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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The Harlem Division’s Cemeteries: The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

To me, some of the most interesting stuff about railroad history is not about the trains or the railroads themselves, but how they affected the places in which they operated. The oft-cited cliche is that the railroads built this country, and although they certainly had an effect on the movement of people westward, some of the strongest effects can be witnessed around cities. Today’s Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines played an immense part in the growth of New York City’s suburbs, and other railroads played a similar part in other major cities. Trains provided easy access to the city’s jobs, but allowed people to live increasingly further and further outside the city’s limits. Businesses were also established or relocated to spots along the rails in order to have access to the city – a primary example being the very first successful condensed milk factory in Wassaic, a spot selected by inventor Gail Borden because of the plentiful farmland, and the Harlem Railroad.

Strangely enough, the railroad also played a part in the establishment of various cemeteries. As the city itself grew larger, not only did some former rural cemeteries get displaced, people with money wished to be interred in an attractive rural setting. Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863, and took in the remains of cemeteries displaced in the city proper, and grew to become a venerable place of final rest for thousands. Such growth was undoubtedly assisted by the nearby railroad, easily allowing loved ones to visit the graves of their friends and family. Further north along the Harlem Division, the Kensico Cemetery was also established as a beautiful, rural final resting place. Truly appealing to the wealthy of the city, Kensico offered a private railcar for rent for funerals which would transport people directly from Grand Central to the cemetery’s very own train station.

Though Woodlawn and Kensico may be the two most commonly known cemeteries that owe their growth to the Harlem Railroad, there is another slightly more unique cemetery that also falls into that category – the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Just like its brethren, the Hartsdale cemetery has seen gun salutes, bagpipers, and is the final resting place for thousands of friends – however the majority of them just happen to not be human. Buried within its grounds you’ll find the graves of war dogs, police dogs (including at least one MTAPD K9), a search and rescue dog that lost its life on September 11th, thousands of other cats and dogs, humans that opted for their cremains to be interred together with their beloved pets, and even a lion. It is also home to the War Dog Memorial, celebrating the animals that fought alongside their human handlers in the Great War.

(more…)

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Local Timetables on the Harlem – 1890 to today

Every time I go to grab a snack at home, I find myself staring at an advertisement. And I’m not talking about the packaging of the food itself – my roommate has hung a calendar from our local pharmacy on the inside of the cabinet. You probably have one of these somewhere in your home – whether it be from the local Chinese restaurant, hardware store, bank, or doctor’s office. Businesses ingratiating themselves among their customers by providing them with a useful item (with a little advertisement for themselves, of course) is hardly a new concept – in fact it has been in practice for well over a hundred years. While today fridge magnets and calendars are commonplace, historically it wasn’t unheard of for a business to print useful cards with train schedules. What better way to remain at the forefront of your customers’ mind than to have your ad on a card they carry around everywhere?

Unofficial timecards are fairly easy to pick out – they bear no official railroad logo or marking – and generally have a whole lot of ads. They also use the railroad’s original name – the New York and Harlem – which was a name everybody knew, as opposed to calling it the Harlem Division, as the railroad did by this time.

Train timecard from Pawling Train timecard from Pawling
Train timecard from Pawling, 1892. A bifold card, the outside features advertisements for numerous businesses. In featuring only weekday trains, the card is tailored to the businessman that would likely patronize the featured establishments. For those looking for Sunday trains, the card advises to consult an official timetable “of the road.”

Another Harlem timecard
Timecard from 1890, featuring selected stops along the Harlem, all the way up to Chatham. Also a bifold, this card is likely more successful than the unwieldy one above, as it would easily fit into your pocket.

Although I wouldn’t classify it as an advertisement like above, the Woodlawn Cemetery also printed their own small time cards. You’ll note a great comparison below – an official railroad-printed Woodlawn time card, along with one printed by the cemetery itself. Besides the address and phone numbers of the cemetery, the card also contains an edited list of train times – corresponding with the cemetery’s hours – of course!

Timecards from Woodlawn
Timecards from Woodlawn. The 1891 card at left is official and printed by the railroad. The 1892 card at right was printed by the Woodlawn Cemetery.

Eventually, local timetables did become standardized – printed by the railroad, but still containing advertisements. Below is a nice collection of some local timetables throughout the years. Make sure you note an important portion of the design – the top of every New York Central local timetable is labeled as “official.” By the time the Penn Central came into being, this disclaimer was dropped. Also in the mix is a more current version of Metro-North’s local timetable. The new design still contains advertisements, but they’ve been relegated to the inside.

The current local timetable style

The current local timetable style

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Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line: Woodlawn

Although it is the Hudson Line more often cited for its scenery, you do pass by quite a few interesting locales taking a train down the Harlem Line. From the farmlands of Dutchess county, to the reservoirs that serve the city’s need for water, there is much to see on the Harlem Line – and I hope that I’ve been able to show some of this on my weekly tour of the various stations. Although it certainly isn’t the most noteworthy, the line does also pass by quite a few cemeteries. In the case of Kensico Cemetery, the railroad probably played a part in its growth. Kensico may no longer have a station dedicated to it, but at one time the cemetery even had its own rail car to serve the more affluent of folk heading to bury their loved ones.


Resting place of Gail Borden, at the Woodlawn Cemetery

Another cemetery I haven’t yet mentioned on here, however, is the Woodlawn Cemetery. Woodlawn station itself is located in the Bronx, a bit shy of 12 miles from Grand Central. It is just north of Woodlawn that the New Haven Line diverges from the Harlem. Although the station isn’t expressly for the cemetery, as Kensico was, it is very close to it. For those interested in seeing the final resting place of quite a few historical figures, Woodlawn would definitely be an interesting place to check out. Not to mention the wide array of different styles of memorial (someone please erect a statue of me riding a liger upon my death?). Some of the memorials were designed by renowned architects, such as Cass Gilbert (who designed New Haven’s Union Station), and McKim, Mead, and White (who designed the original Pennsylvania Station). Noteworthy musicians WC Handy, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington are all buried at Woodlawn, as well as businessmen whose names most people recognize: RH Macy, JC Penney, and Frank Woolworth. And many of us would also recognize the names of Joseph Pulitzer, Fiorello LaGuardia, Simon Guggenheim, and Augustus Juilliard, also buried in the cemetery. Of course my favorite “resident” is Gail Borden, the eccentric inventor of condensed milk, who was also a Harlem Division rider (a post about him on here is quite overdue, but will be coming soon, I swear!)

Anyways, here are some shots of the Harlem Line station at Woodlawn:
  
 
  
 
 
  

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