Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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Winter 2015 – A Collection of Snowy Photos

Hopefully by now winter is waning, and yesterday’s snow storm will be the last big event of the season. It feels like it has has been a long winter – and one rife with cancellations, train delays, and even a full transit system shutdown. Despite the headaches, snow can of course be beautiful (in moderation!). Here’s a collection of some of my favorite photographs that I took this winter season, on Metro-North and beyond.

Who else is ready for spring?

Also, are you following I Ride the Harlem Line on Facebook and Instagram? Many of these photos appeared there first!

                       

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Boston’s Record Snowfall, and the MBTA’s West Concord Station

When the first snow of the season falls, everyone seems relatively enamored with the glistening white flakes clinging to the trees, painting a beautiful snowy scene. By now, a few months into winter, everyone is pretty much fed up, and wishing for spring. New York has certainly received its share of the white stuff, having at least one shutdown of major transit. Boston, however, has been particularly hard-hit, with record breaking snowfalls. The snowdrifts are apparently so high that some crazy folks have been jumping out of their windows into them – “nonsense” that is not amusing the city’s mayor.

The MBTA is suffering through the onslaught of snow – but just barely. With several full shutdowns, and running on reduced schedules, the transit agency is paying just about anybody 30 dollars an hour to help shovel snow, in addition to the fifty prison inmates they’ve recruited to do the same. Provided the city is not hit with yet another storm, they estimate an entire month before things get back to normal.

I happened to be in Boston last Saturday right as the city’s most recent blizzard was just beginning, and only hours before the system’s full Sunday shutdown. Capturing the snowy scene at West Concord, I checked out the snow-covered trains, and the restored depot on the MBTA’s Fitchburg Line. Though there are two tracks running through here (greatly reduced from when this town was once called Concord Junction and featured three railroads running through), although one is currently out of service and piled with snow as high as the station’s high-level platform.

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A Fiery Centennial – Hartford Union Station

Exactly one hundred years ago, Connecticut was gripped in a frigid and snowy winter, much like the one we are currently experiencing. And exactly one hundred years ago last Friday, Hartford’s Union station was ablaze. On its own, a fire can be pretty devastating enough, but coupled with the snow, firefighters had difficulty getting to the station to put the fire out. Ultimately there were several small explosions, one of which displaced a large section of the roof, pieces of which fell and destroyed the ticket office. The station was heavily damaged, and much of the items in the baggage room – where the fire started – were destroyed.

Hartford Union Station Fire
Hartford Union Station Fire Hartford Union Station Fire
All fire photos are from the Connecticut Historical Society, accessible at CTHistoryOnline.org

Originally constructed in 1889, Hartford’s Union station was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which first gained popularity in the Boston area and was used for several stations along the Boston and Albany Railroad. Conceptually designed by local architect George Keller, the bulk of the design work fell to architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, successors of Henry Hobson Richardson (which is where the “Richardsonian” part comes from. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed a few stations we’ve featured: Chatham, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown). The station featured the typical arches and rusticated stonework characteristic of his style, using stone quarried in Portland, Connecticut.

Hartford Union Station Fire
Hartford Union Station Fire Hartford Union Station Fire

Besides the 100th anniversary of the fire, the station is also celebrating the centennial of its rebirth. The entire building was not completely destroyed by the aforementioned fire, but the roof and interior were both gutted. Though some of the decorative arches at roof level were only slightly damaged, it was decided that the rebuild would not be to the exact specifications of the old station. Roof-level decorative elements were removed, and stonework was repaired – now bearing the date “1914”. The “new” Union Station boasted a full third story, and, as one would imagine, a fireproof roof.

Hartford Union Station Fire
The station after the fire was put out. Note the detail on the roof that no longer exists.

Despite spending the first twenty plus years of my life living in Connecticut, I am mildly embarrassed to admit that I had never visited Hartford’s Union Station until recently. Likewise, I must also admit that I was unaware that Hartford’s Latin motto is Post nubila, phoebus (after clouds, the sun). That motto can be found within the station, above the doors that once led out to the platform, flanked between the past and present of railroading – steam and electric.

Train at Hartford
A northbound train at Hartford in the late 1940s. Note the Capitol visible in the background. [image source]

These days, Hartford is not the hub it once was. No longer are the days where trains were plenty, and it has been many decades since quasi-celebrity citizens like Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe called Hartford home. About twelve trains stop daily at the station, the station is along Amtrak’s Vermonter, and Northeast Regional routes, and is a station stop on the New Haven – Springfield shuttle. Technically trains don’t run from the historical building – Amtrak occupies out of an addition underneath the viaduct carrying the railroad over the city, along with bus operators and a few fast food kiosks. One can, however, enter the addition from the historical depot.

If you’re ever passing through Hartford, the old station is at least worth a look. The stonework and detailing found on the exterior is undoubtedly beautiful, only marred by a few trappings of today – you’ll find security cameras just above decorative elements, and a garish Subway logo above a once more graceful arch. Be sure to check out the artwork at the top of the steps, and keep your eyes peeled for views of the the Capitol building from the platform.

 
  
   
  
   
  
 
 
 
  
 
  
  
 

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Winter at the Strasburg Railroad

I swear to you all, I really hate winter. And the cold. Sure, we may have checked out the Harlem Line and the Hudson Line in the snow, but I’d so much rather be somewhere warm… Instead of being at some tropical location this past weekend, you would have found me at the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania. Despite being assured that it “never snows” for these winter photo specials, Saturday’s weather brought more snow in addition to the already deep snow blanketing the ground. The majority of the day was grey, with the sun only appearing for approximately three seconds at the very end of the journey.

Although the day was very monochromatic, the black and white views of the railroad – with the occasional splash of color – turned out alright. Amtrak made a very quick appearance, as did a fluffy farm dog, quite puzzled by the crowd of photographers wading in knee-deep snow just outside her backyard. Anyway, here is what the Strasburg Railroad looks like in the snow…

 
  
   
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
 
  

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Winter on the Hudson Line

If you weren’t yet sick of winter, yesterday’s storm probably pushed you over the edge. We’ve had an immense amount of snow dumped on us the past few months, leading to a lot of cancellations and early closings at my work. Pretty much every time I made sure to have my camera on me to document Metro-North through the storms (you can see the first part here). Today’s winter-centric post features the Hudson Line, and a collection of photos all taken within the last week. In yesterday’s storm I hung out at both Spuyten Duyvil and Croton Harmon, and then headed home on the fantabulous 1:55 Harlem Line “fun boat” to Wassaic, making all local stops, standing room only. If anybody out there saw complaints on twitter about a stupid girl eating tacos on that train, I swear, it wasn’t me!

Considering that today is Friday, it is worth mentioning that this is the end of new Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti’s first work week. I suppose the weather decided to throw an appropriate welcoming party for a man that spent the last fifteen years working in Florida. Nonetheless, rumors are abound that Mr. Giulietti has already begun “cleaning house,” which is likely a good thing. There are plenty of things that Metro-North can improve, but if you ask me, number one ought to be communication.

Over the past few years, Metro-North has greatly improved its communications with riders with both email and text alerts. Although they still haven’t figured out that messages have character limits, and that it is super annoying to receive the same exact message 10 times in one day, we get a lot of info about service changes and info. In fact, we get more info than Metro-North’s own employees! Conductor Bobby touched on this in his open letter to his passengers, which if you haven’t yet read, you most definitely should.

Yesterday’s 1:55 train highlights the issues in communication with Metro-North. The train was a combination of several trains, and was advertised on Grand Central’s big board as an all-local to Wassaic. As far as the crew knew, the train was either going directly to Wassaic, or there would be a connection waiting for us at Southeast. However, en route, passengers began receiving alerts saying that Wassaic service was suspended. Some rather irate passengers from Tenmile River began shouting at the conductor, “I thought this train was going to Wassaic! They TOLD ME Wassaic! Now service to Wassaic is suspended?! What the hell am I going to do?” The kicker is, the crew had no idea the train was not going to Wassaic. They learned this from a passenger. At this point the Rail Traffic Controller was contacted, “I’ve heard from some passengers that Wassaic service is currently suspended. What am I to tell the people that are on this train going to Wassaic?” The response was, “we have no info at this time.”

Another thing that I watched happen yesterday was at the very beginning of the storm – the early morning Upper Harlem train arrived late and a woman demanded to know on board, “so which one of you conductors woke up late to make my train late?” Despite the smut tabloid headlines that “transit expert” Jim Cameron likes to post (he claims he once worked for a reputable news agency, but his New York Post-esque headlines seem only fit as a rag for dogs to pee on), Metro-North conductors are not horrible people. They do not hit people with trains and run away. And it is ludicrous to even insinuate that it is a regular occurrence for Metro-North employees to perform disgusting acts on passengers because they are “stressed out.” In reality, handfuls of Metro-North employees slept on trains or in rail yards to make sure they were able to work through the storm. Others worked nearly 24 hours straight because their trains got stuck in the snow. Are there some Metro-North employees out there that are assholes? Probably. And I bet you have assholes where you work too. But by and large, the majority of employees work hard to get people where they need to go. Like in this snow storm.

As you’ll see from the photos below, running trains yesterday was not easy. Many people like to debate over catenary versus third rail methods of powering electric trains – each has its merits, but yesterday demonstrated one of the downsides to third rail. Excessive amounts of snow up to and covering the third rail makes it difficult, if not impossible, to operate electric trains. But if 100 car pileups could attest, the roads weren’t that great yesterday and today either.

Anyway, enough ranting. Here’s what winter looks like on the Hudson Line:

  
 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  

   
  
 
   
  
 
   
  

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Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014

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.


Scene from the wreck at Coleman’s during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

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.

 
New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888, a subject that was heavily covered by the news of the day

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…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

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All Aboard For an Excursion to Madison Square Garden, and the National Horse Show!

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.

Ring for the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden
The ring at the second Madison Square Garden is being readied for the National Horse Show.

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.

Parade of winners
Parade of winners at the 1896 National Horse Show, held annually at Madison Square Garden.

The National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden
The National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, 1913.

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.

Judging at the National Horse Show
Judging at the National Horse Show.

Scenes from the National Horse Show
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.

New York Central excursion brochure
A New York Central excursion brochure featuring the National Horse Show.

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.

Catalog for the 1898 National Horse Show
Catalog for the 1898 National Horse Show

Program for the 1898 National Horse Show
Program for the 1898 National Horse Show

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.

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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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Some final photos from Alaska

Just wanted to take a quick minute to share some of my final photos from Alaska (at least until I visit again in September!). My series on Alaska has been a whole lot more popular that I ever thought, and not just among my normal audience of railfans. Taking a trip to Alaska in the winter is sort of “off the beaten track,” and many want to know some of the details. Others find it interesting, but want to know how to convince their friend / family member / significant other to brave the cold and go with them. Hopefully this post will answer some of the many questions I’ve received, and perhaps convinces you to go ride the Alaska Railroad in winter – it was quite fun!

To make a long story short, I didn’t freeze to death, and although it was quite cold, it wasn’t absolutely unbearable. As I mentioned previously, the Alaska Railroad pretty much booked the entire trip for me (with the exception of the Chena Hot Springs, where you can usually get a cheaper price if you book on your own). As one would likely guess, you probably want to invest a little money in appropriate gear to keep yourself warm. I don’t get anything for plugging the following items, but I was just fine with an Under Armour Base 3.0 underlayer, a North Face Denali jacket, and a North Face Super Diez jacket. You can check the weather reports before you go – if you are from the city, they number will likely be an absurdly low temperature, of which you have no reference point. If you are well prepared, -20 doesn’t feel nearly as bad as it sounds.

  
   
 
Photos from the flight back from the Arctic Circle. The Piper Navajo which we were in seats 8.

While riding the Alaska Railroad, opening the top windows in the vestibules in between cars was permitted. Obviously, sticking your head and camera out of the window of a moving train in subzero temperatures is rather frigid, but a face mask and snow goggles are immensely helpful. The fact of the matter is, you’re not going to get spectacular photos from inside the windows. The good majority of my railroad photos all were taken out the window. You can bear a little cold to get some decent photos – just like you can bear a little cold at night so you can see the aurora! (It is worth it!)

Penguin swim...
The fact that penguins do not live in Alaska does not seem to be commonly-known. I took this photograph, for the many that asked for it, while at Chena Hot Springs – It is titled an “Alaskan penguin” in its “natural habitat.”

As for the question on how to convince someone to go with you to Alaska in the winter, the aurora, or northern lights, is a pretty good reason. Having never seen the aurora before, that was really the primary reason for my trip. Secondly, plan a trip to Chena Hot Springs. This seems like an extremely common venue during the winter – many of the folks that were on my train from Anchorage to Fairbanks I later sighted at the springs. The outdoor spring there was quite lovely – for the five seconds it takes you to walk outside to it in a bathing suit you think you are absolutely bonkers, but once you get in, it is quite relaxing. Besides the springs, there are a wide array of activities that you can do there – from dogsledding to snowmobiling (mind you, Alaskans call them “snow machines” – they also laugh at you when you get them stuck in waist-deep snow!).

 
  
   
  

The sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs. Even if you don’t go for a ride, you can tour the kennel and see these cuties.

If you’ve been following the blog for more than two years, you may remember my trip up to Quebec, where I stayed at the Hôtel de Glace and visited some train stations. Made entirely of snow and ice, the hotel is quite beautiful, though it is only around for about three months before it melts. Chena has a similar, albeit smaller, version in their ice museum. But unlike any other structure in the world made of ice and snow, Chena’s ice museum is year round. The hot springs are used as a power source to cool the entire structure. Alas, that means the outside is completely fake. The inside, however, is most beautiful.

  
 
  
   
  

I think that pretty much sums everything up. If you missed any of my previous Alaska posts, you can find them here:
Traveling Alaska’s Dalton Highway
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2
If you have any other further questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment!

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