Vacationing on the Railroad, yesterday and today

It is starting to be that time of the season where everyone is thinking about summer, and about taking vacations. The railroad has always been a great method of getting around, and there are plenty of places you can see by train. If you’re looking for something more local, Metro-North will be having their Staycation Showcase in Grand Central next week. Amtrak also has a wide variety of places to vacation, all accessible by rail.

Despite all of these offerings, rail travel really isn’t the primary method that most people go on vacation these days. After getting patted down by your friendly neighborhood TSA, airlines can whisk you away to the other side of the country in a matter of hours, not days. And America’s love affair, the automobile, offers a more individualized and customizable trip across our nation’s Interstate system. However, neither of these options were available to folks living in the early 1900s. Rail was the way to go, and the best way to take a vacation.

New York Central vacation brochures
Vacation brochures printed by the New York Central in 1908 and 1903.

Vacation packages, including rail tickets, were offered by the New York Central, and they printed many varieties of brochures advertising all the places one could visit. Summer resorts included in-state locations, like Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks, and some faraway places like Canada, Michigan, and even Yellowstone National Park – an 82 and a half hour trip from Grand Central Terminal, at a round trip fare of $97.80.

The winter resorts booklet might prove to be the most interesting – it offered long distance vacations to warm locales around the world – places that one would reach after long journeys via train and steamship. Setting out for “one of ‘Uncle Sam’s’ new possessions” – “Porto Rico” – would be a 20 day affair in total. The most fascinating part printed is certainly the map of the Pacific Ocean found at the back of the brochure, labeled as places “reached by the New York Central Lines and their connections.” If you had the time, and the money, you could certainly reach the Empire of Japan, and beyond. Straying not too far from home, a traveler could reach Honolulu by steamship from San Francisco in a total of seven days.

Map of the Pacific
Map of the Pacific Ocean, printed by the New York Central in their 1903 America’s Winter Resorts brochure.

Interested in staying closer to home, or taking a shorter vacation? The New York Central also had a brochure of journeys taking two to fifteen days. Two days could get you to the Adirondacks or Lake George, four a nice trip to Montreal, eight a meandering journey to and from Quebec, and fifteen a wonderful itinerary stopping at several different resorts in many of the aforementioned spots.

Two to fifteen day journeys
Brochure of two to fifteen day journeys from 1912, and the Harlem Division map within.

If you’re really looking to stay in your own backyard, there were plenty of vacationing spots along the Harlem Division. The Harlem’s long-gone Lake Mahopac branch was established especially for that purpose. But as you can see from the map above, one could get more places via the Harlem than you can today – transfers were available in Chatham for the Boston and Albany Railroad to Massachusetts, and to the Rutland Railroad for Vermont.

Resorts on the Harlem
Close to home – summer resorts along the Harlem.

Anybody out there planning on taking a vacation (or a “staycation,” even) by train this summer? Drop a note in the comments about where you’re planning on going!

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Niagara Falls and the Falls Incline Railway

At some point during my whole Africa trip, I’ll be visiting Victoria Falls. I’ve been warned that the area is utterly commercialized. After having visited Niagara Falls last year, I’m hardly surprised. The whole thing I think was a shock for me, after having visited Iguaçu Falls in Brasil. Brasilians like to claim that Eleanor Roosevelt said that Iguaçu made Niagara look like a “leaky faucet,” but I’ve seen no evidence as to whether she actually said that, or it was a mere story. Either way, Iguaçu is pretty big, and it is also pretty wild. I remember lots of jungle, being warned that onças (I had to look this up – Jaguars) have been sighted in the area, and there were plenty of quatis (small, racoon-type mammal) wandering around as well. The jungle surrounding the falls is a national park, and thus preserved.

And if you’ve ever been to Niagara Falls, well, you know that it is totally the opposite there. The area surrounding the falls is commercialized to the extreme – casinos, shops, arcades, fun houses, restaurants – hell, they even put neon lights on the water at night, and shoot off fireworks. I think I almost felt a little dirty by being there – a whore partaking in the rampant consumerism. I’m not sure how Victoria Falls is going to be, but somehow I can imagine that it is somewhere in between these two extremes. The touristy hotel I’ll be staying at, within walking distance of the falls, seconds as a casino – oh lord.

While I was at Niagara, I did manage to take a few photos of the Incline Railway there. Incline railways have existed along the Niagara for over 200 years, but for the most part have now been replaced by elevators. Most of the incline railways were to take people down to the water level, but the solitary remaining one transports people from a parking area to the “main level” where tickets are sold for the various tours and boats – how wonderfully commercial. Called the “Falls Incline Railway” – it claims to be the slowest incline railway in the world, an appropriately stupid claim-to-fame for an attraction in that city (you can find other moronic record holders in the Ripley’s museum and the Guinness World Records museum in town). The top speed for this bad boy is 190 feet per minute, and the track is 170 feet in length with a gauge of slightly over six feet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to post some images and work on my record for running the slowest mile in the entire world…


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