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Posts Tagged ‘great depression’

Visions of the Apocalypse – Gary Union Station History Photos

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Imagine a post apocalyptic world devoid of humans. Plants grow wild and unchecked, predatory animals reassert their dominance at the top of the food chain, and the landscape begins to change as man-made structures crumble. For some reason, this scenario captures the interest of many, and has been publicized in various media. Documentaries like Aftermath: Population Zero, television serials like Life After People, and books like World Without Us all tell the story of not how humans disappeared, but what exactly would happen to our world if they had. Post-apocalyptic art (with no people whatsoever, or a significantly reduced population) is actually a thing, and various illustrators have created scary yet attractive interpretations of not just our world in decay, but rail infrastructure too.


Chicago’s “L” imagined after being abandoned for 100 years in “Life After People.”

 
Illustrations by Russian artist Vladimir Manyuhin in his series “Life After the Apocalypse.”


An abandoned Athens Piraeus station, envisioned by Anmar84.

 
Japan’s Hamamatsuchō station (left) and Yoyogi station (right) by Tokyo Genso.


“The Last Station” by Sonic.

 
Shinjuku station (left) and Nakano station (right), also by Tokyo Genso.

The interesting thing to note is that many of these interpretations are not completely imaginary, but based upon fact. Places like Pripyat, Ukraine – a city of almost 50,000 hastily evacuated in 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster – offer real world glimpses of what does happen when people disappear. Closer to home, there are plenty of abandoned buildings where one can witness an “apocalyptic world” first hand, and by directly observing the effects of time, posit what would happen in a world without people. Cities based primarily on industries that have long waned – like Detroit, Michigan and Gary, Indiana – are flocked to by those intrigued with urban decay. Gary itself was featured in an episode of “Life After People” imagining the world 30 years after humans by visiting places abandoned for a similar amount of time, including the former Gary Union Station – our subject today.

Artifacts from Gary
Artifacts from Gary – a 1906 ad advertising real estate in Gary[1] and postcards of Gary Union Station. Land in Gary was touted as an “absolutely safe investment,” but the question is, for how many years?

Founded by US Steel (and named after founding chairman Elbert H. Gary) in 1906, the city of Gary, Indiana was constructed as a home to a large steel plant, containing 12 blast furnaces and 47 steel furnaces. The location was optimal, as it was close to Chicago and the Great Lakes, as well as various railroads. Attracted by thousands of new jobs, immigrants flocked to Gary, and by 1920 the city had a population of 55,000 residents. However, the success of the city was largely dependent on the industry on which it was founded – steel. That industry prospered for many years, but was adversely effected by the Great Depression. Operating at 100 percent capacity in 1929, the plant was only operating at 15 percent capacity in 1932[2]. While the high demand for steel during World War II and the years after led to prosperity, by the late 1950s the industry was yet again in decline. As industry waned and foreign steel came to prominence, Gary’s workforce was slashed – the city had over 30,000 steelworkers in the late 1960s, but by 1987 there were a mere 6,000[3]. Once populated by around 170,000 in 1970, Gary’s population now hovers at around 80,000[4].

 
Photos of Gary Union Station in more prosperous times. Photos from the U.S. Steel Photograph Collection, via the Indiana University Libraries. Photo at left: 1910, photo at right: 1931.

Gary still produces steel, and is not completely abandoned. A description of the city, from a man found in one of the city’s homeless shelters, is particularly apt: “It’s not dead yet, but it’s definitely on life support.”[5] A quick tour of the city makes that “life support” comment pretty obvious. As Gary’s prosperity, industry and population declined, many buildings around the city fell into disrepair and were abandoned. Schools, theaters, post offices, and hotels were all left to decay. Of course, we’re headed to Gary Union Station, also long abandoned. Constructed in concrete in 1910, the station shares the same Beaux arts aesthetic as other famous stations, including Grand Central Terminal. Flanked by elevated railroad tracks on either side, the station could be easily missed by someone passing through. Abandoned for rail use around the 1950s, the station served as an example of 30 years after people for the show “Life After People”. Though the elements have certainly taken their toll, large parts of the damage were caused by people. Everything of value has been stripped, every window has been broken, and some of the walls bear graffiti.

We’ll be taking a quick tour of Gary Union Station, or rather, what is left of it. Although I do find abandoned buildings strangely attractive, it is obvious that this station has seen better days. Enough of the building still exists where it could probably be restored, but with the economic state of Gary the likelihood of that is probably nil. Alas the station will continue to stand in its decrepit state, completely open for vandals and urban explorers alike.

 
  
  
  
   
  
 
  
 
  
  

  1. Ad from the Chicago Historical Society, ICHi-37353 []
  2. Gary: History []
  3. Encyclopedia of Chicago history []
  4. Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die []
  5. Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die []

The life of a Grand Central commuter – Photos from the Farm Security Administration Advertisements History Photos

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

In the late 1930′s, when the United States was still in throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted various economic programs focusing on recovery called the New Deal. One of the new federal agencies established by the New Deal was called the Resettlement Administration, a group that focused on building relief camps for migrant workers and refugees from the droughts in the southwest. A photography project to document the work was established, and when the Resettlement Administration later became the Farm Security Administration, the documentary photography project was expanded. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers captured some very iconic images of American life during and after the Depression, or as he said “introducing America to Americans.”

 
Typical photos from the Farm Security Administration photo documentary project – Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange at left, and Sharecropper by Walker Evans on the right.

While the Farm Security Administration photographers captured many images of Americans struggling through tough times, you may be surprised to note that not all of the photos were of farmers and migrant workers, or even poverty. The FSA’s photo archives contain many images of just regular American life between the years 1935 and 1944 – including several shots in Grand Central Terminal. Two particular photos, captured by visual anthropologist and FSA photographer John Collier, are quite iconic, and have even used on video boards in Grand Central Terminal advertising its upcoming centennial.

Below you’ll find some of Collier’s photos from Grand Central, including the two more famous ones, all taken in October of 1941. It is pretty cool to compare the first and second photos in the set – the first is the fairly famous capture, while the second is of the same people in the Terminal, just from the other side. The angle – with the sun shining in from the windows, illuminating the people and casting long shadows – really made the shot.

 
  
 
  
 
  

Now when I said that the Farm Security Administration photographers endeavored to capture views of American life, I totally meant it. Undoubtedly, the photographers could have spent the entire day wandering around Grand Central, capturing the various people walking in and out of the Terminal and call it a day. But the FSA, they didn’t work that way. Collier went beyond Grand Central and followed some commuters home – snapping photos of them in the bar car, playing cards on the train, or just reading the newspaper. For one particular commuter, an unidentified advertising executive from Westport, Collier captured the man’s breakfast with family, photographed him running out the door to make the 7:40 train, and even snapped the moment he kissed his wife goodbye at the station. The following photos are truly a gem – illustrating not just an American life, but the life of a commuter to Grand Central in the early 1940′s.

  
  
 
   
  

Scant months after the above two sets of photos were taken, the large east windows of the Terminal were completely covered with a massive photo mural paid for by the Treasury and advertising war bonds and stamps. The mural not only used photos from the Farm Security Administration’s collection, but was documented from start to finish by the FSA photographers. Dedicated in December of 1941, the mural was claimed to be the largest photo mural in the world, measuring 96 by 118 feet.

Visible on the mural was the following text:

That government – by the people shall not perish from the Earth. That we may defend the land we love. That these may face a future unafraid. That we may build for a better world. Buy defense bonds and stamps now!


Artists in Washington DC plan the mural to be put up in Grand Central

 
Three of the main FSA photos used in the mural. A total of 22 different Farm Security Administration photos were used.


Scale model of what the mural would look like installed in the Terminal. Note that the text is slightly different than what was actually used.

  
   
  

The adjusted mural in Grand Central
When the mural was originally planned, the United States had not yet entered into World War II. Work for the mural had begun at least three months prior to its installation, though it was dedicated in December – just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At some point, assumedly sometime after the US entered the war, the sign was changed to say “War Bonds” as opposed to “Defense Bonds,” which is visible in this photo (it was hard to read – “war” is written in black, covering over the “defense” written in white).

After the US entered the war, the FSA’s photography unit was reassigned to the Office of War Information, and then a year later, disbanded. Collier remained with the photography project when it was transferred to the OWI before leaving in 1943. His mentor, and fellow FSA photographer Dorothea Lange opted for a job with the War Relocation Authority. Lange captured hundreds of Japanese Americans as they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during the war, where her depictions of reality were at odds with her employers. In the government’s desire to gloss over the fact that we too operated concentration camps during the war, the photographs were confiscated and only recently uncovered.

The railroads were quite involved in the war effort - through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies
The railroads were quite involved in the war effort – through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies.

A visit to the secret library inside Grand Central Terminal History Photos

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Grand Central Terminal has plenty of secrets, though most of them aren’t quite secret, as they have been covered in the media in some shape or form. If you’re lucky enough to ever get on a VIP tour of the Terminal, there is one place that tour most likely will never go – the Williamson Library. That’s right – hidden within the walls of Grand Central Terminal, since 1937, is a library! It certainly isn’t flashy – and probably not tremendously interesting to anyone that isn’t a railfan – but one of the library’s prized possessions makes this one of my favorite Grand Central secrets.


Photograph of Frederick Ely Williamson, which appeared in Fortune magazine. Williamson served as president of the New York Central from 1935 – 1944, and founded the library.

Frederick Ely Williamson, the library’s founder and namesake, was born on June 14th, 1876 in Norwalk, Ohio, the son of a clergyman. A 1898 graduate of Yale University, Williamson got a job with the New York Central in September of that year, after graduation. His first job with the railroad was as a Mohawk division clerk in Albany, with a salary of seventy dollars per month. By 1917, he was an integral part of the railroad, coordinating the movement of war supplies on the eastern seaboard. When the government took over the railroads for the war, he became the general agent for the port of New York. After the war, he continued his employment with the New York Central until 1925, when he became the vice president of the Northern Pacific railroad, and president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy.

By 1932, Williamson had returned to New York, and ascended to the presidency of the New York Central, leading the company through the end of the Great Depression. During World War II he was appointed a Colonel by the Army, and named supervisor of railroads in the Eastern region. Williamson served as president of the New York Central until August 14th, 1944, when he resigned due to poor health. Shortly afterward, Williamson died in New York on September 29th, 1944, at the age of 68.

Although that short biography details the life of an intriguing individual, it leaves out one major detail about Mr. Williamson – he was not just a railroad executive, but a big railfan. A member of the Railroad Enthusiasts of New York, he founded the library that was eventually named after him in 1937. The library has been under the care of the Railroad Enthusiasts of New York ever since, and its current membership contains plenty of railfans, old railroaders, and even some current Metro-North employees.

  
Behind one very innocuous-looking door lies another door, and the entrance to the library!


Panoramic view of the Williamson Library, decorated with lights for the holiday season.

Located above the Apple store, the Williamson Library is generally closed off to the public. Without a keycard for the elevator, you’d likely never make it up to the floor. Even if you managed to do that, the outside door is so plain and unremarkable you’d likely never even notice you’re standing outside a room full of history. Contained within the library is an archive of over 3000 railroad-related books, periodicals, and other literature. Visitation for research is by appointment only, and the room is otherwise used for New York Railroad Enthusiasts’ meetings. It is also home to various old artifacts, including the first version of Metro-North’s mascot Metro-Man, and a remnant of the original 20th Century Limited red carpet.


The prized possession of the Williamson Library – a remnant of the 20th Century Limited red carpet.

The 20th Century Limited, which traveled from New York to Chicago, is likely the most famous train to have ever used Grand Central Terminal. The height of fashion and luxury, it transported countless famous faces throughout its history. Lavishly appointed, the whole experience commenced with a walk down a plush red carpet. It is claimed that the phrase “rolling out the red carpet” entered our lexicon because of this famous train. After the 20th Century Limited was eliminated in 1967, the old carpet was no longer needed. Thankfully, some folks had the foresight to cut the long carpet into pieces, and save a few remnants for posterity.



Advertisements and photographs of the red carpet in action.

If you’ve been following our Grand Central centennial celebration on facebook, 100 for 100 (which you totally should be!), you’ll recall that I mentioned the 20th Century Limited’s red carpet just the other day. I know of at least two different remnants of the original carpet – the one found in the library in Grand Central Terminal, and another that stays with the restored former 20th Century Limited observation car, Hickory Creek. If you visited Grand Central during National Train Day, you likely saw a portion of the red carpet – this was the one that travels with the Hickory Creek, and not the one that resides in GCT.


The other known surviving remnant of the 20th Century Limited red carpet in Grand Central on National Train Day. Photo by Otto Vondrak.

Whether the library’s portion of the red carpet will make an appearance for the Grand Central Centennial remains to be seen, but I certainly hope it will. It is definitely one of my favorite historical artifacts hidden within the Terminal, and with the library, one of Grand Central’s more secretive “secrets.”

Timetable Art of the New York Central Encounters / Observations History

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I’ve certainly mentioned it on this blog before… I’m terrible at finishing things. Oh, I am so brilliant at starting them. I always have the most wonderful ideas for things, for projects. But the majority of the time, they never make it out of my head and into reality. And the few that I do happen to act upon, well, many of them are never completed. I am very bad like this.

At least a year ago, maybe even longer, when I first became interested in railroad timetables, I made a little poster showing some of the New York Central’s system timetables over the years. I had just begun to appreciate the functional art that is a timetable, and the little portion of me that endured many art history classes began connecting the stylistic choices with the events of the time. And probably just like every paper I wrote for an art history class, it was comprised of complete and utter bullshit. It seemed to make sense at the time, at least I think it did. Maybe it makes some sense. Hell, maybe it makes complete sense, and logically explains why there were so many stylistic changes on the timetables over the years. I had every intention of posting it, after it was completed. After I, I don’t know, verified some of the grandiose claims that I made? But I never did that. And this sat. And sat. And sat some more, in the dark little recesses of my hard drive, covered in spiderwebs, with crickets chirping merely to hear their own voices, out of complete and utter loneliness.

Today, however, I am crazy enough to post this, mostly because the former project, which I had high hopes for, was calling out to me for some reason. It wants the chance to see the light of day. I doubt I’ll ever do anything with this beyond this post, but if there are any other art-slash-rail-history folks out there that would like to discuss this, I might enjoy that.