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.

February 24, 2022

Telegraph Problems - now and 159 years ago

Steve Williams, Amby and I had a zoom conference today to discuss the fix to the telegraph stations on the longer cables. They came up with two simple solutions that should work. We will try them next Monday.

We also briefly discussed possible upgrades to the software. We will sort that out further once we have some operating experience.  I was thinking it might be fun to have the random messages lead to things that the dispatcher would have to react to and not just for ambience.  That would require  the dispatcher to translate the random messages and decide what to do. 

I have been listening to the random messages as I work on my computer. They arrive suddenly and often I miss the first sentence as I prepare to copy.  To make that translation easier, the random messages should have a preamble like the others. W-W-W - EoW is perfect.  Also, the message would have to be repeated until acknowledged. 

If we do this, I would need to compose messages that need action. Others can just be for ambience and or information.

The type of action the dispatcher could take include, order out an extra, such as the General’s special, set up a meet, tell a train to pick up a certain car , etc. Since the telegraph system is one way, the DS would write the message on a paper message slip and place it manually on the layout for the conductors to pick up.

We will see how hard it will be to upgrade the software. I am sure Steve could do it, but how do we get the new code into the installed stations? We may have to learn how to program the Arduinos. That looks more complicated that I want to take on, but every journey begins with the first step.

Meanwhile, we are not the only Aquia Line telegraphers to have problems. I found this letter while going through my files. I believe this letter was in a book in the Library of Congress that contains many of Herman Haupt's letters transcribed as well as some seemingly original, or at least hand written messages, from Haupt's records. Those messages were donated to the LoC by one of Haupt's sons well after the war. This is a link to the citation https://lccn.loc.gov/mm73025296 

If you can read this, you can see that W.W.Wright is complaining to Haupt about being unable to get reliable service from the telegraph. I believe this was because regular Army traffic was monopolizing the telegraph. This was after the battle of Chancellorsville and the Army was actively campaigning. 

 Letter from W.W. Wright to General Haupt

In that same batch of letters was this one from Haupt to Wright discussing how trains own the Aquia Line  were delayed to pick up wounded. The Army medical officers were using an ad hoc system to load wounded that was delaying the USMRR trains. Haupt would not have that!

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February 21, 2022

Telegraph Installation Begins

Amby helped me install the telegraph system today. I made a short video describing its operation.

We have all the cables run and one of the 5 stations,  Aquia Landing. installed. It works as designed, which is very rewarding.

We did test the other 4 stations and we found a glitch. They will light the LEDs in the dispatcher panel, but will not drive the sounder. Amby thinks the problem is in the diode stacks that control the LEDs and the length of the cable affecting the overall voltage drop in the signal. The system worked fine at his house with shorter cables, so he suspects that is the issue. 

I have a lot of work to do this week in building and installing the stations. I also need to finish building the display panel on the dispatcher desk.  Amby will be returning next week to continue the installation. 

February 20, 2022

Telegraph Key and Sounder


To build the telegraph key and sounder for the dispatcher's desk, I first did some searching for ideas on how to arrange the components. There are many pictures of telegraph keys and sounders available on line, but very few of them are from the civil war era.  I could only find one period photo on the Library of Congress website that shows the actual telegraph instrument.

Here is a close up of it. This appears to be a combination style device with relay and key built in. There is a drawing in Frank Pope's book of 1881 of an instrument like this. The large coils are part of a relay to amplify the line signal, "the relay is constructed with great delicacy, a feeble line current is enabled to actuate a register powerfully through the intervention of a local battery." However, I think in this picture, there is no register and they just use the sound of the relay clicking to listen to the code. 

I decided to make my key and sounder as a combination system. I bought a piece of Brazilian cherry. I cut and routed the edges  to look like a typical base for a combination instrument. I stained the wood a dark walnut color. Here is a photo of the mock up of the combination base with a key and sounder on the board as they would appear on the dispatcher's desk.

I ordered some antique brass knurled knobs and screws to use as terminals for  the various wires. They have not arrived yet. Once they arrive, I will finish the central panel. That is where the LED light display will be hidden behind a small door. The dispatcher can open the door to see the lights. Each station will have a light that flashes when that station is sending a message. It is not period correct, but could help a new dispatcher that is not familiar with the code. That was a feature that Seth and Steve added. I did not have it in my original spec. A nice example of defense contractors "gold plating" their systems!

In examining my key, I noticed that it is missing the circuit closer switch. The operator is supposed to use that switch to by-pass the key, so that messages can be received. However, in our system, we plan to use the key only as a momentary on-off switch. We don't need the circuit closer, so I think this will work in this system.

Meanwhile, Amby has been busy documenting the wiring of the overall system. There are a lot of wires and cables, but it is not as complicated as it may look.  We plan to begin installing on Monday.

February 16, 2022

Nettie Barnes and her Pig

Several years ago I when I was building the water mill on my layout, I read a story about Nettie Barnes and her pet pig.  I finally got a chance to put them on the layout near the water mill. The little girl figure came from Modelu's Ragged Victorians figure collection. They call her Harriet. I don't know what Nettie actually looked like, but the Modelu figure looked correct for this era. Her pose is perfect for this vignette.   I painted her as a red-head as her strong will and determination  reminded me of my own red-headed daughter, Danica, who is also a fierce animal lover. The pig is a 3D print I downloaded from the internet.

The Barnes family owned the Piney Branch Mill at the time of the civil war. Her father, Jack Barnes, and some of her brothers enlisted in the Confederate army. Wikipedia  has this following information about the Mill and the Barnes family.

 "Also known as Piney Branch Mill or Hope Park Mill, Robey's Mill is a 3-story frame building on a high stone foundation on the west side of Piney Branch stream. The gristmill likely was built between 1790 and 1804 by either Edward Payne or David Stuart. The property was part of a plantation named Hope Park. Stuart was the husband of the widow of Martha Custis Washington's son. Stuart offered the mill for sale in 1815. A miller named John Barnes Sr. bought the mill in 1837 and trained his eldest son, "Young Jack," the trade. Young Jack (Jack H. Barnes) inherited the mill and miller's house from his father's estate in 1853.

Jack H. Barnes became one of the band of infamous Confederate guerrillas known as "Mosby's Rangers" during the Civil War and was captured three times. 

The miller's office on the southwest corner of the second floor contains wall carvings made by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the war. Fairfax County saw repeated occupations by both sides during the war. The mill was a Confederate outpost "No. 3" during the winter of 1861 to 1862 but was in an area mainly controlled by the Union after this. Family history tells of Union soldiers raiding the mill property and confiscating a pig that was one of the pets of a Barnes daughter. The child and one of the family's enslaved servants went to the Union camp and successfully pleaded for the safe return of the pig."

More detail on the incident is described in  Charles V. Mauro's The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers

"During the winter of 1861/1862, Confederate troops used Hope Park Mill as Post No. 3.Confederate forces vacated the Hope Park Mill in March 1862, as Union Army troops advanced into western Fairfax County to conduct foraging and resupply operations against civilians. Union soldiers confiscated everything they could carry, including vegetables and pigs. One of the confiscated pigs belonged to ten-year-old Nettie (Jack and Mary Barnes' daughter), who according to the Barnes family story, objected vociferously. 

Nettie carried on so that mama finally told one of the slaves to take her over to the camp and see if the Union soldiers wouldn’t give the pet pig back. The two were met by sentries, who took Nettie and the servant before the commander. Nettie, between sobs, told about the theft of her pig and pleaded for its return.

        The Yankee officer asked Nettie if she could point out the soldier who had taken her pig. She said she could. So the officer lined up the raiding company up in front of Nettie and she quickly picked out the guilty one. The officer didn’t order the man shot, but he did order him to return the pig post-haste. The soldier saluted, got the pig and carried it back to our home, with Nettie and the servant trudging along beside him. "

February 13, 2022

Rock Me Some Wagon Wheels

...with apologies to Bob Dylan, to finish up the cannon I had been working on, I drew some 14-spoke wheels. I had some artwork for wagon wheels from Gerry Dykstra, but that was not in a format I could edit.  So I decided to draw my own. To get the model as precise as I could, I went up to Fort Ward to measure the cannons they have in the restored bastion. One of their  guns is a very authentic replica of a 6 pound James Rifle. 

I was able to get detailed measurements of the wheels. The hubs in particular were quite interesting with a cove on the inside and an ogive on the outside. Also, I measured the amount of dish in the wheel. It was only 2 inches, but that is an important feature of wagon wheels from this era.

I also measured the 24 pound howitzer they have on site. It is slightly bigger that the 6-pounder but only by about 4 percent. 

While I was at Fort Ward I stopped by the Museum and visited the replica of the officer's quarters. I took a panorama of the inside of the officer's quarters. I need to recreate something similar on my layout. I plan to detail the upper story of the Provost Marshall office. So this photo will help guide me. I also had a nice chat with the museum director as she and her colleague were wondering why I was measuring their guns.

Interior of officer's quarters for detailing ideas. Looks cozy.

Telegraph System

Amby continues to make amazing progress on the telegraph system, He now has all five base stations done. 

I think he has been having fun with them as he sent me this image of the dot code on his oscilloscope.  I was playing around with speeding up the code. I think it might be a tad easier to listen to at about 25% faster than what we have now.  It remains to be seen if we will be able to change that in the software.

 It is time to begin wiring the dispatcher's control station. That will be built into the cubby hole section of the dispatcher's desk. 

When I built that cubby hole I was inspired by the field desks that civil war officer's used. It happens that the museum at Fort Ward has one of those on display too.

Each individual station will be adorned with simulated brass plates that I printed on my 3D printer. I now need to finish painting them. 

February 9, 2022

Cannon Fever

It's winter and we are cooped up. I have cannon fever. So, I drew a 1/48th scale 3- inch rifle, a common Union field artillery piece in Fusion 360 today.   I left a few details off the drawing. They will be added with the photo etched parts I have on hand.

Laser cut cannon with 3D printed limber

If you recall, I already have 1/48th scale cannon made with laser cut parts, cast metal barrels and photo etched detail parts. They look good, but require some assembly. If the 3D files work out, the 3d printed cannons will have much simpler assembly. 

Combined with the 3D printed limber I made a few months ago, I will be able to begin field artillery batteries as scenery items for the layout. If the test prints work out, the Aquia Line will be brimming with cannon soon.

To answer the question in the comment below, here is a table of cannons commonly used in the civil war.

Decal artwork

Last night I did some graphics work for Brian Kelly. He lives in our area and is modeling the C&O. He wanted a decal for a milk truck on his layout. But, all he had was a rough photo of the company's logo from a cloth patch. He asked me to redraw it so he could make a decal. I am including it here in case anyone else might need it.  You can re-size it as needed when you print the decal.

February 7, 2022

New Images of, and more visitors to the Aquia Line


I am working on a new article that will be an overview of my layout. I decided to shoot some new photos for the article.  Despite working on the railroad and photographing it for 13 years I still can find some new photo angles. This one is a sample of what you might see in the article. The composition is difficult to shoot due to the low ceiling above it. But using some photoshop to replace the sky yields this interesting image. This is one of the deepest scenes on the layout and highlights the use of forced perspective.

Sunday evening, Gary White and his girlfriend, Dru, stopped by to visit the layout.  Gary is a narrow gauge modeler with several narrow gauge model projects in the works. He purchased from me many of the WWI models I built for my book on military railroads. I hope he puts them to good use.  Dru is a farmer from Pennsylvania and brought us a dozen eggs from her farm. 

February 6, 2022

Provost Marshal at Aquia Landing - Black History Month

A family of former African American slaves arranging transportation to the North on the Aquia Line. From here they will board a steamship to Washington, DC. 

This particular model scene is based on this prototype image taken in 1863. The prototype image shows several African Americans who are most probably former slaves now working for the USMRR. The USMRR hired hundreds of African Americans to work on the railroad. My scene depicts some of the 10,000 former slaves that used the Aquia Line to escape to freedom standing in front of the same building. 

The Provost Marshal in the civil war were the equivalent of military police of today. They controlled passenger access to the USMRR as well as performing many of the other traditional duties of the military police. 

The Aquia Landing portion of my layout is far from being complete. I still have a lot of work to do to finish it. But this image shows the potential of the area. I think it will be the signature scene on the railroad when it is finished..  

One of the biggest jobs yet remaining is completion of the several ship models that will frequent the harbor.  I have several ship models in various stages of construction.  Plus, Brion Boyles is building a schooner for me.  Hopefully, we will get a chance to finish these soon.

February 5, 2022

Telegraph Progress Continues

Amby stopped by this afternoon so we can review progress of the telegraph stations. I needed to make more base plates for him so he can continue to build the stations. He has completed one and plans to rewire the one I built as that one has some loose wires. That is probably due to my lousy soldering and its two trips across the country. 

Here you can see the two stations completed so far "talking" to each other.  The red flashing light tells the train operators that the telegraph is busy and to not try to send an OS report until that stops.  All the stations will flash a red light when a message is being sent from any one station. Amby suggested a revision to the busy  circuit so that the busy light stays on continuously while messages are being transmitted. That is probably a better way to do it as then the operators won't get fooled by halts in the flashing due to delays in between messages. 

Amby is approaching the task very methodically. He is creating circuit diagrams of the whole system so it will be easy to understand and debug. He made a spreadsheet listing all the wires and their color codes.  He also wants to dig into the Arduino code to better understand that. I am really benefiting from his experience and an EE.

Next we surveyed the locations of the telegraph stations on the model railroad. We need to find places where they will be out of the way and have sufficient room for the electronics behind the fascia. There are good places for all of them except at Aquia Landing. At the location I may have to make a separate station base plate as the fascia is only 3 inches tall.

Amby also suggested a cheat sheet with all the possible OS messages listed so that guest operators can dispatch more easily. However, he did not know about the random messages that I added to the spec and Steve Williams included in the software. There are about 10 messages that play at random. Those messages are based on actual messages I found at the National Archive. Amby told me that he had left the telegraph system hooked up at his house while he was working on something else. At one point it started to send a message. He was quite surprised by that as he did not know about the random messages. 

While Amby was wiring this week, I took a crack at making simulated brass plates using my 3D printer. I was able to use the existing 2D artwork that I generated for the laser cutter to create the STL files needed for printing. I imported 2D dxf files into Fusion 360 and made them into 3D objects. Once I converted them to STL files I printed them in resin.  I did get an estimate from Shapeways on printing these in actual brass. The cost was over $115 per plate. I would need 5 of these, and 5 smaller plates for the lights. That was too costly as I can make them in house with resin for far less.

Next I needed to paint them. It took me a few tries, but the best results came by spraying the model with flat black Vallejo acrylic. Then I carefully brush painted the raised letters and brass surround with acrylic gold craft paint. I used a dabbing motion with a nearly dry brush so the gold paint would not soak into the gaps between the numbers.  Then I gave the model a coat of clear gloss acrylic. They might look better with a matte finish. 

Visit to John Sethian's O Scale PRR layout

Action on John Sethian's PRR O Scale layout. The clock tower conceals a support post.

On Saturday Morning I had a chance to visit John Sethian's O scale 2-rail PRR layout. It is a gorgeous layout depicting Pennsy RR action in the electrified districts somewhere near Trenton, NJ. He is building catenary for his electric motors to run under. The catenary is not live on his railroad. John has very cleverly modified many 3-rail models to 2-rail to get the equipment he needs for his railroad. 

I like how he uses large urban buildings as view blocks. He also uses forced perspective on the background scenery and structures made from photo prints. His layout is full of finely detailed scenes and clever  devices. For example, he has a section of scenery that lifts out of the way using a linear actuator.

Here are examples of two finely detailed scenes. The office is based on a Edward Hopper painting. The used car lot contains models of all the cars John has owned now or in the past. He had a Porsche at one time, but he really is a Jaguar aficionado. In fact his garage has three of them, including an XKE that he purchased after it was on fire and totally rebuilt.

John posing by his Jags

Work session at Doug Gurin's layout

On Thursday, I was at Doug Gurin's house to continue to help him build benchwork. We got a tricky piece of  sky board installed on a very rough cinder block wall. Then we cut the plywood bench tops for the long wall. A few more sessions and we should have Doug's benchwork ready for him to lay track. 

February 2, 2022

Amby to the Rescue

 If you read my blog, you know I hate wiring and electronics. In the panoply of model railroad tasks required to build a layout, I rank wiring and electronics rank at the bottom.  So I was delighted when Ambrose (aka Amby) Nangeroni offered to help finish build my telegraph system. Amby is an electrical engineer from Northeastern University. He has a lot of experience with model railroad electronics.  He said he was willing to work on building the components at his home to minimize possible exposure to COVID as he needs to be extra careful. 

I sent him copies of the documentation I had, plus a copy of the video of the prototype system in operation. He studied them before visiting and had some very interesting observations.  He also asked me some questions that required me to review the documentation as it was long enough ago for me to forget the details.

After I made that video mentioned above,  I had to send all the circuits back to Seth and Bill of https://www.modelrailroadcontrolsystems.com/telegraph-sounder-driver/ for some software revisions. That was about 2 years ago. They returned the updated parts to me and I promptly put them away. I had not worked on them since then.  

Today, Amby stopped by my house to see  the system as it stands and to better understand the design and application. 

It was a thrill to get the parts out of storage and  working again. Amby was very helpful in debugging some issues we had. A few wires had come loose while the parts travelled back and forth across the country. In addition, the antique sounder that I sent to Seth, got broken in the shipping process. The super fine 100 year-old paper-wrapped insulated coil wires broke. Seth sent me a replacement sounder as repairs to the old coil looked difficult. But the replacement sounder was not working. The reason was perplexing at first, but simple once Amby figured it out. All the contacts inside were corroded and needed some maintenance.

Once we sorted out the sounder, we were able to get the prototype station that I had assembled three years ago to work. We verified that the new software works too.  Amby now has all the circuits at his house and will work on assembling them as his schedule permits.  Here is a short video he shot at his house showing the original system in proper operating condition.

I plan to make the base plates. At first I used wood and laser cut plastic to make the panels. But I now will try to make 3D printed panels that will be painted to look like brass. I'm aiming for a brass builder's plate look, hopefully one that conjures up a 19th century vibe. 

Amby also has some ideas on how to run the cables from the stations back to the dispatcher. He recommended prefabricated  CAT6 cable with plugs and sockets, vice the terminal strips I was thinking about using. 

In retrospect, I should have designed each station to connect to a data bus as opposed to individual CAT6 wires from each station to the dispatcher.  That way we could run just one pair or wires to east station. Each panel would need a data bus interface, and there would need to be some kind of bus controller, but I suspect such circuits are available off the shelf. It might be possible to add that feature on to the existing system.  If anyone has any suggestions on how to do that, please let me know.

Last week Paul Dolkos and Ted York visited the Aquia line. Ted was in town to receive an award for a photograph he took, and Paul has showing him around.

 The stunning image depicts wild mustangs in an action shot. They look to me like they are fighting. You can see Ted's photo here https://www.worldphotographiccup.org/wpc_gallery/finalists-2022/

In case you don't know, Ted also has a fantastic HO model railroad depicting the Santa Fe over Cajon Pass. I have operated on Ted's layout a couple times and it is a hoot.