Another Great New York Station: Utica

Though begrudging partners, the architectural firms of Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore collaborated magnificently on the great Grand Central Terminal. Unfortunately, in mid-project Charles Reed died. Seeing this as an opportunity, Warren & Wetmore secretly approached the railroad’s directors the day after Reed’s funeral and convinced them to void the original contract – after all, there was no more Reed & Stem. The new contract named Warren & Wetmore the sole architects for Grand Central and the further projects associated with the Terminal (like the Biltmore Hotel). Ultimately, Stem sued Warren & Wetmore and was awarded a hefty sum in 1920, and Whitney Warren was expelled from the American Institute for Architects for unprofessional conduct ((An article discussing Reed & Stem and the Biltmore Hotel they were supposed to collaborate on, before the contract was changed, with Warren & Wetmore can be found here.)).

Despite all this, there seemed to be no bad blood between Stem and the New York Central Railroad. Forming a new firm with junior partner Alfred Fellheimer, Stem & Fellheimer designed the railroad station in Utica for the New York Central.

Workers at Utica
Workers stand atop the the clock on the station’s façade. ((Photo from the Oneida County Historical Society))

The construction of the new station at Utica was no easy task. The previous station, besides being inadequate for the traffic it was receiving, was plagued with problems in the spring when floods would cover the tracks with water. To combat this problem, and make additional room for platforms and a rail yard, the Mohawk River was moved about half a mile north. Construction on the station itself began in 1912, and it was opened in May of 1914.

Postcards from Utica
Postcards showing the front of Utica station.

Utica station features a 47 foot high waiting room, with 34 decorative marble pillars, and some of the marble was said to have come from the old Grand Central Station ((According to popular lore, 8 of the columns were brought from Grand Central Station. Though often stated, according to the Oneida County Historical Society there is no evidence to prove that this actually happened.)). Originally intended to be a station for the New York Central, the station eventually became a Union Station in 1915 when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western and the New York, Ontario and Western moved their operations to the building.

While the interior of the station is quite lavish, the exterior is a little bit more conservative. There are no great statues of Mercury, Minerva and Hercules atop the station, like Grand Central Terminal, but the caduceus “herald’s staff” often carried by Mercury is visible on the station’s façade. Several carved eagles, as well as a clock also grace the front of the station.

Tickets and postcards from Utica
Tickets and another postcard from Utica

Like most old stations, Utica’s eventually fell into disrepair and considered for demolition. Thankfully, the station avoided the wrecking ball and restoration was begun in 1978. Now owned by Oneida county, the station is served by Amtrak, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, as well as by Greyhound and other local bus companies. Some of the old waiting room is apportioned off and used by the Oneida County Department of Motor Vehicles. Since 2003, the building’s official name has been The Boehlert Center at Union Station, named for Sherwood Boehlert, a Utica native who served twelve terms in the US House of Representatives.

Let’s enjoy a quick little tour of Utica station, part of my ongoing endeavor to write about some of the other buildings and stations linked to the four architects of Grand Central Terminal…

  
  
 
  
 
   
 
  
   
   
   

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Bye bye Joe Lhota, hello Sadie the cat?

In case you missed it, two big things in MTA land went down this week – (or should I say up?) fare increases are totally happening in March, and Chairman and CEO of the MTA, Joe Lhota, will be resigning. We’ve certainly had a seemingly endless revolving door in terms of MTA chiefs. Lhota has been at the helm of the MTA for just about a year, so I guess he didn’t really set any records for longest time served.

People have been debating who should get the nomination to replace Lhota, and if you ask me, it should totally go to Sadie the subway cat! A few weeks ago I updated you on Sadie, who formerly worked at the New York Transit Museum, but has since retired. I had a chance to talk to the wonderful museum employee who has adopted Sadie, and it seems that she is certainly enjoying retired life…

 
  
 
The subway kitty is now an apartment kitty, and with a nice view!

I bet we could convince Miss Sadie to take the post as chief of the MTA, though. Think about it, we’d just have to pay for her cat food, litter and vet care, and that can’t be more than $1,000 a year, right? That is a bargain compared to the $350,000 that Jay Walder got paid in 2010 as MTA chief. And it wouldn’t be the first time a feline was in an executive position at a transportation company – just ask Japanese cat Tama, who worked herself up from the position of Stationmaster, to Super Stationmaster, and now Chief Operating Officer at the Wakayama Electric Railway. Apparently putting animals in executive positions at railroad companies seems to be a perfectly acceptable business practice in Japan. So why not hire a cat and get ridership up?

In other news, when it comes to the cuteness factor, Sadie beats Joe Lhota hands down. Jay Walder, too.
sadielhota
Sorry, Joe Lhota.

In all seriousness, it will be interesting to see who will be replacing Lhota. And a little bit of a shame, as I thought he seemed pretty competent. (And yes, I admit, I always thought he was pretty cool for actually starting and maintaining a twitter account.) The likelihood of a cat getting the position is probably less than the world ending tonight, so we certainly wish Sadie the best, and to keep enjoying her retirement. But on the off chance that she does get the job, I know who Sadie can hire as her deputy!

grumpycat
The trains aren’t running? GOOD!

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Grand Central Theatre, and the other sky ceiling


The famous sky ceiling…

Grand Central Terminal’s sky ceiling is world-famous. Even if you’ve never been to the Terminal, you may have at least seen pictures of the gorgeous main concourse. Far fewer people, however, are familiar with the other (albeit much smaller) cerulean and gold sky ceiling also found in Grand Central. Once part of the lobby of the Grand Central Theatre, this other sky painting can be found above the registers in the Grande Harvest Wines shop, next to track 17.

 

The lesser-known sky ceiling

The theatre itself is also not often mentioned, though it was a part of the Terminal from 1937, and lasted about three decades. The 242-seat theatre had an early version of what would now be called stadium-style seating, produced by the Irwin Seating Company (which is still making stadium seating to this day!), and standing room in the back.

Different from the movie theatres we are accustomed to today, the Grand Central Theatre was a newsreel theatre – it played various short bits of news, documentaries, and even cartoons. A theatre of this type was perfect for the Terminal in its day – people waiting for their long distance trains could spend the extra moments until their train in the theatre. All the shorts were played continuously, so you could duck in and out whenever your train schedule required. Above the screen an illuminated clock displayed the time for those people on a schedule.

Advertised as the “most intimate theatre in America” the theatre regularly played every day til midnight. Also included with the theatre was a lounge designed by Tony Sarg. Whether you know his name or not, most New Yorkers – or for that matter Americans – know Sarg for his creations. He designed the first balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, including Felix the Cat, which was introduced in 1927.

 

Grand Central Theatre postcards, from the collection of Steve Swirsky.

For me, the Grand Central Theatre epitomizes the changes that Grand Central has gone through over its 100 years. While the Terminal’s outside has remained for the most part the same, the inside has always morphed to keep pace with society, and what was needed at the time. When prim and proper ladies and gentlemen used Grand Central, there were private waiting rooms staffed by maids where one could change into their best before stepping out to high-society parties. As World Wars I and II were being fought, and soldiers were moving through the station every day, the Terminal hosted a Red Cross kiosk, and one of the balconies was converted into a Service Men’s lounge. And when fancy long-distance trains like the 20th Century Limited were all the rage, you could wait the time until your train departed by watching the newsreels in Grand Central Theatre.

Today, with its mass of commuters, Grand Central boasts the conveniences associated with that demographic. You can buy a book to read, some flowers for someone special, a cheesecake to go, or even a beer for the train ride home. I don’t think that Grand Central Theatre would really work today – and I don’t think that Grand Central Market would have worked in the past. While some of our monuments have fallen into disuse and are merely tourist attractions, Grand Central is not just a historical monument – it has remained a relevant part of our lives, partially because of these minor changes. But Grand Central Terminal’s fundamental purpose has not changed – it is still a wonderful example of a train terminal – and definitive proof that a historical building can still be functional and pertinent one hundred years later.

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Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Port Jervis


Stereoscopic view of the Erie Railroad near Port Jervis, circa 1870. From the collection of the NYPL.

Finally, we have arrived – the eponymous and final station along Metro-North’s Port Jervis Line. Port Jervis is located at the edge of Orange County, and bordered by the Delaware River. The river’s natural border splits New York and Pennsylvania, and the railroad station is within easy walking distance with border-town Matamoras, PA (New Jersey is also not too far, but the walk would be a little bit longer). While Matamoras tends to be known as “that place across the border where out-of-staters can buy fireworks,” I’d certainly suggest you not do this by train (although people have tried to bring some pretty crazy things on Metro-North trains before!).


Train at the Erie Port Jervis station, 1966. This station still stands, but has been converted to shops and is not used by the railroad.

The original Erie train station at Port Jervis is a beautiful building, constructed in 1892. However, when Metro-North took over commuter operations here, they constructed a new station about a quarter mile beyond the old station. Today, the original station is home to various shops, and is in very good condition after being renovated. It, of course, significantly overshadows the utilitarian Metro-North station that we are here to visit today. I won’t be talking more about the Erie station now, since it is certainly worthy of its own post, which I will hopefully get a chance to put up before the end of the week.


Hanging out at Port Jervis, 1988.

Similar to the other stations along the line, Port Jervis has a low-level platform, shelter, and not much else. Metro-North did a little bit of renovating within the past year (at a cost of about a million dollars), and now the shelter is actually heated. Other modifications were to be made to better accommodate passengers with disabilities. Located beyond the platform is a small yard facility where trains can be stored for service on the line, which is slightly less boring than the station. There is also a historic turntable not far from the station, but I’ll talk more about that in my post about the Erie station. Until then, here are some views of Port Jervis.

  
 
   
 
 
  
 
  
  
 
 

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From train station to library, Part 2: Middletown


Middletown station, circa 1900. From the collection of the Historical Society of Middletown

Last December I posted some photos from Briarcliff Manor, a station that was along the now-defunct Putnam Division, and how it has since been converted into a library. I’ve always thought it seems appropriate for an old train station to live a second life as a home to history and literature in the form of a library. There are several such places in New York state alone, but one of my favorites is in Middletown, NY. Since we’ve now turned our attention to Metro-North’s west-of-Hudson service and will spend the next few Tuesdays visiting the stations of the Port Jervis line, I thought it would be appropriate to also check out some of the former stations. Middletown is likely one of the most beautiful of the extant stations to fall under that category.


Roosevelt arrives in Middletown via train, 1898. [image source]

As I mentioned earlier this week, the current Port Jervis line follows a slightly different route than the original passenger line operated by the Erie railroad. A portion of the Erie main line was abandoned, and trains were rerouted along the freight Graham Line in the 80’s. The tracks that ran through the center of Middletown, and past this Erie depot, were part of the section that was abandoned. When the old tracks were removed, Middletown’s historic Erie depot became just an old building surrounded by asphalt and automobiles. Its life as a venue for rail travel had come to an end.

 

(top) A circus train arrives in Middletown in 1906. (bottom) Celebrating Erie Day in 1943. [images source]

Built in 1896, the beautiful Romanesque-style Erie depot was designed by architect George Archer. Archer was a native of Maryland and a graduate of Princeton University. He designed several churches, banks, and other buildings in the mid-Atlantic area of the US, and in varying styles. As I’ve mentioned before, the Romanesque style is definitely my favorite, and was popular in the US in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Chatham and Mamaroneck are other examples of stations designed in similar style which I’ve featured before.

  
 
 
1971 photos from the Historic American Buildings Survey, and an undated postcard view of the station

Though the name “Erie Railroad” is prominently emblazoned on the outside of the building, the station did in fact outlive that railroad. In 1960 the cash-strapped Erie, and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroads combined to form the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. Similar to the fate of the Penn Central, the Erie Lackawanna eventually declared bankruptcy and was ultimately merged into Conrail. The station survived all of these changes, and stood watch as the final passenger train arrived at Middletown at 6 PM on April 16th, 1983.

 

Photos of Middletown in the 1970’s, from the collection of Michael Jensen.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. By the 1980’s, the Middletown Thrall Library began to run into a difficult, yet obvious problem – the building in which they were housed was too small. By 1991 a solution had been found – expanding and moving into the old Erie depot. Construction began in October of 1993, and the library finally opened in its new home on February 13, 1995. The new library cost a total of $5.3 million, and was now 30,000 square feet – much larger than its previous building. The library’s reading room is in what was the original station, and the director’s office was the original ticket booth. The rest of the building is modern, but made to mimic the style of the original station.

In several weeks we will visit Middletown’s replacement station on the Port Jervis Line on our Tuesday Tour, but suffice it to say, it pales in comparison to this beautiful building. But I don’t think anyone can really complain – the former Erie depot makes a fine library.

 
  
  
 
   
   
 
  
    
 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  

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Weekly News Roundup, 1/28

It has been brought to my attention that I’ve neglected to post news roundups for the past few weeks. Not too many spectacular things have occurred over the past few weeks, but here are a few of the noteworthy stories:

Metro-North Passenger Pledge

On our 12/31 news roundup, I mentioned the Metro-North passenger pledge, and how it was accepted by the Connecticut Commuter Council. Since that time, it has been officially “unveiled” by Metro-North. It has been quite the topic of conversation by numerous news outlets in both Connecticut and New York. Commentary has ranged from utterly pointless comments about “great American flag clip art” to what exactly this pledge really means to riders. The majority of everything in the pledge have been the goals of Metro-North for quite a while, though they are now just made available in writing.


Hey Gothamist, have you even been on a train recently? That “American flag clipart” sure looks familiar…

It seems that quite a few New Haven Line riders are unhappy with a particular line in the pledge:

Metro-North will use best efforts to schedule service to meet anticipated demand so as to provide a seat for every customer

They notice the “provide a seat for every customer” part, yet conveniently ignore the previously mentioned phrase of “best efforts.” On that particular point, Jim Cameron may have said one of the most logical things I’ve heard from him in a while:

“You only get a ride. They can’t promise a seat. That was a little too much to ask… [but] this is the bitter fruit of the neglect of that railroad by the Connecticut legislature in investment, going back decades.”

Cameron and the Connecticut Commuter Council pushed for the pledge to be put on trains, and Metro-North obliged. Trains last Thursday evening had a copy of the pledge left on every seat… and rather expectedly, were found crumpled on the floor of the train by the end of the evening, likely unread.

   
  
Thanks for the pledge… though it seems that most commuters don’t really care at all.

Planes, Trains And Automobiles Struggle With Fat Americans

Jim Cameron again lends his expert opinion on the subject of trains and fat Americans, in a story found on Gothamist a week or so ago. I find the following statement found in the article rather amusing:

Metro-North is attempting to trick fat passengers by making the middle seats look larger with a center seam instead of arm barriers, though they’re not actually making the seats bigger.

Of all the things one could blame Metro-North of doing to passengers, I doubt that tricking fat passengers about the size of seats is high on that list. Perhaps to anyone other than a conspiracy theorist, a more logical assumption might be where our new trains (as they were apparently referencing the M8’s of the New Haven Line) have been designed. Our first M8’s were delivered from the Kawasaki company in Japan – a country that has a significantly lower percentage of obese citizens than we do. Perhaps in future railcars this will be addressed, as it is a subject that has been influencing industries throughout our country – even tourism.

A harmonica-playing conductor…

The New Haven Line certainly has its share of interesting conductors… The following video has been making the rounds this week, and I couldn’t help but share. Certainly a conductor playing the harmonica is amusing, but it is the two guys dancing in the background that really makes the video.

Mother suing the MTA for son’s death by subway train

In the future, when people look back on us Americans, I have a feeling that they might find that the country’s pastime is not baseball, but filing lawsuits. And some are quite doozies – a drunk and high idiot convicted of manslaughter for killing three with his pickup truck has the audacity to sue the victim’s families for pain and suffering. And although there is no doubt that a Brooklyn mother is suffering and in pain after the death of her son, suing the MTA for it is just asinine.

A likely drunk Briant Rowe willingly climbed down onto the subway tracks and wandered through a tunnel, and was not surprisingly struck by a subway train. Though clearly his fault, Rowe’s mother is suing the MTA for fifty million dollars, claiming that it is the MTA’s fault for not suspending all service to search for the man, who was sighted on the tracks… though a slow-moving train did search for him for over a half an hour. Really, where is personal accountability in this whole story? Perhaps we should nominate this young man for a Darwin Award.


If we get our legs ripped off by a train, can we sue the MTA too?

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Another side of Grand Central, views during Summer Streets

In two short years our lovely Grand Central Terminal will be celebrating her centennial. In the years that we’ve known her, she has relatively few undiscovered secrets – countless books, documentaries, and articles have told her stories to anyone curious enough. Sure, media outlets always present these as grand, never-before-heard secrets, but for the railfans, we know (and have discussed their veracity endlessly). One can be so caught up in the immense grandeur of the monument designed by Reed, Stem, Warren, Wetmore, and Wilgus (one must never forget Wilgus) that some of the most obvious details are completely overlooked. Perhaps overlooked is not the correct word – as on a normal day one cannot really get a proper look of the exterior of this grand structure. In fact, a closer look is completely blocked by the roadway that diverts traffic around the station – one of the details that won Reed and Stem the contest for design of the station in the first place. Unless you’ve taken the roadway around the station, chances are you’ve not gotten a chance to see up-close the eight-and-a-half foot tall likeness of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Nor have you gotten a good, full-frontal view of the massive sculpture on the front facade (the enormous scale of which is practically imperceptible from the ground). But there are days in which these views are open for all to explore, and to photograph. They may call them Summer Streets, but to me, they are a great time to view Grand Central.

If you are familiar with the concept of Summer Streets, the most typical image that probably comes to mind is a bicycle. For three Saturdays, usually in August, seven miles of street are temporarily closed off to cars – allowing bicyclists, skaters, and pedestrians to stroll to their heart’s content. Although the scene is dominated by the bicyclists, you will definitely see a few photographers (like me!) capturing the view sans the ubiquitous automobile. You can get up close and personal with the Commodore and a perched eagle, and roam around the exterior to see the New York Central (now the Helmsley) Building, which was once viewable behind Grand Central – until it was eclipsed by the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in 1963.

Both the eagle and the Vanderbilt statue predate the Terminal, but have both returned to stand watch. The cast-iron eagle, with a thirteen-foot wingspan, once perched above Grand Central Depot, the predecessor to today’s Terminal. In the late 90’s the bird was discovered in Bronxville, eventually donated to the MTA, and returned to its historical home. The statue of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was designed by Ernst Plassman in 1869, and was relocated to its current home in 1913, when the Terminal was completed. The 35-story building at 230 Park Avenue, originally the New York Central Building, was designed by Warren and Wetmore and completed in 1928.

 
  
 
   
 
 
   
 
 
  
 
  
 
   

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Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Mount Vernon East

When it comes to communities with connections to Metro North, you can’t get more connected than the city of Mount Vernon. Two of Mount Vernon’s stations have been featured here before – Fleetwood, and Mount Vernon West, both on the Harlem Line. The city is unique in that it is intersected by both the Harlem and New Haven Lines, and that it has stations on both. Mount Vernon East is the city’s third station, and its connection on the New Haven Line – and in my own humble opinion, probably the nicer of the three.


Mount Vernon East claim to fame: being the true filmed location for the train station in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Mount Vernon East is a relatively short jaunt from Grand Central: approximately 14 miles. It is the first station after the New Haven Line splits from the Harlem Line, and the last station before the switch from third rail power to catenary. It is one of the dwindling number of Metro-North stations that still has a manned ticket window, open on weekday mornings. Located next to the ticket window is a dedication plaque, a memorial to Fred Wilkinson, a longtime member of the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council.

 
   
   
 
    
 
   
 
  

Also included at the Mount Vernon East station is one of my favorite Metro-North Arts for Transit pieces. As I work my way through the entire Metro-North system, I definitely enjoy discovering the permanent art placed at quite a few stations by the Arts for Transit program. I’ve already gone on record stating that the pieces at Wassaic and Pleasantville rank pretty high on my list of favorites – though that had been before I visited Mount Vernon East. I’ve always adored stained glass, and glasswork in general, and I have an immense amount of admiration for those who work in the medium, as it is far from easy. But when glasswork is done right, it can be a pretty breathtaking sight. I could probably stare at this piece all day long, and not get bored. It is aptly titled Tranquility – a little oasis of calm hidden in a bustling network of express trains and rushing commuters.

   
 
   
 
   

That pretty much takes care of Mount Vernon East, which for those keeping score, is the 70th Metro-North station that I’ve photographed thus far. It just so happens that it is also the first New York state station I’ve featured on the New Haven Line. And besides New Haven’s Union Station, it may be one of my favorite New Haven Line station… though I do have quite a few more stations left to discover.

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Millerton, Revisited & the Harlem Valley Rail Ride

You know how I said I really liked Chatham? Well, I’ve recently discovered that I like Millerton even more. Millerton is quite charming – and if the railroad still ran there I would probably consider even living there (but the commute would probably kill me). My most recent visit was only the second time I’ve been to Millerton, and of course I had my camera. This time I was able to get photos of the original train station there, built in the 1850’s, though it has been moved at least twice since then. Today the former station operates as a florist.

Millerton itself was a town created pretty much around the railroad. The New York and Harlem Railroad ran through, as well as the Central New England. In fact the name Millerton came from the civil engineer tasked with the construction of the rail, Sidney Miller. Though both of those railroads are long gone today, the town hasn’t lapsed into loneliness and disarray. The Main Street area bustles with people checking out the shops, or using the rail trail. So many towns today are filled with chain and big-box stores and are utterly devoid of character. Millerton is the complete opposite – full of family-owned shops, and old-fashioned in a charming way, yet doesn’t feel dated.

Though the rail is no longer there, the converted rail trail is an attraction that brings in locals and visitors from beyond. The other day I read an article discussing options for bikers from the city that wanted to get out, ride, and make a day of it. By Metro-North, one has two pretty good options for spots: Poughkeepsie on the Hudson Line, and Wassaic on the Harlem Line. Although the article knocks the Harlem down in terms of the view on the journey (I know, I know, the Hudson River is beautiful), it ultimately determines that the Harlem journey is probably the best choice for the biker. The Hudson option provides around 5 miles of trail on which to ride, where the Harlem extends for nearly 11 miles, terminating in the village of Millerton. If you ask me, I’d take Millerton over Poughkeepsie any day, no contest.

 
  
 
   
 
   
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
 

In other news, I figured that I would mention the Harlem Valley Rail Ride, which appropriately begins in Millerton and covers some of the original route of the Harlem Division (and of course is now part of the rail trail). The ride will be held this year on July 24th. For anyone that needs, there will be a bus that will pick up riders and their bikes from the city and take them to Millerton. Riders have a choice between 25, 50, 75, and 100 mile routes.

A portion of the fee for entry goes to the cause of supporting and maintaining the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. For more information, be sure to check out the Harlem Valley Rail Ride website.

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Happy (early) Birthday, Chauncey Mitchell Depew

Every day when I ride the train down to White Plains, a crowd of folks hovers on the platform, waiting for the train to slow and then stop. They crowd around every door, masses of them, and a fight ensues. A fight of currents. The current of those disembarking clashes against those pushing themselves through and onto the train. If you don’t hold fast and push, you will be swept away before you can even place a foot on the yellow tactile stripping of the platform. And this, this is a daily ritual that I loathe. There is only one thing I hate even more than those that crowd around the doors attempting to get on the train: the people that hover in front of the doors, not to get on the train, but to accost each of the people disembarking with papers – usually some sort of politician’s propaganda. And while we’re being pretty honest here, I am not much of a fan of politicians, especially the ones that swarm train stations whenever an election looms. Some of you may remember back in the “olden days” when I first started this blog, every time a politician would forcibly hand me a piece of propaganda at a train station, I photoshopped it in some odd way and posted it. It was my own little way of rebelling. Though I may have stopped my photoshopping of politicians, the fact still remains: I don’t like politicians.

Politicians today are pretty weak. They don’t even write their own stuff, they get other people to do that. You think if they didn’t spend time writing it, the least they could do is memorize it. But no, they have to stoop to writing on their hands, using teleprompters, or just spewing complete bullshit that makes the rest of the world laugh at us – but hey, we elected them! It makes me want to go back to a time where politicians were badass… where they had duels to settle differences, and despite getting shot in the chest, still delivering their speeches. A time where the politicians could actually speak, a wonderful and eloquent stream of words – not any of this crap that dribbles like a man foaming at the mouth. Politics then would be a heck of a lot more interesting, and elections wouldn’t be a battle between the lesser of two evils.

I’m not sure if anyone really has a “favorite” historical politician. And if anyone does, it is probably a former president. I’m sure Abraham Lincoln’s name would probably come up. Maybe it is just a consequence of us looking back at history in retrospect. We learned his speeches in school, and heck, maybe even the fact that he was assassinated makes us look back and think, damn he was a good politician. But there was another man, not nearly as popular and most people today probably don’t even know his name, but I always seemed to think he was pretty cool. At minimum, he was a brilliant orator, the opposite side of the spectrum in terms of speeches today. But I must admit, perhaps I am a little biased about this fellow, as he was not only a politician, but he was also a railroad man.


Photographs of Chauncey Depew over the years

“Don’t be a damned fool!”
Usually when you’re looking to hire someone for a job, those are not the words you utter to the person you may potentially hire. But then again, most people aren’t the brusque Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt approached a Peekskill-born lawyer by the name of Chauncey Mitchell Depew, offering him a position as the attorney for the New York & Harlem Railroad – a position he was about ready to turn down. Depew had been offered a position as the US Minister to Japan. At that time the journey to Japan took a full six months, and thus the sending of any message took a full year. However, the monetary compensation was far higher than the railroad job – and Depew said as much to the Commodore. It was then that the Commodore fired back with the following: “Railroads are the career for a young man; there is nothing in politics. Don’t be a damned fool.” Depew took the railroad job.


1895 Harlem Division pass, signed by Chauncey Depew

Chauncey Mitchell Depew was born in Peekskill, New York on April 23, 1834. In his youth he spent significant amounts of time reading – his uncle was a postmaster, and at the time there was no mail delivery. Mail often sat a long while until the recipient came to pick it up, and in the interim a young Depew would peruse any newspaper or magazine that would arrive. As a young man Depew would attend Yale, and graduated from there in 1856. At that time there were no law schools in the country, and one would have to “read law” – a sort of apprenticeship – to become a lawyer. Depew “read law” with a lawyer in Peekskill and was accepted to the bar in 1858. Before being called by Vanderbilt, Depew worked as a lawyer in New York City, and served a brief stint as a member of the New York Assembly, and the Secretary of State for New York.


Photograph of Chauncey Depew, from the Library of Congress

All of that probably sounds just as boring as the pedigree of any politician, but there was something about Depew that intrigues me. He was quite the orator, and rubbed elbows with quite a few influential people that maybe you’ve heard of: Horace Greeley, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford Hayes, Chester Arthur, and Teddy Roosevelt, just to name a few. Depew was described as having a “personal charm and a lovable disposition” – but for the most part he was remembered in his day as a brilliant speaker. You can in fact read many of his speeches, as well as his as his autobiography, for free online – and if you ever get a spare moment, I do find them rather interesting.

Most people today, however, will remember Depew as a railroad man (even though he served as a senator later in life as well). He accepted Vanderbilt’s offer of a position in 1866, a time when Vanderbilt’s roads consisted of a little over two-hundred-and-fifty miles. In the early 1900’s, that number had ballooned to over twenty-thousand miles in the system. By 1874 Depew had ascended to the position of Director of the New York and Harlem Railroad, and by 1882 was the Vice-President for the New York Central. In 1885 he was elected to the presidency, and in 1898 chairman of the board. He served as chairman until his death in 1928, working for the railroad for a total of 62 years.


The cover of New York Central Lines magazine, after the death of Chauncey Depew

Upon his death, Grand Central was draped in mourning. If one questioned the influence of Depew, one needs only look to the list of pallbearers for his funeral, consisting of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. His wife received condolences from American presidents and European royalty. Though the man is long gone and many have forgotten him, you will still occasionally see references to him: Depew Park in Peekskill, various Depew Streets located around train stations, and the village of Depew, New York, located upstate. And then, of course, there are the words he left behind…

If your construction of success was honestly analyzed, it would probably mean to most minds the getting of money. The desire to acquire property is the most potent force in the activities of our people. It is the mainspring of of our marvelous development, and the incentive and reward of intelligent industry. It is alike the cause of the noblest efforts and the most revolting crimes.

We are at present sailing upon tranquil seas, with no clouds above the horizon and no warnings from the barometer. It is at such times that the prudent and experienced navigator hopes for the best and prepares for the worst.

Keep the roads paved and free from obstructions by which the industrious, the honest, and the capable, with no additional capital but character, can rise from any condition to the highest honors of the Republic, and the largest rewards of business.

Give to all men and women their full opportunities to work on their own destinies, and provide the incentives to efforts and ambitions which promote the enterprises and develop the resources of the country, and enrich and invigorate its intellectual life.

The indestructible union of liberty and law has given character and perpetuity in American institutions. It produced those perfect conditions, of freedom, protection, and equality, which peoples have sought for ages through bloody revolutions, and never before found. It has attracted to our shores fourteen millions of emigrants, against the superior advantages of soil and climate in Mexico and South America, or equal material opportunities in Canada. Most of this vast population have fled from the oppression of laws made for classes and working injustice and wrong to the masses. They have been of incalculable benefit to the country, and without them onr development and resources would be fifty years behind their present state. They have brought with them industry, integrity, and an intense desire to better their lives and improve the condition of their children.

Steam and electricity have made us one people, and for commercial pnrposes unified the world.

Trust and confidence are the foundation of success. Without them it is useless to begin and impossible to advance.

While we’re continuing our celebration of Harlem Railroad Month, I figured profiling a man who got his start on the New York & Harlem Railroad would be appropriate. Conveniently, Depew’s birthday would be tomorrow – so we’ll wish the two of them Happy Birthday on this day!

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