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.”
As has been readily established on this blog, I’m not much of a fan of subways. The subterranean lack of light has never been of much intrigue to me, though I do find some interest in the stations located above ground. Many of New York City’s above-ground subway stations feature attractive stained glass art, through the Arts for Transit program. While I thought it might be interesting to do a post featuring some of the attractive stained glass found on the subway, I ended up with a whole lot more material than I anticipated.
Though we won’t be going as in-depth as my previous tours of Metro-North stations, I did think it would be fun to tour some of the above-ground sections of the NYC subway, focusing on the glass art found at various stations. When trains went back underground – I bailed – and when the art wasn’t glass in the windows or windscreens, I skipped it.
We’ll start our exploration on the 4 Line. If you’re interested in joining up via Metro-North, board a Bronx-bound 4 train to Woodlawn from Grand Central or Harlem-125th Street. We’ll be starting at Woodlawn – the end of the line – and working our way down.
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:
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’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.”
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.
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.
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…
After visiting enough historical railroad stations (or by reading this blog) it doesn’t take too long to get accustomed to the decorative symbols enmeshed within the architecture. A set of symbols, like the caduceus and the winged wheel, are all associated with transportation, and can be found on stations near and far – especially those designed in the Beaux Arts style. Many of these stem from the Roman deity Mercury – the swift messenger god that became associated with transportation, always depicted wearing a winged cap and a with caduceus in hand. Also common is the winged wheel, representative of both Mercury and speed, which has represented transportation beyond railroads. The auto industry has made use of the symbol, and it can even be found in use today as the logo of the Detroit Red Wings. Other symbols, like the eagle, are representations of American patriotism. And for all those New York Central fans, the acorns and oak leaves symbolic of the Vanderbilt clan can be found within the railroad’s most notable stations.
A – Winged cap and caduceus, both symbols of Mercury, god of transportation, New York Central station, Bronxville
B – Winged wheel, transportation and speed, New York Central building
C – Caduceus and horn of plenty, symbol of Mercury, and of prosperity, Michigan Central Station, Detroit
D – Eagle, representing American patriotism, Utica Union Station
E – Acorns, adopted crest of the Vanderbilt family, New York Central station, Yonkers
F – Mercury, Roman god of transportation, Grand Central Terminal
On one Metro-North station, however, you’ll find a particular symbol that isn’t quite common in rail stations – the griffin. Griffins are the mythological hybrid of the lion and the eagle, depicted with a lion’s body and an eagle’s head. Besides being the venerable king of beasts, as the lion was generally regarded as the king of animals and the eagle as the king of birds, the griffin guarded treasure and wealth. Architect Cass Gilbert incorporated the symbol into several of his designs, including New Haven Union Station, and the West Street Building in Manhattan, which was used as an office building by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. Many men amassed fortunes in the railroading business, and these griffins became the symbolic guardians of this wealth.
Though Cass Gilbert is usually remembered as the designer of New York City’s first skyscrapers, his elaborate portfolio consisted of museums, state capitol buildings, courts, libraries, and even train stations. Gilbert’s most notable station is New Haven’s Union station, which opened in 1920 and replaced an earlier station destroyed by fire. For a Beaux Arts design, the station’s exterior is really rather plain, but the inner waiting room and ticket windows are undoubtedly beautiful. Over-exaggerated embellishments are few, though observant viewers can spot griffins on the wall in the office section of the station.
Through a twist of fate, Gilbert’s most notable griffins would be those found on the West Street Building. Completed in 1907, the 23 story building was one of the tallest in lower Manhattan. Over time it became dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers, and eventually the World Trade Center. Though it was always a gorgeous historical part of New York, the West Street building gained much notoriety after the attacks in September 11th, 2001. The building took major damage – fires lasted for days, and debris rained down on it from the collapsing towers. Two people died in the building’s elevator, and portions of one of the hijacked planes were found on the building’s roof. Ultimately, solid construction won the day – although the damage was immense, the building survived.
90 West Street eventually became dwarfed by the World Trade Center, seen in 1970 during construction and in 1988. Photos by Camilo J. Vergara.
90 West Street was eventually restored, and reopened as a residential building. It now contains 410 separate apartments, ranging from studios to three bedroom units. Countless embellishments inside and out were destroyed, though many were recreated using old photographs. Many of the gargoyles on the outside are modern creations in the style of the originals. One of the original surviving griffins, however, can be found in the lobby of the building. He’s no longer guarding the wealth of railroads, though I suppose one could say he is now guarding the wealth of the well-to-do tenants of the building – studios start at about $2250 a month.
Anyone familiar with the history of Grand Central Terminal (and hopefully all of you that regularly read this blog) likely recall a 1902 train crash that led to significant changes in how New Yorkers viewed trains. Nobody really liked steam trains operating through the city, and attempts to hide them in cuts and tunnels proved to be unsafe. That particularly serious crash in the Park Avenue Tunnel led to steam trains being banned in Manhattan. The idea of electric trains had been pondered for a while, but this proved the necessary impetus for innovation. The New York Central’s Chief Engineer William Wilgus, and inventor Frank Sprague came up with the bottom contact third rail to power trains into the city, allowing a bold new Grand Central that could never have been accomplished with the previous technology. The often overlooked question, however, is where did that electricity come from? Let’s rewind back a few years to the beginning of the Grand Central project…
At the heart of the Grand Central Project was not just a station, but an entire set of buildings – A Terminal City. Minnesota architects Charles Reed and Allen Stem won the New York Central’s commission for designing the new Grand Central Terminal, with the assistance of Reed’s brother-in-law, William Wilgus. Later added to the project by the Vanderbilt family were cousin Whitney Warren and his partner Charles Wetmore. The four collaborated on the Terminal itself, as well as the redesigned Grand Central Palace. Other buildings associated with the project were divided between the two firms – the hotels and New York Central Building went to Warren and Wetmore. Though not the most important architecturally, the two most important buildings of all were designed by Reed & Stem – the power stations that powered these new electric trains.
Two power stations were constructed by the New York Central in 1906 – one on the Harlem Division at Port Morris (the Harlem had a short branch to Port Morris at the time), and another in the Glenwood section of Yonkers on the Hudson Division. The architecture of both, as designed by Reed and Stem, was relatively simple with brick and terra cotta on the outside. Long, arched windows provided natural light during the day, and an attractive glow along the water at night. Under that simple exterior lay an extensive framework of steel (2800 tons of steel in total), with concrete flooring, brick and tile walls, and concrete roofing slabs covered with copper. Each plant consisted of two buildings – a main building that enclosed a boiler room, coal bunker, and generating room which was 167′ wide, 237′ long, and 105′ high, and a separate swich house located about 40′ away from the main building.
Both power stations were cross-connected, and each had an ultimate capacity of 30,000 kw. Just as Grand Central was designed to handle more traffic than the railroad was currently operating, the power stations were designed to carry train service much greater than what was being operated at the time with steam locomotives. Powered by coal, the plants were both designed to receive coal by rail or by boat, which was then delivered by conveyors to a crusher. After the coal was crushed to the necessary size, it was delivered by another conveyor to a coal bunker with a 3500 ton capacity at the top of the building. Each plant had 24 Babcock and Wilcox water tube boilers, and was designed to accommodate 6 5000kw Curtis vertical turbo-generators. The high voltage AC electricity provided by these power plants was delivered to various substations along the Harlem and Hudson Divisions through insulated cables, where it was then converted to lower voltage DC power for the third rail to power trains.
Though integral to the initial operations of Grand Central Terminal, the New York Central eventually realized that it would be cheaper to purchase energy as opposed to generating its own, and the Glenwood plant was sold to Con Edison in 1936. By the late ’60s the obsolete plant was shuttered and remained abandoned for decades… until fairly recently. A bold plan to restore and repurpose the old power station has been on the table for a few years, but seems to be moving forward thanks to the assistance of New York politicians.
“The Plant” project looks to turn the crumbling power station into a hotel and a convention center, with a capacity of 1600 and 3500 people, respectively. The space is separated into four distinct parts – the Smokestack Building, the Great Turbine Hall, a courtyard, and the Switch House Building – all of which will be connected internally with a new corridor. The smokestack building would contain a reception area, and cafe on the ground floor, and a hotel on the upper floors. Not only will the smokestacks be preserved, plans call for meeting rooms to be constructed inside the 15’6″-diameter stacks.
A large convention center and exhibition space is planned for the Great Turbine Hall, upper floors may contain retail shops, and the building may also include a spa. The last building to be converted, the Switch House Building, will be converted into a corporate retreat with a hotel, ballroom, restaurant and cafe. This building would see the most changes from the original, as two stories would be added to the building for additional hotel space. The last section of the project would be the Courtyard, currently an open space between the buildings. This open air area would be enclosed with a glass roof and would contain a restaurant or cafe, and a seasonal garden.
All of the aforementioned buildings would be connected to the Metro-North station at Glenwood via a new pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.
While there will always be people opposed to development in their neighborhood, the plans for restoring and repurposing the old power station were generally well received. Unfortunately, the area surrounding the site contains no space for parking, and project planners had their eyes on portions of nearby Trevor Park to fit that need, which was not well received by locals. Original plans called for a partially underground parking structure under the current Trevor Park, with artificial turf ball fields to be constructed above. After comments from the public, alternate possibilities have been suggested.
Either way, the city council unanimously decided at the end of April to request the New York State Legislature to authorize construction on former park lands for the project to move forward. The one caveat being that all parkland being used by the project must be replaced and improved in equal or greater acreage in alternate spots. This alternate parkland would be closer to the waterfront, and the development plans calls for sand volleyball courts, a bocce court, and a picnic and grilling area. This area would be in addition to the previously mentioned park above the parking garage, which is planned to have three ball fields and a playground.
Video highlighting the restoration and repurposing of the Glenwood Power Station.
I, for one, am very eager to see this beautiful old structure again restored to greatness. Though frequently overlooked, the old power plant played an integral role not only in local rail history, but also in the growth of New York City and its suburbs in Westchester and beyond. It will certainly be interesting watch how this project progresses!
In terms of historic preservation in the city of New York, Pennsylvania Station is a a sore spot for many. It was the gorgeous building that we didn’t save, that we couldn’t save. The Beaux-Arts station was a beautiful monument that was torn down, and for what? To be covered over with an arena. For this, Madison Square Garden has drawn the ire of many railfans and history buffs, but in reality the Garden has a longer history than even the original Pennsylvania Station, and is coincidentally linked to the New York and Harlem Railroad.
Originally established in 1879 at East 26th Street and Madison Avenue, the first Madison Square Garden was a roofless arena that sat 10,000 spectators. With the completion of Grand Central Depot in 1871, the New York and Harlem Railroad moved their operations, no longer needing their depot near Madison Avenue. While the land was first used by P.T. Barnum as the “Barnum Hippodrome,” William Kissam Vanderbilt took control of the space two years after his grandfather’s death and renamed it Madison Square Garden. The Garden hosted various sporting events, including the National Horse Show, which would become a yearly tradition at the venue.
The first Madison Square Garden lasted until 1889, when Vanderbilt sold the property to a group of wealthy investors including J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. They tore down the first Garden to build the second, designed by prominent architect Stanford White. The second Madison Square Garden opened in 1890 and lasted until 1925. The venue hosted a wide array of events, from boxing matches to plays, circuses, concerts and even the Democratic National Convention. Unlike its predecessor, the second Garden was fully enclosed, allowing events all year long, and in any weather.
British officers on their mounts at the 1910 National Horse Show, and horses outside Madison Square Garden. Alfred Vanderbilt, serving as the president of the National Horse Show, first invited the British cavalry to compete in the show in 1909.
The National Horse Show was one of Madison Square Garden’s major events, and was hosted at all four venues to bear the name, up until 1989. First established in 1883 by a collection of affluent members of society, the show was regularly held in November. While the spectators certainly included the rich and powerful, many regular people came to see the show, and some came by train. The New York Central offered special excursion tickets for those looking to go to the 1898 show, and printed an attractive brochure advertising it.
The brochure advertises that November is, “the best time of the year to visit New York…” which may strike some today as a bit odd. A warm locale like Florida sounds great for a winter vacation, but in the 1880’s anyone who was anyone headed to New York City. Fitting an event established by the affluent, the National Horse Show became a part of the New York social calendar, just as much as the opening of the opera season, or Mrs. Astor’s annual January ball. By summertime the socialites would move on to Newport, Rhode Island and their “cottages”, before returning to the city in November, and beginning the cycle anew.
The second Madison Square Garden was ultimately demolished, and in its place the New York Life Building was constructed. In 1925 the third arena to bear the name was opened, although it was located on Eighth Avenue between 49th, and not near Madison Square. Coincidentally, the place on which the third Garden was constructed was once a storage barn for trolleys. The third Garden lasted until 1968 when the fourth and current Madison Square Garden opened atop what was once the great Pennsylvania Station.
As for the National Horse Show, the competition is still held, although it now calls the Kentucky Horse Park home.
Arguably one of the most famous photos of a horsecar in New York City, by famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Want to irk a railfan or a history buff in only a matter of seconds? Just tell them that you’re in Grand Central Station. Grand Central is, of course, a Terminal – and as Danny Brucker would explain, “because trains terminate here.” The previous incarnation of Grand Central was, however, a station, and had tracks that did continue further south.
This is Grand Central Station, circa 1905. This, on the other hand, is not Grand Central Station.
If you’re up on your Harlem Railroad history, you’ll remember that the New York and Harlem Railroad began operating in 1832. Starting with a mile of track from Prince Street to 14th Street, the first trains were pulled by horses. As the line grew, first to Harlem, then beyond to Westchester, and ultimately to Columbia County, passengers would have to transfer to steam locomotives for the rest of their journey. Thus the New York and Harlem Railroad was a combination of two distinct parts – a street railway line (which eventually lost the horses) about ten miles long, and the railroad line, north of 42nd Street, about 137 miles long at its peak.
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad in New York City. As a random aside, it was these railroad horses, often worked extremely hard, that were a significant reason for the founding of the ASPCA in 1866. The ASPCA actually operated the first “horse ambulance” and made sure these rail workhorses had fresh drinking water daily.
Eventually the rail line was leased to the New York Central, and the street railway line to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company (and later the New York Railways Company). When Grand Central Terminal was completed, the divorce of the two was quite obvious, but before that, where exactly did the street railway operate? For the most part, on Fourth Avenue, and extending as south as Ann Street, about a mile from the southern tip of Manhattan island. To get a better picture of the line and where it operated, we of course have a lovely map!