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Bridges of Metro-North: The Harlem River Lift Bridge

Throughout the entire Metro-North system there are an array of movable bridges – bridges which as of recently seem to be a thorn in the rail system’s side. Much of the infrastructure on these bridges are old and prone to issues. Thankfully, updates are going on to get these bridges in better working order, and we’ll be taking visits to some of the more prominent bridges in the system in the next few weeks.

Today we feature the busiest bridge on the entire system, the Harlem River Lift Bridge. At sixty years old the bridge is not nearly as old as the issue-plagued WALK bridge, but it by far sees the most action, carrying nearly 700 trains per day for all three East of Hudson Metro-North lines. Over the past few months work has been moving along on the bridge – installing new cables that lift the tracks over the river for passing boats, and putting in new wiring, power supplies, and electrical control systems. Below the bridge a circuit breaker room that flooded during Hurricane Sandy and is experienced corrosion will be replaced. Gone will be an old crank control, updated to today’s standards with modern computers. In total, the overhaul has a $47.2 million price tag.

Previous railroad bridge over the Harlem River
The 1867 bridge over the Harlem River, note the construction of a temporary bridge to allow a new 1891 span to be constructed on the main line. Image from the December 1892 Scientific American.

Historically, several previous movable bridges stood at this very spot, carrying the New York Central over the Harlem River. The first bridge over the river was completed in 1841, and stood a mere eight feet over the water at high tide. Made of wood, that bridge was later updated with iron spans in 1867. Later, a four track swing bridge was built in 1891. This bridge connected with the new Park Avenue viaduct, raising the tracks above Harlem and allowing a higher crossing over the river.

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Grand Central’s Honor Roll – The New York Central Medal of Valor

If you plan on visiting the Holiday Fair in Grand Central, as you peruse the varied items for sale you’ll pass an old plaque listing over a hundred names dating from the ’20s to the ’60s. Though you’d likely pass right by without another note, the plaque holds over a hundred stories of courage – of people risking their lives to save another’s. For the act, their name was recorded for posterity on the walls of the Terminal, on the west wall of what is now Vanderbilt Hall. Though I had certainly seen the plaque bearing the title of “Honor Roll” before, I too hadn’t thought much of it, until I learned the stories of the acts that led the names to be recorded fairly recently. I consider it yet another interesting secret hidden within the walls of Grand Central. As an amateur historian, I have a wealth of knowledge regarding Grand Central (in fact, some of you have written to me mentioning you saw me in the recent documentary Grand Central: An American Treasure), but with a place so historic and important, there will always be things to discover.

The concept of the plaque you’ll find today in Vanderbilt Hall dates back to the ’20s, and Vanderbilt heir and railroad executive Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (son of William Kissam, great-grandson of the Commodore, and the last Vanderbilt to work for the New York Central Railroad). Vanderbilt’s idea was to award a medal to employees of the railroad that had exhibited an act of extraordinary heroism. The idea led to the formation of a committee to review nominations of heroism, which would be forwarded to the railroad’s vice-presidents and president for final decision. Recipients would be awarded a bronze medal – The New York Central Medal of Valor – designed by sculptor Robert Aitken, presented in a leather case, along with a special pin that could be always worn on the lapel, and have their names recorded on the “Honor Roll” plaque. Awards would be presented yearly, with the first awarding in 1927, when fifteen men were honored by New York Central Railroad president Patrick E. Crowley. At least 114 people were presented with the medal, including one woman, and one man who received the award twice.

Though the award was only established in 1927 (for acts performed in the 1926 calendar year), men like Henry Nauman of Hammond, Indiana were likely the reason for its founding. Nauman was the 1924 recipient of the Carnegie Medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund after saving a woman that had walked under the crossing gates and in front of an approaching locomotive. Nauman, the crossing watchman, ran the 25 feet to the woman and pushed her across the track, preventing her from being hit – an act for which he received the Carnegie Medal. No stranger to courageous acts, Nauman again acted when a woman stepped under the lowered crossing gates and in front of an oncoming train. Nauman attempted to pull her to safety, but they were both hit by the locomotive. Sadly, the woman died from her injuries, while Nauman had to have his crushed leg amputated. However, for his courageous act, Nauman received the railroad’s new Medal of Valor, and the Carnegie Medal again – the first man to receive that award two times.

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The Harlem Division’s Cemeteries: The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

To me, some of the most interesting stuff about railroad history is not about the trains or the railroads themselves, but how they affected the places in which they operated. The oft-cited cliche is that the railroads built this country, and although they certainly had an effect on the movement of people westward, some of the strongest effects can be witnessed around cities. Today’s Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines played an immense part in the growth of New York City’s suburbs, and other railroads played a similar part in other major cities. Trains provided easy access to the city’s jobs, but allowed people to live increasingly further and further outside the city’s limits. Businesses were also established or relocated to spots along the rails in order to have access to the city – a primary example being the very first successful condensed milk factory in Wassaic, a spot selected by inventor Gail Borden because of the plentiful farmland, and the Harlem Railroad.

Strangely enough, the railroad also played a part in the establishment of various cemeteries. As the city itself grew larger, not only did some former rural cemeteries get displaced, people with money wished to be interred in an attractive rural setting. Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863, and took in the remains of cemeteries displaced in the city proper, and grew to become a venerable place of final rest for thousands. Such growth was undoubtedly assisted by the nearby railroad, easily allowing loved ones to visit the graves of their friends and family. Further north along the Harlem Division, the Kensico Cemetery was also established as a beautiful, rural final resting place. Truly appealing to the wealthy of the city, Kensico offered a private railcar for rent for funerals which would transport people directly from Grand Central to the cemetery’s very own train station.

Though Woodlawn and Kensico may be the two most commonly known cemeteries that owe their growth to the Harlem Railroad, there is another slightly more unique cemetery that also falls into that category – the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Just like its brethren, the Hartsdale cemetery has seen gun salutes, bagpipers, and is the final resting place for thousands of friends – however the majority of them just happen to not be human. Buried within its grounds you’ll find the graves of war dogs, police dogs (including at least one MTAPD K9), a search and rescue dog that lost its life on September 11th, thousands of other cats and dogs, humans that opted for their cremains to be interred together with their beloved pets, and even a lion. It is also home to the War Dog Memorial, celebrating the animals that fought alongside their human handlers in the Great War.

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The Half-Abandoned Clinton Union Station

Any longtime visitor of this site is well aware of my fascination with abandoned infrastructure – whether it be remains of Chernobyl’s “Radioactive Railroad,” or the inner depths of the long-shuttered Union Station in Gary, Indiana. On a recent visit to Massachusetts, I happened to encounter the old railroad depot in Clinton, and was instantly attracted. Though the abandoned rail tunnel also located in Clinton seems to get more attention than the depot, this old shell of a building that was once undoubtedly beautiful is definitely worth a look.

1888 Boston and Maine Map, highlighting Clinton
Edited and cropped 1888 Boston and Maine Map, highlighting Clinton. Original map from the David Rumsey Collection.

Once straddling the Boston and Maine and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroads, these days the half-abandoned depot watches the occasional Pan Am or CSX train go by. I say half-abandoned, because despite the outer look of abandonment – complete with boarded up windows and graffiti – part of the building is in fact occupied. Because one of the rail lines was elevated, the station was dual level – and it seems that it is this upper level that is in fact abandoned. Below, however, a laundromat and a used clothing shop occupy the space. While the laundromat is quite austere, mixed in among the racks of old clothing in the shop next to it, one can observe the original details of the station – including a door labeled “Baggage”.

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Railroad scenes on the cover of The New Yorker

Since 1925 The New Yorker magazine has been putting out issues with the most wonderfully designed covers (and a few controversial ones). Often times the covers don’t necessarily reflect any specific article found within magazine, but sometimes they do reflect current events. Other times they show typical New York area scenes. In a city as reliant on mass transit as New York, it was inevitable that buses, trains, and subways would frequently wind up on the cover of the magazine. Even Grand Central Terminal and the original Pennsylvania Station have also been featured several times.

Because several of the illustrators contributing to the magazine lived in Connecticut, the New Haven Line and commuters from the state were depicted on The New Yorker’s cover several times. Westport’s Historical Society had an exhibit featuring some of the Connecticut artwork from the magazine. From what I’ve seen on the internet, the exhibit (which ended last month) looked quite interesting, including some preliminary sketches of the covers by some of the artists.

I figured that I’d create my own little exhibit of covers here, of course, railroad related. Below you’ll find a collection of some of my favorite covers from The New Yorker, all featuring transit in some way. Enjoy!

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The Railroad Photos of Jack Delano

These days almost everyone has a camera – whether it be a point and shoot, an SLR, or just the stock camera that came with your cell phone. Despite all the criticism of people these days and what they’re photographing, part of me thinks that the people of the future who consume all their nutrients in pill form might find today’s photos of food taken by hipsters rather quaint. The fact remains that what is commonplace today may be noteworthy and historic tomorrow. Time has only proven this true – Boris Klapwald’s snapshots of Grand Central Terminal were boxed up and forgotten for nearly fifty years, until discovered by his daughter. She brought them to the MTA, and they were exhibited in the Terminal through Arts for Transit. Street photographer Vivian Maier was practically unknown until her largely undeveloped film was put up for auction after her death. Her discovered photos have since been exhibited around the world, and is the subject of a documentary. Although the good majority of the photos captured these days aren’t much to write home about, it is undeniable that we are well-documenting our world, and the things future generations will most likely interpret as just plain weird.

Though cameras were far less common in the past, there were many photographers that froze glimpses of what was then normal life. I’ve posted about the Depression-era photographers of the Farm Security Administration before – despite the name, the project yielded thousands of photos that had nothing to do with farms, but instead featured normal Americans living life – including two of the most iconic photographs of Grand Central Terminal. A similarly iconic photo of Chicago’s Union Station also came out of the project, captured by photographer Jack Delano. Delano’s railroad-specific work in the Chicago area is currently on display at the Chicago History Museum, which I recently got the chance to check out.

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Beautiful Underground – Gems of the Berlin U-Bahn

For over 200 years railways have been constructed across the globe to carry freight and people. Besides the trains, the integral part of every railway is, of course, the stations themselves. Some stations are rudimentary and simple, but others are undeniable gems. We’ve spent the past few weeks touring Berlin’s U-Bahn, which has many interesting stations, mixed in with plenty more bare and utilitarian stops that are hardly noteworthy. We are, however, back again to check out more attractive locales of the Berlin U-Bahn.

From the attractive Oberbaumbrücke to the unexpected above ground stations, Berlin’s U-Bahn is a captivating transit system. I’m not a big fan of subway stations, likely because I love light, of which there is never quite enough underground. However, some of the U3 Line’s underground stations are hard to ignore. A handful of some of the U-Bahn’s earliest stations are attractive gems. Many were located in the city of Wilmersdorf – then a suburb of Berlin. Conceptually, the stations’ aesthetic was to represent the affluence of the city – represented through elaborate stonework. The resulting stations featured Doric columns, granite floors, wrought iron gates, mosaic tiling, and sandstone-carved sculptures. By 1920 Wilmersdorf was folded into Greater Berlin, but these stations retain both the character and history of its predecessor.

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Riding Berlin’s U1 Line: The Oberbaumbrücke

I’ve always said that my primary interest in railroads is not necessarily the machine that is a train, but instead the way railroad systems change over time, and how they influence the people and locations around them – or even how places influence the rails. For those with similar interests, the city of Berlin is a great case study. As I’m sure everyone is familiar, Germany and the city of Berlin were partitioned after World War II into areas occupied by the French, British, Americans, and Soviets. The Soviet portion became the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany, and the three other sectors the Federal Republic of Germany, better known as West Germany. In Berlin, a transit system that once spanned the entire city became truncated by this political divide. With the construction of the Berlin wall, starting in 1961, the city became truly divided.

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Ghost station: The U-Bahn station Bernauer Straße was closed after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Here you can see the entrance to the station, blocked by the wall. The station was reopened after the reunification of Germany. Photo taken August 27, 1962 by Allhails.

The citywide network of trains in Berlin struggled to conform to the divisions forced upon it by politics. In some instances, stations were completely closed, and lines were truncated as to not operate in the opposite sector. In other situations, lines were able to operate across the border, albeit with restrictions. The U8 line, for example, started in West Germany, but traversed a portion of East German territory before returning to the west. Although the train was permitted to pass through East Germany, they were not permitted to stop at the stations there. Shrouded in darkness and heavily guarded, these shuttered stations became colloquially known as “ghost stations.” In a unique situation, Friedrichstraße railway station, located in East German territory, was open to citizens from both sides of the border, though the station was divided into isolated sections for each.

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A Visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, and a ride on the Funicular

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, most likely you’ve heard at least a little bit of the recent news about Ukraine. Over the past year there have been protests, government-hired snipers to kill said protesters, a corrupt president that fled after the fallout of that decision, and land grabs by Russia. Although some volatile areas remain in the east of the country, some alarmists would have you believe that tanks are rolling down the streets of Kyiv[1] today, or that neo-Nazis have taken over the government, both of which are pure fiction. Admittedly, Kyiv is extremely dangerous, but only because it is so darn beautiful you may just fall in love and never want to come home. The architecture that one finds in the city is undeniably gorgeous. And one need not be a religious person to be in awe of the many magnificent churches and cathedrals in all parts of the city.

  
 
 
Scenes from Kyiv – Saint Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Saint Andrew’s Church, and views from the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

I figured it might be enjoyable to take a little tour of Kyiv, and some of the beautiful sights within. For railfans there are plenty of interesting places to check out, including the city’s Metro system, and an interesting main train station.

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  1. The more familiar Kiev is transliterated from the Russian Киев. Київ, written as Kyiv in English, is properly derived from the Ukrainian language. []

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A Railroad Journey to Ukraine: Chernihiv

Roughly a hundred miles north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is the city of Chernihiv. Chernihiv has quite a long history, dating back to the medieval times, and it is also home to Ukraine’s oldest church. In terms of railroads, the first station in Chernihiv was established in 1893, part of a narrow-gauge branch line of the Moscow-Kiev-Voronezh Railway. Passengers were carried into the city proper by horses until the 1920s when a bridge over the Desna River was constructed, allowing trains into the main part of the city, where a new station was constructed. By 1928 there were connections from Chernihiv to Gomel, in present-day Belarus, to the city of Ovruch in Ukraine, and to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

The Chernihiv – Ovruch line was a relatively unimportant one, primarily constructed for military purposes, but in the most coincidental sense had drastic effects on the Soviet Union and the world. The rail line played a part in the decision of where to locate Ukraine’s very first nuclear power plant, a place the world knows as Chernobyl (Chornobyl would be the proper Ukrainian transliteration). Since the nuclear reactor explosion in 1986, a portion of that rail line was abandoned – a story I’m hoping to flesh out over several posts in the coming weeks.

Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv
Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv. Slavutych is the “replacement” city for those that worked at the Chernobyl plant, constructed after the disaster. The rail line again played a part in the location of this place.

The station that one finds in Chernihiv now was built in 1950. The previous station at that location was destroyed during World War II, or as it is known in former Soviet locales, the Great Patriotic War. Chernihiv was occupied by Nazi forces from 1941 to 1943, and the retreating Soviet army practiced a scorched Earth policy, which included the destruction of railroad infrastructure. The station was destroyed at some point in 1941, either by Nazi bombardment, or by the retreating Soviets themselves to prevent the Nazis from getting any use out of it. The station was rebuilt in 1950, using the labor of German POWs. The attractive design comes from Ukrainian Soviet architect Gennady Ivanovich Granatkin, who is responsible for the designs of several stations throughout the Soviet Union, in today’s Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine.

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