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Trains & Conspiracy Theories (I worked for a day at a “FEMA Concentration Camp”, AMA!)

Conspiracy theorists have always been around. People have long questioned the veracity of events like the moon landing, or the assassination of President Kennedy. Thanks to the internet, such theories spread faster and further, and pretty much every major event that happens in the world today has some person screaming behind a computer screen that it was a “false flag” or a fake event perpetrated by crisis actors hired by some shady government entity. Taking advantage the bulletin board systems of the early internet was Indianapolis lawyer Linda Thompson, who founded the American Justice Foundation – a fancy sounding organization that peddled conspiracy theories online and through anti-government video tapes. One of her most famous claims, made in the ’90s but surviving to this day, is that the government is building concentration camps to round up citizens – one such camp being the Amtrak repair facility in Beech Grove, Indiana.

If you’re into such conspiracy theories, then you’re now reading the blog of a person who has worked inside a “FEMA death camp” – ask me anything! On the other hand, if you’re a normal person, you’re reading the blog of a person who has gotten a chance to film and interview Amtrak employees who work at the historical shops at Beech Grove (and could probably spend weeks of her life content to wander the shops merely recording all of the interesting work that happens there every day). Originally built in 1904 by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four) Railway, the shops were later acquired by the New York Central. With the merger of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads in 1968, the shops became the property of the Penn Central, who later sold it to Amtrak in 1975. One of the facility’s first major projects was to convert old steam-based power systems to electric Head-End Power (HEP).

Men of the Car Shop
Men of the Car Shop, Big Four Shops in Beech Grove, 1919. Photo from the Indiana Historical Society.

Today, the shop is used for all sorts of heavy maintenance for Amtrak’s fleet of train cars and locomotives. Each building on the campus has a particular function – none of which include gas chambers for mass executions (I honestly wish I were kidding. Some people actually think this stuff). Two coach shops overhaul passenger coaches (one does light repairs, while the other takes care of heavier damage like from wrecks), while a locomotive shop overhauls, rebuilds, and performs maintenance on locomotives and NPCUs. Historically the Forge shop was where you would find blacksmiths fabricating train parts, but today you’ll find folks doing things like rebuilding couplers or truck assemblies (the wheels under your train cars). One of my favorites, the Trim shop, puts the visual touches on train cars, from upholstery to paint, and includes a special shop devoted to decal making. There’s also a building devoted to training and maintenance, and another with offices for administrators. You’ll also find plenty of train cars and locomotives stored on tracks throughout the facility – many of which came for evaluation on whether they would make good candidates for overhauling/rebuilding (some just aren’t, unfortunately). Although there are certainly a lot of moving parts across the whole facility, the major bread and butter of the work that goes on here is overhauling train cars. In many instances it is cheaper to completely rebuild a coach or locomotive than it is to outright purchase a new one, so the shop is constantly performing this task. In 2013 Beech Grove repaired and returned to service five wrecked locomotives, overhauled/remanufactured 91 Superliner cars, 20 Horizon coaches, 13 Viewliner sleepers, 13 Surfliners, 3 NPCU/cabbages, and 5 heritage dining cars. That is a heck of a lot of work, and Beech Grove is quite the hub of activity – but hardly the death camp that Thompson made so many believe.

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SmartCat Sundays: Milk on the Harlem Division

Milk has long been a staple of the American diet, and since the New York and Harlem Railroad was founded up until the 1950s, it was also a staple commodity carried by rail. Early in New York City’s history, dairy cows were kept and milked in the city proper near distilleries. Often sick cows were kept in cramped conditions, and fed the byproducts of whiskey making – resulting in a blue tinted “milk” that was lacking in cream content and dangerous to drink. Unscrupulous businessmen used additives – including water, sugar, molasses, egg, and even plaster of paris – to give it the appearance of fresh milk and sell it to an unwitting public. This tainted milk led to an increased infant mortality in the city, and was coined the “Swill Milk Scandal” when exposed in the periodicals of the day. The scandal eventually led to regulation of the milk industry, and a push for “pure milk” from dairies far outside the city. Stepping up to transport this milk were, of course, the railroads.

Rut Milk in the 1950s
The famous “Rut Milk” train passes through Mott Haven in the 1950s. The milk trains were eventually replaced by trucks. Photo by Victor Zollinsky.

Milk depots were established at many train depots, and local farmers could bring and sell their milk, which was then transported to the city. One of the Harlem’s most famous freights was the Rutland Milk train, which brought milk to New York City from Vermont – transferring from the Rutland Railroad to the Harlem in Chatham. Every day a swap would occur where a train full of milk changed hands at Chatham, exchanged for the previous day’s empties.

Today’s random tidbit from the archive is a letter from F.T. Hopkins to William Hooker. Hopkins was a milk dealer who operated the Harlem Railroad Milk Depot in New York City. The letter is addressed to Hooker at Wing’s Station – an earlier name for Wingdale.

Milk Depot Letter

Milk Depot Letter

 

Borden on the Harlem Line

Condensed milk promo card
New York Condensed Milk Company / Eagle Brand condensed milk promotional card.

Even if the milk transported by train to the city was considered “pure” and not of the “swill” variety, it did not last very long before spoilage in the days prior to refrigeration. Condensed milk stored in cans, however, could last for years without spoiling. Not only was condensed milk transported along the Harlem, it got its start here.

There are many ways to describe Gail Borden Jr.: a perpetual wanderer, deeply religious (anecdotal evidence suggests that he bought bibles for placement on the Harlem’s trains), eccentric inventor (he scared his friends by taking them on a ride straight into a river in a self-invented amphibious wagon – the “terraqueous machine”), an endlessly stubborn optimist that never gave up. All of those traits led him from his birthplace of Norwich, New York to Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Texas, Connecticut, and ultimately back to New York and the Harlem Railroad to launch his most successful invention – condensed milk.

For some time Borden had been interested in preventing food from spoilage. One of his first food related inventions was a meat biscuit, made from rendered meat and flour or potato and baked into a cracker, which could be eaten as is, or crushed into boiling water to make soup. He also experimented with preserving and concentrating fruit to make juices, and making coffee extract which took up far less space than regular coffee. Despite winning prizes for the meat biscuit, none of those endeavors were commercial successes. After debts forced him to give up on the meat biscuit and sell some of his property to pay creditors, Borden wholeheartedly pursued his milk preservation idea in Connecticut – starting a factory in Wolcottville. He eventually ran out of money and that factory closed, later replaced by a different factory in Burrville. Unfortunately, the Financial Panic of 1857 marked the end of that venture as well.

The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York
The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York

The original Borden factory in Wassaic today The original Borden factory in Wassaic today
The original Borden factory today, now occupied by the Pawling Corporation, which manufactures architectural products.

A chance encounter on a train ride, however, brought Gail Borden and financer Jeremiah Milbank together, and Milbank found promise in Borden’s idea. With Milbank’s money, Borden founded the New York Condensed Milk Company in Wassaic, New York, right next the the tracks of the Harlem Railroad. Borden’s tenacious spirit had finally paid off this time around, as his product became a commercial success. Another factory was constructed along the Harlem in Brewster to keep up with demand – and condensed milk became a staple for members of the Union Army during the Civil War.

After Borden’s successes he moved back to Texas, but upon death was returned by train to New York. He forever remains next to the Harlem Line, buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with a large monument that bears the following quote:
“I tried and failed. I tried again and again and succeeded.”

Borden's final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery
Borden’s final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery

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SmartCat Sundays: Restoring a Grand Central to Chatham Roll Banner

Original image of the roll sign Not everything you’ll find in my collection is printed on paper… Admittedly, I have a little thing for roll banners (I own three for the Harlem Division). Long before computers and other technology, these roll banners used to be displayed in Grand Central Terminal at each gate, letting passengers know what stops the train made. Each train had it’s own roll sign, which were stored in cabinets by the gate. The roll banner featured in this post was my third banner acquisition – but it was one I couldn’t resist, as it was originally an Upper Harlem Division banner. Sold by the SONO Switch Tower Museum on eBay as a fundraiser, their original photo of it is at right. As you can see, after the 1972 discontinuation of the Upper Harlem Line, those stops listed were blacked out. All of the banners were actually hand-painted by a real person, and when train names were changed, the signs were modified to fit – in the case of the black paint, some more drastically than others.

With the aid of old timetables, I was able to track the history of the banner, and the trains it once represented. Though the train number changed a few times, for the majority of it’s life, the it was for a Sunday-only morning train from New York to Chatham.

Unknown – 1958: Train 1053, which made a stop at Boston Corners.
1958 – June 30, 1964: Train 905. Ghent was blacked out in 1959 when it was removed as a stop.
July 1, 1964 – November 30, 1968: Train 909.
December 1, 1968 – March 19, 1972: Train 9009. Number was changed after the Penn Central merger.
March 20th, 1972 – unknown: Eliminated stations were covered in black paint, and used for Train 9013, a Saturday and Sunday train.

The lower level of GCT
Early photo of Grand Central’s lower level, showing two departure banners, and the cabinets the banners were stored in when not being used.

After purchasing the banner, I was slightly torn as to what I should do with it. Keep it as is, as a testament to what happened when Penn Central eliminated the Upper Harlem? Or should I restore it, to what it once was, showing all of the original stops? Part of what swayed my decision was that it was obvious that the writing underneath was not completely gone. You could just barely make it out under the black layer of paint, but it was still there. I decided to see how difficult removing the black would be, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. With a little bit of elbow grease, I revealed a line once hidden under black – “Visitors not permitted through gate”:

Black paint slowly disappears

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Planes of the New York Central – The Railroad’s WW2 Combat Bombers

While the New York Central’s famous trains are legendary, it seems that few know of their planes. Believe it or not, the New York Central and its employees raised the funds to purchase two planes, claiming to be the only railroad to have done so, and donated them to the war effort. Each plane was painted with the name “New York Central” and was flown by Army Air Force crews in World War II. At this time, the New York Central’s company magazine, The Headlight, was filled with photos of railroad employees off at war, and updates on their sponsored planes were always a highlight. In some instances, the crews were in fact railroad employees, or family members. And in a perhaps-not-coincidental twist of fate, several of the bomber’s targets were essential German infrastructure – its railroads.

Dedication of the "New York Central System" bomber
Dedication of the “New York Central System” bomber, attended by railroad president Frederick Williamson (left). Photo from the October 1942 issue of the Central Headlight.

The first New York Central sponsored plane
The first New York Central-sponsored plane. Photo courtesy b26.com.

The New York Central’s first twin-engine bomber, named simply “The New York Central System” was purchased with the funds raised by the railroad and its employees – $170,062.06 in total, money delivered on April 2, 1942 to the US Treasury. The idea was conceived by the employees of the Electric Locomotive shop in Collinwood, Ohio, who proposed small paycheck deductions from willing participants in order to fund the purchase. Nearly 90% of the Central’s workforce donated to this and other wartime fundraisers. Sadly, the bomber was shot down in February 1943 over North Africa after only 13 missions. However, determined railroad employees decided to raise further funds and purchased a replacement bomber, which was named the “New York Central II.” Though it was not unheard of for a group to sponsor a plane, this was the first time a group had come together a second time to purchase a replacement after the first’s loss.

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1867’s Double Track Railroad

I’ve been a little bit under the weather recently and rather busy, so I haven’t had the time to put a proper post together for this week, however I did want to share a somewhat recent acquisition of mine. This 1867 New York Central timetable is the second oldest in my collection (my oldest is from 1864), and is a little bit of a curiosity as it includes descriptions of some of the cities found along the rail line. For example, it describes Rochester as, “having risen from a wilderness in less than half a century,” and explains that, “the first white child born in Rochester is still living near by, in the prime of manhood.”

At this time the New York Central was a mere double track railroad, but it boasts that it is, “regarded in both this country and in Europe, as one of the most important, best managed, and safest lines of iron roads now in existence,” where “so few casualties occur.” Well, that’s one way to market your railroad…

Enjoy this little bit of history, nearly 150 years old.

1867 New York Central timetable

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Whippany Railway Museum’s 50th Anniversary, and big things for April

If you’re not familiar with the Whippany Railway Museum, it is a great little spot that works to preserve some of New Jersey’s railroad history, and is likely where you’ll find the next generation of young railfans, riding in historic train cars and meeting up with Santa and the Easter Bunny. The museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in order to celebrate they’re offering things like a railway hobby show, and 1956 prices on excursions. On Sundays where no excursions are taking place, the CNJ club car “Jersey Coast” will be hosting some photography exhibits.

My article in the April issue of Railfan & Railroad
My article in the April issue of Railfan & Railroad

If you haven’t heard already, I have a pretty big article in April’s Railfan & Railroad Magazine, featuring my explorations of the railway in Chornobyl’s Exclusion Zone. On April 26th, the 29th anniversary of the Chornobyl Disaster, I’ll be showing my photos from that adventure at Whippany, along with some copies of the magazine. So be sure to check out the April edition of Railfan & Railroad (which if you’re a subscriber, started mailing last week), and come out and visit Whippany for their 50th anniversary, and my showing of photos on Sunday, April 26th!

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George Henry Daniels, The Advertising “Prophet” of the New York Central

These days, it seems like social media “experts” are a dime a dozen. Tasked with promoting a service or a brand in the “social” world where sites like Facebook and Twitter reign, the social media guru uses a varied bag of tricks to get people to look their way. Though the medium has certainly changed, and the communication is now instantaneous, creative promoters are hardly a new invention. And although the term “going viral” was only recently coined, one could argue that promoters of yesterday experienced a similar phenomenon. Today’s post is about a talented man who was employed by the New York Central at the turn of the 20th century. Described by fellow advertisers as the railroad’s “prophet,” George H. Daniels was endlessly creative in attracting attention to one of the world’s greatest railroads. He was a writer, editor, travel agent, promoter, negotiator, and showman all wrapped into one package, but he went by the title of General Passenger Agent.

Much of Daniels’ promoting came down to a persistent tagline – “Send a stamp to George H. Daniels.” Any soul that would send off a letter to the man in Grand Central, and enclosing a two-cent stamp – of any country, in fact – would be returned travel-related literature pertaining to their specific interests. Perhaps a businessman would get a map of global trade lines, undoubtedly featuring the fine rails of the New York Central and its connections stretching across the United States. A science-minded fellow would find descriptions and diagrams of mighty steam locomotives in use by the railroad, or the newest technology found in use on the road. And a sportsman might find a guide to fishing in upstate New York, complete with photos of the varied fish found within each body of water. Daniels and his team created a litany of brochures for just about any interest, railroad or not. For the more philosophical, there was the reprint of Elbert Hubbard’s “A Message to Garcia” – of no relation to the railroad, yet complete with a map of the line as a reference point. Certainly one of his most prolific publications, it can only be argued that after being printed by the railroad the story went “viral” – and Daniels promised to print as many copies of it as were desired, even if it took a century to do so. The story was subsequently made into two different motion pictures, sold over 40 million copies, and was translated into 37 languages, largely due to Daniels’ influence.

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The Electrification of Grand Central, and Metro-North’s Third Rail

Over the past few years this site has significantly delved into the history of Grand Central Terminal and how it came to be. We’ve talked about the Park Avenue Tunnel wreck that led to the banning of steam locomotives in Manhattan – considered one of the catalysts for building the new all-electric Terminal. We’ve also talked about the power plants established to provide the electricity to power the trains operating to Grand Central. But somehow along the way, we’ve neglected to discuss the integral bit of tech that delivered the electricity to the trains in Grand Central, and is still used today – the third rail.

After the recent, tragic crash on the Harlem Line, the topic of third rail has become a talking point in the media. For those not exceptionally familiar with railroading (who have been frequenting the site as of late), electric trains can be powered by various methods, and most railroad systems picked one method of power for their road. Since Metro-North is made up of two historical railroad systems – the New York Central, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford – you will not find just one method of powering electric trains here. One common type of power, which is seen on the New Haven Line, is the overhead catenary system. Wires above the train carry electricity, and trains have special “arms” called pantographs that reach up and connect with these wires.

Drawing of the bottom contact third rail, from the patent documentation.
Drawing of the bottom contact third rail invented by William Wilgus and Frank Sprague, from the patent documentation.

The other common method of train power, the third rail, comes in a few different “flavors,” but the concept on each is similar – an extra rail that conducts electricity is placed on the ground, and special shoes on the train connect with it and draw power. The New York City subway and Long Island Railroad, for example, use an over running third rail, where power is collected from the top of the third rail. This is the oldest type of third rail power. Metro-North, however, uses a method of under running third rail, which is also known as bottom contact third rail (or the Wilgus-Sprague system, for its inventors). As one would gather from the name, the power is collected from the bottom of the third rail. This method was especially invented for use in Grand Central Terminal, and was an improvement on the original by inventors William Wilgus (Chief Engineer of the New York Central) and Frank Sprague for safety. It is still used on the Harlem and Hudson Lines today, and is what was involved the recent crash.

Before I continue on, let’s break down some facts about the third rail in Valhalla, and about under running third rail:

  • The railroad tracks running through the area in question have been in service since 1846.
  • Under running third rail has been in service in the New York Metropolitan area since 1906.
  • Third rail in the area in question was installed in 1983 when the Harlem Line was electrified to Southeast (then Brewster North).
  • Over running third rail (like the LIRR uses) is the oldest type of third rail. Under-running third rail was developed later as a safer methodology, as it was less likely to electrocute a worker or trespasser, and better covered from rain, snow, and ice.
  • The original NYC subway (IRT) used the older version of third rail because the under running variety had not been invented yet. The Long Island Rail Road followed suit when electrifying due to connections / planned connections with the subway.
  • The same year that under running third rail was patented, the legislature of the State of Connecticut banned unprotected third rail technology after several people / animals were electrocuted. The whole concept of under running third rail was that the rail was protected, and thus considered far more safe.
  • In modern usage, under running third rail seems appears overwhelmingly safer in comparison to over running. The subway and LIRR have had far more deaths in this manner – from numerous trackworkers, to people walking across the tracks, falling on the tracks, graffiti artists getting zapped, people trying to rescue dropped items, and even peeing on the third rail. Over the five year period from 2002 to 2006, one person was electrocuted by Metro-North’s third rail, while six were electrocuted by the Long Island Rail Road’s.
  • The over running third rail used by the LIRR and subway are far more effected by rain, snow, and ice. Even a dropped umbrella onto the tracks managed to shut down the 7 line recently.
  • Metro-North is not the only transit system to use under-running third rail. One line in Philadelphia uses it. Historically, a tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario used it, but that line was de-electrified. Transit systems in Vienna, Warsaw, Sao Paulo (and more) use under-running third rails.
  • Few systems using under-running third rail means nothing about the soundness of the technology. It is only a legacy holdover to a country once comprised of many different railroad companies, each of which picked the technology best suited for them. The lines that comprise Metro-North were not even a unified system until 1969, which is why different modes of electrification are used across the system.
  • While Chuck “Photo op” Schumer and Richard “Stolen Valor” Blumenthal would prefer to blame a third-rail design that has worked successfully for well over a hundred years, and is safer than the one used by our neighbors, the fact of the matter is that this accident would have 100% been prevented by better driver vigilance and abiding the sign “Do not stop on tracks.”

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The Harlem Division’s Cemeteries: The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

To me, some of the most interesting stuff about railroad history is not about the trains or the railroads themselves, but how they affected the places in which they operated. The oft-cited cliche is that the railroads built this country, and although they certainly had an effect on the movement of people westward, some of the strongest effects can be witnessed around cities. Today’s Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines played an immense part in the growth of New York City’s suburbs, and other railroads played a similar part in other major cities. Trains provided easy access to the city’s jobs, but allowed people to live increasingly further and further outside the city’s limits. Businesses were also established or relocated to spots along the rails in order to have access to the city – a primary example being the very first successful condensed milk factory in Wassaic, a spot selected by inventor Gail Borden because of the plentiful farmland, and the Harlem Railroad.

Strangely enough, the railroad also played a part in the establishment of various cemeteries. As the city itself grew larger, not only did some former rural cemeteries get displaced, people with money wished to be interred in an attractive rural setting. Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863, and took in the remains of cemeteries displaced in the city proper, and grew to become a venerable place of final rest for thousands. Such growth was undoubtedly assisted by the nearby railroad, easily allowing loved ones to visit the graves of their friends and family. Further north along the Harlem Division, the Kensico Cemetery was also established as a beautiful, rural final resting place. Truly appealing to the wealthy of the city, Kensico offered a private railcar for rent for funerals which would transport people directly from Grand Central to the cemetery’s very own train station.

Though Woodlawn and Kensico may be the two most commonly known cemeteries that owe their growth to the Harlem Railroad, there is another slightly more unique cemetery that also falls into that category – the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Just like its brethren, the Hartsdale cemetery has seen gun salutes, bagpipers, and is the final resting place for thousands of friends – however the majority of them just happen to not be human. Buried within its grounds you’ll find the graves of war dogs, police dogs (including at least one MTAPD K9), a search and rescue dog that lost its life on September 11th, thousands of other cats and dogs, humans that opted for their cremains to be interred together with their beloved pets, and even a lion. It is also home to the War Dog Memorial, celebrating the animals that fought alongside their human handlers in the Great War.

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A visit to the restored Santa Fe Depot, Fort Worth, Texas

As the somewhat clich├ęd song lyrics go, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” In the case of the former rail station we’re visiting today, that almost happened – literally. The beautiful Santa Fe station in Fort Worth, Texas, was almost razed and turned into a parking lot. Thankfully, the property was purchased by real estate investor and developer Shirlee Gandy. After investing over two million into the building to properly restore it, it was reopened as the Ashton Depot, a lovely banquet hall that hosts weddings, corporate events, and other such festivities.

Opened in 1899, the depot was constructed in the beaux-arts style, though the design was undoubtedly influenced by the aesthetic of the southwest. The two-story rectangular building is constructed of bright red brick and detailed with white limestone. Fine details can be found on both the exterior and interior, including several lion heads that surround the building, and attractive plaster design work surrounding the inside archway.

Santa Fe Depot in 1908
Early view of the depot’s exterior, featuring some details that are a bit different today. Photo via Fort Worth Gazette.

Built for the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, the building was generally known as the Santa Fe depot. Several other railroads had used the building, but by 1960 the Santa Fe was the only railroad that remained. Once Amtrak was formed, it was the sole user for passenger service up until 1995.

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