Remembering the Upper Harlem Division – Part 1

Twenty-four years ago I boarded my very first train – a Harlem Line local from Brewster to Grand Central Terminal. I was four years old, and quite intrigued by the journey. While I’m sure many hold their first train experience in a special place in their hearts, I really didn’t fall in love with the Harlem Line until I became a regular commuter after graduating college in 2008. The second most frequent question I receive from railfans (after the inevitable “oh my god… are you really a girl?!”) is why the Harlem. For many the Harlem isn’t overwhelmingly interesting – it’s a dead-end ride to cow town. At least the New Haven’s tracks extend to Boston, and the Hudson’s to Albany and beyond… you can actually get somewhere. But part of the intrigue of the Harlem, at least for me, is its history. The Harlem was New York City’s first railroad – chartered in 1831 – which is certainly a cool fact. But perhaps the most intriguing bit of history is that of the Upper Harlem – nearly fifty miles of track, with thirteen different stations, all abandoned.


Map of the Harlem Division’s abandoned stations north of the Harlem Line’s current terminus in Wassaic.

On this day 41 years ago the very last passenger train on the Upper Harlem Division departed the line’s terminus, Chatham station, bound for Grand Central Terminal. The cancellation of service north of Dover Plains was abrupt and in the middle of the day – no one, from the riders to railroad employees – knew that this would be the final run. But also, it was hardly a surprise. The railroad had threatened to close the line for years, and only the courts prevented the Penn Central from doing so.

Another fact that was hardly a surprise was that ridership on the Upper Harlem had severely dwindled over the years. The New York Central operated five weekday southbound trains from Chatham to Grand Central throughout the early 1900′s, and during the busy World War II years increased that number to six. But after the war had ended, and train travel steadily began to lose favor, many of these Upper Harlem trains were eliminated. By 1950 only three southbounds departed Chatham every day, and by 1953 only a single train left the station every weekday. This single southbound was the norm until the Upper Harlem was finally closed.


The final timetable of the Upper Harlem Division from Chatham to Grand Central Terminal.

Throughout all these events, an organization called the Harlem Valley Transportation Association had been founded to not only improve service, but to ensure that the full route of the Harlem Division – all the way to Chatham – would stay in service. The HVTA’s fight against line operator Penn Central was like David versus Goliath, and they had no qualms about taking it to the courts. By the end of 1971 a service shutdown on the upper Harlem had been delayed by the courts no less than seven times. As part of their campaign, the HVTA distributed posters to local businesses to display, all in the efforts to encourage rail ridership and prevent a shutdown. Industrial designer Seymour Robins, also the HVTA’s treasurer, created these two-color silk-screened posters, with nine variations in all. Each variation referenced a specific point the HVTA wished to improve: Service, Ecology, Stations, Windows, Track, Cars, Schedules, Toilets, and Roadbed.


The above HVTA posters, in nine different variations, were mass printed in 1971. They were designed by Seymour Robins, the treasurer of the HVTA, and an industrial designer.

The HVTA brought together over a hundred riders from not only New York, but Connecticut and Massachusetts as well – all people that depended on the Upper Harlem. One of the most charismatic personalities involved in the fight was HVTA Vice-President (and later President) Lettie Gay Carson. Although the long intertwined history of the Upper Harlem and Columbia county was certainly in her mind, the shrewd Carson fought to save the line not for nostalgia purposes, but for both local economic and environmental reasons. She recognized that it wasn’t passenger service that paid the bills, and besides looking to attract new ridership, Carson also focused on attracting local businesses to use rail freight.

But to truly save the line and make it profitable, Carson even attempted to create an industry from scratch. This new industry, handling sewage sludge, would not only operate on the Upper Harlem’s rails, but also benefit the environment – two causes important to Carson and the HVTA. Instead of dumping sewage sludge in the ocean, which contaminated fisheries and beaches, Carson proposed that it could be carried by railcar up the Harlem where it would be composted and spread onto the many farms in Dutchess and Columbia counties. Although the concept may be off-putting, the sludge could greatly improve the fertility of farmland naturally, without the use of chemical fertilizers. Carson’s ideas were often deemed “years ahead of [her] time,” which is quite the truth. People today are slowly realizing (a bit too late) that replacing trains with cars and trucks only furthered our dependence on foreign oil – one of Carson’s many reasons for fighting to save the Upper Harlem.


Labor Day 1971 in Millerton: Lettie Carson of the HVTA holds a sign that reads “Trains will run indefinitely” in this photo by Heyward Cohen. The sign Carson holds in the photo – a true museum piece – has been preserved and still exists today.

Though the courts ordered the Penn Central to keep operating trains, mostly due to the HVTA’s efforts, they were by no means obligated to provide any customer service whatsoever. Because of Penn Central’s lapse, the Harlem Valley Transportation Association took over many of their duties to prevent losing passengers. When the Penn Central failed to distribute timetables, the HVTA mailed them out to riders instead. When the Penn Central failed to pay the phone bill for Millerton station, the HVTA set up their own answering service. And just two weeks before passenger service was eliminated, the HVTA was again in the news – for getting the station platforms cleared of snow, because the Penn Central refused. Ignoring the Harlem Division only began a vicious cycle – lack of maintenance led to late and slow trains, and this unreliable service only resulted in a loss of customers – but perhaps that was Penn Central’s goal all along.

The Harlem Valley Transportation Association’s valiant efforts increased the Upper Harlem’s lifespan by a few years, but the line met its inevitable end on March 20th, 1972 when passenger service from Dover Plains to Chatham was eliminated. Freight service on the Harlem from Chatham was also eliminated several years later. On this 41st anniversary of the end of passenger service, we’ll be taking a tour up the abandoned line to all thirteen former stations, and to see how these areas fare today. Our tour starts at Amenia, the first abandoned station north of Wassaic, the current terminus of the Harlem Line. Wassaic itself was abandoned in 1972, but service there was restored by Metro-North in 2000.

As we travel north beyond the Harlem Line’s terminus at Wassaic, the first abandoned station we come to is Amenia. Around 85 miles north of Grand Central, the area surrounding the station is attractive and rich in farmland. Besides the obvious farming and dairy production, Amenia also had a steelworks and several iron mines, all of which used the Harlem for freight.

Amenia Today

 

The obvious vestige of the railroad in Amenia is the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which runs from Wassaic station to the former station in Millerton. The old Amenia station building is long gone, and likely forgotten. But similar to many towns with abandoned stations, Amenia has a few street names reflect the once important railroad that traversed the town. Depot Hill Road, and Railroad Avenue cross near the rail trail, and are a small reminder of the Harlem.

Named for nearby Sharon, Connecticut, Sharon station on the Harlem Division predominantly served riders from that state. A station building was constructed in 1875, and consisted of two floors, with the ground floor being separated in two sections – one for freight, and one for passengers. The upper floor consisted of living quarters for the station agent or other railroad employees. Not far from the station was the Manhattan Mining Corporation, which had its own siding and used the Harlem for freight.

*Upper right photo of Sharon station by Art Deeks.

Sharon Today

 

As a station serving mostly Connecticut riders, there was never much of a community around Sharon station. The station building itself, however, is one of the few Upper Harlem stations to still exist today. After being damaged in a fire, the old station was restored and turned into a residence. Several years ago the building was placed on the market, and I just happened to get a tour of it. Recently sold for $525,000, the building remains a private residence, and is hidden from the nearby rail trail by strategically placed trees and a fence. The only other hint that a railroad ran through here is the aptly named Sharon Station Road.

One of the less prominent stations on the line, Coleman’s was named after a local landholder. A major industry in the community was a milk factory, which used the Harlem for freight. Coleman’s was one of the stations to be abandoned early on – along with Mount Riga and Martindale. All three were eliminated as passenger stations in 1949.

Coleman’s Today

 

Today, Coleman’s is a relatively quiet area, with a small “historic district” that contains a late-1700’s burial ground. The rail trail and Coleman Station Road are all remnants of the Harlem in this small community.

The next station along the line is Millerton – but that will have to wait for another day. We’ll continue our tour of the Upper Harlem in Part 2, coming soon!

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New York City’s other great station – more photos from the Farm Security Administration

If you enjoyed our previous set of Farm Security Administration photos, no doubt you will enjoy the ones today, possibly even more so. Captured by Marjorie Collins, another one of the lesser-known FSA photographers, today’s set of photos features New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Taken about a year after the photos we saw last week (these date to August 1942), the war is in full swing, and the station is filled with soldiers. As was the FSA’s goal, these images artfully capture what life was like in the 1940’s.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of the Pennsy, and I don’t frequently post things about Penn Station, but I think this set of photos was too amazing to pass up. We may be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, but I think it is also a perfect time to reflect about New York’s other great “temple of transportation,” and its greater significance in terms of historical preservation.

New York's Pennsylvania Station
New York’s Pennsylvania Station, built 1910, demolished 1963.

Grand Central Terminal was still in construction when the Pennsylvania Railroad opened their great station in 1910. Designed by the famous McKim, Mead, and White, the two stations shared a Beaux Arts aesthetic. Both were exquisite New York monuments, and they almost shared the same fate – the wrecking ball. With the decline in rail travel both the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads were strapped for cash and looking to make a buck anywhere they could. With the significant costs to maintain such large stations, the buildings were worth more to them as real estate. In 1963 the gorgeous Penn Station was demolished in order to build Madison Square Garden above.

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.

–Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the high-profile face of historic preservation in New York City.

I am firmly of the belief that New York could not have two great railroad stations – for it was the destruction of Pennsylvania Station that motivated people to protect the city’s historical landmarks. In 1965, two years after Penn Station’s destruction, New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission was established. Grand Central was declared a landmark, and the New York Central, and later the Penn Central, were not permitted to destroy it – a fight the railroad took all the way up to the Supreme Court. If not for the destruction of Penn Station, it is very possible that we would not be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central right now. So thanks, Penn Station, we shall not forget you.

 
   
  
   
 
  
   
  
 
  
   
  

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Poughkeepsie


1890 photo of the previous Poughkeepsie station. Note that this station was on the west side of the tracks, while today’s station was constructed on the east side of the tracks.


1960 photo of Poughkeepsie station, not obstructed by Route 9 which now runs above the station’s front parking area.

Today we’ve arrived at the end of the line – both literally and figuratively. Today’s station tour is of Poughkeepsie, the northern terminus of Metro-North’s Hudson Line, and the final station on our Hudson Line tour. In fact, it is the final Metro-North station to be featured here. Over the past three years I’ve taken you to all one hundred and twenty three Metro-North stations, on both sides of the Hudson River. I saved Poughkeepsie for the end, as it is truly a gem, and a worthy send off for our Panorama Project.

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A wide variety of timetables from Pougkeepsie, including two of Amtrak’s trains that stop here.


Tickets and things from Poughkeepsie. My favorite is the Metro-North ticket listing the station as “Pokipse.”

Located on the east bank of the Hudson River, Pougkeepsie is roughly equidistant between New York City and Albany, and the station is about 75 miles from Grand Central. Both the access to the river, and later the railroad, played a significant part in Poughkeepsie’s growth. Over the years Poughkeepsie has been home to a various array of industries, including a glass factory, dye factory, brewery, carpet mill, shoe factory, and a chair manufacturer, among many others.

 

At Poughkeepsie station, 1971. Photos by Steve Baldwin.

Reflecting Poughkeepsie’s important status along the New York Central’s famed Water Level Route, a grand station was constructed in 1918. The four story concrete and brick building was designed by the notorious Beaux Arts architects Warren and Wetmore. No strangers to the New York Central, Whitney Warren was a cousin of the Vanderbilts, and designed Grand Central with duo Reed and Stem. Poughkeepsie station is not nearly as extravagant as Grand Central, but along with the station in Yonkers, it is certainly one of the Hudson Line’s real gems.

  

Poughkeepsie in the 1970’s. Top left photo in 1975, right and below, 1979. Top right photo by Panoramio user Scotch Canadian.

  

Top left photo in 1979 by Panoramio user Scotch Canadian. Top right photo in 1981 by Bob Coolidge. Amtrak photo by Ed Linde.

Fitting with the typical design of a Beaux Arts building, Poughkeepsie station offers a main, and large, focal point – in this case, the waiting room. Featuring five massive windows that stretch from almost floor to ceiling, during the day the station is well lit just from sunlight alone. To supplement that light, three chandeliers also hang from the ceiling, and similar to Grand Central’s chandeliers, boast their modern use of electricity with naked light bulbs. Interspersed throughout the waiting room are fourteen wooden chestnut benches, also similar to the benches that were once in Grand Central’s main waiting room. Historically, the north wing of the station was reserved for a railway express agency, and the south end with a kitchen and dining room. Today, the waiting room contains a Metro-North ticket window, some Quik-Trak machines from Amtrak customers, restrooms, a snack shop on the south side, and an MTAPD station on the north end.

 
Photos of the former Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, now the Walkway Over the Hudson. Photo on the right by Flickr user miningcamper.

Arriving at Poughkeepsie by train, likely the first thing you’d notice is the large bridge running overhead, and not the station building itself, which is less visible on the track side. Constructed in 1888, the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge stretches from Poughkeepsie on the east side of the Hudson River, to Highland on the west. Today this bridge makes Poughkeepsie an even more attractive destination. After serving railroad traffic for more than 75 years, the bridge was heavily damaged by fire and was for the most part abandoned until the early 2000’s when it was converted to pedestrian use as the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park.

 
CSX at Poughkeepsie. Photos by Mike Foley.


Poughkeepsie station in 2011, while undergoing renovations. Photo by Mike Groll.

Today Poughkeepsie station is quite attractive, with Metro-North having spent more than $22 million dollars to restore and improve it. This included an ample parking garage on the west side of the tracks, and a walkway and pavilion for people heading to the waterfront. Renovations to the area continue, including an elevator to make accessing the Walkway over the Hudson from the station easier.

Though a bit bigger than most Metro-North stations, the setup is relatively similar. Pretty much every station has ticket machines, wire benches, and blue trash bins, as does Poughkeepsie. Unlike most other stations, Poughkeepsie has one island platform, and two side platforms, although the one side platform is lower level and not used by passengers. All of the tracks are accessible to the main station by an overpass, which also connects to the parking garage. The overpass, covered in attractive wood paneling, is far nicer than the relatively utilitarian overpasses you see at most Metro-North stations.

In all, Poughkeepsie is a lovely station, and definitely worth visiting, if only for the lovely historic station, with the New York Central sign on the front. But a wide variety of restaurants and attractions in the area, most especially the Walkway Over the Hudson, make Poughkeepsie one of the nicest places we’ve seen on our now complete Metro-North tour.

 
   
 
 
  
 
 
  
   
  
  
  
   
  
 
  
 
  
   
 

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