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

Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.