Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line (Part 3)

If there is one thing that Westchester people have taught me, it is how to spend money (there are many times in which I feel that I am a strange observer here, really). Though instead of purchasing those two-hundred-dollar-a-pair pants from the Westchester Mall, I’ve decided to “invest” the precious little income I make in collection of postcards (uhh, and other things. I am an eBay addict).

Westchester people are funny to me, really they are. If you get a whole bunch of them into a single elevator and each person pushes a different floor button, somebody inevitably makes a comment about the elevator being a “local”, or not an “express”. The railroad is so deeply ingrained in their psyches, they don’t even realize it! We are approaching 180 years of the New York and Harlem Railroad, and 171 of those years the railroad has had a presence in Westchester… long enough for most people to not give it a second thought.

I do, however, think my collection of postcards is far more interesting than any pair of pants, as together we can look back at little glimpses of what the area was like, back when the railroad was only beginning to mold the landscape in where we now live, and driving the migration of people to these very suburbs. So here is part three of our series Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line. If you missed the previous posts, you can view them here: Part 1, Part 2.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

And really now, did you have any doubt there would be a part four? You can most certainly bet on it.

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The Harlem Line, in panoramas

I’ve spent many months posting various panoramas of the Harlem Line stations. I’m now excited to be able to post the entire Harlem Line, viewed in panoramas. You can watch as the farmland and rural greenery morphs into the suburbs, before changing into the concrete jungle of New York City. If you want to see more photos from each of the stations, just click on the picture. Anybody have a favorite panorama? I think my two favorites are Tenmile River and Harlem-125th Street – the two of them are polar opposites in terms of the scenery visible while taking a ride down New York City’s oldest railroad.

For those who like maps, I place all of my panoramas on a Google map, which you can see below. I also add photos to Panoramio, which provides the photos for Google Earth.
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Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line (Part 1)

Hi, my name is Emily, and I have a problem. An addiction, really. And no, I am not referring to my frequent use of hats with ears. I have an addiction to eBay, and buying crazy things there. I’m not quite to the stage where one ought to worry that I am going to end up on that TV show Hoarders. Nor am I to the point where I’ve collected a hundred cats and you can change my nickname from Cat Girl to Cat Lady. But I am somewhat interested in acquiring old things. Like train timetables from 1883, or postcards from the early 1900’s. I began scanning some of the postcards I’ve managed to get… I hope that one day I’ll have one for every station, but I know that is quite a lofty goal. Someday, perhaps…

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
 

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Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line: Croton Falls (and bonus: Millerton, Harlem Valley Rail Trail)

This week’s photo tour of the Harlem Line begins with current station Croton Falls. Located 47.7 miles north of Grand Central, it is the northernmost station in Westchester County. Prior to the arrival of the railroad, the town went by the name of Owensville, only becoming Croton Falls in 1846. The New York & Harlem Railroad had reached Croton Falls by the year 1847, and it served as the terminus of the line for a little more than a year – service to Dover Plains began by the end of 1848. By 1907 there were two tracks up to Croton Falls, as well as a siding with a capacity for 83 cars.

Today Croton Falls is a bit on the small side, with a platform long enough to accommodate only four train cars. The station area is located in the center of the hamlet, surrounded by various shops, restaurants, a post office, and the fire department.

 
   
  
  

Since I didn’t have all that many great photos from Croton Falls, here is an additional set of photos from Millerton. Millerton was once a stop on the Harlem Division, and is one of the few that still has the old station building. South of Millerton, all the way to Wassaic where it meets with Metro-North, runs the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. The trail covers the 10.7 miles where the rail once was. There is also a smaller portion of trail up by Copake, which I posted photos of a few weeks ago. If you’re interested in learning more about the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, you can view their website here.

 
  
 
  
 
 
  

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Lettie Carson, and Old Posters from the Harlem Valley Transportation Association

Reading all about the history of the Harlem Line intrigues me. It was New York City’s first railroad, chartered in 1831, and an early example of a rail horsecar in the United States. As in every story, there are always intriguing characters. People like Cornelius Vanderbilt certainly stand out. But for me I think one rarely mentioned woman stands out the most. Her name is Lettie Carson, and she fought to prevent the closure of the Upper Harlem, a David against Penn Central’s Goliath. As we all know that the Harlem does not extend to Chatham anymore, unfortunately her plight failed, but her story still captivates me.

Lettie Gay was born in Pike County, Illinois in 1901, the youngest of nine children. On the family farm she helped raised livestock of every variety. It may be this upbringing that gave Carson her independent attitude. At age eight she would drive a horse and buggy fifteen miles to the train station to pick up her brother. In the early 1920’s she moved east to the New York area, and in 1924 married Gerald Carson. She held various jobs, including as food editor of Parents’ Magazine. She and her husband had a weekend home in Millerton, along the Harlem Line, which they retired to and became permanent residents in 1951.

If you’re on the north end of the Harlem Line you may be aware of Lettie Carson’s work without knowing it. In 1958 she helped create the Mid-Hudson Library System, which today has more than 80 member libraries across five counties. Brewster, Dover Plains, Mahopac, Patterson, Pawling, Poughkeepsie, and Chatham are a few of the towns whose libraries are members. Carson served as president of the Mid-Hudson for two years, and was on the board for eight.

Lettie Gay Carson later became associated with the Harlem Valley Transportation Association, as vice president, and then as president. The organization was formed in the early 60’s when the New York Central threatened to abandon passenger service on the Upper Harlem. When Penn Central took over they too wanted to end passenger service north of Brewster. The HVTA fought them for many years through demonstrations, public hearings, and in the courts. Ultimately the passenger service was abandoned north of Dover Plains in March of 1972, though the HVTA continued to fight for freight on the line. Eventually that too was abandoned, and the track was ripped out.

Through my research I managed to unearth some of the HVTA’s old documents: papers, posters, surveys and more. I’ve digitally restored some of them for posterity. Below are four of the HVTA’s early posters, as well as their logo and letterhead.




Later in life Carson moved to Pennsylvania, where she too attempted to protect rail service in and around Philadelphia. She died in March of 1992, at age 91.

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Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line: Dover Plains and Mount Pleasant revisited

76 miles north of Grand Central lies a station on the Harlem Line called Dover Plains. From March of 1972, until Metro-North resurrected the stations of Tenmile River and Wassaic in July 2000, Dover Plains served as the last station on the Harlem Line. A few months ago I visited the station on a quiet Friday afternoon and spent a few minutes taking pictures. Like most of the Upper Harlem stations, Dover Plains is nestled in the quiet but picturesque Harlem Valley. The area is surrounded by grassy, rolling hills and farms, with New York’s Route 22 running along a similar route to the rails.




One of the first station panoramas I posted was from Mount Pleasant… though I wasn’t too happy with it, so I went back to the station, and got a few new panoramas. Enjoy!




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Conversations With My Neighbor: Fireman for the New York Central

It has been my opinion for quite a while that my house ought to be a reality TV show. Not far from Goldens Bridge train station, we roommates met via Craigslist. We currently have three people in the house, but in the past have had four. And one dog. Her name is Kaylee, and she weighs almost as much as me. Correction, she weighs nearly what I weighed before I got a job that provided me enough money for my junk food and Coca-cola addiction. The fourth roommate, and there have been two, has always been the smelly one – whether it be from not washing, or from smoking a million packs a day. The first two formed a band that frequently makes noise in our basement, which if you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably heard about. They are also dating off and on. If I had a dollar for every time they broke up and she moved out, only for her to move back in not soon after, I’d be rich. They are currently together, but by the time the next train arrives in Goldens Bridge, who knows…

In a strange coincidence during one of those breakups, the two got into a fight outside. He threw a CD at her, but was off the mark and it flew into the neighbor’s yard. And they forgot about it. Several days later the neighbor shows up, CD in hand, returning what they must have “lost”. In the chatter that followed during this encounter, my roommate discovered that the neighbor once worked for the railroad, back when they still used steam on the Harlem Line. When my roommate told me about it, I knew I had to speak to this man. And so, one afternoon while walking the dog, I spotted him outside on the porch and said hello.


The man on the left is my neighbor, John

My neighbor certainly has an intresting viewpoint in regards to the history of the Harlem line. He witnessed the final years of steam on the line, and the trains that replaced them. He was a Fireman, while that position still existed, anyway. He told me he’d put water in the boiler in the engine in Goldens Bridge that would run to Mahopac, and then on break, would walk to his house, have a sandwich and tend to the plants in his garden. It was one of the many jobs he had over the years, including working in Chatham, Dover Plains, Brewster and Goldens Bridge. Occasional winters were spent working on the Maybrook Line in Danbury and Hopewell Junction. Besides seeing the end of steam, he witnessed the transition from the New York Central to Penn Central, Conrail, and Metro North, until finally retiring in 1991.


The above photos of his are of the Empire State Express no. 999, taken in Chatham in 1952

We always thought we’d lose the passengers. We never thought we’d lose the freight…

John motions to his wife, telling me how she hates how he always says this. It is hard for him to understand the state of matters today, shipping everything by truck. Trains were so much more efficient, he says. Watching the news every morning, the traffic reports show cameras of the traffic on every bridge going into the city, with traffic backed up for miles… and plenty of box trucks in wait. He muses about how everything has changed. Everything today is technology based…

“It was boring…” he said of being an engineer today. He turns to look at me with his weathered face, but his light blue eyes are still bright. He tells me that having good eyes was essential for working on the railroad. When starting out he had to undergo various vision tests, to have the vision to see a signal light from a mile away. To see in fog, and to see through your peripheral vision. It baffled him to see people working for Metro North, people that wore glasses. Because now, you didn’t need to see signals outside, everything was in the cab. Having perfect vision isn’t a necessity as it once was. Although hiring a more diverse workforce, in both gender and color, was a new thing, seeing the people wearing glasses seemed like it was harder to get used to for him.

He refers to himself as an “old timer” and says that most of the people he worked with weren’t really interested in his stories. I think he finds it amusing that someone is so interested in them, especially a young female. But that is hardly the first time I’ve heard that before. Some of the things he told me were not stories in their entirety, but quick smatterings of thoughts and memories. Comparing distractions of cell phones today, to people he recalled watching baseball games on portable televisions long ago. People that would throw rocks and bottles at the train, and how he once got a “face full of glass” – an event he didn’t care much to elaborate on. Stories he heard from the “old timers” of his day, of bootleggers during prohibition, and people that smuggled out Canadian ale on the trains. And when I asked about uniforms, he told me of others on cleaner trains that wore suits to work, suits with inner pockets where flasks could be hidden.


More photos from my neighbor’s collection

For 43 years my neighbor worked for the railroad, though he mentioned another family member that had a record, close to 50 years of service to the rail. His daughter and son both work for Metro North, in North White Plains, and over on the Hudson Line. Despite living next door, I don’t see the man much. He spends part of his time at a house upstate, and when he happens to be in Goldens Bridge, he often sits outside, on the porch hidden by bushes. But every time I walk by, mostly on the way to or from the train station, I look over to see if he is hidden behind those plants. Because even though our conversations have been few, they’ve always been most interesting.

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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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