Grand Central’s Honor Roll – The New York Central Medal of Valor

If you plan on visiting the Holiday Fair in Grand Central, as you peruse the varied items for sale you’ll pass an old plaque listing over a hundred names dating from the ’20s to the ’60s. Though you’d likely pass right by without another note, the plaque holds over a hundred stories of courage – of people risking their lives to save another’s. For the act, their name was recorded for posterity on the walls of the Terminal, on the west wall of what is now Vanderbilt Hall. Though I had certainly seen the plaque bearing the title of “Honor Roll” before, I too hadn’t thought much of it, until I learned the stories of the acts that led the names to be recorded fairly recently. I consider it yet another interesting secret hidden within the walls of Grand Central. As an amateur historian, I have a wealth of knowledge regarding Grand Central (in fact, some of you have written to me mentioning you saw me in the recent documentary Grand Central: An American Treasure), but with a place so historic and important, there will always be things to discover.

The concept of the plaque you’ll find today in Vanderbilt Hall dates back to the ’20s, and Vanderbilt heir and railroad executive Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (son of William Kissam, great-grandson of the Commodore, and the last Vanderbilt to work for the New York Central Railroad). Vanderbilt’s idea was to award a medal to employees of the railroad that had exhibited an act of extraordinary heroism. The idea led to the formation of a committee to review nominations of heroism, which would be forwarded to the railroad’s vice-presidents and president for final decision. Recipients would be awarded a bronze medal – The New York Central Medal of Valor – designed by sculptor Robert Aitken, presented in a leather case, along with a special pin that could be always worn on the lapel, and have their names recorded on the “Honor Roll” plaque. Awards would be presented yearly, with the first awarding in 1927, when fifteen men were honored by New York Central Railroad president Patrick E. Crowley. At least 114 people were presented with the medal, including one woman, and one man who received the award twice.

Though the award was only established in 1927 (for acts performed in the 1926 calendar year), men like Henry Nauman of Hammond, Indiana were likely the reason for its founding. Nauman was the 1924 recipient of the Carnegie Medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund after saving a woman that had walked under the crossing gates and in front of an approaching locomotive. Nauman, the crossing watchman, ran the 25 feet to the woman and pushed her across the track, preventing her from being hit – an act for which he received the Carnegie Medal. No stranger to courageous acts, Nauman again acted when a woman stepped under the lowered crossing gates and in front of an oncoming train. Nauman attempted to pull her to safety, but they were both hit by the locomotive. Sadly, the woman died from her injuries, while Nauman had to have his crushed leg amputated. However, for his courageous act, Nauman received the railroad’s new Medal of Valor, and the Carnegie Medal again – the first man to receive that award two times.

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Railroads, Mansions and Money: The Vanderbilts in a nutshell

There is a lot of wrong information, or downright confusion, when it comes to the Vanderbilts on the internet. I’ve seen articles saying they earned their fortunes in the 1930’s, and that Gloria Vanderbilt’s father was the man who made the millions. But the family has origins much earlier than that, with the “Commodore Cornelius” Vanderbilt. Can I fault people for the confusion? Not really, considering that there were six or more men named Cornelius, at least five Williams, and several George Washingtons. It is my belief that all New Yorkers, and everyone that ever steps through Grand Central, ought to know about the Commodore and his family that had so much influence on our area. It was he that united New York state’s oldest railroad, with New York city’s oldest railroad. The family that built the New York Central railroad into an empire, and constructed our wonderful monument, Grand Central Terminal. So, if you were ever confused about the Vanderbilts, hopefully they’ll now make more sense to you… as I present to you, the Vanderbilts in a nutshell.






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