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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: The New York & Harlem’s Street Railway

When first conceived, the New York & Harlem Railroad was intended to do just what its name implied – connect lower Manhattan to Harlem. The original charter was granted by the New York State Legislature on April 25th, 1831, authorizing a single or double tracked road from 23rd Street to any point on the Harlem River between Third and Eighth Avenues (Fourth Avenue – later renamed Park – was the route ultimately chosen). Less than a year later, that mandate was expanded to allow construction as far south as 14th Street, and was expanded several more times to ultimately allow construction as far as Ann Street, just beyond City Hall. When the first mile of track opened for business in November of 1832, stretching from Prince Street to 14th Street, only 38 other miles of railroad track existed in the state.

New York and Harlem Railroad
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad. Initial service was powered by horse, and later provided all service south of 14th Street, where locomotives were not permitted

Street Railway Lines
Map of the New York & Harlem’s street railway

At Harlem, the northernmost portion of the chartered line, the New York & Harlem would meet up with the New York & Albany Railroad, providing a much-needed year-round link to the state capital (sailing up the Hudson at that time was difficult if not impossible in the winter months). Despite groundbreakings at several points along the proposed line, the New York & Albany never succeeded in creating this link. Slowly the New York & Harlem was given permission to do what the New York & Albany could not – first into Westchester County in 1840, and was later granted full rights to build to Albany in 1846. At that time the The New York & Harlem purchased the what was left of the failed road, including the land it had secured to build its line, for $35,000. Although the New York & Harlem never reached Albany – entering into an agreement with the Boston & Albany Railroad, which it met in Chatham – this trackage became the bread-and-butter of what became the Harlem Division when it was leased to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in 1873.

“The benefit to the City of New York, possessing as it does, the best seaport in the Union, will be incalculable.”

“Gentlemen must judge for themselves, but of one thing we are certain: the road will be built, and the most gratifying results may be anticipated.”

-Co-founder and Vice President John Mason, at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the New York & Harlem Railroad on Murray Hill in 1832.

The remainder of the New York & Harlem, which ran south of Grand Central Depot, was leased in 1897 to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company. Today’s tidbits from the archive deal with just that subject – before the lease of the street railway portion of the New York & Harlem, a letter was sent to all shareholders regarding the decision at the most recent Board of Directors meeting. Shareholders were instructed to sign and return a paper stating that they approved of the decision. Below is a scan of an original copy of this mailing, which this particular shareholder never responded to.

Envelope sent to shareholders

Letter sent to shareholders Response shareholders were supposed to send

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Smartcat Sundays: An Executive’s Train Ticket

Another one of the many things I enjoy collecting are interesting train tickets. Old commutation passes, complete with photo identification of the user, are one of my favorites – however today’s artifact is a bit different. While the tickets belonging to commuters are occasionally found, it is definitely more rare to encounter a ticket belonging to one of the New York Central Railroad’s executives. This leatherbound ticket folio, belonging to C. R. Dugan, has decorative golden corners, and is personalized with gold lettering. Inside are an array of passes for various railroads that Mr. Dugan was able to enjoy in his retirement.

Information regarding Dugan is a bit difficult to find, though he had a long career with the New York Central. In the 1920s, Dugan was an Assistant to the Vice President, and was part of a special committee that prepared the funeral arrangements for New York Central president Alfred Holland Smith (who died suddenly after being thrown from a horse in Central Park). Eventually, he worked his way up to the Manager of Public Relations, and from that position retired.

Though information about Dugan himself is scarce, there are a few mentions of the work he did for the railroad that I could find. Earlier in the week I posted about the New York Central’s donated B-26 bombers – Dugan was the main point of contact between the railroad and Anthony Gibbs, furloughed railroad employee on the New York Central II’s ground crew. In his role as Manager of Public Relations, he apparently spent quite a bit of time dealing with author Ayn Rand during her 1947 New York trip as she researched train operations for her seemingly-never-ending tome Atlas Shrugged. Rand conducted interviews with Dugan, and took several cab rides in various New York Central locomotives.

Passes belonging to C.R. Dugan

Passes belonging to C.R. Dugan

If you find old railroad tickets of interest, tickets of every variety can be found in the archives of SmartCat.

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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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SmartCat Sundays: New York Central Company Manners

Railfans are an interesting bunch – found within the group of us are all different types. Some like to ride trains and collect “rare mileage.” Others eschew riding the trains altogether so they can get that perfect photo of it. Some build their old memories in models, and others do the same in vast collections of ephemera and artifacts. It is fairly obvious that I am one of those folks that loves taking photos of trains, but I am also a serious collector of timetables (public – not employee, though I do have a few of those) and other paper items from the New York Central (generally with a focus on the Harlem Division, as you’d probably guess). Over the years, a fraction of my collection has made it online. I started SmartCat as an archive to it, but like the site, updates were hardly frequent.

One of my goals for the year is to scan a lot of my collection, and share it with you – on Sundays. The items I upload here will eventually be archived in SmartCat as well, hence the name, SmartCat Sundays. Hopefully a lot of the items I have you will find as interesting as I do! Today’s example is a short booklet printed by the New York Central for employees on how to have proper manners and be courteous. As a graphic designer, I found the illustrations sort of comical. But the piece also shows a little bit of the mindset of the company before its downfall. But perhaps, it was a foreshadowing of that which was to come

In the long run, it is the traveling and shipping public that writes our pay checks and provides us with the opportunity to win security and advancement. That is why building good public relations is a job for us all. It’s the best insurance for our jobs!

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.

 
  
 
  
 
  

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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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The Lost Train Station of the Bronx – 138th Street, Mott Haven

If there seems to be one constant with we humans, it is that we spend much time tearing down vestiges of our past to make room for the supposed future. We build bigger, taller, and seek the more modern, or the more profitable. Many venerable buildings have met the wrecking ball, and although some are well remembered, such as New York’s Pennsylvania Station, others are largely forgotten. One such forgotten New York City gem is the New York Central’s 138th Street station. Upon construction it was considered one of New York City’s most notable examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Featuring a beautiful clock tower, and ornate terra cotta detailing, this is one place that is definitely worth remembering.

In the northeast, Romanesque style train stations were mostly associated with the Boston and Albany Railroad, which designed most of their main line stations in the style (for example, Chatham, which was a joint Harlem Division station), and many by pioneer architect Henry Hobson Richardson. However, the New York Central did have a few – Richardson proteges Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge designed the Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, and Tarrytown stations located on the Hudson Line. The railroad also hired Robert Henderson Robertson to design stations at Canandaigua (extant, but heavily modified), Schenectady (demolished), and most notably, 138th Street.

R.H. Robertson was born in Philadelphia in 1849, and graduated Rutgers College in 1869. He started his architecture career working in the office of Henry Sims in Philadelphia, later moving to New York and working in the office of George B. Post. By 1871 he established his own architecture firm in New York City, designing a wide array of buildings from libraries to churches, as well as banks, train stations and private homes. Over the years he worked in various styles, including Queen Anne and Victorian Gothic, but by 1880 became heavily influenced by Richardson’s Romanesque revival style. Robertson was, however, described as “[taking] up the style in his own way.” His prolific New York City career led him to design various buildings that are today designated landmarks, including the Lincoln Building at Union Square, and Fire Engine Company 55‘s firehouse in Little Italy.

    
138th Street Station shortly after construction. Original photos from the Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photograph Collection, Cornell University Library. Photo restoration work by HarlemLine.com

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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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Mott Haven in the 1960s

Keeping the trains clean – A look back at Mott Haven Yard

Early last month some alarms were raised about an Amtrak traveler that rode from Penn Station to Albany that was infected with measles. Any poor sap riding that train who failed the common-sense milestone of getting vaccinated could potentially have been exposed. Occurrences such as these in the modern day are far less common, but in the early 1900’s health became a subject in the forefront of train riders’ minds – especially when trains often carried the (generally perceived) “dirty” immigrants out west. Today Mott Haven is only a small yard facility operated by Metro-North, located where the Hudson Line diverges from the Harlem and New Haven Lines. Historically, however, the yard was far larger and played more of an important role for trains entering and exiting New York City – and for many years it was the major point where train cars were kept clean and disease-free. A 1905 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured an article about how railroads prevented the spread of disease on their train equipment, and featured the cleaning crews of Mott Haven, which provides an intriguing look back at the Mott Haven facilities of yesteryear.

The Mott Haven wye in 1908
The Mott Haven wye area in 1908, note the turntable and large yard area for storing trains.

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