A Recent Honor

People who have followed this site for some time know that I am very interested in history. I love taking road trips to experience it, and I especially love getting to share history with others – both in-person, and through the medium of the Internet.

To that end, I’ve been a great admirer of the Historical Marker Database since its inception. Their mission of cataloging all the outdoor history markers that we come across in our daily lives always struck me as being very worthwhile. I’ve used it as a reference when planning my own trips (or when I was in a hurry and was really curious what was on that sign I passed earlier in the day). For almost a decade, I have been a “Contributing Correspondent” to the database, submitting markers that I had found that were not yet included. Recently, I’d become a lot more active, submitting well over 100 markers so far in 2024.

Because of that increased activity, a couple of days ago, I got an unexpected email from the publisher of the website:

Nomination to Contributing Editor


I am pleased to announce that the Board of Editors here at the Historical Marker Database have nominated you to become a Contributing Editor. Your entries are complete, well-illustrated, well-edited entries that are always ready-to-publish….

J.J. Prats

Almost immediately, I very happily accepted the nomination.

I can’t really put into words how much it means to me to be trusted to be so involved with a project that has meant so much to me, and that I think is important as a resource on the Internet. Obviously, it is a big responsibility, and I hope that I am equal to it. And it is an absolute thrill to see my name on the About Us page. I’m not sure if I’ll get over that for some time.

I may start posting more content here that is explicitly related to historical markers, or my journey in discovering them. I’m sure that it is work that we will never be finished with.

Curtis Paper Mill

From my travels, August 5, 2023.

Emily and I had gone up to visit her Nana at the senior living community that she moved in to. We planned to have dinner together in their dining room and just enjoy the company.

As we were waiting for our food, I noticed a series of prints hanging on the wall depicting various aspects of the papermaking process. Some of the prints were photos and maps labeled as from the “Nonantum Paper Mill”. It piqued my interest because of the excellent lecture from Scott L. Mingus that I attended a few years ago on the History of Papermaking.

The three of us got to talking about it at dinner, and the ladies told me that the old mill was nearby on the aptly-named Paper Mill Road. Emily agreed to drive over to check it out when we were finished with our visit.

A plaque with the brand of the Curtis Paper Mill is at the site today. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
A plaque with the brand of the Curtis Paper Mill is at the site today. – Photo by the author

The City of Newark converted the site into a park several years ago. The mill had closed down in 1999. None of the old buildings still exist, but I think the mill race is still there – I need to go back to investigate further. A wayside marker told the story of the mill – and I was able to add it to the HMDB during my visit.

The Curtis Paper Mill wayside marker. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The Curtis Paper Mill wayside marker. – Photo by the author

Most notably, during WWII about 50% of the output of the mill was used by the United States Federal Government or for lend-lease. In fact, the paper that the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was printed on was made right there at that now-unassuming spot in Newark, DE.

I feel like I say it all the time, but history is all around us if you give yourself the chance to stumble onto it.

Battlefield Visits, Epic Man Trip Edition – Part 4: Coastal North Carolina

From my travels, June 27, 2023

The next morning, we got up and had a quick breakfast at the hotel. It was about a 20 minute drive over to our first stop of the day.

Battle of Plymouth – Civil War Battlefield #167

There is a small museum in the town of Plymouth, NC and we spent a few minutes checking out their displays and artifacts. They have a lot of artillery rounds and bullets, as well as buttons and small camp items that were found during digs at known local army camp sites. The 3/8 scale model of the CSS Albemarle that they have floating in the Roanoke River was a highlight for us.

Some of the artifacts in the town museum include part of the smoke stack of the <i>Albemarle</i> - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Some of the artifacts in the town museum include part of the smoke stack of the AlbemarlePhoto by the author

As for the Battle of Plymouth, Union forces had occupied the town and were using it as a base of operations in the area. Confederates decided to re-take it, and a combined land and naval attack using the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle succeeded in destroying the Federal warships while Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s division of North Carolinians and Virginians forced the occupying Union troops out of town.

We just had to get a selfie with the model <i>Albemarle</i>! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
We just had to get a selfie with the model Albemarle! – Photo by the author

Battle of Albemarle Sound – Civil War Battlefield #168

Here at the Battle of Albemarle Sound, we have a rare, purely-naval Civil War action.

After helping to take back the town of Plymouth, the CSS Albemarle made her way out into Albemarle Sound on May 5, 1864 and found a small fleet of 8 Union gunboats waiting for her. Over the course of the day, the Albemarle held her own against multiple attacks from the gunboats. Attacks involving artillery, ramming, and even attempting to use a net to tangle her propulsion system all failed against the Albemarle. Though badly damaged, she was able to escape back to Plymouth. This fight was a stand-off, but it kept the Confederate naval weapon bottled up in port.

The Battle of Albemarle Sound took place out in these waters. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The Battle of Albemarle Sound took place out in these waters. – Photo by the author

Eventually, a raid led by William B. Cushing would succeed in detonating a naval mine (what they would have called a “torpedo” in those days) under the Albemarle and lead to her sinking.

We didn’t go across to Edenton, NC (where there is at least a wayside about this battle) for road trip routing reasons. We were able to get a photo from near where the action actually took place at the Waterside Resort.

Battle of Roanoke Island – Civil War Battlefield #169

In February of 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was tasked with closing off the Outer Banks to Confederate shipping. As part of that effort, he landed 13,000 troops on the southern end of Roanoke Island and fought his way north. This action became known as the Battle of Roanoke Island. After flushing the rebels from the other forts on the island, the final fighting happened here at Fort Huger. The overwhelmed Confederates had no choice but to surrender.

The view looking out on Croatan Sound from near the spot of Fort Huger. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The view looking out on Croatan Sound from near the spot of Fort Huger. – Photo by the author

We stopped at Pineapple Beach – right off of US-64‘s William B. Umstead Memorial Bridge – to get a few photos and check out the markers. The visitors center at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – which we would be visiting next – has some info on the fighting here, as well as the Freedmen’s Colony that was established once the island was under Federal control.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

What can I say about Fort Raleigh National Historic Site? There is a lot of history here: from the “Lost Colony” to Civil War fighting, to a Freedmen’s Colony, to the very first voice radio transmission. Definitely worth visiting if you’re in the vicinity of the Outer Banks!

Posing in the reconstructed Fort Raleigh - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Posing in the reconstructed Fort Raleigh – Photo by the author

We browsed the museum in the visitors center – critical to the completion of their Junior Ranger program – and checked out the movie, and the reconstructed Fort Raleigh. The rangers were very friendly, and in addition to awarding the boys their badges, gave us bonus Junior Ranger books for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Those would come in handy a little later.

Fort Raleigh has two different designs for their Junior Ranger badges. The boys got one of each. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Fort Raleigh has two different designs for their Junior Ranger badges. The boys got one of each. – Photo by the author

We grabbed a quick lunch at the Olde Towne Creamery in Manteo, and then we made our way onto the Outer Banks.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

This one had been circled on the itinerary for a while. The boys were very excited to visit Wright Brothers National Memorial.

There is a very nice museum in the visitors center that talks about the brothers’ lives and especially their constant experimentation with powered and controlled flight. The 1903 Wright Flyer they display here is only a replica, but they have a few real pieces of the aircraft that were used here. I guess I’m starting to get over my aviophobia, because it was pretty magical to stand on the ground where it actually happened.

We made the hike up Big Kill Devil Hill so the boys could get their photo with the monument at the top. The view was very impressive.

After our visit, John told me that this was his favorite Junior Ranger badge so far because of the image of the Wright Flyer on it.

Battle of South Mills – Civil War Battlefield #170

There was concern among the Union commanders in North Carolina that the canal through the Great Dismal Swamp could be used to transfer rebel ironclads from Norfolk down to Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. This would threaten the Federal troops in the area. In reality, there were no such ironclads, but the CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads had created a lot of fear.

The canal at South Mills. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The canal at South Mills. – Photo by the author

To counter this supposed threat, Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno was sent with about 3,000 troops to destroy locks along the canal at the Battle of South Mills. Unfortunately, Reno opted for an overnight forced march, so when his troops arrived and encountered only about 900 Confederate troops, they were already exhausted and confused. They wasted hours trying to outflank the southerners, and ultimately left without doing any real damage to the canal.

There is a wayside that talks about the action next to the canal in the town of South Mills.

Siege of Suffolk – Civil War Battlefield #171

The “official” battles around Suffolk, VA are a little confusing. The CWSAC seems to list them multiple different ways, with at least two different “Battles of Suffolk” being contained within an over-all “Siege of Suffolk“. For my purposes, I’m listing the “Battle” as being the action at Hill’s Point, while the “Siege” is the action at the Norfleet House. As I learn more about these actions, I hope to get more clarity.

Union troops had occupied Suffolk – mainly as a way to protect land approaches to Norfolk – since the spring of 1862. The following year, Confederates under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet were in the area attempting to gather food and supplies. Longstreet decided to lay siege to the Union forces in order to keep them from interfering with those foraging operations. He was never able to truly *cut-off* Suffolk, but he did keep the Union troops occupied.

A roadside marker describes some of the action around Suffolk. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
A roadside marker describes some of the action around Suffolk. – Photo by the author

A rebel artillery battery was constructed across the Nansemond River from here, at the Norfleet House, to discourage and destroy Union supply ships from coming upstream. While they succeeded in disabling at least one such craft, Union gunboats as well as artillery positions that were constructed here forced the Confederates to abandon their position.

Within a few weeks, Longstreet was ordered to rejoin Gen. Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia at the start of the Battle of Chancellorsville, ending the siege. Though he never captured Suffolk, he was successful in gathering supplies. It’s unclear who the winner was here.

I wasn’t able to get a great photo at the spot that the Union artillery occupied. The area is now a neighborhood, and I didn’t want to get in anyone’s backyard.

Battle of Suffolk – Civil War Battlefield #172

The Battle of Suffolk here at Hill’s Point / Fort Huger is probably the most interesting of the actions around the Siege of Suffolk in the spring of 1863.

Fort Huger was another hastily-built earthwork fort along the Nansemond River that was meant to stop Federal supply ships. On April 19, Federal batteries opened fire on the fort all day, hoping to weaken the defenses there. Just as night was beginning to fall, about 300 Union soldiers landed from river boats near the fort, and assaulted the earthworks from the rear. The fort fell, and over a hundred rebel prisoners were taken.

The remains of Fort Huger at Hill's Point. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The remains of Fort Huger at Hill’s Point. – Photo by the author

The fort amazingly still exists. The boys and I walked down close to it to get a photo (earthworks are notoriously hard to photograph, so you may need some imagination). For many years, the remains of Fort Huger were contained within a golf course, but the property is now being converted into a neighborhood. There is still construction happening here, but the fact that there is a path laid out gives me some hope that the remains of the fort may be preserved. I know there is a local group that is active in trying to put together tours. Hopefully they are making some noise.

Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum

From my travels, April 20, 2022.

The boys and I were on spring break and spending some time with their “Nene” and “Baba” in Columbia, MD. One of the things that we wanted to do together was visit the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air & Space Museum in Northern Virginia.

We wandered around the impressively large museum for a while – they have a huge collection of aircraft – some with a particular historical significance. That day, we saw the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis that first broke the sound barrier (seemingly out here because of renovations happening to the museum in downtown DC). We also got to see the B-29 Enola Gay and I did my best to explain the complicated history around the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII.

The boys pose with the <i>Enola Gay</i> - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The boys pose with the Enola GayPhoto by the author

Both boys really enjoyed seeing the SR-71 in the collection – which set a speed record on it’s final flight from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, making the journey in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, to become part of this museum. On the day we visited, they had something of a remote, Zoom-like setup going with a large TV and an expert on the SR-71 who was giving a presentation and answering questions. Isaac got to ask her a couple and felt like it was the coolest thing in the world.

Of course, the Space Shuttle Discovery was also a hit. It’s the centerpiece of the museum’s space wing, and it’s impressive to see not only its size, but to know that this vehicle went into space so many times.

With the Space Shuttle <i>Discovery</i>. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
With the Space Shuttle Discovery. – Photo by the author

One of the more interactive exhibits was done by Garmin. They had a computer game-like display with a yoke that was attached to a model plane suspended in a glass box. As you moved the yoke, the plane moved, too, demonstrating the concepts of pitch, roll, and yaw. That was pretty neat.

At the end of our visit, “Nene” wanted to go up in the observation tower. Isaac went along with her, while the rest of us stayed a little closer to the ground.

I really like this shot of John overlooking the main floor of the museum. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
I really like this shot of John overlooking the main floor of the museum. – Photo by the author

When we arrived back at “Nene’s” house, the boys showed her their latest open source video game obsession: Minetest. We had set up a server for the boys to collaborate on building structures together, and much to their delight, “Nene” fired up her computer and joined them. It was a very sweet cross-generational moment.

LAN party at "Nene's" house! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
LAN party at “Nene’s” house! – Photo by the author

New England Road Trip, Part 2: Boston

From my travels, August 5, 2021.

We got up and had a nice breakfast at the hotel. It was raining, but we decided to take our chances and roll downtown.

The first stop I wanted to take the boys to was the old Out of Town News near Harvard. Of course, this meant that I had to explain the concept of a newsstand to them, but I also got to share the story of how Microsoft had been started there. It wasn’t the best experience since it was still raining, and there wasn’t anywhere great to park, but it was some history that is more on the nerdy side.

Microcenter is always a hit with my crew. - <i>Photo by Karen Michener</i>
Microcenter is always a hit with my crew. – Photo by Karen Michener

From there, we stopped over at the Cambridge Microcenter – always a favorite store for us. And to be at the one where the MIT folks shop was a treat. It was fun to browse around there, and we were even able to pick up some inexpensive oversized golf umbrellas while we were there. Who would have guessed?

I then took the boys by MIT. Due to COVID-19, we couldn’t really go in any of the buildings, but we were allowed to check out their extremely nerdy bookstore. I especially liked their rather creative “MIT” t-shirts, but they didn’t carry them in the boys’ sizes. Bummer. Both boys were able to pick out postcards that they sent back to their mom – something of a tradition for us now.

One of the nerdiest t-shirts imaginable at the MIT bookstore. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
One of the nerdiest t-shirts imaginable at the MIT bookstore. – Photo by the author

Moving back into history nerd mode, we drove over to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the NPS Visitors Center there and pick up Junior Ranger books for Boston National Historical Park. There we were able to see and learn a little about the Battle of Bunker Hill. Sadly, the WWII-era Fletcher-class Destroyer USS Cassin Young (DD-793) was closed due to the rain (maybe there is concern about the decks being too slippery?)

But it wasn’t a complete waste. After passing through security, we were able to go aboard the USS Constitution – the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world. It was very cool to be able to explore her and speak with the sailors who keep her in such good shape while sharing her history with the public.

The boys pose with "Nene" in front of the USS <i>Constitution</i>. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The boys pose with “Nene” in front of the USS Constitution. – Photo by the author

We crossed over into Boston and drove by the Old North Church, and made our way to Faneuil Hall for a late lunch. “Nene” was able to find “fried clams with bellies” that she was very excited about – it was a taste of home for her.

Around the corner, we were able to visit the Old State House, and the site of the Boston Massacre in front of it, which the boys had been reading about in school. It isn’t quite how you picture it since modern-day Boston is certainly more built-up than it was during 1770.

The boys at the site of the Boston Massacre. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The boys at the site of the Boston Massacre. – Photo by the author

On our way out of town, we drove around Boston Common (and especially to see the monument to the 54th MA) and even got to see Fenway Park. The rest of the evening was spent hanging out at the hotel – including finishing up those Junior Ranger books – and then having dinner at the Burlington Mall food court. There would be more to do in the morning.

Independence Seaport Museum

From my travels, December 14, 2019.

I heard through Facebook that the Independence Seaport Museum was hosting a “Family-friendly” tailgating event in celebration of the fact that the 2019 Army-Navy game was taking place that day in Philadelphia. That sounded like a fun thing to do with my boys, and while I had visited the museum ships there several years ago, the boys had never been aboard any kind of historic ship before. No better way to spend a day!

The tailgating turned out to be a bit of a bust. I didn’t see any activities set up, and there was hardly anyone in the museum during our visit. At least we weren’t fighting the crowds, huh? We got combo tickets for the museum and the ships, and started our visit in the museum.

This remote-control submersible was a hit with my guys. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
This remote-control submersible was a hit with my guys. – Photo by the author

We spent about 45 minutes going through the exhibits in the museum, which were all very kid-friendly. There was a ton of hands-on stuff, too. My guys really enjoyed playing with the remote-control submersible that was in the lobby, as well as the nearly life-size model of a schooner (complete with a sail to raise), and the exhibit on the river as habitat.

Isaac raises the sail! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Isaac raises the sail! – Photo by the author

It was also cool to see some local history highlighted that was not explicitly maritime in nature – the very interactive exhibit about Fort Mifflin was a nice introduction to that story. And that’s another place that I need to take the boys to explore soon.

John raises the stars-and-stripes over "Fort Miffln" - <i>Photo by the author</i>
John raises the stars-and-stripes over “Fort Miffln” – Photo by the author

Finally it was time to head outside for the main event: the ships!

My boys aboard the <i>Becuna</i> with the <i>Olympia</i> in the background. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
My boys aboard the Becuna with the Olympia in the background. – Photo by the author

Our first stop was the WWII-era Balao-class diesel-electric submarine, USS Becuna (SS-319). This was the very first warship that the boys had ever been on, and I think they both had a really good time. Neither one seemed to have difficulty moving through the water-tight doors, or through the confined spaces. I had downloaded a tour app that the museum provides on my phone, and that also helped engage the boys with what we were seeing. Isaac especially enjoyed the control room – all those buttons!

The boys in the control room aboard the <i>Becuna</i> - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The boys in the control room aboard the BecunaPhoto by the author

Next, we went aboard the Protected Cruiser USS Olympia (C-6). This ship is most famous for being Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. She also brought the unknown soldier home following WWI. I believe that she is also the oldest steel-hulled warship still afloat in the world.

The boys noted how much larger and fancier this was than the newer submarine. I think that John especially enjoyed this ship – he took a couple of turns in the demonstation hammock aboard in the berthing area. We got to do the whole tour here, but weren’t able to go up on the deck because of the rainy conditions that day.

John tries out a Navy hammock! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
John tries out a Navy hammock! – Photo by the author

As we disembarked, the boys looked across the river to the massive Iowa-class Battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) over in Camden, NJ, and told me that they wanted to visit that ship next. It was a really great day for my crew that set up some more adventures to come.

Technology History in New Jersey

From my travels, November 27, 2019.

This post is a continuation of the trip I started with the Ten Crucial Days.

On the far side of the square in Princeton, there is a monument to Albert Einstein, who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study after fleeing Nazi Germany. I actually drove past the house that he lived in for the rest of his life. The road trip had now turned to the realm of technology history.

The monument to Albert Einstein in Princeton. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The monument to Albert Einstein in Princeton. – Photo by the author

Skillman, NJ

About 20 minutes from Princeton is a very small town – in fact, that’s even generous. There is an intersection and a post office, as well as a large Johnson & Johnson complex nearby that lists its address as being in Skillman, NJ.

I honestly don’t know too much about how it came to be – there are some accounts in the family lore – but they must have some truth to them. I know that my family first came to this country through the New York / New Jersey area, so it makes sense that my family would have a connection here.

Selfie at the Skillman, NJ post office. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Selfie at the Skillman, NJ post office. – Photo by the author

I stopped by the post office and got a selfie, as well as a few postmarked slips of paper inside as souvenirs. The lady working the desk was very kind when I told her of my family connection to this place. One day, I need to find a reason to bring my boys here.

Bell Labs – Murray Hill, NJ

The entrance to Bell Labs. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The entrance to Bell Labs. – Photo by the author

This is one of those stops that the technology nerd in me had been dreaming about for some time. It’s hard to overstate just how important Bell Labs was. This was the “silicon valley” of its day. The modern world was basically invented in this building.

Prior to the breakup of the Bell System, a small portion of every phone bill in America went to fund technology research here. They basically just hired a ton a really smart people across an array of disciplines, and put them in a building together hoping that magic would happen that would be useful to the phone system. So many inventions – and Nobel prizes – came out of their efforts.

In recent years, it has gone through multiple owners, and the most recent, Nokia, has announced that they no longer need this building and will be leaving in a few years. I hope that something of it can be preserved. It’s an incredible feeling to be inside that structure.

The small museum here: the “Bell Labs Technology Showcase”, really gives a sense of the impact of all these brilliant people working together in the “Idea Factory“. I took a bunch of photos, with the highlights below.


From my travels, June 17, 2019.

Since I had already taken the day off work to get some dental work done in the morning, I figured that I might as well use the rest of the day to check out some history stuff that had been on my list for a while. It was time to head north, to Phoenixville, PA.

The 1882 Foundry Building has been preserved as an event venue. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The 1882 Foundry Building has been preserved as an event venue. – Photo by the author

This cool town was once the home of the Phoenix Iron Works, a large industrial operation that made a number of iron products. The most interesting ones for my purposes were the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle that was used by the Union army during the Civil War. A large majority of the cannons of this type were made right here in Pennsylvania along the Schuylkill River.

After my recent visit to the West Point Foundry in New York, I felt that I had to see this other artillery factory that was closer to home. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I decided not to wait any longer – as you’ll see in a little bit.

Signage for the Schuylkill River Trail near the old ironworks site. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Signage for the Schuylkill River Trail near the old iron works site. – Photo by the author

There are a few remnants of the old iron works still around. The most notable is the Foundry Building that was built in 1882. This structure has been restored and now serves as an event venue (with a small museum as well). A few blocks over, the Superintendent’s Office Building still exists as a restaurant. It was vacant during my visit.

The Superintendent's Office Building. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The Superintendent’s Office Building. – Photo by the author

Opposite the Foundry Building, on the path of the Schuylkill River Trail, was a “demo” bridge built out of Phoenix Columns – another of the company’s products for creating pre-fab bridges – that dates to 1871. This bridge carries the trail across French Creek.

The Phoenix Column Bridge. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The Phoenix Column Bridge. – Photo by the author

Sadly, all of these structures were built in the post-Civil War years. The site where the artillery was made was on the north side of French Creek, along the trail. I was able to walk along the path, and even went off on some side trails, but I couldn’t find any ruins that looked to be from the right era. There was a lot of poured concrete, which I think would have been installed later. The iron works eventually made the transition to steel, and continued to operate into the 1970s.

Overgrown ruins in the area where the Civil War-era portion of the iron works would have been. These are gone now. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Overgrown ruins in the area where the Civil War-era portion of the iron works would have been. These are gone now. – Photo by the author

Today, the site where the cannons would have been forged is a new neighborhood called “Steelpointe“. Nothing of these houses existed when I visited in 2019, so I’m glad that I was able to see the site in as “pure” a form as possible. I wonder how many of the people who live here realize how important this stretch of land along the creek was to the Union war effort. I’m constantly reminded of how much history is directly under our feet, if we only have the will to explore it.

While I was in the area, I also rolled through Valley Forge National Historical Park, but that’s a story from another post, as I decided to go back the next weekend with my boys.

West Point Foundry

From my travels, May 21, 2019.

Longtime readers will know that I’m something of an artillery nerd, so while I’m “in the neighborhood” I can’t pass up the chance to see where the West Point Foundry was located. This 19th century industrial site manufactured a number of metal goods, but most notably the Parrott Rifle, invented by, and named for, West Point Foundry Superintendent Robert Parker Parrott.

The sign at the entrance to the "West Point Foundry Preserve" - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The sign at the entrance to the “West Point Foundry Preserve” – Photo by the author

The old foundry grounds have been made into a public park – part historic site and part nature preserve. There is also a pretty cool multimedia tour that can be accessed on-site from a smartphone. I took advantage of that tour during my visit.

The first thing to visit here is a reconstruction of the old artillery testing rig down near the Hudson River. New artillery pieces were tested by firing projectiles across the river toward Storm King Mountain at the very northern end of the United States Military Academy grounds.

New artillery pieces were test-fired here. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
New artillery pieces were test-fired here. – Photo by the author

I only saw a few other people while I was there – it is quite a serene setting, so the park works well even if you’re only looking for a quiet time in the woods. The waterway that powered the factory is still here – the aptly-named Foundry Brook – and it provides just enough white noise as you stroll along the path of the old railway bed that ran among the various buildings here.

Foundry Brook still flows through the site. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
Foundry Brook still flows through the site. – Photo by the author

There are several ruins remaining from the days of the foundry. The most notable and prominent is the old 1865 Office Building that was constructed during the height of the site’s productivity. While there are some walls still standing, most of what is left here are building foundations. Even with the multimedia tour and the few wayside markers along the way, you need to use a fair bit of imagination to envision what the place must have been like when it was a major producer of iron goods. Mother Nature has done a good job of reclaiming the land.

The 1865 Office Building at West Point Foundry - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The 1865 Office Building at West Point Foundry – Photo by the author

The imagination is assisted a bit by the inclusion of a reproduction of part of the old Boring Mill wheel – mainly so the visitor can get a sense of the scale of the thing. This is the part of the factory that made artillery production possible – it carved out the barrel of the guns and allowed for rifling to be done.

The new "Boring Mill Wheel" helps with the visitor's vision of what the foundry was like in the mid 19th century. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The new “Boring Mill Wheel” helps with the visitor’s vision of what the foundry was like in the mid 19th century. – Photo by the author

I really enjoyed my time at the preserve. There are so many aspects to Civil War history that can be explored – it’s so much more than battlefields.

Network Rebuild

I’ve spent some time lately redesigning my home network thanks to some new (to me) equipment that I found on eBay. This post is a breakdown of what I’ve done so far (and maybe a bit about my plans moving ahead).

Core Switch

For a few years, I’ve had a really nice router that allowed me to create separate subnets for different purposes. Up to this point, I’d only had small, “dumb” switches, so for each new subnet that I wanted to create, I needed a completely separate router interface and switch. It got out of hand really quickly, becoming a rat’s nest of different consumer-grade equipment.

A few weeks ago, I found a used NetGear “smart” managed switch. In addition to 24 gigabit Ethernet ports, it also has 4 SFP ports for later expansion. All the ports support at least PoE (802.3af) with 8 of the ports supporting the more powerful PoE+ (802.3at) standard. Of course, it allows for VLANs, and link aggregation, too. This one piece of equipment has enabled everything else that I’ve been able to upgrade. It’s a really powerful addition to my home LAN.

The “new” core switch just after I got everything working. – Photo by the author

I’m not going to lie – this took a little while to get set up. It wasn’t immediately obvious that the aggregate links I was setting up on the switch for my uplink to the router, and for one of my servers, weren’t using LACP by default. This manifested as unreliable links – not broken ones. Most traffic would get through, so it was hard to pin down exactly what was broken when I’ve also just moved EVERYTHING else at THE SAME TIME. I made this move as a total heart transplant as far as the network was concerned, because I felt a lot of pressure to get the Internet back up quickly for the other members of my household. In the end, trying to rush caused me to miss things in the troubleshooting process. There were several cycles of reverting all the changes and starting from scratch. I also could have done a better job of finding documentation and doing a written plan of action first.

In the end, everything worked out, and we have a MUCH more capable network now.

Wireless Access

Prior to having the ability to do separate VLANs on the same switch, I had to run totally separate hardware stacks for each subnet I wanted to provide. The same was true for Wi-Fi access: there were multiple access points, each tied to its own subnet and with its own distinct SSID.

Why not put in an access point solution that was also VLAN-aware, and since I now have a PoE-capable switch as well, take advantage of that at the same time? This would also let us get rid of the $15/month we were paying to lease our main Wi-Fi router from our ISP. That was going to be the next phase of the plan. I decided on a Ubiquiti UniFi U6-Lite Wireless Access Point, and was able to find a refurbished one for sale to save a few bucks.

The U6-Lite Access Point - plenty for our needs, and as a refurb unit, the price was right. Looks great, works even better! - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The U6-Lite Access Point – plenty for our needs, and as a refurb unit, the price was right. Looks great, works even better! – Photo by the author

I already had some experience with Docker, so I decided that I would run the UniFi Network Controller software myself within a container. I know – it’s sort of overkill for a single access point setup, but that’s the easiest way to get the VLANs going the way that I wanted. It was super easy to deploy the container, but I had a little trouble getting the access point to adopt at first. It turns out that my VLAN configuration wasn’t quite right on the switch: I really needed a separate management VLAN for the access point and controller to live on so that all the other VLAN tags would work correctly – after a little bit of experimentation, I found a config that worked.

That’s been a theme of this project so far: if I was more experienced with VLANs, or with LAG configuration with the switch, then this whole thing would have been almost plug-and-play. But isn’t that why we have home labs? So we can play with these technologies and gain experience?

Returning to the task at hand – the UniFi Controller software is really wonderful. There is SO MUCH data about your network and how it is running, and it’s beautifully-presented. My kids really enjoy seeing the animated visual representation of traffic flow that can be turned on within the topology section of the dashboard. Very cool stuff!

Performance data about our humble U6-Lite within the UniFi Controller. - <i>Screenshot by the author</i>
Performance data about our humble U6-Lite within the UniFi Controller. – Screenshot by the author

In addition to our regular “Home LAN” Wi-Fi, we now have separate SSIDs (and VLANs, each with their own appropriate restrictions) for my kids to use, for IoT devices in the house, and even for guests (with a super-slick captive portal built in!) I’m very impressed with the UniFi system.

Servers and Services

So what are we going to do with all these new network capabilities? Well in my last post about this general topic, I talked about a lot of the things that my boys and I had been playing with in our home lab – we’re still doing those things, but at a larger scale and with better organization now.

For starters, I’ve really come to love Proxmox. Since I last wrote here, we’ve upgraded our virtualization server from an old desktop to a used 1U rackmount server that the boys’ grandfather found for us on a local marketplace site. The new machine is a Dell PowerEdge R610 with 2 Xeon X5675 CPUs (for 24 total threads), 80GB of RAM, and 2.4TB of storage. It’s a monster of a machine, so I don’t keep it on all the time – I only use it when I want to play with a really complicated system or set of systems together. I’m able to keep it off because it has an iDRAC integrated lights-out management system that allows me to send a network signal that turns the machine on remotely.

The front panel of our second-hand Dell PowerEdge R610 server. - <i>Photo by the author</i>
The front panel of our second-hand Dell PowerEdge R610 server. – Photo by the author

For a few years, I’d been running most of the network services that need to be on all the time on small, inexpensive single-board computers. These have been really great because they don’t use a lot of power or make any noise, and have been reliable enough and fast enough for our purposes. As I’ve gotten more used to having the power of Proxmox around, I’ve started to see the limitations of my old way, though. And similarly to the issue of each subnet needing its own networking, each service that I wanted to limit to a particular subnet needed its own server for that subnet in order to remain truly isolated.

Now that I have proper VLANs, why not set up a lower-power server and run a single trunk connection? Whenever I need to add a new VLAN, it’s as simple as adding a new tag on that server’s interface and the switch port. Proxmox makes that process really easy.

Proxmox runs on our old laptop very well. Modern hardware - even consumer-grade stuff - has a lot of headroom. <i>Screenshot by the author</i>
Proxmox runs on our old laptop very well. Modern hardware – even consumer-grade stuff – has a lot of headroom. Screenshot by the author

So that’s what I’ve done. I’m replacing 3 separate single-board computers with a single laptop we were no longer using. I put a little more RAM in it, installed Proxmox, and set up a few VMs for hosting internal and external services. All the websites I host for our family are now containerized (including this one). I have a single VM backup to run (which takes just a couple minutes) and all that data is safe. This setup will also make the eventual migration of the sites to new hardware a breeze.

For containerization, I’m still using Docker. I feel like I was a little late to that party, and I had some trouble wrapping my head around it at first, but I see all the benefits now. I know that I can run LXC containers within Proxmox, but I haven’t messed with that too much. I really like the interface that Portainer supplies, and I feel like I have a setup that works really well for our purposes. I might experiment a little in the future (it IS a home lab, after all) but for now, Docker is our “production” setup.

For the Future

Things are working really well for now. I’m so pleased with how everything has come together since ripping out all my old networking and rebuilding around a commercial-grade switch.

I think the next thing I’d like to do is replace my current network storage setup with a proper NAS. I don’t think I’d want to use the UI that comes with the types of systems that you get from something like a Synology or QNAP – I’d probably just use them as a raw pool of storage, and run something like NextCloud for the “friendly” interface to all that storage. I just need a big hard drive that I can talk to over a couple of TCP ports. 🙂

Next, I’d like to improve the reliability of my hosted services by setting up a modest Proxmox cluster. There are a lot of ultra small form factor, so-called “1-liter” desktops on the secondary market – largely as they come off of corporate leases, it seems. My own experience (and what I’ve seen from other home lab enthusiasts) seems to suggest that with enough RAM, they’d work out really well as Proxmox nodes. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to set it up as a high-availability cluster, but being able to shuffle VMs back and forth as I move around the underlying hardware, or do updates, would be of great benefit.

I’m excited about the possibilities that are available for the boys and I to explore. I’m sure there will be more posts coming as we build more things!