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.
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 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.”
Today we feature the busiest bridge on the entire system, the Harlem River Lift Bridge. At sixty years old the bridge is not nearly as old as the issue-plagued WALK bridge, but it by far sees the most action, carrying nearly 700 trains per day for all three East of Hudson Metro-North lines. Over the past few months work has been moving along on the bridge – installing new cables that lift the tracks over the river for passing boats, and putting in new wiring, power supplies, and electrical control systems. Below the bridge a circuit breaker room that flooded during Hurricane Sandy and is experienced corrosion will be replaced. Gone will be an old crank control, updated to today’s standards with modern computers. In total, the overhaul has a $47.2 million price tag.
The 1867 bridge over the Harlem River, note the construction of a temporary bridge to allow a new 1891 span to be constructed on the main line. Image from the December 1892 Scientific American.
Historically, several previous movable bridges stood at this very spot, carrying the New York Central over the Harlem River. The first bridge over the river was completed in 1841, and stood a mere eight feet over the water at high tide. Made of wood, that bridge was later updated with iron spans in 1867. Later, a four track swing bridge was built in 1891. This bridge connected with the new Park Avenue viaduct, raising the tracks above Harlem and allowing a higher crossing over the river.
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.
Although it is quite obvious that I am a lover of the Harlem Line, it is undeniable that there are beautiful spots located all along Metro-North’s right of way. Even though the Moodna Viaduct may be one of my favorites, there are plenty of other spots I enjoy on the Hudson Line, like Bear Mountain, Dobbs Ferry, and Breakneck Ridge. The area around Spuyten Duyvil is also especially nice, and I spent an afternoon there a few weekends ago photographing and recording both Metro-North and Amtrak trains.
If you’re interested in checking out the area, across the river Inwood Hill Park offers great views of Metro-North’s Marble Hill and Spuyten Duyvil stations, as well as Amtrak’s swing bridge. Not necessarily railroad related, but of noteworthy mention is the large painted “C” that is kind of hard to miss. The C stands for Columbia – and was first painted on the rock in the early 1950s, with the approval of the New York Central Railroad. Coxswain of the heavyweight crew team, Robert Prendergast, came up with the idea and approached the railroad for permission. After it was granted, the C was painted about 60 feet by 60 feet square, and has been maintained ever since.
One of my personal favorite spots is the swing bridge used by Amtrak, after it splits from Metro-North’s Hudson Line. As most of you are already aware, for many years Amtrak trains ran from Grand Central Terminal. After some significant work in the late ’80s, including fixing up this old swing bridge, Amtrak was able to finally consolidate its New York City operations in Penn Station and vacate Grand Central. I can’t say that I know first hand, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about raucous parties that happened on this bridge while it was out of service. Originally constructed in 1900, the bridge was damaged and taken out of service in 1982, and was reopened in 1991.
Though the clock tower in Grand Central may be one of the coolest windows of all of New York City, if you’re looking for an entire vantage point to see the city in a new way the old New York Central building is an absolute gem. I’ve professed my love for the building previously, but I recently got a chance to head up to the building’s cupola – high above the bustle of Park Avenue and face-to-face with the behemoth MetLife Building. From Harlem-125th Street it is possible to see the four miles down Park and spy the old railroad building – likewise, from the building’s cupola you can see straight ahead to the station’s platform and arriving and departing trains.
If you’ve ever wondered what the view from the top of the New York Central Railroad looked like (well, sort of, a lot has changed since then!), here are some photos from the cupola:
Since 1925 The New Yorker magazine has been putting out issues with the most wonderfully designed covers (and a few controversial ones). Often times the covers don’t necessarily reflect any specific article found within magazine, but sometimes they do reflect current events. Other times they show typical New York area scenes. In a city as reliant on mass transit as New York, it was inevitable that buses, trains, and subways would frequently wind up on the cover of the magazine. Even Grand Central Terminal and the original Pennsylvania Station have also been featured several times.
Because several of the illustrators contributing to the magazine lived in Connecticut, the New Haven Line and commuters from the state were depicted on The New Yorker’s cover several times. Westport’s Historical Society had an exhibit featuring some of the Connecticut artwork from the magazine. From what I’ve seen on the internet, the exhibit (which ended last month) looked quite interesting, including some preliminary sketches of the covers by some of the artists.
I figured that I’d create my own little exhibit of covers here, of course, railroad related. Below you’ll find a collection of some of my favorite covers from The New Yorker, all featuring transit in some way. Enjoy!
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.
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 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:”
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.