Original image of the roll sign Not everything you’ll find in my collection is printed on paper… Admittedly, I have a little thing for roll banners (I own three for the Harlem Division). Long before computers and other technology, these roll banners used to be displayed in Grand Central Terminal at each gate, letting passengers know what stops the train made. Each train had it’s own roll sign, which were stored in cabinets by the gate. The roll banner featured in this post was my third banner acquisition – but it was one I couldn’t resist, as it was originally an Upper Harlem Division banner. Sold by the SONO Switch Tower Museum on eBay as a fundraiser, their original photo of it is at right. As you can see, after the 1972 discontinuation of the Upper Harlem Line, those stops listed were blacked out. All of the banners were actually hand-painted by a real person, and when train names were changed, the signs were modified to fit – in the case of the black paint, some more drastically than others.

With the aid of old timetables, I was able to track the history of the banner, and the trains it once represented. Though the train number changed a few times, for the majority of it’s life, the it was for a Sunday-only morning train from New York to Chatham.

Unknown – 1958: Train 1053, which made a stop at Boston Corners.
1958 – June 30, 1964: Train 905. Ghent was blacked out in 1959 when it was removed as a stop.
July 1, 1964 – November 30, 1968: Train 909.
December 1, 1968 – March 19, 1972: Train 9009. Number was changed after the Penn Central merger.
March 20th, 1972 – unknown: Eliminated stations were covered in black paint, and used for Train 9013, a Saturday and Sunday train.

The lower level of GCT
Early photo of Grand Central’s lower level, showing two departure banners, and the cabinets the banners were stored in when not being used.

After purchasing the banner, I was slightly torn as to what I should do with it. Keep it as is, as a testament to what happened when Penn Central eliminated the Upper Harlem? Or should I restore it, to what it once was, showing all of the original stops? Part of what swayed my decision was that it was obvious that the writing underneath was not completely gone. You could just barely make it out under the black layer of paint, but it was still there. I decided to see how difficult removing the black would be, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. With a little bit of elbow grease, I revealed a line once hidden under black – “Visitors not permitted through gate”:

Black paint slowly disappears

I made my decision. I was going to restore this banner. I started next on the paint covering the station names… Ghent and Chatham are revealed:
Ghent and Chatham are revealed

The big reveal was, of course, getting the original destination at the top of the banner to show. Dover Plains has morphed into Chatham…
The big reveal: Chatham

After revealing everything that was hidden in black, much of the paint was chipped and fading. Repainting was the final step of the restoration.
Repainting the sign

Repainting the sign

Although it still needs a little bit of work, for the most part, the sign is done.
The almost-finished banner

6 Responses

  1. Rose says:

    Fabulous, Emily!

  2. Steve Barry says:

    Great restoration! Keep up the good work.

  3. Hank says:

    Emily, thanks to your reminiscence, I remember waiting at the gate for my train to be readied. I saw a uniformed gentleman, title unknown, roll down the previous train banner, open the cabinet, store the old, fetch the new, close the cabinet, and roll up “my” train’s banner. For no good reason, I suddenly felt all was right with the world and I was going home. College aged kids were (are?) weird…LOL

  4. Lee says:

    I believe the banners were still in use as late as the 1980s. They were replaced by Solari signs, which in turn were replaced by today’s electronic signs.

    The New York Central even prepared banners for special chartered trains.

    In April, 1964, IBM chartered a train to take reporters to Poughkeepsie for the announcement of the System/360 computer. A photo (from the Computer Museum) of the gate shows a special banner for the press train.


    At the 2013 National Train Day event, Metro North displayed a gate sign for the 20th Century Limited:

  5. Bob says:

    Chatham restored!

  6. Jay Rosenthal says:

    This is absolutely amazing and the restoration looks great! I agree with your decision to restore the original paint to Chatham- it’s what I would’ve done, too. I grew up using the Pawling and North White Plains stations and am still fond of the Harlem Line. If you’d ever be willing to part with this particular roll banner, please let me know. I’d be very interested.

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