SmartCat Sundays: The New York & Harlem’s Street Railway

When first conceived, the New York & Harlem Railroad was intended to do just what its name implied – connect lower Manhattan to Harlem. The original charter was granted by the New York State Legislature on April 25th, 1831, authorizing a single or double tracked road from 23rd Street to any point on the Harlem River between Third and Eighth Avenues (Fourth Avenue – later renamed Park – was the route ultimately chosen). Less than a year later, that mandate was expanded to allow construction as far south as 14th Street, and was expanded several more times to ultimately allow construction as far as Ann Street, just beyond City Hall. When the first mile of track opened for business in November of 1832, stretching from Prince Street to 14th Street, only 38 other miles of railroad track existed in the state.

New York and Harlem Railroad
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad. Initial service was powered by horse, and later provided all service south of 14th Street, where locomotives were not permitted

Street Railway Lines
Map of the New York & Harlem’s street railway

At Harlem, the northernmost portion of the chartered line, the New York & Harlem would meet up with the New York & Albany Railroad, providing a much-needed year-round link to the state capital (sailing up the Hudson at that time was difficult if not impossible in the winter months). Despite groundbreakings at several points along the proposed line, the New York & Albany never succeeded in creating this link. Slowly the New York & Harlem was given permission to do what the New York & Albany could not – first into Westchester County in 1840, and was later granted full rights to build to Albany in 1846. At that time the The New York & Harlem purchased the what was left of the failed road, including the land it had secured to build its line, for $35,000. Although the New York & Harlem never reached Albany – entering into an agreement with the Boston & Albany Railroad, which it met in Chatham – this trackage became the bread-and-butter of what became the Harlem Division when it was leased to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in 1873.

“The benefit to the City of New York, possessing as it does, the best seaport in the Union, will be incalculable.”

“Gentlemen must judge for themselves, but of one thing we are certain: the road will be built, and the most gratifying results may be anticipated.”

-Co-founder and Vice President John Mason, at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the New York & Harlem Railroad on Murray Hill in 1832.

The remainder of the New York & Harlem, which ran south of Grand Central Depot, was leased in 1897 to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company. Today’s tidbits from the archive deal with just that subject – before the lease of the street railway portion of the New York & Harlem, a letter was sent to all shareholders regarding the decision at the most recent Board of Directors meeting. Shareholders were instructed to sign and return a paper stating that they approved of the decision. Below is a scan of an original copy of this mailing, which this particular shareholder never responded to.

Envelope sent to shareholders

Letter sent to shareholders Response shareholders were supposed to send

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A Journey Underground – East Side Access

Over the one hundred plus years of its existence, Grand Central Terminal has reinvented itself many times to keep pace with the needs of its customers. When long range passenger trains were the norm, passengers could sit and watch a movie at Grand Central’s theater while waiting for their train to depart, or sit in the Terminal’s grand waiting room in Vanderbilt Hall. Today, all of the long distance trains have disappeared, replaced with Metro-North’s commuter service where trains are frequent enough that one rarely has to wait long. While today’s dashing commuter would have little use for a theater, they certainly make use of Grand Central’s new market, where they can quickly grab the ingredients for the dinner they’ll make after the train whisks them home. Even the less-used waiting room (which in high-society days had segregated fancy areas for both men and women) has moved out of the large Vanderbilt Hall into the smaller Stationmaster’s Office, converted into event space to capture the wandering person’s interest. Yet even part of that event space is slated for a conversion into more on-the-go eateries for the dashing commuter, an alternate option to picking up the ingredients in the market.

All of this reinvention has kept Grand Central relevant – it has retained its character as a landmark, yet constantly refreshed itself to keep with the times, all while remaining dedicated to its primary purpose of being a train station. As we speak, Grand Central is in fact reinventing itself yet again, although you may not be able to see the changes quite yet – they are far below your feet and deep underground. As cars clog our highways and roads, public transportation on the east and west sides of Manhattan are almost islands unto themselves. The MTA’s two railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, operate from separate stations with little linkage between them. Metro-North’s riders filter into the east side of Manhattan, while Long Island’s into the west. But what if we could change all that – give Long Island riders the option to arrive in the east side, and give Metro-North riders the ability to board trains to Long Island inside Grand Central, all while opening up a far easier public transit connection to JFK airport from the east side? All of these are goals of the ongoing East Side Access project, which is expected to continue for at least the next eight years. The project will create a link between the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, adding a new terminal below Grand Central with eight new tracks, as well as the addition of 22,000 square feet of new retail space.

 
Diagrams of East Side Access, how the new terminal is situated under current buildings (left), and how trains from Long Island will be routed into Grand Central (right).
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Cass Gilbert’s Griffins

After visiting enough historical railroad stations (or by reading this blog) it doesn’t take too long to get accustomed to the decorative symbols enmeshed within the architecture. A set of symbols, like the caduceus and the winged wheel, are all associated with transportation, and can be found on stations near and far – especially those designed in the Beaux Arts style. Many of these stem from the Roman deity Mercury – the swift messenger god that became associated with transportation, always depicted wearing a winged cap and a with caduceus in hand. Also common is the winged wheel, representative of both Mercury and speed, which has represented transportation beyond railroads. The auto industry has made use of the symbol, and it can even be found in use today as the logo of the Detroit Red Wings. Other symbols, like the eagle, are representations of American patriotism. And for all those New York Central fans, the acorns and oak leaves symbolic of the Vanderbilt clan can be found within the railroad’s most notable stations.

   
  
A – Winged cap and caduceus, both symbols of Mercury, god of transportation, New York Central station, Bronxville
B – Winged wheel, transportation and speed, New York Central building
C – Caduceus and horn of plenty, symbol of Mercury, and of prosperity, Michigan Central Station, Detroit
D – Eagle, representing American patriotism, Utica Union Station
E – Acorns, adopted crest of the Vanderbilt family, New York Central station, Yonkers
F – Mercury, Roman god of transportation, Grand Central Terminal

On one Metro-North station, however, you’ll find a particular symbol that isn’t quite common in rail stations – the griffin. Griffins are the mythological hybrid of the lion and the eagle, depicted with a lion’s body and an eagle’s head. Besides being the venerable king of beasts, as the lion was generally regarded as the king of animals and the eagle as the king of birds, the griffin guarded treasure and wealth. Architect Cass Gilbert incorporated the symbol into several of his designs, including New Haven Union Station, and the West Street Building in Manhattan, which was used as an office building by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. Many men amassed fortunes in the railroading business, and these griffins became the symbolic guardians of this wealth.

The West Street Building, circa 1912
The West Street Building, now usually called 90 West Street, once towered over lower Manhattan, circa 1912

Though Cass Gilbert is usually remembered as the designer of New York City’s first skyscrapers, his elaborate portfolio consisted of museums, state capitol buildings, courts, libraries, and even train stations. Gilbert’s most notable station is New Haven’s Union station, which opened in 1920 and replaced an earlier station destroyed by fire. For a Beaux Arts design, the station’s exterior is really rather plain, but the inner waiting room and ticket windows are undoubtedly beautiful. Over-exaggerated embellishments are few, though observant viewers can spot griffins on the wall in the office section of the station.

 
  
   
  
 
   
  
 
  

Through a twist of fate, Gilbert’s most notable griffins would be those found on the West Street Building. Completed in 1907, the 23 story building was one of the tallest in lower Manhattan. Over time it became dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers, and eventually the World Trade Center. Though it was always a gorgeous historical part of New York, the West Street building gained much notoriety after the attacks in September 11th, 2001. The building took major damage – fires lasted for days, and debris rained down on it from the collapsing towers. Two people died in the building’s elevator, and portions of one of the hijacked planes were found on the building’s roof. Ultimately, solid construction won the day – although the damage was immense, the building survived.

90 West Street and the World Trade Center
90 West Street eventually became dwarfed by the World Trade Center, seen in 1970 during construction and in 1988. Photos by Camilo J. Vergara.

Nearly a hundred years apart - 1907 and 2001
Nearly a hundred years apart – 1907 and 2001

September 21, 2001
FEMA photo showing the damage and debris pile below 90 West Street on September 21st. Photo by Michael Rieger.

90 West Street was eventually restored, and reopened as a residential building. It now contains 410 separate apartments, ranging from studios to three bedroom units. Countless embellishments inside and out were destroyed, though many were recreated using old photographs. Many of the gargoyles on the outside are modern creations in the style of the originals. One of the original surviving griffins, however, can be found in the lobby of the building. He’s no longer guarding the wealth of railroads, though I suppose one could say he is now guarding the wealth of the well-to-do tenants of the building – studios start at about $2250 a month.

  
 
  
 
  
 
  

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