A visit to Whittier, and a ride through North America’s longest rail/highway tunnel

In 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike just north of Nenana, completing the Alaska Railroad’s main line. The line extended 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, and is still the major backbone of the Alaska Railroad today. Over the years since there have been various additions and branches added, from the 28 mile Eilson Branch extending from Fairbanks to the Eilson Air Force Base, to the short Anchorage International Airport Branch which connects the railroad to the airport and is used occasionally for cruise ship passengers. Today, however, we turn our focus onto one of the railroad’s most important branches, the Whittier Branch.

Completed in 1943, the Whittier Branch connected the Alaska Railroad’s main line to the ice-free port of Whittier. Though a branch to Whittier had been considered for years prior, the project only came to fruition because of World War II. Whittier was not only a shortcut compared to the railroad’s other ice-free port in Seward, reduced exposure of ships to Japanese submarines, and was harder to bomb by plane because of the frequent bad weather.

 
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
   
 
  
 
  
  
  
 
 
On the route of the Glacier Discovery – visiting Whittier and the flag stop at Spencer Glacier.

The most notable characteristic of the branch are the two tunnels used to pass through the mountains surrounding Whittier. A one mile tunnel was needed to get through Begich Peak, and a 2.5 mile tunnel passed through Maynard Mountain. While the shorter tunnel exists much as it did when it was first constructed, the longer tunnel has had extensive work to allow cars and trucks to pass through.

Construction of the Whittier Tunnel
Col. Benjamin B. Talley, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska (second from right) and Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr., commander of the Alaska Defense Command (third from right), enter the Whittier Tunnel during a holing through ceremony Nov. 20, 1942. Photo from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Gone are the days where Whittier was just a military port – today it is an attractive ingress to Alaska used by boaters, freight ships and cruise liners. But up until the late 1990s Whittier was not accessible by car. The Alaska Railroad operated a shuttle service where cars could be transported by flatcar to Whittier, but it was not the most ideal option. While constructing a new highway over the mountain, or constructing another tunnel were all considered, the most cost effective solution was to modify the Alaska Railroad’s existing tunnel to allow road vehicles to traverse the mountain into Whittier.

Converting the tunnel to multi use
Converting the tunnel to multi use
Construction work to convert the railroad tunnel into a dual rail/highway tunnel. Photos from Hatch Mott McDonald.

Completed in June of 2000, the modified tunnel is the longest dual purpose rail and highway tunnel in North America. Built to endure the harsh Alaskan climate, the tunnel is able to operate in temperatures down to -40°F, winds of 150 MPH, and the portal buildings are able to withstand avalanches. Trains are still an important part of the traffic using the tunnel, and it employs a computerized traffic control system to regulate both vehicular and rail traffic in both directions. Besides special cruise ship trains, Alaska Railroad passenger service along the branch and through the tunnels is on the Glacier Discovery train. Freight remains an integral part of the railroad’s operations on the branch, and it is from Whittier that the railroad is connected by barge to Seattle and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

While plenty of people on YouTube have recorded the journey through the tunnel by car, we get to take a unique journey through by train, thanks to my camera mounted on the front of one of the Alaska Railroad’s locomotives. In typical Whittier fashion, it is raining, but you get the general experience of leaving the port of Whittier, waiting for access into the tunnel, and traversing both tunnels on the branch. Enjoy!


For the folks subscribed to the site via email, you must visit the site to view video features.

Read More

Back from Alaska, and the NRHS Convention

If you enjoyed our series on Alaska posted earlier this year, you will undoubtedly love our upcoming series on the Alaska Railroad. I’ve just returned from the absolutely awesome National Railway Historical Society convention, which was held in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, and have some great features lined up for the blog… many of which include video. My trusty GoPro camera was mounted on several locomotives throughout the trip, recording well over a hundred gigabytes of footage. So if you happened to miss the convention, or have always wanted to go to Alaska, you can pretend like you were there along with us!

 
  
 
  
 
 
  
 
  
  
 
 
Photos from the railroad route to Seward.

The Coastal Classic is likely one of the Alaska Railroad’s most scenic routes, traveling southward from Anchorage to the port of Seward, and passing glaciers and beautiful vistas. The line follows several horseshoe curves to gain altitude, and passes through several mountains by tunnel. Following the route of the Coastal Classic, our NHRS charter train took a leisurely ride through this gorgeous section of Alaska. Our video starts a little over fifty miles from Seward, and condenses two hours and twenty minutes of the ride into ten minutes. The video concludes over a bit of rare passenger mileage – bypassing Seward’s passenger station and heading into the Seward rail yard and docks.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some more stories, photos and videos from the convention, but for now enjoy a quick jaunt on the picturesque Alaska Railroad…

A special thanks goes out to the Alaska Railroad’s Kenny Smith, who was instrumental in getting my camera mounted on the various locomotives and trains throughout the trip! Thank you so much, Kenny!

Read More

Grand Central Terminal’s Companion – The New York Central Building

When the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer William Wilgus came up with the concept of Grand Central Terminal, there were most likely a few people out there that felt he was completely nuts. Despite the fact that at the time the NYC was one of the mightiest railroads in not only the United States, but the world, the price tag for the project was incredibly high. Without the concept of “air rights” it is likely that the project would never have moved forward. Covering the Terminal’s tracks and allowing buildings to be constructed in the “air” above turned out to be a very sound investment. The railroad owned significant amounts of highly profitable, prime New York real estate, and the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central and built on that land became known as Terminal City. The Biltmore Hotel, Commodore Hotel, and the Yale Club were all parts of this city within a city. But it was the New York Central Building, finished in 1929, that was the crowning achievement of Terminal City, and an appropriate companion for Grand Central Terminal.

Construction on the New York Central building
Construction photo of the New York Central Building. [image source]

One of the final buildings designed by Warren and Wetmore in New York City, the New York Central building became the new home of the railroad’s corporate offices. Although today we view the building as a Beaux Arts masterpiece, on par with Grand Central Terminal itself, when the building was completed in 1929 it was generally looked down upon by the architecture world. As American architecture had moved beyond the Beaux Arts style about ten years prior, critics felt the building was almost like a step backwards. Viewed as a whole, however, the New York Central building fits perfectly with its companion, Grand Central Terminal.

Postcards showing the New York Central Building
Postcards showing the New York Central Building

Some of the most wonderful parts of the New York Central building are the details and sculptural elements you’ll find all over, a major component of the Beaux Arts style. These elements were sculpted by Edward McCartan, Director of the sculpture department of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City. While Warren and Wetmore frequently used the work of Sylvain Salieres, including for Grand Central Terminal, by the time the New York Central building was to be constructed, Salieres was no longer alive.

The building’s primary sculptural element is the clock that sits atop the front façade, featuring Mercury at left, and the goddess Ceres at right. Mercury is the typical deity used to represent transportation, while Ceres represents agriculture – one of many types of freight carried by the railroad. Found in various locations around the building are several other faces, whose identities never seem to be discussed. One of these faces is contorted into a painful grimace, and placed in front of a fiery torch. Perhaps this figure is representative of Prometheus of Greek myth – the titan who gave fire to man, who was punished by Zeus for the act.

The New York Central Building in print
Poster of the New York Central Building by Chesley Bonestell, and cover of the October 26, 1929 edition of the New Yorker with illustration by Theodore G. Haupt.

High above street level are the faces of American Bison, situated above stylized compasses, representative of how the railroads essentially built this country – or at least how it contributed to the migration of people to the west. Sharing a similar concept, a face resembling the Greek god of nature and the wild, Pan, appears towards the very top of the building. Eagles, representative of the United States, can be found above some of the doors to the building, and lions, a symbol of power can be found in the tunnel that carries Park Avenue through the building. Purely decorative columns, much derided by the architects of the day, can also be found on the upper reaches of the tower.

The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper
The New York Central Building visible from the construction site of another skyscraper

As the New York Central’s financial woes grew after World War II, the railroad began selling off some of its New York real estate. After being sold in the 1950’s, the New York Central Building became the New York General Building – a crafty idea that required only minimal changing of the signage. Eventually, the building was purchased by Helmsley-Spear, and it is rumored that Harry Helmsley’s wife Leona was the one who formally changed the building’s name to the Helmsley Building.

Perhaps the biggest travesty of the Helmsleys, besides all the tax evasion and treating their employees like dirt, was their grand idea to “update” the façade of the building. All of the architectural details on the building, including the sculptures of Mercury and Ceres, were coated with a layer of gold paint. Thankfully, during the building’s 2002 restoration, these elements were restored to their original state, without the paint. The building was sold in 1998, about a year after Harry Helmsley’s death, though it is said that Leona required a stipulation along with the sale – that the building would not be renamed. It is likely for this reason why the outside of the building still reads the Helmsley Building, while the property owners refer to it by the generic name 230 Park.

Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979
Many of the sculptural details on the building were painted gold by the Helmsleys in 1979. [image source]

The current owners have made several modifications of their own to the building – two bronze murals – weighing over a ton and comprised of 40 individual panels – depicting the streamlined 20th Century Limited have been installed in the building’s lobby in 2010. Though attractive, it would have been nicer if a more time appropriate scene was selected – the building predates the streamlined locomotive by about ten years.

Bringing the building into the “modern age,” the current owners also hired lighting designer Al Borden, who came up with a night time lighting scheme for the building. As the building is designated as a landmark, none of the lighting was permitted to “compromise the building’s architectural integrity.” Thus all light sources had to remain hidden, and none could be drilled into the building’s surface. Over 700 individual lights were added to the building, and similar to the Empire State Building, the colors can change reflecting holidays and other events.

 
A scene from the movie The Godfather was filmed in the former New York Central building. Note the portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt, and the old style #999 Empire State Express.

When constructed, the New York Central Building was one of the primary features of the New York skyline. It may not have been the tallest building, but it was certainly one of the more unique. It remained as such until the late 1950’s when it was dwarfed by the massive Pan Am Building, now known as the MetLife Building. Despite that, the building is still a symbol of New York, and has appeared numerous times in popular media. Moviegoers might recognize it as the building that appeared in the poster for 2008’s film The Dark Knight, and eagle eyed viewers may have seen some of the building’s inner rooms in the movie The Godfather.

The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station
The MetLife and Helmsley Buildings are visible from four miles away at Harlem 125th Street station.

Let’s take a photo tour of the old New York Central building, including a quick peek of the marble-covered inner lobby. Weekends in August are the best time to check out the building, as part of the city’s Summer Streets program, which closes parts of Park Avenue to cars. You’ll be given the rare opportunity to not only view the building up close and personal, but to walk the Park Avenue Viaduct, and the tunnels that travel through the old New York Central building.

 
  
 
  
   
   
  
 
   
  
   
  
  
 
   
 
  
   
 
  

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Breakneck Ridge


Penn Central locomotive passes by Breakneck Ridge in 1971.

Though Metro-North is primarily a commuter railroad, there are a few station stops throughout the system that break that mold. Mount Pleasant is a limited-service station on the Harlem Line, adjacent to several cemeteries. In addition, there are three other limited-service stations that are primarily for hikers: Appalachian Trail, Manitou, and the subject of today’s tour – Breakneck Ridge. Located 55 miles from Grand Central, Breakneck Ridge lies in the un-electrified territory of the Hudson Line. Similar to Appalachian Trail, no weekday trains stop here – but on weekends and holidays two trains in either direction make stops.


20th Century Limited passes by Bannerman Castle, just north of Breakneck Ridge

Although the name Breakneck Ridge might be a bit off-putting, the hike does offer beautiful views of the Hudson. Located just north of the station is Bannerman Castle, which only adds to the scenery. To the south is one of several tunnels on the Hudson Line – the aptly named Breakneck tunnel. Both of those landmarks may overshadow the actual Breakneck Ridge station, for there is not much here at all. The northbound side, meant for disembarking passengers, consists of only a small wooden platform. The southbound side is a bit more interesting, as it contains a small pedestrian overpass. From there you can look out and see the Hudson, or descend the stairs to another wooden platform from where you can board a train and be whisked back to the city.


Landmark numero uno – Passing through the Breakneck Tunnel, just south of Breakneck Ridge station. 1993 photograph by Jim Kleeman on Flickr.


One of my favorite photographs by Frank English, former Metro-North photographer, taken just north of Breakneck Ridge in order to capture Bannerman Castle.

Though not really part of the station, just beyond the overpass to the southbound platform is a small lookout. It is from here that you will get a lovely view – without having to exert yourself in hiking the ridge. Pollepel Island, home to the aforementioned Bannerman Castle, is in plain view from here, as well as the river and Storm King mountain. Much of the Hudson Line itself is quite picturesque, but the area surrounding Breakneck Ridge station is especially so. The views are certainly worth the visit, even if you aren’t planning on riding the train.

  
 
 
  
 
 
  
 
  
 
  
 
   
 

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: New Hamburg


Postcard view of the original station at New Hamburg. [image credit]

Today our Tuesday Tour takes us to the northern portion of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, as we visit New Hamburg. The station is about 65 miles from Grand Central in the un-electrified territory north of Croton-Harmon, and sandwiched in between Beacon station and Metro-North’s terminus at Poughkeepsie. The railroad bisects the hamlet of New Hamburg, notable mostly for its marina on the Hudson.

Along the railroad, however, New Hamburg was likely notable for its tunnel. As I mentioned in my introduction to the Hudson Line, eight tunnels needed to be constructed to accommodate the tracks in the 1840’s, one of which was in New Hamburg. Although the tunnel is no longer used by the railroad, it still exists, though for the most part it is covered by brush. Railroad service both north and south had already been established before the tunnel was completed, so for a short time passengers heading through New Hamburg had to detour the unfinished tunnel by boat.

 
New Hamburg has seen its share of train crashes – one New York Times reporter, apparently fond of alliteration, described an 1871 crash as a “Human Holocaust on the Hudson”. The above image shows a crash in 1899.

Despite being around since the Hudson River Railroad days, the station at New Hamburg was closed sometime after 1962 (yes, the station had again made the newspaper that year for another crash – this time four children walking on the tracks were hit and killed by a New York Central Beeliner). Though most stations that are closed end up shuttered permanently, this one has a little bit happier of an ending. New Hamburg station reopened in 1981, and was serviced by new Seldom Self-Propelled Vehicles operated by Conrail. Thankfully, those cars are just a memory, and today Metro-North offers some more reliable service from New Hamburg.

  
 
  
  
 
  
 
   

Read More

Welcome to the Hudson Line

As riders of Metro-North, we are quite familiar with the Hudson River. It serves as an important dividing line of the system – west-of-Hudson service, operated by New Jersey Transit, and the more familiar east-of-Hudson service which is comprised of the Harlem, New Haven and Hudson Lines. For those that still use Metro-North’s website for scheduling, acknowledging on which side of the river you fall is still a necessity. Besides providing a dividing line for Metro-North, the river has always been an important part of the landscape of New York. Boats on the river have been commonplace for hundreds of years, and although we hardly think of boats as a significant method of transportation today (beyond short jaunts or luxury cruises), sloops and steamboats were once a staple on the river for moving both people and freight.


Construction photographs of one of the tunnels on the Hudson Line

The river has also played a significant role in shaping the railroads of our area. When plans were made for a railroad from New York City to Albany, an inland route was chosen as to not compete with the already existing shipping lanes on the river. This inland route was, of course, The New York and Harlem Railroad, or today’s Harlem Line. But besides the ships, the idea of building a railroad along the Hudson was avoided because of the immense challenge and expense of cutting through the Hudson Highlands. When the railroad was ultimately built, large amounts of rock had to be excavated – on the sixteen mile portion from Peekskill to Fishkill alone, over 425 thousand cubic yards of rock had to be removed. Winters on the Hudson proved to be the major factor in finally building the Hudson River Railroad, as although ships were well established, there were many times that the river was unpassable due to ice. Trains were a perfect solution – not only could they operate in weather that boats could not, they were also much quicker.



1851 woodcuts of spots along the Hudson River Railroad – New Hamburg, Ossining, and Peekskill

When the railroad opened on on September 29th, 1849 it stretched from New York to Peekskill – a distance of forty miles. By the end of 1849 the railroad had reached all the way to Poughkeepsie. Over that span of track, eight tunnels bored through solid rock were required, totaling 3595 feet. The cost of the railroad was around nine million dollars, or roughly 233 million in today’s dollars. It is interesting to note that the weather played a part in determining the fares in the railroad’s early years. According to the railroad’s charter, fares from New York to Albany were not to exceed three dollars. When there was no other competition in the winter, tickets would be full price. In the summer months the fares likely fluctuated due to competition with steamships – even though the trip by train shaved several hours off the journey.

By 1864 the Hudson River Railroad had come under the control of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and he merged it with the New York Central to form the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. The line was an important part of the famed “Water Level Route” which, expectedly, followed various bodies of water and was relatively flat.


Timetables along the Hudson Line, from 1901, 1912, 1972, and 1983.

Despite the railroad’s difficulties over the years, transitioning from New York Central to Penn Central, Conrail, and later Metro-North, this portion of rail has always been an important link to Albany and beyond. Besides Metro-North’s commuter trains, Amtrak also operates here, making stops at Yonkers, Croton-Harmon, and Poughkeepsie.


Cash fare receipts and tickets from the Hudson Line. From the collection of Otto Vondrak.

It is the Hudson Line that we now turn our attention to, as our highly-anticipated Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line begins tomorrow. The Hudson Line is the last Metro-North line to be featured here, and is sure to be a treat. Like our previous tours of the Harlem and New Haven Lines, stations will be presented in no particular order, as I am still exploring and photographing.

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Otisville


Old Erie station at Otisville, photograph by James E. Bailey, dated 1909. This station was located closer to downtown Otisville, the current Otisville station is in a different location.

Though it feels like we’ve just begun our tour of the Port Jervis line, in reality, we’re almost complete. Of course, the Port Jervis line is not nearly as long as either the Harlem or Hudson lines which have already been featured here. The fact that the stations here are rather unremarkable, and a bit more forgettable, probably doesn’t help. Today’s station, Otisville, is another one of the line’s bland stops. We’re deep into the rural portion Orange County here – and about 82 miles from the start of the line in Hoboken. In terms of ridership, Otisville is the Port Jervis line’s least used station – something the infrastructure seems to reflect. Besides a small shelter on the low-level platform, and a few station name signs, there isn’t too much here.


Train exiting the Otisville Tunnel, 1948.

While the New York Central had its famed “Water-level Route,” following along rivers like the Hudson and providing a relatively flat journey – the Erie Railroad had to tackle more difficult terrain. The Shawangunk Ridge was one such obstacle, and although track had been built near Otisville going over the ridge, it was not the optimal solution for freight. The answer to the problem was the Otisville Tunnel, built in 1908, and likely more noteworthy than the station itself. From the station platform you can see the portal to the tunnel, and the extra track used as a siding for trains entering and exiting. The tunnel measures 5,314 feet long, is 30 feet wide, and extends 25 feet above the rails at the top of the arch. When the tunnel was first built it was used exclusively for freight – passenger trains still went over the ridge – but that was eventually abandoned and all traffic was sent through the tunnel.

  
 
 
  
 
   
 
  

Next week we’ll take a visit to the eponymous Port Jervis station, and the end of the line. After that we’ll move on to the short Pascack Valley line, followed by the one everyone has been waiting for – the Hudson Line.

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line: Melrose

Just as Fleetwood will always remind me a bit of the incident with chicken teriyaki, Melrose station will always another incident… as such, I figured it would be best to get it over with and take a tour of Melrose today. Plus it was kind of easy to go through all the photos for Melrose – there weren’t nearly as many as the other stations. But there is something actually new and cool about these photos – they are the first batch of Tuesday Tour photos that were automatically geotagged by my new GPS logger. What exactly does that mean? Similar to the GPS devices you are most likely familiar with that determine your position on the road and give you directions, this GPS logger just tracks my location and at what time I was there, and stores it. Then when I connect it to my computer along with my camera, it looks at the photo’s timestamp and determines where I was when I took the photo. It can also plot a rough map of how I moved around:

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&oe=UTF8&start=0&num=200&msa=0&msid=110671680435043442626.000495aee790e1f48d33b&ll=40.825542,-73.91432&spn=0.002298,0.004823&z=18 width=553 height=425 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

The logger isn’t 100% accurate… nor are the google maps that the data has been plotted upon. But it does give the rough idea of me going back and forth on the platform, taking photos, then crossing over on the road to the other side of the platform and doing the same. On my end (meaning you can’t see it on the above map) it lists speed, so I can tell when I was on the train, and how fast that train was going at the time. But the coolest part is to see the photos plotted on a map of where they were taken – like this: Melrose photos on Panoramio.

Back to Melrose though – it, along with Tremont, is one of the smaller stations on the Harlem Line. The platform is only large enough to accommodate two train cars. Service to these stations is also less frequent than most on the line. Like most of the stations in the Bronx it is a nice place to train watch. With four tracks, two of which are devoted to express trains, you are bound to see something pass by quite frequently, even if it isn’t the rush hour.

Anyways, enjoy the photos of Melrose, with a gorgeous blue sky…

 
  
   
   
 
  
  

Read More