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The Mansions that the Railroad Built, Part 3: The Breakers History Photos

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Several years ago I toured some of the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island – the place where anyone who was anyone had a summer “cottage” in the waning years of the 1800s. The very wealthy heirs of New York Central railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, were of course, no exception. William Kissam Vanderbilt had a mansion in Newport called Marble House, and his elder brother Cornelius II had The Breakers. While Marble House is remarkably lavish, it lacks the typical Vanderbilt aesthetic that one would find elsewhere – mostly because the home was designed for and by William’s wife Alva. The Breakers, on the other hand, has many of the obvious symbols representing both transportation and the Vanderbilts – the caduceus, acorns, and oak leaves.

Sketch of the gates for The Breakers
Sketch by architect Richard Morris Hunt of the gates for The Breakers

Cornelius Vanderbilt II bought the property on which the Breakers sits in 1885. The house on the property was wooden, and burned down in 1892. After that fire, Vanderbilt commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design a new summer home. Designed to resemble the palaces of Italy, the home had a total of 70 rooms and five floors. The Breakers is certainly one of the most extravagant homes in Newport, a symbol of the Gilded Age, and a representation of the fortunes amassed by the railroad barons of the United States.

The Breakers
The Breakers
1895 photos of The Breakers from the Library of Congress.

Despite my visit several years ago, I never managed to post the photos, for some reason. So here are some photos from The Breakers. If you missed parts one and two in the series, you can also find them here:

The Mansions that the Railroad Built, Part 2: Hyde Park
The Mansions that the Railroad Built, Part 1: Marble House

  
 
  
   
  
 
  
   
 
 
   
 
 
   
Rhode Island Mansion, The Breakers

For the next three weeks, this blog will be on a temporary hiatus as I am traveling in eastern Europe. I will likely be checking in on social media, so be sure to follow I Ride the Harlem Line on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Jets and Atoms – Powering Bizarre Trains Train History

Friday, April 11th, 2014

The annals of history are full of strange and intriguing bits of curiosity, providing plenty of fodder for a blog such as this one. We’ve covered plenty of odd topics on the blog before – from ghost horses to “perfunctory peck spots” – but we’ve never really mentioned any of the New York Central’s more bizarre trains, and they’ve had a few. The king of strange, however, is probably an experimental jet powered train from 1966. I present to you the “Black Beetle:”

Jet powered train

Essentially, the M-497, better known as the “Black Beetle,” is an RDC-3 with a shovel nose to be more aerodynamic, coupled with jet engines of a B-36. Tested in Ohio, it achieved a speed of 183.85 MPH. Eventually, the jets were removed, and the RDC was returned to service, albeit much slower.

Though far more tame than the jet-powered train, it is too difficult for me not to mention the Xplorer, which has always looked a bit comical to me.

Xplorer
The New York Central’s Xplorer, as shown in a 1956 edition of Popular Science.

The Xplorer was one of many trains designed to be “high speed” in the United States, in this case, high speed was 120 miles per hour. Running from Cleveland to Cincinnati, the goal was a smooth train that banked into turns. Alas many said the ride was actually rather rough. A similar variant was produced for the New Haven, and ran into Grand Central.

AeroTrain

Also falling under the category of bizarre-looking trains is the Aerotrain. Built by GM, a particular focus was placed on looks, leading to a rather unique aesthetic. Used by the New York Central between Cleveland and Chicago, the “lightweight with a heavyweight future” failed to gain popularity. Passengers found the ride rough and the cars uncomfortable. After only a few months, the New York Central’s Aerotrain went to Union Pacific, where it ran between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Will atomic energy power tomorrow's railroads?
Will atomic energy power tomorrow’s railroads?

Although the aforementioned trains may fall under the category of bizarre, none can really claim the title of strangest train ever conceived. That honor may go to the X-12. Picture the AeroTrain shown above, but put a nuclear reactor inside it – that is pretty much the X-12. Thought up by physicist Lyle Borst and his students at the University of Utah in the 1950s, the X-12 was a concept for a nuclear-powered train. Though that sounds a little bit outlandish today, one must think of the climate during the early years of the Atomic Age. Some of the world’s brightest minds had come together to discover the secrets of the atom, culminating in the first atomic bomb. That bomb caused unprecedented death and destruction. Who would want that to be their legacy? Thus many scientists involved in the bomb later focused on the peaceful applications of the atom, and something more worthy to be remembered for.

x12

x12_1

x12_2

x12_3

x12_4
Diagrams of the X-12, from Life Magazine, June 21, 1954./

Many people, however, were overly optimistic when it came to nuclear power. They imagined nuclear reactors one day as small as bricks, and a world where we no longer needed to mine coal, and where gas stations would be a thing of the past. Proposals for nuclear powered submarines, planes, trains, and even automobiles were all made. In fact, the US military spent well over a billion dollars trying to come up with a design for a nuclear-powered plane that could roam the skies indefinitely, never having to land for a fuel fill up. The nuclear plane was actually to be a modified B-36 – the same plane whose engines graced the “Black Beetle.”

X-12 Diagram
Diagram of the X-12 from Railway Age magazine, June 1954.

The X-12 concept locomotive was 160 feet long, and contained a cylindrical Babcock and Wilcox-designed reactor, which measured three feet in diameter and a foot long. Fueled by Uranium-235, the locomotive was designed operate continuously for several months without ever having to refuel. Hypothetically, with eleven pounds of fuel it could run for an entire year, but in practice the fuel would likely need to be changed a few times a year. In total, the X-12 locomotive would weigh 360 tons, 200 tons of which would be a protective shield from the radiation of the reactor. Behind the locomotive would be a 65 foot radiator car, required for cooling the reactor.

To fit into the limited clearance required of a locomotive, unconventional machinery would be required for the X-12, designed to squeeze into tight spaces. And in order to operate such a small reactor to also fit in that space, the fuel had be highly refined, weapons grade uranium. Besides the 200 ton shielding protecting the reactor, in the event of a crash a forcible impact from any direction would cause the reactor to immediately shut down.

Inside the "Hot Engine"
Diagram of the X-12 from Popular Science, April 1954.

Unlike the aforementioned bizarre trains, the X-12 was never actually built. Though more feasible than the atomic aircraft, the locomotive would be expensive to build – at least $1.2 million. Maintenance on the locomotive would have been very difficult, as the inner workings would have become highly contaminated with radiation. And despite assurances that the reactor would be highly protected, safety would be sketchy at most if it were ever in an accident.

Safety is, of course, a very big consideration for any type of nuclear power. Though it could be argued that the effects of radiation on people were not fully known until after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, we eventually learned that nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, fever, and hemorrhaging were all hallmarks of exposure to ionizing radiation. In the optimism of the Atomic Age, many thought that these effects could be reversed, but in truth the effects of nuclear exposure were cumulative, and defects caused could even be passed on to future generations. Because of these very reasons, anti-nuclear sentiment began to spread, and the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster pretty much sealed the deal. Although there are many risks, nuclear power is truly a novel way of generating electricity without releasing the greenhouse gases that result in global warming, but you probably won’t see it operating your trains anytime soon.

Three Mile Island
A Norfolk Southern freight passes Three Mile Island, where there was a meltdown in 1979. The two dormant cooling towers on the right are from the second unit where the meltdown occurred, which has since been decommissioned.

Metro-North Railroad Announces Heritage Unit Program Train Photos

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

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.”

Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014 Train History Photos

Tuesday, January 28th, 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…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

One more Warren & Wetmore station – Mount Vernon West History Photos

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

On the final day of 2013 – Grand Central’s centennial year – there’s one more station that I’d like to take a visit to. Several years ago, when we visited during our Tuesday Tour, we saw only part of the station, the tunnels and the platform. But beyond the current station’s doors is an edifice whose façade has remained fairly similar for over 90 years, though the inside has drastically changed. The New York Central’s station at Mount Vernon, designed by Warren and Wetmore, was at one time one of Westchester’s beautiful stations. Once it was on par with the great stations at Yonkers and White Plains – but while Yonkers survives and White Plains was razed, Mount Vernon exists in a strange limbo. As the New York Central’s financial woes became painfully obvious, the railroad began selling off the very buildings that were once symbols of their might. In 1959, Mount Vernon station was sold to local businessman who converted it to serve commercial purposes. The waiting room was dismantled and the cavernous space split into two floors, and the express room at the north end was demolished and a two-floor office building erected in its stead.

Postcard view of Mount Vernon station
Postcard view of Mount Vernon station

From the platform level one would hardly notice the history that surrounds this Metro-North station. A walk around the property at street level one discovers several exits long closed and covered in concrete. Behind masses of tall weeds is another former exit, the concrete marked with a 1916 date. The diamond in the rough, however, is the old station building, or rather its façade. A sgraffito panel bears the traditional symbols of transportation – the winged wheel and the caduceus – positioned between the text identifying the station as one of the New York Central Railroad. Besides this panel the adornments on the building are few, with the exception of a few sculpted flowers, surrounded by what could possibly be oak leaves.

  

Detail shots of the sgraffito panel on Mount Vernon West station.

Though the building is now covered in grime and graffiti, it is undeniable that at the time of completion this red brick building with limestone paneling was quite beautiful. Its sgraffito panel – an art technique which uses colored plaster applied to a moistened surface and scratched to reveal details – is unique among local train stations. While the building is not quite as embellished as the station at Yonkers, it is still a significant building reflecting the importance of Mount Vernon.

Map with locations of the old and new stations
Q&d map of Mount Vernon showing the locations of the old and new stations, and how the rail line was rerouted through town. Based on a map found in the 1914 edition of the G.W. Bromley & Co. Atlas of Westchester County, via the David Rumsey Map Collection. If you want to download the high res original, which shows individual tracks and sidings click here.

In the early 1900s Mount Vernon was experiencing significant development and was certainly an important stop on the Harlem Division, certainly warranting a new, larger station. However, there was yet another important reason why the town needed a new train station. If you’ve ever had the joy of being arrested by the MTAPD and taken to their station in Mount Vernon you are familiar with MacQuesten Parkway, the street on which the police station is located. MacQuesten Parkway was once known as Railroad Avenue, and the Harlem Division ran not far from where that police station is today. As the Harlem Division was electrified up to North White Plains, some adjustments were made in its route, one of which was in Mount Vernon. Just north of the border with the Bronx the line was raised and shifted about two blocks to the west. This allowed the elimination of a grade crossing in the city, and allowed the line to be four tracked.

Trolley line in Mount Vernon
Trolley line in Mount Vernon
An older face of Mount Vernon – the #7 trolley line connecting Yonkers and Mount Vernon ran right next to the station. The first photo, from the book Metropolitan New York’s Third Avenue Railway System shows an eastbound trolley just west of the station. The lower photo from SoYo Sunset shows two trolleys crossing under the New York Central’s tracks, and a northbound train departing Mount Vernon station (which is at left, out of the frame).

An array of businesses have found homes in the old station over the years, from a silversmith to a pharmacy, a photography shop, and even a karate studio in the building’s upper floor. The north wing that was demolished and rebuilt has been various banks over the years – in the ’80s the Bank of New York, today Chase. Original details on the inside are very few, but some design work can be found on the walls of an upper hallway.

The current train station, which consists of the tunnels under the tracks, is hardly noteworthy except for the old “M Central” signage and the Arts for Transit piece by Martha Jackson-Jarvis. Upstairs on the platform level one can see the back of the once great train station, now covered in graffiti. It is mildly amusing to note that the words sgraffito – the art found on the station, and graffiti – the spray marks tagged on the historical building both share the same origins. I generally appreciate the graffiti along rail lines, but it is a shame to see it mar a nearly hundred year old station… it seems to be the final, sad outcome of a once proud station, reflecting the downfall of a once great railroad, now long gone.