Several months ago I was amused when I saw a blog linking to my own, and they referred to me as a “closeted rail fan.” Despite “coming out” and accepting the title I still wonder if it is really an appropriate term to call me. I certainly like riding on trains, but I know very little about the physical machine that is a train. I think my primary interest is the history, and most specifically, how technology affected places and people. And I think it is undeniable that the railroads played a big part in how New York evolved. Back when Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the land for the original Grand Central Depot, the location was considered “the boonies,” as City Hall was thought of as the northern end of the city. And what would Westchester County be like without the rail? The rail encouraged the people of the area to move north and spread out, turning the rural areas into the suburbs we know today.
I think another thing that interests me about the rail is the abandonment. I really don’t know why, but I have a fascination with abandoned places – and the rail has plenty of them. The railroad was once the primary way mail and freight was delivered, and how people got around. But cars became increasingly more popular, and with the advent of the interstate system, cars took the place of trains in getting around. And so stations were closed, rail lines cut, and railroad companies went bankrupt. I do mention it frequently on here, but the Harlem Line is no stranger to abandonment. In 1972 passenger service north of Dover Plains ceased, and around 50 miles worth of track, all the way to Chatham, was abandoned.
Old photos and postcards of Chatham, NY
In the grand scheme of things, Chatham was luckier than most. It was once a thriving area for transportation: the Harlem Division, Rutland Railway, and the Boston and Albany all made stops. Though the Harlem and Rutland’s track has been ripped out, CSX and Amtrak still use the Boston and Albany track, running through the quiet village without stopping. Quite a few of the former stations on the Harlem Division have really nothing to see… station buildings long gone and mostly forgotten. But as I said before, Chatham was luckier than most, the historical Union Station still stands, restored and used as a bank. And in 1974 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Henry Hobson Richardson was an influential architect in the 19th century, popularizing a style of architecture that was named for him: Richardsonian Romanesque. The revival style incorporated 11th and 12th century European Romaneque traits. Although Trinity Church in Boston was his most notable work, he designed several railroad stations for the Boston and Albany. Several architects trained with Richardson, including Charles McKim and Stanford White, who designed the original Pennsylvania Station, though in the Beaux-Arts style. Following Richardson’s style, however, were two others that worked for him: George Shepley and Charles Coolidge. Their firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, based in Boston, completed Richardson’s partially completed and pending projects, one of which was Chatham’s Union Station. In total, the firm completed 23 of B&A’s stations, including Boston’s South Station, still in use by the MBTA.
Chatham’s Union Station opened on August 31, 1887. The ticket office in the station was closed in 1960, and pieces of the inside, including the waiting benches, were sold off. Passengers used the station up until it’s final closure in March of 1972, ending the many years it served as the terminus of the Harlem Division. The station has been restored, and reopened in 1999. It is now the office for the Chatham branch of the Bank of Kinderhook. And it is still quite beautiful… one of the few remaining vestiges of the Upper Harlem Line that I can actually see.