A WiFi-Enabled Searchlight Signal Controller

Since 2020 has been the year of “stuck at home, all day every day”, earlier this summer I finished restoring and installing my Union Switch & Signal H-2 searchlight in my back yard. I still didn’t have a good way to control it, however. When Iowa Scaled Engineering was sending off another set of circuit boards for fabrication, I decided to add a fun project to the order in addition to all the various new product ideas we were working on. What project? A WiFi-enabled searchlight signal controller, of course!

If you’ve ever wanted to control your 80+ year old railroad signals with your smartphone, have I got the project for you.

The Story of 20 Year Old Film

When I cleaned out my garage in January, I found a box of stuff that probably hadn’t been touched since my ex and I bought this place 15 years ago. At the bottom was a small Ziploc bag with eight rolls of color print film in it, shot but never developed. Now given that I stopped shooting film in early 2001, that gives you a minimum possible age for this stuff. Could there be any hope for this stuff? Back when I still shot film, heat was pretty much enemy #1 and I was extremely careful about keeping film cold if it wasn’t in the camera. This stuff, on the other hand, had been in a box in a hot garage for nearly two decades.

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New Trip Report – Moving D&RGW 029 to Granby

UP 3902 and 8484 pull derrick 029 west at Crescent, CO.

Two years and change ago, on April 14, 2018, Union Pacific moved former Rio Grande derrick 029 from the Forney Museum in Denver up to the new Moffat Road Museum in Granby, CO. The crane is a 120-ton steam-powered wrecking derrick built for the Denver & Salt Lake as their 10300 back in April 1913, and is still largely original. It was active on the Rio Grande until the mergers, and was never converted to diesel or electric.

Having not done any railfanning in over a year at that point, I thought it was time to pick up the camera and capture this “last run over home rails” event. The results of that trip are posted here.

New Trip Report – Isle of Man Railways

The Manx Electric Railway.

Back in 2017, I had a week to kill between meetings in Birmingham (England) and Paris, so I decided to visit somewhere I’d always wanted to go – the Isle of Man. It’s a tiny self-governing British dependency in the middle of the Irish Sea, about halfway between England and Nothern Ireland. It’s also filled with historic railways.

The new trip report with dozens of photos of all the island’s operating heritage railways is posted over here.

Insulators on a Plane!

Well, at least it’s not snakes. Then we’d need Samuel L. Jackson. Fortunately, for carrying insulators, all we need is a quality case and some foam.

Getting back into insulator collecting in 2016, I quickly started traveling to shows all over the US. Since I still have a day job (have to pay for all the glass somehow, you know), frequently the only way to get to shows on the east and west coasts in a timely manner is to fly. Unfortunately fragile century-old glass artifacts and airline baggage systems aren’t exactly a good match. So, before flying to my first Springfield, Ohio, show, I designed a carrying case to safely transport ~18 insulators as airline baggage and still stay under the 50 pound weight limit.

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The Story of the Semaphore in the Kitchen

Finding the Blade

Yes, there’s a ~100 year old US&S semaphore blade
above my kitchen sink.

In February 2019, I had to head for Memphis for… eh, professional reasons? Still a project I can’t talk about. But, being me, I added a few days on both sides for general railfanning, antiquing, and getting into trouble. Everybody else was flying in Monday, meetings Tues-Thurs, and flying home on Friday. I decided to fly in on Friday, have a three day weekend, three days of meetings, and another three day weekend before flying home Sunday night.

The Friday-Saturday after the meetings was largely supposed to be rainy and miserable, so any truly railfanning was probably off the list. I decided I’d drive around, hit up some antique stores, and try to make it into Nashville by Saturday night to catch some music.

What I didn’t anticipate was finding a 70 pound relic that needed to be boxed and shipped home. But that’s just what happened. A completely impromptu stop at Mantiques in Hazel, KY found a beautiful old semaphore blade from a Union Switch & Signal type S or T-2 upper quadrant semaphore signal. (This would date to 1906 to maybe the 1930s at the latest, as by that point railroads had converted almost entirely to color light signals.)

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A Backyard Searchlight Signal

Everybody needs an old railroad signal in the backyard, right? I’ve always loved old searchlight signals, and I’ve long wanted one in the back yard. I have to admit, when most folks think about collectables and yard ornaments, these probably aren’t the first things that come to mind, but I’m not most people.

About two years ago I finally decided it was time to do something about that, so I started planning and hunting down all the pieces I’d need. It took me almost a year to acquire all the pieces, and another nine months to find the ambition and time to get it done, but thanks to being stuck at home for months due to everyone’s favorite virus, I finally got it done. Now I can sit out on the patio, drink a beer, and enjoy a big ol’ chunk of restored 1930s-1940s vintage railroad technology watching over me. I couldn’t be happier.

If you want to see what it took to get to this point, read on…

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Defeating that Screensaver While Working at Home

Defeating the corporate screen lock while working at home is just one little Arduino away…

Corporate IT enforces an inactivity timeout and a password lock on my laptop. That’s fine and responsible if I’m out in the world, but it’s really stupid and irritating if I’m stuck working at home for weeks on end – such as right now. There’s no great threat to corporate security in my house. Worst case the cats walk over the keyboard at night and delete some stuff I don’t have in version control yet.

I’ve been fighting it for the last week by looking over periodically and whacking the trackpad when I see i try to go to sleep, but I realized if I could just emulate small, harmless mouse movements, I could do the same thing. I mean I am an embedded developer, after all. However, I have real work to do, so I didn’t want to spend a couple days hammering it out.

Arduino to the rescue!

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Denver Gas & Electric Light Co. Photos, circa 1920

Denver Gas & Electric Light Co. truck #166, circa 1920 near Blake St. and Park Ave West in Denver.

Two weekends ago, when I was up working the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club booth at the Rocky Mountain Train Show in Denver, I came across an old Public Service Co binder of photos for sale. Unlike most stuff at the show, most of the photos inside weren’t railroad related, and the vendor sold me the whole thing for a $20. Inside were all sorts of photos from the Denver Gas & Electric Light Company.

Denver Gas & Electric Light Co was created out of Denver’s two major utility players in 1910 – the Denver Gas & Electric Company and Lacombe Electric Company. It lasted until 1923, when it was merged with a number of other utilities to create Public Service Co., which eventually became Xcel Energy today.

If you like vintage vehicles, vintage utility equipment, or just old views of Denver, read on…

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New Trip Report – Mallets in Niles Canyon

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve actually posted any new photography from any railfan trips. Mostly it’s because I just run out of time. By the time I get home from the trip, there’s just enough time to dump all the images into my big storage server, maybe post one or two to Trainorders, and then crash so I can get up and go to work in the morning. And then life happens and I never get back to editing and publishing.

Skookum hauls a short cut of flats eastward over the Farwell bridge. The through truss bridge dates from 1896.

I’ve decided that’s going to improve, and as my first attempt, I give you the Lerro charter that happened on the Niles Canyon Railway out in California two weeks ago. Yes, that’s right, it’s only taken me two weeks to get this thing edited together and posted, and that includes inventing a workflow with WordPress that fits my new website.

The charter happened on Saturday, Feb 8, 2020, and the two stars of the show were Skookum, the only 2-4-4-2 logging Mallet in North America (and one of two anywhere), and Clover Valley Lumber #4, a 2-6-6-2 logging Mallet. After several trips where Skookum didn’t operate, I figured this was my chance – I’d finally see it do more than roll out of the engine house and back in.

I’ll give you a broad swath of the history of both locomotives and the route itself in the trip report. But if you like articulated steam, you’re going to like this one.

Click here to see Mallets in Niles Canyon.