sunsmooth1

Sunsets and Long Exposure Photography on the Rails

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent my evenings exploring the rails, photographing at one of my favorite times of the day – sunset. While one generally loses the illumination of the sun’s rays, you gain a multitude of colors in the sky… and to me, there is just something magical about that.

In terms of night photography – or at least, what railfans tend to think about night photography – one usually uses artificial lights to illuminate a posed, unmoving train. Though it seems to be the en vogue thing to do these days, I see little reason to do so other than “because we can.” Most seem to do it for the novelty, or because all the “cool kids” are doing it. Many that take part look to evoke the work of O. Winston Link, arguably the best night railroad photographer ever (though Jack Delano, whose photographs I featured last week, was also an accomplished night photographer – it was never really his “claim to fame,” however). Unfortunately, most fall flat in their endeavor to “be like Link.” While I can see the merits of photographing steam trains at night (the lower light allows one to capture sweeping plumes of smoke from the engine), I see little reason to do it with modern trains. After dark I find it far more fun to capture not the train itself, but the train’s movement, and its environment.

Because of the low ambient light, long exposure photography allows one to record the movement of the train, rendered as blurs of light. In order to get a proper exposure, your camera shutter is open for longer – in some cases for 15 seconds or more (thus a stable resting place, preferably a tripod, is required). Done right, any moving object in the frame shows up as a blur, or a streak. Modern electric trains, like Metro-North’s M7s and M8s, with their shiny and smooth exteriors and LED lights lend themselves to this, becoming graceful blurs. Instead of artificial light, one uses the “natural” (or as natural as the light off a cityscape could be), and the intense colors of a sunset to evoke a completely different mood. Since I don’t really have a post lined up for this week, I figured I’d share some of my recent photographs taken at sunset, or at night… and maybe convince some of you that there is fun to be had after dark, far away from the now all too common “night photo sessions.”

(more…)

Read More

14spring_3

Spring Flowers and Harlem Line Track Work

After a very long and cold winter, it is finally starting to feel like spring. Hopefully you all had an enjoyable weekend, perhaps even watching or riding some trains. Alas down by the railroad tracks of the Hudson Line, the greenery has yet to bloom – so I decided to take spring to the trains.

 
Springtime on Metro North 
  
   
 

Meanwhile, Metro-North crews were hard at work this weekend in numerous places around the system. On the upper Harlem Line, busing was in effect as crews worked at the Pleasant Ridge Road and Chippawalla Road crossings in Wingdale. The Pleasant Ridge crossing has been a difficulty for well over a month now, requiring trains to stop and warn before entering the crossing, and proceeding at reduced speed through it. Hopefully after this work, everything will be getting back to normal. Crews started work on the crossing Friday evening, and worked almost nonstop through the weekend to get it back in order for regular service at about 4 AM this morning.
(more…)

Read More

Metro-North Railroad Announces Heritage Unit Program

Metro-North’s new president, Joseph Giulietti, has been on the job over a month now, and it seems apparent that things are slowly starting to change at the beleaguered railroad. One certainly cannot change an entire railroad in such a short amount of time, but Mr. Giulietti has made it a point to ensure riders that safety is the railroad’s primary goal.

In a more light-hearted move, Giulietti has also announced the beginning of a Heritage Unit program for Metro-North. Such programs have been highly successful and well liked on other railroads, most notably Norfolk Southern. While discussing the subject, Giulietti asserted, “we need to restore pride to Metro-North. The railroad systems here in New York City were at one time the best in the world, though unfortunately that is not the case today. We definitely need to look forward, but at the same time there is no better way to restore pride than to remember our roots.”

Metro North Heritage
The new Metro-North New York Central locomotive on the upper Harlem Line earlier today.

Metro-North’s locomotive 220, which was sent out for work several weeks ago, has returned in a new paint scheme resembling that of the New York Central. “This is the first of hopefully several locomotives in heritage schemes. Many years ago Metro-North had a New York Central themed FL9, and so we opted for a different scheme than that previous locomotive.” Unfortunately, there is no timetable for future heritage locomotives. According to Giulietti, “as locomotives are sent out for repair, they will likely return to Metro-North with some new paint.”

Read More

31 Years of Metro-North – Looking Back & Looking Forward

Remembering the Past

As the final day of the month of January, today marks the last day of Howard Permut’s tenure as president of Metro-North Railroad. While 2013 was set to be a celebrated year – with Metro-North’s 30th anniversary, and the centennial of Grand Central Terminal – instead the year was tainted with mishaps and tragedies. You can say what you wish about Mr. Permut’s years as president, but it remains fact that he was a member of the team that formed the railroad 31 years ago. His insider’s perspective on Metro-North, and how it evolved over the years, made an interesting interview.

In a time where countless commuters wish to revolt, some going as far as to say Metro-North is the “worst railroad” ever or like a “horror movie,” I come with an idea many will outright refuse to accept. It is, however, the truth. Metro-North has in fact evolved over the past 31 years. I hardly believe it is deserving of the “worst railroad ever” superlative that some are attributing to it, but such a description may be apt for one of Metro-North’s predecessors.

I’m a firm believer in the adage that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. History is incredibly important, and it has been painfully obvious recently that many are deficient in that area – especially when it comes to trains. It is undeniable that Metro-North has had some major issues within the past twelve months, and there are many lessons the railroad must learn. But we must know the past to adequately move into the future – thus if one wishes to truly understand Metro-North, a little visit to the past is required.

Millerton, 1966
Although frolicking in a grassy meadow may be fun, for the Upper Harlem it displays neglect. Less than a decade from when this photo was taken in 1966, Millerton and the rest of the Upper Harlem was abandoned for passenger service.

We rewind the clock back to 1968 – the year of the ill-fated merger between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central (the New York, New Haven and Hartford was added to the merger in 1969). Within a scant two years the Penn Central was bankrupt – the railroad was the country’s sixth largest corporation, and at the time its bankruptcy was the largest this nation had ever seen. If you want to think of a horrible American railroad, this is where you should start – besides incompatible computer systems and clashing employees, deteriorating infrastructure led to slow and late trains, and entire freight trains went missing – crops destined for the market rotted, and with 25% on-time performance for some deliveries, companies left to find other methods to ship goods.

One of the reasons this site even exists is because of my interest in Penn Central’s abandonment of the Upper Harlem Division. On a cold March morning in 1972 the 6:55 train from Chatham to Grand Central operated as normal. However, by midday the Penn Central legally won the right to terminate the line, and fifty miles of the Upper Harlem Division were abandoned for passenger service. Anyone that came down on that morning train had no ride home – they had to find their own way. Imagine how angry people would be if Metro-North tried to pull the same stunt today! Sorry, New Haven commuters, our last stop today, and forevermore is Port Chester, and we don’t care how you get home.

The Evolution

Penn Central operated after bankruptcy for a few more years, until its operations were taken over by other companies. Conrail became the steward of Grand Central’s commuter lines until Metro-North was formed and took over operations in 1983. Metro-North Day One was hardly anything to rave about. This is what you’d find at Putnam Junction, aka Brewster Yard:
January 1, 1983 - Putnam Junction

Mind you, this is what it looks like today:
Putnam Junction today

In the earliest days, it was obvious that Metro-North was cobbled together from the remains of the New York Central, New York, New Haven and Hartford, Penn Central, and Conrail. Here’s a shot from 1984 in Poughkeepsie:
1984 in Poughkeepsie
Equipment you'll see today on Metro-North
Equipment you'll see today on Metro-North

Besides the obvious update of rolling stock (and you Connecticut folks can go pin your miseries in that department on disgraced former Governor John Rowland – perhaps if he cared for commuters as much as he did his weekend home you’d be a bit less miserable), Metro-North has significantly upgraded its shops to accommodate repairs and maintenance of the new equipment. The old New York Central shops at Croton-Harmon dated back to 1909, and were restored in Metro-North’s earliest years. In 2010 they were reconstructed, and the new Croton-Harmon Locomotive and Coach Shop is now a modern, state-of-the-art facility. A new shop at Brewster opened in 1987, and at North White Plains in 1993.

SPV2000 on the Upper Hudson Line in 1985
SPV2000 on the Upper Hudson Line in 1985. These days both the Upper Hudson Line and Upper Harlem Line get enough traffic that there are 7-car through trains a few times per day. In 1983 only eight southbound trains operated on the Upper Harlem, today thirteen trains depart Wassaic every day, bound for New York City.

Most of Metro-North’s stations look quite different than in the past, as almost every station now has high-level platforms. New York Central engineers working on the design of Grand Central Terminal in the early 1900s clocked patrons boarding trains and calculated that riders board 50% faster on high level platforms. They also make it easier to accommodate those with baby carriages, and patrons in wheelchairs. Despite the pros of high level platforms, they were not implemented system-wide until after Metro-North took over. On average, the duration of a trip from Grand Central to Dover Plains in 1972 was about two hours and 20 minutes – today the trip takes about two hours, and note that the route is six miles longer and terminates at Wassaic. Faster boarding allows for quicker train times.

Chappaqua in 1982 Chappaqua today
High level platforms, overpasses and elevators are just some of the changes seen here at Chappaqua. Compare 1982 to today.

High Level Platforms
Before Metro-North took over, you may have seen a sign like this…

One of the most influential changes made by Metro-North was the electrification of the Harlem Line north of White Plains. Service up to Brewster became incredibly more reliable, and led to an increase in ridership. When constructed early on, Brewster North (now Southeast) was often empty – now you’ll see an immense filled parking lot with riders from both New York and Connecticut. Despite out-of-touch politicians arguing that people are packing up and leaving the area because of poor train service, or at minimum opting to drive, ridership – even on the beleaguered New Haven Line – actually increased.

Work at Ossining and Larchmont
Restoration of Ossining station, on the Hudson Line, and platform upgrades at Larchmont on the New Haven Line. Photos from the collection of Metro-North Railroad.

As a lover of history, the fact that many historic train depots have been restored during Metro-North’s tenure is an important point. Grand Central, Harlem 125th Street, New Haven Union Station, Port Chester, Chappaqua, Hartsdale, Yonkers, Ossining… the list could go on. It is also worth mentioning that restoration work was also performed on the Park Avenue Tunnel. I appreciate the efforts of the railroad, of the communities, and of the state to preserve our history.

Metro-North has also opened several stations over the years, on all three lines. The Harlem Line was lengthened to Wassaic, the Yankees E 153rd Street stop makes it easier for people to get to the baseball game, and two different Veterans Hospitals are accessible from Cortlandt and West Haven stations. Even the famed Appalachian Trail now has a train station along the Harlem Line.

Looking to the Future

No railroad wants to have late trains, but unfortunately it has become a fact of life for Metro-North. After the derailment at Spuyten Duyvil speed restrictions can be found on all Metro-North lines (especially the New Haven Line). Perhaps in the past there were safe spots that engineers could “make up time,” but they are no more. However, it is incredibly irresponsible to pretend that all methods of transit are at a hundred percent, all the time. Everyone always has the option to drive, and maybe you’ll even get there on time – provided that I-95 isn’t shut down because of an overturned truck, that the Saw Mill isn’t closed because of flooding every time we get a good rainstorm, or the Taconic is closed for construction. Plus we all know that nobody ever sleeps in airports because flights are delayed for days, and that multi-car pileups are pure fiction.

No commuter wants to ride a late train, but make some friends, try to enjoy your ride home. There are very few times that the train has gotten me to work seriously late, but I can count plenty of times that driving coworkers have been late due to traffic, construction, or other accidents. Take it from 50 year Harlem Line commuter John F.:

In 1964, I started riding the New York Central train from Bronxville to Fordham University in the Bronx every day. I have enjoyed commuting via the Harlem Line most years ever since. Perhaps the best part has been and continues to be the friends I have made on the train over the years with conductors and fellow passengers. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some fascinating people who have enriched my life. My goal is to continue commuting and making friends until 2026.

Fifty years ago, commuting was an opportunity to relax, play cards and chat with friends you saw everyday. When we all get bored with our laptops and cell phones, I hope that the opportunity to engage in good conversation with conductors and fellow commuters is still there.

In closing, Metro-North has much potential for greatness, and we wholeheartedly welcome the very well respected railroader Mr. Joseph Giulietti in his position as president of this railroad (effective February 10th). Similar to Mr. Permut, Mr. Giulietti was around for the fledgling Metro-North Commuter Railroad’s earliest days. He understands the past, and undoubtedly has aspirations for a bright future. I will be happy to see this railroad further evolve, and hey, Mr. G? Want to do an interview? Come talk to me!

Read More

Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014

Right about now I am really looking forward to summer. I’m never a fan of the cold (despite sleeping in an ice hotel, and visiting Alaska in winter…) and this winter feels exceptionally so. The winter we’ve thus endured, however, pales in comparison to the winter of 1888. The Great Blizzard of 1888 is one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in the US, with 22 inches of snow in New York City and 48 inches of snow in Albany. It took the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad eight days to clear the snow from their main line to New Haven. The New York and Harlem Railroad’s attempts were less successful, recorded as a small blip in the annals of history.

Meet Old Eli. This comical looking contraption was one of the first snowplows built for the New York Central Railroad in 1864. The plow was mounted on a six-wheeled truck, and connected to an engine with an old-fashioned push bar. The plow usually required several steam locomotives to push it, and for the 1888 blizzard the plow was being pushed by a total of five. It is worth mentioning that this plow was hardly an ingenious innovation, instead of pushing snow to the side, it often pushed the snow up and above the engine – a grievous issue when traversing an extremely narrow rock cut.


Scene from the wreck at Coleman’s during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Heading north from White Plains, Old Eli was to clear the snow from the Harlem all the way to Chatham, but instead met doom at Coleman’s. The narrow rock cut there was plugged with snow, and the aforementioned deficiency of the plow ensured that the lead locomotive was thoroughly buried in the snow. All five locomotives derailed, Old Eli was destroyed beyond repair, and five crew members lost their lives, three of which were boiled alive by the lead steam locomotive.

 
New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888, a subject that was heavily covered by the news of the day

Thankfully, most of our winters have been far less eventful, except maybe for the random guy running around wearing a horse mask. I’ve wandered around the Harlem Line during the past few snowstorms, capturing the trains and the people that make them run… so let’s take a little tour of the Harlem Line in the snow…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

Read More

Help me find my family! A lost bear on the Harlem Line

Help me find my family! Do you recognize me? I was riding the Harlem Line on Monday, December 16th and I got lost! I was taking the 5:19 train from Grand Central to Wassaic, but I guess I forgot to get off at the right stop, and I found myself in Wassaic yard! Don’t worry about me, I’m doing fine, some nice people brought me home and took care of me. I got to see a pretty Christmas tree and some really cool artifacts from railroad history. I even tried on a new hat, it was from the New York Central Railroad and was over 50 years old!

  
 

On Tuesday morning they were even going to let me operate the train down to Grand Central so I could find my family, but I thought it would be better to let the crew who know what they’re doing handle that! I sat in the back of the train and looked out the window as we went back to Grand Central, but I couldn’t really remember which stop was mine. I really miss my family, though. I hope they’ll come and find me – I’m in the Lost and Found in Grand Central now. You’d be surprised if you saw the place! So many coats and umbrellas in a huge room full of shelves! Please, if you recognize me, tell my family that I’m here, okay?

 
 

In all seriousness, a link was blowing up the interwebs the other day – a young girl had lost her stuffed lion on the train. By the power of the internet, and twitter, the two had become reunited. Scant hours later, I found myself on my nightly Harlem Line train, and as we approached our final stop in Wassaic, a little bear sat alone. While he could have gotten dropped into the lost and found bin in the yard, destined to spend at least one night in the damp cold, I opted to take him home for the evening and get him on the next morning train to Grand Central’s Lost and Found.

Though Metro-North’s Lost and Found has a remarkable knack for reuniting people with their lost property, I thought that perhaps the internet may again be able to help the process along. At minimum, when the bear gets reunited with its family, a young one may find their bear’s journeys in an engineer’s seat fun!

Read More

Musings on Station Names

You would think that the naming of a train station would be a rather simple and straightforward process… alas this seems to be far from true. If history has shown us anything, station namings (and even renamings) can turn out to be a political or even touchy subject – just ask all the Connecticut commuters that voted for their new Metro-North station to be called Black Rock instead of Fairfield Metro, and were denied (and less than thrilled). But the more interesting thing, to me at least, is how history plays a significant part in many of these names – especially in the most clunky.


Months before even being scheduled to open, Fairfield Metro was already covered in graffiti, perhaps by citizens unhappy about the name ;) [image credit]

It isn’t too hard to find a few awkward names along Metro-North’s tracks – just note the Port Jervis Line, which has the honor of having stations with the two longest names in the system. Looking back at the history of the line, the main portion of rail which went through the busy centers of the local towns was abandoned in favor of a roundabout ride through the sticks previously used only for freight. Middletown, which previously had a station, was left without one. As to not forget the passengers it once served, a station was established on the new rail line and was called Middletown, despite it actually being in the town of Walkill. Thus the station was dubbed Middletown – Town of Wallkill. Salisbury Mills – Cornwall follows a similar convention, being located in Cornwall, but a (far older) station had once been historically located in Salisbury Mills.

Wingdale / State Hospital
State Hospital and Wingdale stations were combined to create Harlem Valley – Wingdale.

Mashup station names aren’t exclusive to the west side of the Hudson – one is located right on the Harlem Line. Harlem Valley – Wingdale is a combination of two former station names, both long closed. The Harlem Division once had two different stations in Wingdale – one for the Harlem Valley State Hospital, which went by State Hospital for short, and one just called Wingdale. In 1977 the two stations were consolidated, and given the name Harlem Valley – Wingdale to represent the two. If any station is deserving a name update, it would certainly be this one. With our increasing dependence on technology for train information, and Metro-North’s lack of naming consistency, finding information about this station can be a pain. While sales/ticketing seems to prefer Harlem Valley W’dale, Customer Service’s preferred abbreviation is Hm Valley Wingdale – causing digital havoc. For almost two entire years riders could not access mobile train information for the station unless they knew the magic “hm” abbreviation, which of course, nobody ever mentioned (after moving to the area I complained about it several times… the bug has since been quietly fixed at some point within the past few months). Despite the history attached to the name, isn’t it about time we end the difficulty and just call the station Wingdale again?

While politics likely played a role in the aforementioned naming of Fairfield Metro over the public chosen Blackrock, it was certainly the case in the renaming of a station in New York. In the early 2000s the town of Southeast petitioned Metro-North to change the name of Brewster North station. Southeast had been founded in the late 1700s, but most people knew nothing of it – only of Brewster, one of its villages, because of the train station. That station was established in 1849, when James and Walter Brewster invited the New York and Harlem Railroad to build a station on some land they had recently acquired. From then on the area became known as Brewster’s, and later just Brewster. In the late 1970’s a new station on the Harlem Line was established to provide ample commuter parking, and named Brewster North – much to the chagrin of the town. The railroad had dictated the geography of their town once, and they weren’t about to let it happen again – hence the request for Metro-North to change the name to Southeast.

Southeast, Brewster North
Brewster North was changed to Southeast at the request of the town.

The official statement will always be that the change from Brewster North to Southeast was to eliminate confusion between that station and Brewster village, but considering that ticket machines still list it (ten years after the fact) as Southeast (Brewster North) just seems to make it more confusing (and quite a mouthful). If the names are really so confusing, why don’t we also change other potentially confusing names? Maybe White Plains and North White Plains (NWP would have an obvious other name – Holland Avenue, which was formerly used as a platform for changing trains when there was no electric further north)? Or East Norwalk and South Norwalk? Maybe Mount Vernon East and Mount Vernon West (which historically were never problematic, as they were on two different railroads)? Explaining the true motivation rather succinctly, a town of Southeast employee stated: “I wear a name tag that indicates I am town clerk of the Town of Southeast. Nobody ever recognizes it. Perhaps, now they will.”

Sometimes station renamings are subtle. I first became interested in station, and local area names several years ago when I moved to Goldens Bridge. Or is it Golden’s Bridge? At the time I had no idea investigating a mere apostrophe would open Pandora’s box. Unlike other station names like Hartsdale, Brewster, Wingdale, and Millerton – which can all be directly attributed to the name of a specific person – nobody really knows the true origin of Goldens Bridge. Old railroad maps, and even transcripts from the New York state senate have used the alternate Golding’s Bridge. Despite the sketchy details, we know it was named for a man, and a bridge he likely owned. Wherever the namesake bridge once was, the spot is likely flooded by the reservoir today. The man for which it was named remains even more of a mystery. According to Lewisboro town historian Maureen Koehl, his name may not have even been Golden, “the bridge may have belonged to a gentleman called Golding, Goulding, or Colden. I have heard all of these names.” Either way, the preferred name today is Goldens Bridge – without the apostrophe. Metro-North quietly omitted that little piece of punctuation from signage in 2003. I’m still waiting for them to come and retire the apostrophe in Purdy’s.

So why all this talk of names? I happened to catch an article this weekend regarding some folks in the Bronx already disgruntled with the name of their new Metro-North station – a station that is only in the earliest planning stages (and not even guaranteed to be built). Fortunately for us, the citizens say that they are open to compromise, “we’re okay with sharing the name, we just want to make sure it’s in there.” That can mean only one thing – get ready for a nice, long, hyphenated name. Perhaps it will even be able to compete with Middletown – Town of Wallkill!

Read More

A new local timetable – Mount Vernon, 1906

A few weeks ago, I posted about local timetables on the Harlem Line, and focused on some of the “unofficial” timetables that were also printed by neighborhood businesses. Today I’m posting a short addendum to that, as I’ve recently acquired another little timecard. Printed by the Mount Vernon Trust Company, the timecard features fire alarm signals for the city on the front and back, and train schedules on the inside. Schedules for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford station (today’s Mount Vernon East) are on the left side, and the Harlem Railroad’s station (today’s Mount Vernon West) on the right.

Local Timetable

Similar to many companies featured on local timetables, the Mount Vernon Trust Company no longer exists today, at least in name. Arguably, one could say that it does still exist today, after a long string of mergers over the years. In 1952 the Mount Vernon Trust Company was merged into the County Trust Company, which itself was later merged with into the State Bank of New York. That entity was merged into the Irving Trust Company, which then became the Bank of New York in 1989. In 2007 that bank merged with the Mellon Financial Corporation, becoming BNY Mellon. Don’t you just love banks?

I still think that these little timecards were really an ingenious idea for businesses back in the day, and this one really exemplifies the concept. The previously posted Pawling timecard featured so many ads that it was almost unwieldy. But this card, just a few inches long, was perfect to always carry around. Not only did you have easy access to the train times for both railroads running through town, you certainly wouldn’t forget that the bank was open from 8 AM to 4 PM.

Read More

rdcbuddraganf

The Budd Rail Diesel Car, and more art from Leslie Ragan

If you’ve been following our little series of posts chock full of lovely Leslie Ragan art in advertisements for the Budd company, you may have noticed a few ads featuring Budd’s RDC – or Rail Diesel Car. Today’s post completes our collection of Ragan ads, and focuses on the RDC. The RDC’s were widely used here and around the world – Australia, Canada, Brazil, and even Saudi Arabia all had RDC’s operating at some point in time.

The versatile RDC was an all stainless steel, self propelled railcar that could be operated as a single unit, or multiple cars could be coupled into one longer train. While they operated on all sorts of runs, it was common to see them on lines with fewer passengers, and in commuter service where there was no electrification – like the Upper Harlem Line.

 
Budd-built cars operating on the Harlem Line – at left, an RDC at Dover Plains, at right an SPV-2000, also in Dover Plains. While the RDC was highly successful, the supposed successor SPV was hardly so – acquiring the less-than-flattering nickname “Seldom Propelled Vehicle.”

(more…)

Read More

upperhpt1_2

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!

Read More