When the first snow of the season falls, everyone seems relatively enamored with the glistening white flakes clinging to the trees, painting a beautiful snowy scene. By now, a few months into winter, everyone is pretty much fed up, and wishing for spring. New York has certainly received its share of the white stuff, having at least one shutdown of major transit. Boston, however, has been particularly hard-hit, with record breaking snowfalls. The snowdrifts are apparently so high that some crazy folks have been jumping out of their windows into them – “nonsense” that is not amusing the city’s mayor.
The MBTA is suffering through the onslaught of snow – but just barely. With several full shutdowns, and running on reduced schedules, the transit agency is paying just about anybody 30 dollars an hour to help shovel snow, in addition to the fifty prison inmates they’ve recruited to do the same. Provided the city is not hit with yet another storm, they estimate an entire month before things get back to normal.
I happened to be in Boston last Saturday right as the city’s most recent blizzard was just beginning, and only hours before the system’s full Sunday shutdown. Capturing the snowy scene at West Concord, I checked out the snow-covered trains, and the restored depot on the MBTA’s Fitchburg Line. Though there are two tracks running through here (greatly reduced from when this town was once called Concord Junction and featured three railroads running through), although one is currently out of service and piled with snow as high as the station’s high-level platform.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I have a strange affinity for the village of Chatham. Although it is an adorable place, rather quaint, I wonder what exactly it was like when the railroads ran through here. You might see a freight train, or a passing Lake Shore Limited, but none of them stop. Chatham once serviced the New York & Harlem Railroad, the Boston & Albany, and the Rutland – all of which are long gone. And thus the place is a little bit of a curiosity to me. The many suburbs along the Harlem – Bronxville, Hartsdale, Scarsdale, and even the ones further north, Katonah, Brewster – they were all influenced by the rail. They grew and morphed into the places we know now, and though the rail does not entirely define those places now, the rail still is there, playing a part in the futures of those areas. But Chatham, it is a special case. The single most defining factor of the village has disappeared. It is no longer the terminus of any railroads. The once busy Union Station no longer serves train riders, it is a bank. Chatham has reverted to a quieter version of itself, representing a little portion of historical Columbia County.
Many places across the country have seen transformations, with the things they were built upon playing a part in their downfall. Detroit was built on the auto industry, but as the industry migrated and moved overseas, parts of the city have become abandoned – a true example of urban decay. The small town of Centralia, Pennsylvania was built upon anthracite coal, literally and figuratively. Ironically, it was the coal brought the death sentence of the little town, as it caught fire in the 1960’s and has been burning ever since. There is something about these changed places that intrigues me (high on my list of places to visit is also Pripyat, an abandoned town brought down by the failings of humans). All of these, of course, are radical examples. Chatham lives, it does not decay. Perhaps the once-fundamental core of its being is gone, but it still thrives. But just as one can compare the photos of Detroit’s urban decay with the historical photos of yesteryear, one can bear witness to the radical changes made in just a few scant years (or slightly longer than the years I’ve been on this Earth). There are no more signal towers, water towers, or turntables. The children of Chatham will never board a passenger train in their village to head the one hundred and twenty seven miles to Grand Central. And of course, the Harlem division will never again run this far north.
The time for Chatham as a railroad town has passed. As the time has ticked by it has reinvented itself, and is still reinventing itself. It is not the decline as a railroad hub that has intrigued me about Chatham, but that reinvention. It is a charming and beautiful little village, with a gazebo, clock tower, shops, and restaurants – plus a whole lot of history. The photos below were taken back in October upon my second visit to Chatham, a visit where I actually had time to shop and eat, and enjoy the surrounding history. Perhaps if you too find Chatham to be interesting you will take the time to visit some day…
The photos below were sent in by reader John. They were taken in the late 1960’s at Chatham.
For an even further back look, the Library of Congress has an illustrated map view of the village of Chatham from 1886. At this time the “Union Station” had not been built, and the Boston & Albany, and the New York & Harlem each had their own rail stations. For easier viewing I’ve given the B&A station a slight red tint, and the Harlem a blue tint.
Several months ago I was amused when I saw a blog linking to my own, and they referred to me as a “closeted rail fan.” Despite “coming out” and accepting the title I still wonder if it is really an appropriate term to call me. I certainly like riding on trains, but I know very little about the physical machine that is a train. I think my primary interest is the history, and most specifically, how technology affected places and people. And I think it is undeniable that the railroads played a big part in how New York evolved. Back when Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the land for the original Grand Central Depot, the location was considered “the boonies,” as City Hall was thought of as the northern end of the city. And what would Westchester County be like without the rail? The rail encouraged the people of the area to move north and spread out, turning the rural areas into the suburbs we know today.
I think another thing that interests me about the rail is the abandonment. I really don’t know why, but I have a fascination with abandoned places – and the rail has plenty of them. The railroad was once the primary way mail and freight was delivered, and how people got around. But cars became increasingly more popular, and with the advent of the interstate system, cars took the place of trains in getting around. And so stations were closed, rail lines cut, and railroad companies went bankrupt. I do mention it frequently on here, but the Harlem Line is no stranger to abandonment. In 1972 passenger service north of Dover Plains ceased, and around 50 miles worth of track, all the way to Chatham, was abandoned.
Old photos and postcards of Chatham, NY
In the grand scheme of things, Chatham was luckier than most. It was once a thriving area for transportation: the Harlem Division, Rutland Railway, and the Boston and Albany all made stops. Though the Harlem and Rutland’s track has been ripped out, CSX and Amtrak still use the Boston and Albany track, running through the quiet village without stopping. Quite a few of the former stations on the Harlem Division have really nothing to see… station buildings long gone and mostly forgotten. But as I said before, Chatham was luckier than most, the historical Union Station still stands, restored and used as a bank. And in 1974 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Henry Hobson Richardson was an influential architect in the 19th century, popularizing a style of architecture that was named for him: Richardsonian Romanesque. The revival style incorporated 11th and 12th century European Romaneque traits. Although Trinity Church in Boston was his most notable work, he designed several railroad stations for the Boston and Albany. Several architects trained with Richardson, including Charles McKim and Stanford White, who designed the original Pennsylvania Station, though in the Beaux-Arts style. Following Richardson’s style, however, were two others that worked for him: George Shepley and Charles Coolidge. Their firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, based in Boston, completed Richardson’s partially completed and pending projects, one of which was Chatham’s Union Station. In total, the firm completed 23 of B&A’s stations, including Boston’s South Station, still in use by the MBTA.
Chatham’s Union Station opened on August 31, 1887. The ticket office in the station was closed in 1960, and pieces of the inside, including the waiting benches, were sold off. Passengers used the station up until it’s final closure in March of 1972, ending the many years it served as the terminus of the Harlem Division. The station has been restored, and reopened in 1999. It is now the office for the Chatham branch of the Bank of Kinderhook. And it is still quite beautiful… one of the few remaining vestiges of the Upper Harlem Line that I can actually see.
My name is Emily, though I am known by many who ride the train simply as Cat Girl, for the hats I customarily wear during the winter time. I am a graphic designer, a former Metro North commuter and lifelong Harlem Line rider. This site is a collection of my usually train-related thoughts, observations, photographs, and travels, as well as my never-ending hunt for intriguing historical artifacts.