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.

December 17, 2021

December 15, 2021

Hell Frozen Over?

Doug placing some track on his new bench work

Last weekend I helped Doug Gurin start building the benchwork for his long planned layout.  As many folks know, he has been planning his layout for years. He wrote an article in the first issue of Model Railroad Planning that describes his basic concept . That was 1996. The layout has evolved into a single deck design with staging in one room and the main switching areas in the other larger room. But the basic idea remains. 

Original Plan from 1996. Since modified.

After the first day

We had a good time building open grid benchwork in his basement. It is an older house with decidedly unsquare and non-plumb walls. But in about 8 hours we got the benchwork for his staging area done. Hopefully, we can continue to build the rest of the benchwork in early 2022.  

Doug is looking for help with his wiring switch motors as he plans to use Tortoises for most of them. If you want to help, please let me know and I can pass it on.

Meanwhile, on the Aquia Line I installed most of the fascia for the extension. I wondered if this was a good time as I still need to hand lay some track going into the tunnel. But I decided to make the cuts of the long pieces while I had the tools out.  Plus, an installed fascia helps make an unfinished layout look a lot better.

The fascia is thin to avoid encroaching on  the TV and book shelves. 

 I still need to add the hand laid track for the bridge and tunnel scene

December 9, 2021

I'm ready for second breakfast

Mock up of the new engine terminal - very similar to the old version
Track laying continues on Falmouth. I decided to install the tracks from the rear to the front. So the stub siding to the freight house and most of the passing siding are now installed.  Two mroe turnouts to go.

I have also been rethinking the engine terminal. After several changes of mind, I am going back to what I originally planned, which is very similar to how I had it in the other room.

Meanwhile, I have been getting ready for the holidays. My niece is a Lord of the Rings fanatic, so may wife suggested a present that includes the hobbit meal times. The idea morphed into a clock that displays the meal times instead of the hours. I made it in my shop using the laser to cut some of the pieces. It was fun to make the hobbit home on top. 

December 1, 2021

What's in a Photo?


I have looked at this photo a dozen or more times, but I never noticed the flag pole in the rear. Last week while Scott was visiting, we were examining this photo and I finally noticed the flag pole.  If you recall in

Dec. 28, 2010, I wrote about a letter I found at the National Archives that discussed the flag pole. Here is an excerpt from the post, "This letter is from W. W. Wright to Ada Anderson details a request for a flag and flag pole for the USMRR. According to the letter, the men of the USMRR were motivated to buy and display a flag after President Lincoln's visit to Aquia Creek in April, 1863. But this will be no ordinary flag. Wright calls or a thirty-foot flag on a 100- foot tall, two stage mast. That would be over two feet tall in O scale. I did not see this flag pole in any photos, so it is possible it did not get built. "

Well, now I realize I have seen the flag pole.  This photo was taken during the evacuation of Aquia Landing after the Battle of Chancellorsville and the start of the Gettysburg Campaign. Here is an enlargement of the area where the wharf meets the shore.  Note the flag pole. If I noticed it before, I must have subconsciously dismissed it as a ship's mast. But that flag is behind buildings that I know are on shore, so the flag pole must also be on shore.

The upper mast looks like it might be a darker color. So I need to paint my flag in a similar manner.

Meanwhile, track gangs have been busy on the expanded Falmouth. About 30% of the track and switches are now down.

My rendition of the flag at Aquia Landing

November 27, 2021

First Frogs at Falmouth

Some of Scott's gear for the video shoot


Hope everybody had a happy Thanksgiving. On the day before the holiday, Scott Wahl visited the Aquia Line to shoot video. He is taking a class in film production. He needs to make a 5-10 minute film as the final project for the class. He asked if he could shoot a feature on my layout and I agreed.

The video and audio set up was quite impressive
Scott had done video production for a true crime podcast in the past, so he had a complete array of professional level video equipment. The video format was an interview with me that will be intercut with scenes from the model railroad.  It will be interesting to see how it turns out. 

Scott has a very professional tavel rig

On Thanksgiving morning before helping cook the meal, I started working on laying the rest of the track at Falmouth. The first step was to make the switch stands and bridles for the stub turnouts.  I needed three 2-way and one 3-way switch stands. These are photo etched kits made with stainless steel. They are a bit tricky to assemble. You must use silver solder and flux for stainless steel. Regular rosin core solder will not work. I set my soldier station to 400 degrees as that helps melt the silver solder. Once the kits were assembled, I scrubbed them with soap and scouring powder. Then waited overnight to let them dry. 

I primed them with self etching metal primer. After a few hours, they got the final coat of black paint. The targets will get red once they are installed. 

I have some of the main track in Falmouth and one and half turnouts done so far. I do like the Ess-curve that the track makes as it flows through Falmouth. I think it will look nice when it is finished.

Switch stands and bridles before priming and painting

November 23, 2021

A Tale of Two Weeks Part 2

Last weekend members of the Virgina-Maryland (VM) Operators Group visited New Jersey for the 2021 North East Interchange.  The VM group are layout owners in the Washington Capital area that operate on each other's railroads in a round-robin fashion.  Around Thanksgiving of each year the VM group and a similar group from New Jersey get together to operate our layouts. The location alternates each year. This year we travelled north to New Jersey. Last year was cancelled due to COVID.  Next year the New Jersey folks will come south. According to Jerry Dziedzic our two groups have been doing this interchange since 2014.  I think I have attended all of them.

Paul working on Dave's layout
This year Paul Dolkos, Mat Thompson and Roger Sekera rode with me Friday morning to operate on three layouts. 

The first was David Ramos's New York Harbor Railroad. Dave has a website for his railroad. I did the St James Terminal Yard Master job. I volunteered this job as it has a special meaning to me. My grandfather had a bakery in Manhattan about 3 blocks from this terminal. It is possible that he received freight from this terminal to use in his baked products. My helper was John Held, who recently retired from Conrail after 42 years of service. He was a fun partner.

That night we had a group dinner a nice restaurant with an excellent buffet.

Tony Licesse stands near the turntable at Alleghany.
Yes the aisle is a tight squeeze for many of us chunky
model railroaders.
On Saturday, we headed to Ted Paperin's C&O layout. Ted formerly modeled the WW2 era on his layout, but for this session we were operating in 1951, mostly so he could run his streamlined Hudson engines on the George Washington. My first assignment was to take a coal drag from Handley to Hinton using a H-8 Alleghany locomotive as power. I had to do some switching on the way at Sewell and Thurmond. My favorite steam loco with a 30 car coal drag. It doesn't get much better than that.  Next, I ran a pusher engine from Hinton to Alleghany. In the afternoon, I worked the Mann's Creek Narrow Gauge railroad.  That night was another group dinner at a local restaurant.

On Sunday morning we ran Tony Koester's Nickel Plate  Railroad. Tony's railroad is nearly fully sceniced, a remarkable achievement given the amount of time he has been working on it. I volunteered for a road job. I got train 41 with 30 cars and a single NKP Berkshire locomotive. The railroad is operated under  time table and train order so you have to know the schedule. The job was made easier as Tony quickly alerted me to the oncoming trains. Nonetheless, I did make an error at one point but it turned out to be moot as the oncoming train was running very late. It took me three real time hours to get the train across the road and accomplish the switching I had to do. 

 A view down one of the aisles on Tony's double deck railroad 

Our ride home was uneventful. It was a fun trip with great fellowship and model railroads. I am looking forward to hosting our New Jersey friends in 2022.

Scarecrow on Tony's layout

Dave Ramos about to attack the dispatcher. Dave Barraza

November 22, 2021

A Tale of Two Weeks

I just finished a busy two-week period with trips to Valley Forge, PA  for the 2021 Historicon wargaming convention and a trip to New Jersey for the Northeast Interchange 2021 for operating sessions on three layouts in New Jersey.

Historicon 2021 was a good convention despite the requirement for all wargaming participants to wear masks. The event was held at the Casino Resort in Valley Forge. The venue has a vast number of rooms for games, clinics and presentations, but the rooms are spread about a large area. That made it hard to wander around and get in pick up games or find your friends. 

My terrain board for the games I hosted. The scenario was
a battle between US airborne and German infantry near the
la Fière farm on the morning of D-Day

I ran two games of Chain of Command, played in two more Chain of Command games and some others.  I also watched a few games to see how other game systems worked. 

The scenario I hosted was called "Seize and Secure." The forces involved elements of the US  82nd Airborne Division (and some 101st Airborne that were scattered in this area) versus the German 91st Air Landing Division, specifically the 1057th Infantry Battalion.  The battle occurred during the morning hours on June 6th, 1944, D-Day.

The bridge crossing the Merderet at La Fière was of critical importance to both the German and US operations in this area of Normandy.  

The US players attack along the Merderet River in the second
iteration of my game.
The struggle for the La Fière bridge began with the 82nd Airborne Division’s nighttime drop as part of Operation Neptune as part of D Day, June 6, 1944. The paratroopers reached the bridge and after intense close combat secured both ends of the causeway over the inundated land. 

Soon, however, a heavy German counterattack with armor support pushed across the causeway and back to the bridge. Two armored assaults were attempted, but both were repulsed, with the bridge never leaving American control. Later on with the arrival of infantry and tanks from Utah Beach the La Fière crossing was fully secured. The Allies soon after began the advance up the Cotentin Peninsula and deeper south into France.  

This scenario represented the first US attack to capture the farm and bridge. The farm at La Fière dominates the bridge and must be cleared of German troops. To win the battle, the American must capture the Manoir House (no Germans inside) and hold it until the Germans withdraw or are forced to withdraw due to loss of force morale. 

In the first game, a 86 year old grandfather and friend led the US paratroopers against his adult grandson and a new player. The Germans were able to stop the Americans and inflict heavy losses.  The next morning 4 different players tried the scenario and the US attack succeeded in driving off the Germans, but it was a close run thing.

An impressive urban combat board depicting the US attack on
Aachen, 1944
There were some interesting miniature battlefields created by the game masters.  Wargame scenery design is a tricky compromise between playability, portability, and appearance. Some folks are content with very basic terrain, while others like to make very detailed and elaborate game boards. I lean more to the latter and I try to make my games look as realistic as possible.

When I returned home, I was not feeling well for a couple days, so I took it easy. Then I tried to finish up a project that I started before the museum model project, but had to shelve (pun intended). This was a custom display case for my small collection of Porsche racing cars in 1/43rd scale. I never intended to collect those cars. At first I just wanted to get some models of cars I saw racing when I lived in Germany. I also got models of Porsche cars that I owned. As many of you know, I am a Porsche fan boy.  These models are preassembled and painted, and are very finely detailed. I liked the models so much that I bought a few more as souvenirs of my interest in Can-Am and Le Mans racing from my youth. The collection then gradually grew over the years to become a documentation in model form of Porsche's glorious racing history.  

The models come in acrylic boxes which really don't do them justice when you want to view them. They also took up a lot of display space. So I designed a custom display cabinet using tempered glass doors and poplar wood for a case.  I drew the plan in Fusion 360 and made 2D drawings for the glass parts.  I subcontracted the glass doors and shelves cutting and drilling to Del Ray glass.  I used hinge hardware to create frameless, flush closing doors. The glass is tempered for durability and strength. The glass parts were quite expensive.  After doing some tests with an internal light, I decided against including one. I lined the back wall with a piece of felt to provide a nice matte finish.

Testing if the display case should have internal lighting. I decided
against including a light.

I finished building the display case and began installing the cars in chronological sequence. The collection is mostly Porsches with one Lancia Beta Scorpion with a Fruit of the Loom sponsor that raced in the early 1980s in Germany and an Audi LMP1 car from the late 1990s.

 Next,  I want to make labels for each car in a consistent style. It is difficult to get a good picture of the display case in its final position due to the narrow hallway where it is mounted. Thanks to Scott Wahl for helping me install it.

Finished display case mounted on the wall in the short hallway between the front layout room and the crew lounge. The models look so much better behind the glass doors.

I will continue the story about the NE Interchange in a subsequent post. 

November 10, 2021

Pamplin Historical Park

Last weekend I took a trip to Danville Virginia to participate in a High Performance Driver Education event at the Virginia International Raceway. On my way there I stopped at the Pamplin Historical Park and The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. I have wanted to visit this for a long time and I am glad I finally did. 

The site consists of a large museum and hundreds of acres of civil war battle field with several restored civil war era structures including two farms, barns, and original and replica entrenchments. 

The museum is fantastic. The facility is first class. The full scale dioramas and exhibits are excellent. They are chock full of detailing ideas. They also have an assortment of miniature dioramas to depict scenes such as a regiment on the march, a prison camp, and other scenes with a larger scope too big to show full scale. They don't permit photos in the museum, so you will have to visit to see for yourself. It is worth it.
Panorama showing some of the out-buildings

The outdoor exhibits are also excellent. The Tudor Hall Plantation exhibit is especially impressive. It is a restored tobacco farm originally built in 1815 and expanded in 1850. The plantation includes many of the out-buildings of a typical farm in that era. They also show slave quarters. The interiors of many of the buildings are open. Those provide a wonderful view of the typical contents of civil war era buildings - perfect for modelers looking for detailing ideas.  I definitely need to add some more out-buildings to the farms on my layout.

There was an interesting set of dioramas in the basement of Tudor Hall that showed the appearance of the plantation before the war and during the siege. Before the siege, the farm looked lush and prosperous. During the siege it was a desolate, barren expanse covered with the temporary shebangs of the camping soldiers.

The plantation sits alongside the location of some of the entrenchments from the siege of Petersburg. The Union Army's ultimate breakthrough occurred in this area. There are trails that wind through hundreds if not thousands of yards of the former entrenchments. They also have created a replica of typical earth works. There is a second exhibit hall here built to resemble a Confederate fort. Inside was nice exhibit devoted to African American soldiers in the civil war.

 They also have a small recreation of what a civil war camp during the siege might have looked like. One thing I did not know was that the latrines were placed in no-mans land between the lines. That sounds like a dangerous situation.

Action shot from the VIR Track day

November 6, 2021

The Week of Carpentry


The completed loop of track

Fred posing with his 4-ft loop of roadbed
Fred Hutchinson was back at my shop to make road bed sections for G scale layouts for under a Christmas Tree. The road bed is an oval with 4 quadrants. The quadrants were precision machined using a CNC router. G scale track fits perfectly in the slot on the top. 

Disassembled kit ready for storage
My job was to drill domino holes in the ends so the  4 quadrants could be assembled into a loop. Fred is using Festool knock down connectors so that the loop can be disassembled after Christmas and stored with the rest of your decorations. Fred will be offering these for sale if you want one. Contact him for more info at fred@fhhutchison.com.

I don’t have any G scale equipment but I know a little granddaughter who might like to have G scale trains going around her Christmas tree.

Later that week I worked on a fixture for my miter saw that would allow me to safely cut small parts. I did some research and used a design based on this 
video, but made a few modifications to better fit my saw. The clamps holds the small pieces safely.  I included a moveable stop for repeat cuts.  I laser engraved a scale on both sides. 
It seems to work great and cuts nice and square. My saw has a depth limiter to prevent my cutting all the way through the fixture.

I plan to add a angle adapter to the right side to allow cutting oddball angles, especially bench work pieces on sharp angles. That is why I added the second track on the base.


October 15, 2021

Alexandria Slave Jail Model

Earlier this year Alexandria's new Freedom House Museum hired me to build a model of the slave jail that was located at the corner on Duke and Payne Street. This slave jail, also called a slave pen, was used by various slave dealers for about 25 years. When the Union Army occupied Alexandria, they took over the facility forever ending its use as a slave pen. In a touch of bittersweet irony, they used it as a jail for some Confederate prisoners, as well as misbehaving Union soldiers.  For a full history of the facility,  please see this link.

A period photo after the Union made extensive
changes to the building

This was a challenging model to build both for technical and emotional reasons. 

The Union Army made many changes to the building during the time of the civil war. They also took several pictures of the buildings. The museum wanted the model to depict the time when it was used as a slave dealer. But we had almost no photos from that era. Luckily we did have an extensive archeological study of the building done by Benjamin Skolnik, of the Office of Historic Alexandria. We also had the results of an historical architectural history study by Susan Pommerer of the Smith Group. They did an extensive review of many existing records. They also did a detailed measurement of the existing structure. Included in the study was a laser scan of the building, but that did not provide much direct useful information to me as the model builder. More valuable were the isometric and elevation views that Susan provided to me.

Even with those excellent resources, there were many details that we were not sure about, particularly in the backyard. We hope this model is an accurate representation of the building as it stood just before the Union Army ended slave dealing in Alexandria for good.

The model will be on display in the museum later this year.

Mike and Mike

 Last Saturday a group of us from Northern Virginia made road trip to the Richmond suburbs to see and run some trains on Mike Pulaski's layout. He is building a nice HO scale double deck layout  depicting a freelance railroad set in upstate New York. Mike agreed to let me shoot some hand held iPhone video of the visit and the progress on his layout. 

On Sunday Mike Spoor stopped by the Aquia Line. He needed some help with the battery installation we did last year in one of his locomotives and box cars. This time, we removed the plug-in socket between the box car with the battery and the locomotive. I hardwired the two cars together. To make turning the battery on and off easier, I removed one of the side doors and reinstalled it with a piece of tape. That way he can open the door to get access to the magnetic reed switch that controls on and off that is inside the boxcar.

Tonight I finally got the final coat of scenery on the  model for the Alexandria's Museum of Freedom. Tomorrow I'll do the final touch up and it will be ready to d be delivered. I will also take some photos when it is ready.  I am looking forward to doing some modeling on my own projects. This museum project was a lot of work. 

October 7, 2021

A rose by any other name...

 I asked my friend John Ott for his advice on renaming the locomotive General to use on the USMRR Aquia Line. John is the foremost expert I know on early locomotive history. He provided me with a interesting analysis. Here it is.

Well—if it were me, I'd rename your engine Eclipse in a heartbeat. Reasoning follows:

There weren't that many Rogers engines on the Dept. of Virginia lines. None were 2-steam-dome Rogers resembling General except for maybe Warrior, which never made it to Aquia and got rebuilt into the Lt. Gen. Grant in 1864. Osceola was a Rogers, but you already have an Osceola. There were a couple more single-steam-dome Rogers engines bought after the Aquia line was history.

That leaves you with Lion or Eclipse. Lion was an 1862 New Jersey L&M engine with a single steam dome and oval windows in the cab—in fact, it's my theory that the cab of the Lion was used on the rebuilt Lt. Gen. Grant.

That leaves Eclipse. Eclipse was a single-steam-dome engine built in 1862 by Jersey City Locomotive Works. McCallum's end-of-war report is wrong—he has it listed as another New Jersey L&M engine. It was rebuilt and renamed Scout after Aquia, and was later used in North Carolina

So Eclipse is the lesser-known engine that already has one mistake in its record. The name Eclipse also fits the General's nameplate better than Lion. (This is important!) You can just say that Eclipse and Scout were actually two different engines. In this scenario, Eclipse was cannibalized to rebuild Scout, which is why it no longer appeared on McCallum's for-sale list.

Sometimes I think half the fun of building a model railroad is all the rationalization we come up with to hide our compromises.

I like the sound of Eclipse, but Warrior is also a good possibility as its is the right builder but never ran on the Aquia Line.   

Note that the US Government sold the engines for more than they paid. 

October 1, 2021

The General is Back!

Many years ago I acquired a copy of the SMR Trains General from Charlie Taylor. I missed out on the original production run but Charlie was willing to sell me one of his excess. I had the locomotive for several years as it was a beautiful model. But once I had 5 other SMR locomotives, I began to believe that I really didn't need that many. About that time, I heard through Charlie Getz that Bob Brown, of the Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette, was looking for a SMR General. I agreed to sell my copy to Bob.

Then last week, George Wallace visited my  layout. George was in the process of liquidating his vast collection of O Scale models. He had a bunch of  civil war era SMR locomotives and rolling stock. He offered them to me. I decided to purchase just one, the General.   Why? Partly to help out my friend and partly because I missed the original model. It is very attractive and runs great. The model arrived yesterday. I placed it on the layout. The model looks great but will need some tuning up. It doesn't ride level, the headlight is broken and headlight box is crooked. I will need to add a sound decoder and keep alive too. Then will come the hard, at least emotionally, part, I need to re-letter it for the USMRR.  

In searching through my records, the following locomotives operated on the Aquia Line in the time period I model, Fury, Fred Leach, Ed Wentz, Victor, Eclipse, Manfred, Osceola, and Lion. I also saw a telegram that mentioned the locomotive Gen. Sickles but I saw no mention of it in the conductor reports. So that telegram might be a garbled message.  Of these locomotives Leach, Wentz, Fury, Osceola, and Manfred seem to be daily work horses with the others showing up less regularly.  I already have locomotives Leach (under construction), Fury and  Osceola. That leaves me Lion, Ed Wentz, Victor, Eclipse, Manfred as possible names. The next step will be to find out which of those locomotives comes closest to the Rodgers General.

According to this roster from 1865 of USMRR engines, the Manfred was from Norris & Sons, Wentz and Sickles were  made by Mason, and Victor was listed as made by "miscellaneous." The Lion and Eclipse are not listed. 

The General was made by Rogers, Ketchum, and Grosvenor. If I'm lucky Lion or Eclipse were made by Rogers. That way I can get the locomotive manufacturer and list of Aquia Line locomotives to match up. Otherwise I will have to pick a name from the list, or make one up. 

The National Capitol Model Soldier Society Annual Show 2021. 

I attended the National Capitol Model Soldier Society Annual Show 2021 last weekend at the Springfield Hilton Hotel. This was their 60th show and first after COVID. There were over 250 models entered from 36 different persons. NVNTRAK was there with a small TTRAK layout.

It was fun to socialize with fellow modelers. I also picked up a tube of new oil buff-able metallic paint from one of the vendors. It can be polished when dried. I am looking forward to trying that on the brass parts of the Leach that I am scratch-building. 

I entered 4 models in the contest and to my surprise, received two gold and two silver medals.   The biggest surprise was that the bust of Diablo got a gold medal. I included it as a lark, as I like the concept of it, but the paint scheme is quite simple. It is supposed to look like an animated stone creature. I did add an LED light in the interior to create a glowing molten look. Perhaps that is what the Judges liked.

The other gold medal was my Aachen Diorama

My personal favorite, Stay a While and Listen,  received a silver medal. The Red Devils vignette also received a silver. I made that vignette several years ago, but gave it a rework this year for the show. 

Model contests are very subjective, so I don't get too worked up over them. But it is nice to receive recognition from your fellow hobbyists for jobs well done.