Remembering the Upper Harlem Division, Part 2

In Wednesday’s post regarding the Upper Harlem, we took a look at some of the first abandoned stations on the route, and remembered the Harlem Valley Transportation Association that worked diligently to prevent the abandonment of the Upper Harlem. When passenger service was eliminated north of Dover Plains, the HVTA did not roll over and die – they instead pushed for a restoration of passenger service. Although difficult, they had to reevaluate their goals – retaining passenger service all the way to Chatham was becoming less and less realistic. By the late ’70s, the HVTA’s goal was to at least get service restored up to Millerton. In 1978 the HVTA, in cooperation with the MTA, State DOT and the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, mailed out a survey to just over 6,000 people in twenty towns in both New York and Connecticut. The survey queried residents about their transportation habits, with a focus on trains.

This wasn’t the only survey that the HVTA carried out – another survey was directed specifically to employees of the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in Wingdale, and the Wassaic Development Center. Distributed to around 4,000 employees with their paychecks, the HVTA wanted to know whether employees would take the train to work if the schedules coincided with their shifts. Both locations did have their own station stops on the line – State Hospital, and State School – so it stood to reason that many employees would take the train if they could.

Below is a copy of the general survey put out by the HVTA, and the HVTA’s October newsletter, detailing the results of the two surveys:

HVTA survey part 1

HVTA survey part 2

HVTA Newsletter with survey results

As we know today, passenger trains to Millerton were never restored. At the time the tracks were still in place, and although they needed maintenance, it was not estimated to cost more than $2 million to restore the 16 mile stretch between Dover Plains and Millerton. For reference, when Metro-North rebuilt six miles of track in 2000 from Dover Plains to Wassaic, the cost was far greater – about 1 million per mile. As we lament that missed opportunity, let’s continue our tour of the Upper Harlem’s abandoned stations, starting with the one that was never restored – Millerton.

Millerton
Named for railroad contractor Sidney Miller, Millerton station is just over 92.5 miles north of Grand Central Terminal. Much of the Upper Harlem had various industries that used the rail, and just north of the Millerton station was the Irondale Furnace, which processed the ore from a nearby mine, and shipped it along on the Harlem. An attractive downtown area popped up around the station, and more colorful local lore states that dancing women could be found just across the street from the station (though this is potentially true in many locations).

Millerton Today

 
While a few of the communities surrounding Harlem stations fell off the map in the years that the railroad has been gone, Millerton is certainly not one of them. The village is a bustling hub of activity, with a collection of cute shops, and a trailhead for the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. Many local towns are lucky if they have just one of their former railroad stations still standing, but Millerton has two. The older Harlem station, which was moved away from the tracks and westward is home to a florist. The more modern station is visible right at the end of the rail trail, and houses a realty company.

The village itself, formed by the railroad, has been without trains since the early ’80s when the Harlem track was removed (the Central New England, which also made its way through Millerton, was removed at least 50 years prior to that). Despite that, Millerton is a testament that not all former railroad towns die when the track disappears. The village thrives – and Budget Travel has even recognized Millerton as one of the 10 coolest small towns in New York.

Mount Riga
Unlike the Hudson Line – part of the New York Central’s famed “Water Level Route” – the Harlem Division is hardly flat, and steadily increases in elevation along its route. Mount Riga was the highest point on the line, just shy of 800 feet above sea level. The station here was technically a Union Station, as it was jointly shared with the Central New England railroad. Alongside the station was a siding that had a 53 car capacity, generally used for freight.

By 1949 the station was eliminated for passenger use, and the depot itself was one of the first Harlem Division stations to be dismantled.

Mount Riga Today

The area where the Mount Riga station once was is for the most part now farmland. A small unpaved street called Mount Riga Station Road, which contains a single house at the end of it, is the last memory of the railroad here.

Boston Corners
The first stop in Columbia County, Boston Corners was previously a part of Massachusetts. The area was once considered lawless – separated by mountains from the lawmen in Massachusetts, illegal activities were aplenty, including several boxing prizefights. After a particularly rowdy fight, which led to a riot, the hamlet was transferred to New York’s jurisdiction.

Boston Corners was also at one point the home of three different railroads, including the Harlem. Like many nearby stations, there was a spur from Boston Corners serving a nearby iron mining company. The Harlem’s longest passing siding was also located here – with a capacity of 85 cars. The station’s importance waned over the years, and it was relegated to a flag stop before being abandoned in 1952.

Boston Corners Today

These days, Boston Corners is occasionally remembered for the historical prizefight that happened there – like this article in Sports Illustrated. Appropriately, the article makes mention of the Harlem, and how many took the train up to see the brawl. Besides the infrequent mentions in the media, Boston Corners station is but a memory – though Boston Corners Road is a reminder of what was once here.

Copake Falls
Approximately 105 miles from Grand Central Terminal is Copake Falls station, formerly known as Copake Iron Works. The Taconic State Park, and Bash Bish falls are both nearby the station. Several spurs from the Harlem led to various nearby industries, including a mine and a foundry.

Copake Falls Today

 
The former Copake Falls station is today a small convenience store called the Depot Deli. With the proximity to the Taconic State Park, the deli is an oft frequented stop by many campers. According to the owner of the Deli, when he purchased the building a requirement of the sale was that if the railroad was ever restored, he’d have to provide a place for passengers to wait. Unfortunately, that was never necessary.

Black Grocery
Above right photo shows the final Harlem Line train to ever cross the Black Grocery Bridge, photo by Art Deeks. Above left photo is the only known image of the Black Grocery. Lower right photo by Bob McCulloch.

Although not a station along the Harlem Division, Black Grocery was a hamlet that the Harlem ran through, and its existence is largely due to the railroad. In the early 1850’s the New York and Harlem Railroad made its final northward push through Columbia County, finally reaching Chatham in 1852. Many of the men that were on the construction teams were Irish immigrants that were paid 75 cents a day, as well as their board. Boarding was in several shanties that were constructed along the route, which usually housed between 25 – 50 men. A man by the name of Hezekiah Van Deusen sensed an opportunity, and opened a grocery store not far from the workers’ shanties, just north of Copake. Although the store stocked the normal staples like sugar and flour, its big sellers were “chain lightning” whiskey at 25 cents a quart, and tobacco at 3 cents a plug.

The origin of the name Black Grocery is not definitively known, but it generally references the color that the grocery had been painted. One account states that Van Deusen wished to paint the store red, but only had black paint in stock. Another account states that no paint was in stock at all, and Van Deusen asked the Irish laborers if they would paint the store. They were said to have painted the store black with the paint that was leftover from a railroad bridge they had just completed. Either way, the name caught on – not just for the store – but for the entire community that grew up around it and the railroad. The railroad bridge that crossed the Roeliff Jansen Kill (or as it was later called, Black Grocery Creek), about halfway in between Copake and Hillsdale and through Black Grocery, became known as the Black Grocery Bridge.

Black Grocery Today

 
  
  

The hamlet of Black Grocery has been lost to time – the only reference to in now is Black Grocery Road in Copake. Both the railroad and the road bridge that crossed here, which shared the name Black Grocery, are also gone. Remnants of the railroad bridge are clearly visible from Route 22, on the west side of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. The bridge was rebuilt several times over the years, but date markings from 1899 and 1905 are both visible on the ruins. Though the final train to cross over the bridge was on March 27, 1976, the bridge itself lasted at least up until the 1980s. The removal of the bridge makes continuation of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail into Hillsdale a bit more difficult – the original railroad bridge crossed over both Route 22 and the Roe Jan Kill. The HVRT is looking to go underneath Route 22, and purchase a pre-fabricated bridge to cross the Kill.

Hillsdale
Hillsdale is a quaint little area considered one of the more noteworthy places along this stretch of the Upper Harlem – at minimum its name was found on the front of Upper Harlem timetables. It was also another stop for freight on the line – besides a milk processing plant, Hillsdale also had a large cattle pen and barn used when shipping livestock was necessary.

As I once mentioned on the blog before, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Harlem Division rider that boarded at Hillsdale. Trains were occasionally mentioned in her poetry, and I like to think that she was writing about the Harlem Division (as opposed to the Hudson, when she studied at Vassar, or any other railroad she might have been a passenger on).

Hillsdale Today

Although Hillsdale seems to have a tiny Railroad Lane on the map, the road is barely visible in real life and has no street sign. Unfortunately, that is one of the few vestiges of the railroad here in Hillsdale – there was also a Depot Place, but that road has been completely wiped from the map.

For today, our journey ends. We’ll take a look at the remainder of the Harlem Division stations in Part 3.

As someone has taken offense to this post, I must of course remind you all that much of what we know about the Upper Harlem Division comes from Lou Grogan’s book, The Coming of the New York and Harlem Railroad, which has been cited numerous times here, and is listed in our historical sources page.

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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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Chatham: Revisited

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.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay – Poet & Harlem Division Rider

As riders of the train, every day we share our commute with advertisements – there are ads on the platforms, and ads in the train cars themselves. Some of the ads are interesting and well designed, and others may be lacking in that department. Over the summer I recall seeing one specific ad for Columbia County tourism. It had a picture of a young boy looking through a paper towel tube, and it urged you to visit Columbia county. No offense to the designer, but I don’t exactly know how that would lure me to visiting you – my (hypothetical) kid can look through paper towel tubes all he wants at home, thank you very much.

Columbia County is a nice rural portion of New York, and a delightful change of pace from the city life – and there is more to do than look through paper towel tubes. The Harlem Line, and several other rail lines once ran through here, but that has disappeared. Copake Lake and the Taconic State Park are both interesting nature related venues, and the county has a rich history worth exploring. The home of the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, is located in Columbia county, and is open to visitors. Though probably less known than the former president, Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay also made her home in Columbia county, and portions of it are open to the public. Last weekend, on the way home from Vermont, I made a stop at her former home, which is called Steepletop.


Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine. From a young age she was exposed to classic literature by her mother, and began to write on her own. By the time she had entered Vassar College at 21, she had already won several awards for her poetry. After graduation from Vassar, Millay moved to New York City and lived in Greenwich Village. Her book of poetry titled Second April was published in 1921, and includes one of my favorite poems of hers:

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

As much as I’d love to say that Millay wrote this poem about the Harlem Division, it was only in 1925, and after Second April was published, that she and her husband moved to Austerlitz, NY. Her home was not far from the Harlem Division’s Hillsdale Station, and she did actually ride the trains from there: a famous Harlem Division rider. Millay spent the later years of her life in Austerlitz until her death in 1950. She, along with her mother, husband, sister, and brother-in-law are buried on the property. Although the home is occasionally open for tours (and is designated a National Historic Landmark), the poetry trail which leads to her grave, is always open to the public, and where all photos below are from.

 
   
  
  
 
  
   
 
   
 
   

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