Looking back at 2010… a countdown of the most popular

Ah, 2010. You were the first full year that I actually operated this blog. Lots of fun and shenanigans were to be had. I decided to take a look back at what was popular on the site this year, as a wrap-up for 2010…

1. BPGlobal Billboards

The first entry here is not train-related in any way… however it was such a major news story at the time I couldn’t not have some fun with it – though fun is actually a terrible way to describe it, as the Gulf Oil Spill was quite tragic. To me the two standouts in coverage on this was a fake twitter account, BPGlobalPR, and Boston Globe’s The Big Picture. I merged the two into fake billboards, which apparently caught on and made their rounds on the web – and brought around thirty thousand viewers to the site in a single day.

2. Harlem Line Timetables

It is true, I have turned into an eBay whore… collecting just about anything regarding the Harlem Line. Many of the timetables I have can be found on the second most popular part of the site, the Harlem Line Timetables archive. It is desperately needing updating, as I own or have scanned many more timetables than are currently pictured. My goal was always to have a timetable for every year, and for the most part I do have that, from 1930 on up. Look for a major overhaul of this section in 2011!

3. Stupid Warning Signs

Ah, stupid warning signs. One of the most amusing things I’ve made for the site. These popular signs round out the top three most popular things on the site this year. Folks have requested that I turn these into stickers, but if you people start sticking these on trains the MTA PD might actually have a real reason to arrest my ass.

4. The Cutest Train Car in the World

One of the posts I made after returning from Japan featured the Tama Densha railcar of the Wakayama Electric Railway. The railroad is known in offbeat circles around the world due to the fact that they employ a feline Stationmaster (I believe she’s actually been promoted to Vice-President now). Tama the cat was so popular, designer Eiji Mitooka created a train car in her honor. The front of the train has whiskers, the seats inside have cat print. My favorite part of the train? The library full of books for the kids.

5. Centalia, PA – Burning Ghost Town

I’ve always been fascinated with Centralia, ever since I first read about it on the internet many years ago. Since then I’ve visited several times. The story begins in the 1960’s, when a coal seam under the town caught fire. It continues to burn to this day. The land has fissures that belch smoke, and it permanently smells of sulfur. It is a tragic story, as the once bustling small town has been whittled down to less than ten citizens.

The coal under the town that is burning is anthracite – which was popularized in little rhymes about Phoebe Snow in advertisements for the Lackawanna Railroad.

6. The Loneliest Station on the Harlem Line

Although I hadn’t come up with the concept yet, the Harlem Line Panorama project began with Mount Pleasant – which I labeled as the loneliest station on the line. The tiny station in between Hawthorne and Valhalla services the cemeteries in the area, and has very limited service.

The first panorama posted on the site

7. The Harlem Line Panorama Project

If you’re interested in seeing all the panoramas to date, located on a map – this is the place to go. This Google map is the seventh most popular portion of the site, although technically it lies off site and on Google’s servers. However, each placemark contains my favorite panorama from that stop, and a link back to the post on this site.

8. Sadie the Subway Cat

The Transit Museum in Brooklyn has employed a cat or two, mostly in the hopes that they would chase away any subway rats. In this eighth most popular post I recollect my first visit to the Transit Museum and my encounter with Sadie… and my crazy idea to get her a miniature-sized train conductor’s hat. Of course none of that really panned out – and as far as I am aware, Sadie has been quietly retired from the public.

9. The #1 Reason to Ride Metro-North

Back in June I posted these spoof ads for Metro-North and beer. If you are a regular commuter you will notice that in the afternoon, and most especially on Fridays, there are quite a few people drinking beer. The exception to that if you are those people that work at Target in Mount Kisco, you’re drinking it in the morning. But since you can’t drink and drive, and you can certainly drink and ride, Metro-North could always have an amusing new ad campaign.

10. M8 Cars Will Not Debut on the New Haven Line

Ah, April Fools Day… I couldn’t resist making a fake post about the new M8’s. Shattering the dreams of many New Haven Line riders, I posted that the red trains would be repainted blue and running instead on the Harlem Line by the end of the year. I even made up some fake quotes and attributed them to Dan Brucker – which probably doesn’t place me very high on his list of awesome bloggers.

So that is it! The ten most popular things on the blog in 2010. Happy New Year everyone!

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Chatham: Revisited

I’m not exactly sure why, but I have a strange affinity for the village of Chatham. Although it is an adorable place, rather quaint, I wonder what exactly it was like when the railroads ran through here. You might see a freight train, or a passing Lake Shore Limited, but none of them stop. Chatham once serviced the New York & Harlem Railroad, the Boston & Albany, and the Rutland – all of which are long gone. And thus the place is a little bit of a curiosity to me. The many suburbs along the Harlem – Bronxville, Hartsdale, Scarsdale, and even the ones further north, Katonah, Brewster – they were all influenced by the rail. They grew and morphed into the places we know now, and though the rail does not entirely define those places now, the rail still is there, playing a part in the futures of those areas. But Chatham, it is a special case. The single most defining factor of the village has disappeared. It is no longer the terminus of any railroads. The once busy Union Station no longer serves train riders, it is a bank. Chatham has reverted to a quieter version of itself, representing a little portion of historical Columbia County.

Many places across the country have seen transformations, with the things they were built upon playing a part in their downfall. Detroit was built on the auto industry, but as the industry migrated and moved overseas, parts of the city have become abandoned – a true example of urban decay. The small town of Centralia, Pennsylvania was built upon anthracite coal, literally and figuratively. Ironically, it was the coal brought the death sentence of the little town, as it caught fire in the 1960’s and has been burning ever since. There is something about these changed places that intrigues me (high on my list of places to visit is also Pripyat, an abandoned town brought down by the failings of humans). All of these, of course, are radical examples. Chatham lives, it does not decay. Perhaps the once-fundamental core of its being is gone, but it still thrives. But just as one can compare the photos of Detroit’s urban decay with the historical photos of yesteryear, one can bear witness to the radical changes made in just a few scant years (or slightly longer than the years I’ve been on this Earth). There are no more signal towers, water towers, or turntables. The children of Chatham will never board a passenger train in their village to head the one hundred and twenty seven miles to Grand Central. And of course, the Harlem division will never again run this far north.

The time for Chatham as a railroad town has passed. As the time has ticked by it has reinvented itself, and is still reinventing itself. It is not the decline as a railroad hub that has intrigued me about Chatham, but that reinvention. It is a charming and beautiful little village, with a gazebo, clock tower, shops, and restaurants – plus a whole lot of history. The photos below were taken back in October upon my second visit to Chatham, a visit where I actually had time to shop and eat, and enjoy the surrounding history. Perhaps if you too find Chatham to be interesting you will take the time to visit some day…


The photos below were sent in by reader John. They were taken in the late 1960’s at Chatham.


For an even further back look, the Library of Congress has an illustrated map view of the village of Chatham from 1886. At this time the “Union Station” had not been built, and the Boston & Albany, and the New York & Harlem each had their own rail stations. For easier viewing I’ve given the B&A station a slight red tint, and the Harlem a blue tint.

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An old adventure to Centralia, Pennsylvania – The Burning Ghost Town

Hopefully you guys aren’t missing me too much… I figured I would set up some posts in the queue to submit themselves while I am gone on vacation, that way you wouldn’t miss me at all. If you haven’t noticed by now, I enjoy going on adventures, and taking photos. On a cool morning last November I boarded an early train to White Plains to meet up with my friend, and partner in crime. From White Plains we drove to a small town in Pennsylvania named Centralia. I first learned about Centralia several years ago, and somehow I became obsessed with its history. Centralia today is nearly a ghost town, with a population of under ten people. In 1981, that population was over 1,000. It was a town full of life, a close-knit community with homes, churches, and shops. But today those homes, churches, and shops are gone… razed long ago. Thin wisps of steam rise from the ground in Centralia, especially so on cool mornings. The ground is warm to the touch, and the air smells of sulfur. Centralia is not like any town you’ve ever encountered, for it is burning, and has been since 1962.

If you’ve ever seen old advertising for the Lackawanna Railroad, you may already be familiar with anthracite. Anthracite is a particular type of coal, which in the United States is found in northwestern Pennsylvania. It burns hotter and cleaner, with less soot, than ordinary coal. In the early 20th century, anthracite was used for a variety of purposes, including home heating, but also to power trains. Although other railroads may have used anthracite, it was the Lackawanna Railroad that made it a part of their advertising. They called their line “The Road of Anthracite” because they chose the more expensive coal to power their locomotives. Anthracite, with its cleaner burn, prevented passengers from the possibility of getting dirty from the soot of a regular coal-burning locomotive. To further underscore this point, the character of Phoebe Snow was created for the advertising. Phoebe was a regular train rider who frequently wore white gowns. Various rhymes using Phoebe were created for advertising:

My gown stays white
From morn till night
Upon the road of Anthracite

Phoebe says
And Phoebe knows
That smoke and cinders
Spoil good clothes
‘Tis thus a pleasure
And Delight
To take the Road
Of Anthracite

The character, Phoebe Snow, used in Lackawanna Railroad’s advertisements.

During World War One, railroads were not permitted to use anthracite, as it was required for the war effort, so Phoebe’s career essentially ended there. However, in 1949 a passenger train named the Phoebe Snow was debuted on a route from Hoboken to Buffalo, and later from Hoboken to Chicago.

Anthracite figures significantly in the history of Centralia. Centralia was an old anthracite coal-mining town. It is somewhat ironic to note that it was the coal mines that led to the founding of the town, and also the anthracite coal that led to the town’s demise. In 1962 a landfill caught on fire, underneath of which was an old, open strip-mining pit. The fire above ignited a coal seam underground. The actual details of the start of the fire are hazy and frequently argued. One theory believes that the trash in the dump was burned every year, and that particular year the fire was improperly extinguished. Another theory states that a trash hauler threw hot coals from a stove into the dump, causing the fire. Whatever the cause, the coal underneath the town began to burn.

Side by side comparison of Centralia then and now (although this photo was taken from the wrong position, facing the wrong way. However it is my favorite from the adventure). Historical photo © David DeKok.

For the most part, how the fire began is unimportant. It was the hazardous conditions caused by the fire that led to Centralia becoming mostly unlivable. As the fire spread underground, burning along the seams of coal, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide were released. Efforts to extinguish the fire failed, not because it was impossible, but because of money. It finally came down to the fact that it would be cheaper to relocate everyone in the town than it would be to put out the fire. Centralia was essentially not worth saving, at least in the government’s point of view. In 1984 the government began buying out homeowners in Centralia, allowing them to relocate, and their old houses were demolished. Everyone was told the move was voluntary, no one was going to be forcibly removed. Except of course, that was a lie. In 1992 Pennsylvania clamied eminent domain on all the properties, and condemned all the buildings. The people that refused to give up their town were then essentially squatters in their own homes. The state of Pennsylvania is currently pushing for everyone left in the town to move out. I’m sure they would love to forget the death of a town mostly due to bureaucrats and incompetence… to get everyone out and forget that Centralia ever existed. There are some, however, that will not forget.

The current mayor of Centralia posted the fire signs above. The We Love Centralia sign was an addition by me.

As it should be, the subject of Centralia is at times a touchy subject. There are a few folks that would deny that the town was ever “unlivable” and that there was ever any danger. I consider this the emotional response to people that didn’t want to see the place that they grew up in, that their families grew up in, destroyed. When Todd Domboski fell into a burning sinkhole, these same people denied that it was a result of the fire. Back then living in the town probably was dangerous. The plumes of steam coming from the hillsides was massive, to the point of dangerously obscuring the roads. However, if you visit Centralia now, the steam is barely there. There seems to be very little danger to the people that are currently living in the town.

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