strips were drying, I continued to lay track. I reached the north end of Stonemans Station, though ties are in all the way to Potomac Creek. The shot shows the points with a new technique for making bridles. These were homemade with a piece of N Scale PC tie and slivers of rail joiners. However, I am expecting a new set of etched bridles to arrive soon. Both of these methods result in turnouts that look much closer to prototype than my earlier attempts.

The frog only has two pieces of filed rail. The stub ends don't require filing, a major simplification compared to the precise cutting and filing required for a bladed turnout.

Here is the finished turnout just waiting for the switchstands to arrive. This turnout was working so well that it didn't need guard rails, but I added them anyway.

Here is a view of the General pulling a work train past the under-construction scene at Stoneman's Station.