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.
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July 14, 2012

Union Street Switch District, Alexandria, VA 1863

Gerry and I have been discussing the construction of a ACWRR Road Show. The Road Show would be a portable O Scale layout that would promote railroading in the Civil War period. After some discussion we narrowed the subject to the Alexandria waterfront, specifically the Union Street Switching district.

Urban Canyon? - Union Street in late 19th century
By looking at maps of the area and visiting, especially during some of my runs down Union Street, I realized that the street is actually a block or two from the waterfront bulkhead with many buildings between the tracks and the water.

At the time of the Civil War most of the wharves and piers are perpendicular to the tracks. (Now some of the piers are parallel to the shore).  I also realized that the street was fairly narrow with relatively tall buildings on each side.  It is a small "urban canyon" even in 1860s.  That got me thinking about how an O scale layout could focus on the street and pretty much ignore the piers.

This is both a plus and a minus. On the minus side, I would not get to build any more ships for the layout. One the plus side,  I would not have to build any more ships for the layout.

This project  would also give me an opportunity to try my hand at urban modeling, especially brick buildings,  something not on my current layout.
I made this map by compositing together several of the Quartermaster maps I photographed at the archives. 

Section of a Bird's Eye View of ACW era Alexandria Waterfront

Here is a plan I am considering.

Pioneer Mills was the tallest building in Alexandria
until it burned in 1897. It is a simple, but signature structure.
I colorized this B&W photo and did a little perspective correction.

This plan is highly compressed and is not a exact model of Union St. As I mentioned in an earlier post, that would take way too much space. I selected the elements that I liked including the Wilkes St Tunnel, Pioneer Mills, King Street and the gas works.

Pioneer Mills was one block away from Union Street. But, it is was a signature building in Alexandria and  someday I would like to build a model of it.

It was a steam power grain elevator that had a marine leg for lifting grain from ships and barges. The Sanborn Insurance maps give the overall layout of the structure showing the boilers and stack. I only know of three photos that show the mill and two are post-fire. The Alexandria Gazette had this passage about Pioneer Mills in 1854,

Erected in 1853-54 by the Alexandria Steam Flour Company, the Pioneer Mill was one of the largest steam mills in the United States and was situated at the foot of the south side of Duke St. on the strand. It was built of brick, had a slate roof and was fireproof. The mill fronted 122 feet on the Potomac River--"the main building was 80 feet deep--and the engine room 32 feet--making a total depth of 112 feet. It [was] six stories high, and the roof 77 feet above high water mark, or 73 feet from the first floor. It [had] 12 run-of-burr mill stones and [was] capable of turning out eight hundred barrels of flour per day. Attached to the mill [was] an elevator for taking grain from the holds of vessels, and carrying it directly into the building. Large vessels [could] be loaded directly at the door of the facility." A wharf was constructed on the north side of the building on which a switch of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad was laid so that grain could be directly brought to the mill.  [Alexandria Gazette  3/11/1854]

Note that it was not in use during the war. Some maps show the siding to the mill while others do not. So I am not sure there was one at the time of the war.

The USMRR car float ferry section is optional.  The  approach tracks to it could stand in as the staging tracks for the car ferry if there wasn't time to build it. Section A could be modified to omit the curve to teh car ferry. Then the the car ferry wharf could be built on a fifth  3 x 6 section.

Since this is the northern terminus of the car ferry operation that served the USMRR Aquia Line, the layout could be built as an "expansion" to my current layout. My research indicates that usually only one ferry left Alexandria for Aquia per day. But there were ferries to other locations from here, so the Union Street district could be pretty busy.

The USMRR built the track connecting the AL&H with the O&A's Union St district. This allows for staging/ fiddling at both ends. The north end of the layout includes some of the industries and structures just barely visible in the photo below. The gas works in particular is something that intrigues me. The maps indicate that the gas tank would be about 50 or 60 feet in diameter, not too big even in O scale.
Note the line of box cars at the USMRR Hay Wharf. The gas works is a neat "modern" touch.


  1. This would be a nice complement to the non-urban main layout. It seems you could easily add a couple of perpendicular modules that were just wharves and ships. That would take care of the minus, but not the plus problem...

  2. Pete Magoun, who has a lot of experience in hauling modules around sent me this detailed message. Pete was not aware that I too have built and hauled many modules to shows including trips as far as from Virginia to Madison, WI, and Orlando, Fl. I was a member of NVNTRAK for about 20 years. My membership currently has lapsed, but I will re-up when I get back to N Scale in a few years. They are a great group of folks.

    To see some of my earlier modules see this link: http://mountainsub.blogspot.com/ 

    Anyway, I agree with most of what Pete suggests, so I am posting it here for your benefit.

    Pete writes:

    Some observations, if I may, on the proposed ACW Road Trip layout, based on my HOn30 experience.

    * Transportation is going to be a big issue. With eighteen feet of sections to run, you will probably be looking at 3 six-footers. IIRC, you have a Tahoe. I'd measure the interior before starting construction. I have no problems with my four-footers in my minivan, but six feet is seriously cramping the space I need for the ancillary stuff. I have six modules, 2 are 30 x 48," the rest are 24 x 48." It all fits.

    * Recommend you consider "stripping" the buildings for transportationas it is much easier on the back and the load/unload process. 

    * For transportation I store my modules vertically, clamped to a cross-member (1 x 4) front and back. This keeps them safe for transportation, and they don't move around in transit. 

    * While you're in your Loadmaster mode, plan room for the suitcases, and for the All-Important Passenger. Trust me on this! 

    * I store buildings, light bulbs, skirts, transformer, power buses, etc. in large plastic tubs, which I fit in front of the modules. With O-scale buildings, this will take up space.

    * All of my modules have self-contained legs that fold up into the structure for travel. Works like a charm.

    * Build as much as you can from blue/pink board. We use two-inch, with a minimal frame underneath and a fascia all around. Half-inch ply on the ends for clamping purposes, quarter inch fascia for weight savings. This flies in the face of the usual module standard stuff, but we also are not getting younger, and the "standard" stuff takes six guys and a boy to lift. We've had no problems.

    * Minimize the use of Hydrocal, Sculptamold and other plaster-based stuff; it's heavy and it adds up quickly.

    * Keep the wiring simple! Make everything as "Murphy-proof" as possible.

    * Plan for uneven floors, even in gymnasiums. We use T-nuts and bolts or furniture leveling screws. Some venues can be off as much as an inch, so plan on having some shims in the box.

    Build the thing high enough to make it possible to work underneath it if necessary. Parents will complain that it's too high for little Thedwick to see, but at the age of five, he's not your target audience. The Geezer Brigade is, though, so put it where we can see it! We use 48 inches off the deck for our track height. Works well.

There is probably a lot of other stuff I should mention, but this is what comes immediately to mind. I now have ten years with this modular stuff, and have set up from St. Louis to Portland, Maine, with a boatload of places in between. Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions!

  3. I currently have a Chevy Tahoe that has a interior space 6.5 feet long. However, that car is 16 years old and is not that reliable for long trips. So a mini-van rental is probably going to be needed to haul this layout to shows.

    This sections would be built with about 18 inches vertical relief, so three sections could coffin in my Tahoe or easily into a minivan. A coffin is a set of plywood end plates that hold the sections with scenery facing towards the inside. That protects the models on the sceniced surface.

    However, John Drye and I were doing some rough mocking up today in my basement and concluded that 18 feet is too long for the overall layout. I need to reconsider how to make it fit in 15 feet or less or plan to not have the whole thing set up at one time in my basement.