SmartCat Sundays: The New York & Harlem’s Street Railway

When first conceived, the New York & Harlem Railroad was intended to do just what its name implied – connect lower Manhattan to Harlem. The original charter was granted by the New York State Legislature on April 25th, 1831, authorizing a single or double tracked road from 23rd Street to any point on the Harlem River between Third and Eighth Avenues (Fourth Avenue – later renamed Park – was the route ultimately chosen). Less than a year later, that mandate was expanded to allow construction as far south as 14th Street, and was expanded several more times to ultimately allow construction as far as Ann Street, just beyond City Hall. When the first mile of track opened for business in November of 1832, stretching from Prince Street to 14th Street, only 38 other miles of railroad track existed in the state.

New York and Harlem Railroad
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad. Initial service was powered by horse, and later provided all service south of 14th Street, where locomotives were not permitted

Street Railway Lines
Map of the New York & Harlem’s street railway

At Harlem, the northernmost portion of the chartered line, the New York & Harlem would meet up with the New York & Albany Railroad, providing a much-needed year-round link to the state capital (sailing up the Hudson at that time was difficult if not impossible in the winter months). Despite groundbreakings at several points along the proposed line, the New York & Albany never succeeded in creating this link. Slowly the New York & Harlem was given permission to do what the New York & Albany could not – first into Westchester County in 1840, and was later granted full rights to build to Albany in 1846. At that time the The New York & Harlem purchased the what was left of the failed road, including the land it had secured to build its line, for $35,000. Although the New York & Harlem never reached Albany – entering into an agreement with the Boston & Albany Railroad, which it met in Chatham – this trackage became the bread-and-butter of what became the Harlem Division when it was leased to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in 1873.

“The benefit to the City of New York, possessing as it does, the best seaport in the Union, will be incalculable.”

“Gentlemen must judge for themselves, but of one thing we are certain: the road will be built, and the most gratifying results may be anticipated.”

-Co-founder and Vice President John Mason, at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the New York & Harlem Railroad on Murray Hill in 1832.

The remainder of the New York & Harlem, which ran south of Grand Central Depot, was leased in 1897 to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company. Today’s tidbits from the archive deal with just that subject – before the lease of the street railway portion of the New York & Harlem, a letter was sent to all shareholders regarding the decision at the most recent Board of Directors meeting. Shareholders were instructed to sign and return a paper stating that they approved of the decision. Below is a scan of an original copy of this mailing, which this particular shareholder never responded to.

Envelope sent to shareholders

Letter sent to shareholders Response shareholders were supposed to send

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Former Terminus of the Harlem Line: Chatham, Then and Now

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.

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City Hall Station & Holiday Nostalgia Trains

Wow, I am tired after a long day in the city… It will probably take me the next few days to go through all the photos and videos that I took, all of which will eventually get posted on here. I have a lot of pictures and video of the Holiday Train Show in Grand Central, photos and video from the Holiday Gift Fair, and a video of the Holiday Laser Light Show. For all these videos, I decided to make a YouTube account for this blog. There is nothing on there yet, but there will be shortly. If you are interested, you can subscribe to be notified when these videos are uploaded. But they will also be posted here.

But for now, enjoy the photos I took today at my tour with the New York Transit Museum of City Hall Station. Quite honestly, this tour was the reason why I became a member of the museum. And I had a great time. I took some video there as well, and I’ll post that at some point as well.

As an additional note, the Transit Museum will be running Holiday Nostalgia Trains every Sunday in December from 10am to 5pm. The trains will run in regular passenger service on the V line between
Queens Plaza & 2nd Avenue.

You’ve admired them sitting stationary at their home in the New York Transit Museum. Now Car No’s 100, 484 and 1575 are going for a spin! For the next four Sundays, these old friends from the 1930’s to 1970’s will be pulling in and out of V line stations. With luck and timing you can catch them!

Step in and enjoy the ceiling fans, padded seats and incandescent lights, all state-of-the-art back in the day. This Holiday Nostalgia Special will run on the V line, Sundays in December, between 10am and 5pm. For departure times and stations, please see below.

Happy Holidays from the New York Transit Museum!

For additional information about schedules, check out this information page.

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