SmartCat Sundays: Milk on the Harlem Division

Milk has long been a staple of the American diet, and since the New York and Harlem Railroad was founded up until the 1950s, it was also a staple commodity carried by rail. Early in New York City’s history, dairy cows were kept and milked in the city proper near distilleries. Often sick cows were kept in cramped conditions, and fed the byproducts of whiskey making – resulting in a blue tinted “milk” that was lacking in cream content and dangerous to drink. Unscrupulous businessmen used additives – including water, sugar, molasses, egg, and even plaster of paris – to give it the appearance of fresh milk and sell it to an unwitting public. This tainted milk led to an increased infant mortality in the city, and was coined the “Swill Milk Scandal” when exposed in the periodicals of the day. The scandal eventually led to regulation of the milk industry, and a push for “pure milk” from dairies far outside the city. Stepping up to transport this milk were, of course, the railroads.

Rut Milk in the 1950s
The famous “Rut Milk” train passes through Mott Haven in the 1950s. The milk trains were eventually replaced by trucks. Photo by Victor Zollinsky.

Milk depots were established at many train depots, and local farmers could bring and sell their milk, which was then transported to the city. One of the Harlem’s most famous freights was the Rutland Milk train, which brought milk to New York City from Vermont – transferring from the Rutland Railroad to the Harlem in Chatham. Every day a swap would occur where a train full of milk changed hands at Chatham, exchanged for the previous day’s empties.

Today’s random tidbit from the archive is a letter from F.T. Hopkins to William Hooker. Hopkins was a milk dealer who operated the Harlem Railroad Milk Depot in New York City. The letter is addressed to Hooker at Wing’s Station – an earlier name for Wingdale.

Milk Depot Letter

Milk Depot Letter

 

Borden on the Harlem Line

Condensed milk promo card
New York Condensed Milk Company / Eagle Brand condensed milk promotional card.

Even if the milk transported by train to the city was considered “pure” and not of the “swill” variety, it did not last very long before spoilage in the days prior to refrigeration. Condensed milk stored in cans, however, could last for years without spoiling. Not only was condensed milk transported along the Harlem, it got its start here.

There are many ways to describe Gail Borden Jr.: a perpetual wanderer, deeply religious (anecdotal evidence suggests that he bought bibles for placement on the Harlem’s trains), eccentric inventor (he scared his friends by taking them on a ride straight into a river in a self-invented amphibious wagon – the “terraqueous machine”), an endlessly stubborn optimist that never gave up. All of those traits led him from his birthplace of Norwich, New York to Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Texas, Connecticut, and ultimately back to New York and the Harlem Railroad to launch his most successful invention – condensed milk.

For some time Borden had been interested in preventing food from spoilage. One of his first food related inventions was a meat biscuit, made from rendered meat and flour or potato and baked into a cracker, which could be eaten as is, or crushed into boiling water to make soup. He also experimented with preserving and concentrating fruit to make juices, and making coffee extract which took up far less space than regular coffee. Despite winning prizes for the meat biscuit, none of those endeavors were commercial successes. After debts forced him to give up on the meat biscuit and sell some of his property to pay creditors, Borden wholeheartedly pursued his milk preservation idea in Connecticut – starting a factory in Wolcottville. He eventually ran out of money and that factory closed, later replaced by a different factory in Burrville. Unfortunately, the Financial Panic of 1857 marked the end of that venture as well.

The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York
The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York

The original Borden factory in Wassaic today The original Borden factory in Wassaic today
The original Borden factory today, now occupied by the Pawling Corporation, which manufactures architectural products.

A chance encounter on a train ride, however, brought Gail Borden and financer Jeremiah Milbank together, and Milbank found promise in Borden’s idea. With Milbank’s money, Borden founded the New York Condensed Milk Company in Wassaic, New York, right next the the tracks of the Harlem Railroad. Borden’s tenacious spirit had finally paid off this time around, as his product became a commercial success. Another factory was constructed along the Harlem in Brewster to keep up with demand – and condensed milk became a staple for members of the Union Army during the Civil War.

After Borden’s successes he moved back to Texas, but upon death was returned by train to New York. He forever remains next to the Harlem Line, buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with a large monument that bears the following quote:
“I tried and failed. I tried again and again and succeeded.”

Borden's final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery
Borden’s final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery

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Vacationing on the Railroad, yesterday and today

It is starting to be that time of the season where everyone is thinking about summer, and about taking vacations. The railroad has always been a great method of getting around, and there are plenty of places you can see by train. If you’re looking for something more local, Metro-North will be having their Staycation Showcase in Grand Central next week. Amtrak also has a wide variety of places to vacation, all accessible by rail.

Despite all of these offerings, rail travel really isn’t the primary method that most people go on vacation these days. After getting patted down by your friendly neighborhood TSA, airlines can whisk you away to the other side of the country in a matter of hours, not days. And America’s love affair, the automobile, offers a more individualized and customizable trip across our nation’s Interstate system. However, neither of these options were available to folks living in the early 1900s. Rail was the way to go, and the best way to take a vacation.

New York Central vacation brochures
Vacation brochures printed by the New York Central in 1908 and 1903.

Vacation packages, including rail tickets, were offered by the New York Central, and they printed many varieties of brochures advertising all the places one could visit. Summer resorts included in-state locations, like Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks, and some faraway places like Canada, Michigan, and even Yellowstone National Park – an 82 and a half hour trip from Grand Central Terminal, at a round trip fare of $97.80.

The winter resorts booklet might prove to be the most interesting – it offered long distance vacations to warm locales around the world – places that one would reach after long journeys via train and steamship. Setting out for “one of ‘Uncle Sam’s’ new possessions” – “Porto Rico” – would be a 20 day affair in total. The most fascinating part printed is certainly the map of the Pacific Ocean found at the back of the brochure, labeled as places “reached by the New York Central Lines and their connections.” If you had the time, and the money, you could certainly reach the Empire of Japan, and beyond. Straying not too far from home, a traveler could reach Honolulu by steamship from San Francisco in a total of seven days.

Map of the Pacific
Map of the Pacific Ocean, printed by the New York Central in their 1903 America’s Winter Resorts brochure.

Interested in staying closer to home, or taking a shorter vacation? The New York Central also had a brochure of journeys taking two to fifteen days. Two days could get you to the Adirondacks or Lake George, four a nice trip to Montreal, eight a meandering journey to and from Quebec, and fifteen a wonderful itinerary stopping at several different resorts in many of the aforementioned spots.

Two to fifteen day journeys
Brochure of two to fifteen day journeys from 1912, and the Harlem Division map within.

If you’re really looking to stay in your own backyard, there were plenty of vacationing spots along the Harlem Division. The Harlem’s long-gone Lake Mahopac branch was established especially for that purpose. But as you can see from the map above, one could get more places via the Harlem than you can today – transfers were available in Chatham for the Boston and Albany Railroad to Massachusetts, and to the Rutland Railroad for Vermont.

Resorts on the Harlem
Close to home – summer resorts along the Harlem.

Anybody out there planning on taking a vacation (or a “staycation,” even) by train this summer? Drop a note in the comments about where you’re planning on going!

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Fall Roadtrip Day 2: Mountain Views & White River Junction

After day 1’s crappy weather, the sun on day 2 was quite pleasant. I won’t lie though, in the mountains it was pretty damn cold. My hands were seriously like cold icicles from holding the camera and taking pictures. I had a date with the alpine slide and a crazy zip line down the mountain, before heading to the summit for photos…

 
   
 
 

I also visited the train station at White River Junction for a few photos, before heading to some antiques place my dad was interested in seeing. There is a museum at the station, the New England Transportation Museum, but I knew it would be closed. They did have a restored engine outside that I was able to see. There was also a scenic train ride, but it didn’t really fit into our schedule.

 
  
   
  

Best part of the day? Vermont cheese samples everywhere. Cheese, om nom nom.

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