Remembering the Upper Harlem Division – Part 1

Twenty-four years ago I boarded my very first train – a Harlem Line local from Brewster to Grand Central Terminal. I was four years old, and quite intrigued by the journey. While I’m sure many hold their first train experience in a special place in their hearts, I really didn’t fall in love with the Harlem Line until I became a regular commuter after graduating college in 2008. The second most frequent question I receive from railfans (after the inevitable “oh my god… are you really a girl?!”) is why the Harlem. For many the Harlem isn’t overwhelmingly interesting – it’s a dead-end ride to cow town. At least the New Haven’s tracks extend to Boston, and the Hudson’s to Albany and beyond… you can actually get somewhere. But part of the intrigue of the Harlem, at least for me, is its history. The Harlem was New York City’s first railroad – chartered in 1831 – which is certainly a cool fact. But perhaps the most intriguing bit of history is that of the Upper Harlem – nearly fifty miles of track, with thirteen different stations, all abandoned.


Map of the Harlem Division’s abandoned stations north of the Harlem Line’s current terminus in Wassaic.

On this day 41 years ago the very last passenger train on the Upper Harlem Division departed the line’s terminus, Chatham station, bound for Grand Central Terminal. The cancellation of service north of Dover Plains was abrupt and in the middle of the day – no one, from the riders to railroad employees – knew that this would be the final run. But also, it was hardly a surprise. The railroad had threatened to close the line for years, and only the courts prevented the Penn Central from doing so.

Another fact that was hardly a surprise was that ridership on the Upper Harlem had severely dwindled over the years. The New York Central operated five weekday southbound trains from Chatham to Grand Central throughout the early 1900′s, and during the busy World War II years increased that number to six. But after the war had ended, and train travel steadily began to lose favor, many of these Upper Harlem trains were eliminated. By 1950 only three southbounds departed Chatham every day, and by 1953 only a single train left the station every weekday. This single southbound was the norm until the Upper Harlem was finally closed.


The final timetable of the Upper Harlem Division from Chatham to Grand Central Terminal.

Throughout all these events, an organization called the Harlem Valley Transportation Association had been founded to not only improve service, but to ensure that the full route of the Harlem Division – all the way to Chatham – would stay in service. The HVTA’s fight against line operator Penn Central was like David versus Goliath, and they had no qualms about taking it to the courts. By the end of 1971 a service shutdown on the upper Harlem had been delayed by the courts no less than seven times. As part of their campaign, the HVTA distributed posters to local businesses to display, all in the efforts to encourage rail ridership and prevent a shutdown. Industrial designer Seymour Robins, also the HVTA’s treasurer, created these two-color silk-screened posters, with nine variations in all. Each variation referenced a specific point the HVTA wished to improve: Service, Ecology, Stations, Windows, Track, Cars, Schedules, Toilets, and Roadbed.


The above HVTA posters, in nine different variations, were mass printed in 1971. They were designed by Seymour Robins, the treasurer of the HVTA, and an industrial designer.

The HVTA brought together over a hundred riders from not only New York, but Connecticut and Massachusetts as well – all people that depended on the Upper Harlem. One of the most charismatic personalities involved in the fight was HVTA Vice-President (and later President) Lettie Gay Carson. Although the long intertwined history of the Upper Harlem and Columbia county was certainly in her mind, the shrewd Carson fought to save the line not for nostalgia purposes, but for both local economic and environmental reasons. She recognized that it wasn’t passenger service that paid the bills, and besides looking to attract new ridership, Carson also focused on attracting local businesses to use rail freight.

But to truly save the line and make it profitable, Carson even attempted to create an industry from scratch. This new industry, handling sewage sludge, would not only operate on the Upper Harlem’s rails, but also benefit the environment – two causes important to Carson and the HVTA. Instead of dumping sewage sludge in the ocean, which contaminated fisheries and beaches, Carson proposed that it could be carried by railcar up the Harlem where it would be composted and spread onto the many farms in Dutchess and Columbia counties. Although the concept may be off-putting, the sludge could greatly improve the fertility of farmland naturally, without the use of chemical fertilizers. Carson’s ideas were often deemed “years ahead of [her] time,” which is quite the truth. People today are slowly realizing (a bit too late) that replacing trains with cars and trucks only furthered our dependence on foreign oil – one of Carson’s many reasons for fighting to save the Upper Harlem.


Labor Day 1971 in Millerton: Lettie Carson of the HVTA holds a sign that reads “Trains will run indefinitely” in this photo by Heyward Cohen. The sign Carson holds in the photo – a true museum piece – has been preserved and still exists today.

Though the courts ordered the Penn Central to keep operating trains, mostly due to the HVTA’s efforts, they were by no means obligated to provide any customer service whatsoever. Because of Penn Central’s lapse, the Harlem Valley Transportation Association took over many of their duties to prevent losing passengers. When the Penn Central failed to distribute timetables, the HVTA mailed them out to riders instead. When the Penn Central failed to pay the phone bill for Millerton station, the HVTA set up their own answering service. And just two weeks before passenger service was eliminated, the HVTA was again in the news – for getting the station platforms cleared of snow, because the Penn Central refused. Ignoring the Harlem Division only began a vicious cycle – lack of maintenance led to late and slow trains, and this unreliable service only resulted in a loss of customers – but perhaps that was Penn Central’s goal all along.

The Harlem Valley Transportation Association’s valiant efforts increased the Upper Harlem’s lifespan by a few years, but the line met its inevitable end on March 20th, 1972 when passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham was eliminated. Freight service on the Harlem from Chatham was also eliminated several years later. On this 41st anniversary of the end of passenger service, we’ll be taking a tour up the abandoned line to all thirteen former stations, and to see how these areas fare today. Our tour starts at Amenia, the first abandoned station north of Wassaic, the current terminus of the Harlem Line. Wassaic itself was abandoned in 1972, but service there was restored by Metro-North in 2000.

As we travel north beyond the Harlem Line’s terminus at Wassaic, the first abandoned station we come to is Amenia. Around 85 miles north of Grand Central, the area surrounding the station is attractive and rich in farmland. Besides the obvious farming and dairy production, Amenia also had a steelworks and several iron mines, all of which used the Harlem for freight.

Amenia Today

 

The obvious vestige of the railroad in Amenia is the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which runs from Wassaic station to the former station in Millerton. The old Amenia station building is long gone, and likely forgotten. But similar to many towns with abandoned stations, Amenia has a few street names reflect the once important railroad that traversed the town. Depot Hill Road, and Railroad Avenue cross near the rail trail, and are a small reminder of the Harlem.

Named for nearby Sharon, Connecticut, Sharon station on the Harlem Division predominantly served riders from that state. A station building was constructed in 1875, and consisted of two floors, with the ground floor being separated in two sections – one for freight, and one for passengers. The upper floor consisted of living quarters for the station agent or other railroad employees. Not far from the station was the Manhattan Mining Corporation, which had its own siding and used the Harlem for freight.

*Upper right photo of Sharon station by Art Deeks.

Sharon Today

 

As a station serving mostly Connecticut riders, there was never much of a community around Sharon station. The station building itself, however, is one of the few Upper Harlem stations to still exist today. After being damaged in a fire, the old station was restored and turned into a residence. Several years ago the building was placed on the market, and I just happened to get a tour of it. Recently sold for $525,000, the building remains a private residence, and is hidden from the nearby rail trail by strategically placed trees and a fence. The only other hint that a railroad ran through here is the aptly named Sharon Station Road.

One of the less prominent stations on the line, Coleman’s was named after a local landholder. A major industry in the community was a milk factory, which used the Harlem for freight. Coleman’s was one of the stations to be abandoned early on – along with Mount Riga and Martindale. All three were eliminated as passenger stations in 1949.

Coleman’s Today

 

Today, Coleman’s is a relatively quiet area, with a small “historic district” that contains a late-1700’s burial ground. The rail trail and Coleman Station Road are all remnants of the Harlem in this small community.

The next station along the line is Millerton – but that will have to wait for another day. We’ll continue our tour of the Upper Harlem in Part 2, coming soon!

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AWESOME new Harlem Line service – To Millerton!

I cannot believe that Metro-North managed to keep this a secret… I nearly had a heart attack when I grabbed one of the new timetables that came out today. Harlem Line service to Millerton is returning! Although there is no time frame of when the stations (Millerton and Amenia) will be reopening, the timetables give us a sneak peek. In Grand Central you can even find a local timetable from both Millerton and Amenia, which are in the newly-created Zone 11 on the line. A monthly ticket from Millerton to Grand Central will cost a whopping $506, but it the new “god ticket” – giving you access to the entire Metro-North system. Ticket Vending Machines already have the two new stations programmed in – the ticket I purchased yesterday from current end-of-line Wassaic to new end-of-line Millerton cost $3.50. Since new tickets expire in 2 weeks, and the new stations will likely not be open in that time-frame, I suppose I just have a neat thing for a scrapbook. But the $3.50 I paid was certainly worth it – I absolutely cannot wait to ride to Millerton!


Improving non-stop? I will never again laugh at that MTA tagline!

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Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line (Part 7)

Admit it, readers – somewhere in the back of your head you were wondering when I’d get around to showing you more railroad-themed postcards. My postcard collecting addiction has been well documented, and roughly every other month I do a new post full of my newly acquired cards. Today’s lineup includes Amenia, one of the abandoned Upper Harlem stations, and Towners, another abandoned station. There are also a few cards of station buildings still around today, like Katonah, Bedford Hills, and Scarsdale.

Again, I must sincerely thank Steve Swirsky for his wonderful contributions to our extensive collection of postcards. The Dover Plains, Towners, and White Plains cards are all from his collection.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Have you missed any of our installments of “Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line?” Check out all of the old posts here:
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 1
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 2
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 3
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 4
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 5
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 6
You can also view and search the whole collection of postcards through SmartCat.

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Looking back, and looking forward – a photographic to-do list

While cleaning the other day I found some old photos of my first long distance railroad trip and I wanted to share. The photos have to be at least thirteen years old, I remember leaving from Penn Station and going down to Jacksonville, Florida, and then later leaving from DeLand station back to Penn. I don’t think I really cared all that much about trains back then, but I sure was mesmerized with that Solari departure board that used to be in Penn Station.

 
   

Most typical of me, there is a photo of a cat in there. I don’t recall much about the cat, but based on the fur coloring visible in the photo, the cat is a she (or a rare genetic aberration). I remember that cat hung out at the station, and of course I hung out with her while waiting for my train. Amusingly, the DeLand station’s wikipedia entry mentions the cat, and how she often will greet passengers disembarking from the train on the platform. Whether the cat is the same or not, or possibly a descendant of the cat in my photo, I have no idea. My grandmother is going to be heading down by train to DeLand sometime in March, so I told her to keep her eyes open for the cat. I could always call the station and ask about her, but then they would find out what you guys already know – that I’m just a tad crazy.

Those old photos were of course taken with a real film camera. Honestly, I never really liked film all that much. I’ve done the whole film thing, from shooting to self developing, which I especially loathed (imagine me, with my poor coordination, standing in the blackness of the darkroom attempting to roll my film onto the spool for processing and failing miserably). I never had much money growing up, and film and developing was always costly. Digital gives me the ability to shoot a million different frames of the same thing from various angles, and then decide which I like best – without worrying in my mind about wasting film exposures and money in development.

All this thought about my old photography is making me think about what my goals are for this year. What places I’d like to go see and photograph, and then post on this blog. The whole lack of a car thing makes some of this difficult, and it is likely I won’t be able to visit all of these places this year. But these are just some ideas…

Railroad Museum of Long Island – Riverhead, New York
Vanderbilt Mansions in Rhode Island – The Breakers and Marble House
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site – Hyde Park, New York
Vanderbilt Museum – Centerport, New York
Sharon Station – Old Harlem station in Amenia
Craryville Station – The other remaining Harlem station that I’ve not been to

At the end of April I will be heading to Africa for a little bit of adventure. I’ll be going on safari in South Africa and Botswana, as well as visiting Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Victoria Falls. I’ll get the chance to photograph the Cape Town Railway Station, as well as Africa’s largest railway station: Johannesburg Park Station. I’m also hoping to take a Metro Train to Simonstown as well as a journey through the Karoo desert to Johannesburg on the Premier Classe Train.

Unrelated to trains, but keeping up with my desire to visit really strange locales, my friend has a strong desire to go and see Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. The mayor of Rabbit Hash is a dog. Along the way, however, we would stop at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, which looks like quite the gorgeous building.

Most notably, I will continue with my station tours whenever spring finally comes and this snow has melted. It was up in the air between either the Hudson or the New Haven lines, but I finally decided upon doing a Tour of the New Haven Line. Just as I did with the tour of the Harlem Line, I will post a new station each Tuesday.

For now that is about all I can think of. I’m very open to suggestions for interesting places to visit, so if you have an idea, be sure to comment and let me know!

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An adventure to Amenia, and the Panorama Project

If you are a regular reader of this blog, it should be rather obvious that I enjoy going on little photo taking adventures that are loosely based on the subject of railroading. Last week on my little jaunt to Amenia, I got called out on twitter. A rail adventure? Than what are you doing on the road? Not to mention, getting lost on the road. The GPS was quite delightful, sending us down single lane dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. The intent of the trip was to see the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. I’ve also had a yearning to check out some of the old New York Central rail stations that were part of the upper Harlem Line and closed back in the 70’s… at least the ones that have some sort of building or remnant left standing. The closest one being Sharon Station, in Amenia, but on the border with Sharon, Connecticut. So see, some rail adventures do require the use of cars!

We took the scenic route through Connecticut, past Kent Falls and the Indian Reservation in which my aunt lives (which itself is a story on its own, but suffice it to say if you ever thought I was crazy, you haven’t met members of my family. I’m probably one of the more sane ones). The idea was to get up to Sharon, and then cut over the border to New York state. Well, the GPS had other ideas, because we started to get out into the middle of nowhere. And started noticing, oh look at that, the roads aren’t even paved here! And then the roads got so narrow, they were practically one laned. My mother, who was driving, was not amused.


We pulled over to the side to allow this truck to go by

By the time we got managed to get within a few miles of where the GPS said the former station was, there were signs that a bridge was out. Great. First we get the dirt roads, now we get the lack of a bridge, with no visible detour. We never did find the old station that day. Nor did we really have enough time to walk anywhere on the rail trail. But sometimes adventures turn out different from how you’ve imagined them… but then, that is why they are adventures. We admired the rolling hills, the farm land. Amenia is after all pleasing to the eye, from the original latin word amoena.

An unintended accomplishment of the trip was the opportunity to take photos at most of the upper Harlem Line stations. After trying to find a way around the bridge that was out we practically ran right into the Tenmile River station. And on the way back, we figured it might be a safer bet to ride down route 22, as we had enough dirt roads for that day. Most of the stations happen to be located along that route as well. Clearly we had to stop at each. Though I think my mom was about to punch me at the end. I imagined her saying “Emily, I’ve had enough of these fucking train stations,” though she never did say it out loud.


Because I made this little logo thing in Illustrator, it means this project is totally legit.

For a while I had wanted to start a new project. Sort of like all the other projects I start and not finish… except this one I would finish, I swear. I want to go to every Harlem Line station and take photos. Not just any photos though. Getting a picture of me in front of the station sign is one requirement, and the second requirement is to take a panorama photo at the station. And that will be the project: the Panorama Project. From now until I have photographed every station, I will post a new panorama each Tuesday. It will be a Harlem Line Tour Tuesday, how grand! Be sure to check back tomorrow to see the first panorama and station profile, Wassaic, the current terminus of the Harlem Line, located in Amenia.

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