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 18, 2022

Sergeant Santa at Fort Eustis

Photo of the MRS Volunteers in period uniforms with Sgt Santa.  Photo by the MRS.

Sgt Santa spreading the cheer. It's not a secret that this Santa 
is also a model railroader and member of the Chesapeake Bay
& Western Model Railroad Club
Chris Williams and I traveled to Newport News this weekend to participate in Operation Sergeant Santa. Chris is a former colleague of mine from my days at CBO. He is also a railfan and model railroader. He likes taking old British OO scale locomotives and rebuilding them to run on his small layout. His interest in British trains stems from his growing up in Northern England. But he has lived in the US for 35 years now and is also a rabid US railfan. Chris provided the British ROD 2-8-0 locomotive that I used in the WWI chapter in my book, "Model Railroads Go to War." 

Chris (l) and Eric(r) riding in the
 power car at the head end
We were invited to participate in Operation Sergeant Santa by Eric Payne. Eric and his dad, George, own and operate the Catalpa Falls Group LLC. They aim to make the Broadway Limited experience available again through the renovation and restoration of former Broadway Limited Pullman cars. They have a set of railcars that are wonderfully restored and can be used in charters and excursions. Last month I rode the car Catalpa Falls with Eric and his dad from NYC to Washington, DC. The cars are now at Fort Eustis to participate in Operation Sergeant Santa as part of the Military Railroad Society fund raising campaign.  The MRS is raising funds for restoration of USATC 5002, a Porter S100 class 0-6-0 tank engine. 

In addition to raising funds, the MRS will be volunteering to help restore some of the historic passenger cars while they are parked at Fort Eustis.  So its a symbiotic relationship as the MRS gets use of the cars for fund raising and training while the cars get secure storage and some restoration.

Chris and I packed a lot into the weekend. We started off with stops at Doswell and Ashland to do some rail fanning. Since it was a Friday, the Buckingham Branch was busy doing maintenance on  equipment.

Then we caught a northbound Regional AMTRAK making a station stop at Ashland. 

Next we went to the Mariners Museum in Newport News. That is one of my favorite museums. They reconfigured the exhibits since my last visit 10 years ago. There is now a large portion of the museum devoted to the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack). I really enjoyed walking through the full-scale dioramas they have constructed, especially the replica of the interior of the Monitor. Fun fact, the Monitor was the first ship to ever have a flushing toilet. 

They have an amazing collection of artifacts that were recovered from the sunken wreckage of the Monitor. Some of those artifacts were remains of sailors that died in the sinking. Alas, they have been unable to identify the remains precisely. 

One of the interesting artifacts was a reconstructed uniform that had to be painstakingly restored from scattered fragments. 

There are several components of the Monitor still under going preservation. The gun tubes have be soaking in a de-chlorination bath for over 20 years now! That process removes the chlorine from the saltwater that was absorbed by the iron so that the iron will not continue to corrode. They are hopeful that end of the preservation bath is in sight as some parts, such the anchor and engine, are already out of the preservation bath and will be put on display.

Roman cargo transport circa 1st Century AD

After touring the rest of the museum, including the spectacular ship models, we took a walk around the Mariner's Lake via the Noland Trail. We spotted several birds including 4 more for my life list.

Horseshoe Curve on Ed's layout
Later that night we visited Ed Rappe's and Jim Taverna's large O scale layouts. Ed models the PRR Horseshoe Curve region of the Middle Division and a coal branch, while Jim models the PRR Northern Central Division near Northumberland and its branches.  Both layouts are massive. They run long, impressive trains. It really is mind boggling.

This is just half of Northumberland
Yard on Jim's layout

The next morning we made a quick trip to visit Fort Monroe. It is no longer a military base. The fort is part of the US National Parks System while the State of Virginia and City of Hampton also have exhibits and displays to see. 

The fort is the largest masonry fort built in the US. It is hard to picture how large it is until you visit. It remained in Union hands through out the civil war. Many former slaves fled through Fort Monroe to freedom.  It is chock full of interesting exhibits.

The fort had the first 15-inch Rodman gun that was named after President Lincoln. It was used to shell rebel positions across the river. It's my favorite civil war artillery piece. 

The former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned there for a while, but he never went to trial for treason.   We didn't have time to visit the museum and see his cell.

Next we arrived at Ft Eustis as guests of the SGT Santa. Sergeant Major Snyder escorted us on base where we met with several folks from the MRS including my friends Billy Grimes and SFC Michael Spoor.  Sometimes, it's a very small world.

Billy Grimes and Chris in the power car

Billy was one of the volunteers that were dressed in 1960s era Army uniforms to reenact the time period where the vintage passenger cars were in service (see lead photo.) 

Mike was activated as a reservist to help support the weekend activities. He also had a chance to take some great photos of the restored cars being pulled by a US Army GP-10 (see last photo.)

Chris and I did two rides on the cars around the 8 mile loop of track at Fort Eustis. It was fun to see the railfans shooting pictures of the trains as they rolled across picturesque Fort Eustis. There were hundreds of US Army soldiers and their families riding the train and enjoying some holiday cheer.

After our second ride on the train, Chris and I stopped at the US Army Transportation Museum. The building was closed but we were able to see the outdoor exhibits that are now under protective roofs. The US Army had some really unusual equipment over the years.

USATC S160 Class Steam engine at the museum 

It was just a hoot to be part of the event. Everyone seemed to have a great time and hopefully they raised a good amount of money toward the restoration of the steam engine. Perhaps next year  they will have it pulling the Sergeant Santa train!

The GP10 that pulled the train. Photo by Michael Spoor

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