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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Counting down the 12 most popular posts of 2011, Part 2

Here is the final part of our top posts of 2011. Thank you to all of you for your continued support and visits. These are the posts that you all voted for, with your eyes and your clicks.

No tour of any of Metro-North’s lines could be complete without a visit to the most wonderful station of all – Grand Central. Our Harlem Line Tuesday Tour finished with photos of GCT, and was extremely well-liked, coming in at number seven in the countdown. I think I was rather proud of the photo set, as it covered quite a few locations that were not part of the main concourse. Although the concourse is the highlight, it is by all means not the only thing interesting found in the Terminal.

These are the reasons why there are probably people that work for the MTA that dislike me… although I love the history of the rails, as well as photography, there are some times that I just can’t help joking around. In this spoof, The MTA wants to make sure you are prepared, I poked a little bit of fun at the brochure that they released regarding hurricanes. My intent wasn’t to knock their preparations (as that hurricane brochure came in handy later on during the year!!), it was more to make an amusing statement about the snowstorms slamming us that just wouldn’t stop. We were somewhat prepared – but absolutely fed up with the snow that kept piling up. But being able to add in some zombies and Norse mythology just made it all the more fun.

Many times I’ve passed through the streets in Danbury and sighted a particular wall covered with some absolutely gorgeous graffiti. Every time I did, I always thought that I should go and take a photo of it… but I never got a chance to do it until March. In the post Gorgeous rail-side graffiti in Danbury I posted photos of the mural (which was a lot larger than I had originally suspected). The painted wall is located just off of Main Street in Danbury, not far from the Metro-North station, and located along some railroad tracks.

Just about any day this year was a good time to be anyone other than Hermon Kaur Raju. Raju is the commuter we love to hate, yapping on her cell phone the whole ride and using a whole slew of four letter words. When a train conductor told her to shut her trap, Raju went on the offensive – demanding that everyone acknowledge how educated she was. Most unfortunately for her, someone had been recording the entire exchange, and posted it to YouTube. Despite being removed a short time later by the original poster, the damage had been done. The clip made it to the Huffington Post, Gawker, and Raju was even one of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Persons In The World.”

Although I did not post her name at the time, resisting the urge to poke fun at Raju was impossible. The post Be nice to your conductor, or you’ll wind up on the internet was one of our top posts for the year. Metro-North never really made a public response regarding the incident, however Raju would likely be pleased to know that the conductor involved was reprimanded for the incident – for not wearing her hat.

Discovering the old stations of the Harlem Division has been an interest of mine ever since I first read about them. Many no longer exist, but a few have been converted to businesses and are still around. Only one (to my knowledge) has been converted into use as a home, and the thought of living in an old train station is probably pretty awesome to anyone that calls themself a railfan. In an Adventure to Sharon Station, I got a great chance to tour the house, which is currently for sale. Even though the the outside looks much as it did way back when, the inside contains all the modern comforts one would expect in a home. I’m very appreciative to Elyse Harney Real Estate for allowing me to see the house, even though they knew I didn’t have the means to purchase it – though if I ever win big in the lottery, they may be one of the first people I call.

Although often forgotten by commuters, Metro-North does have tracks on the west side of the Hudson. I suppose they lines over there are easily overlooked, as they don’t go into Grand Central, and are operated by New Jersey Transit. However, one of the most beautiful locations along Metro-North’s tracks is found on the west side. The Picturesque Moodna Viaduct, located in the rural countryside of Orange County. The viaduct is the longest and tallest trestle east of the Mississippi River, and I was very happy to note that the Hurricane Irene damage on the Port Jervis line did not greatly harm this wonderful gem. It seems that many others also find the viaduct a lovely place, as it was our second most popular post on the blog in 2011.

In an absolutely unprecedented move, the entirety of MTA buses and trains shut down ahead of the oncoming storm, Hurricane Irene. Although some people criticized the decision as a bit over the top, it turned out to be the right one. Of all the agencies, Metro-North likely suffered the worst damages, from both high winds and rain-induced floods. In an absolutely brilliant move, the MTA kept customers apprised of the ongoing situation through their Flickr account, visually documenting the storm on their infrastructure. Some of the photos even wound up in the trending topics of twitter – a monumental achievement for the MTA’s social media endeavors.

I reposted many of the MTA’s photos under the title of Metro-North and the Aftermath of Irene, Damage Photos, and it was the number one post of the year on I Ride the Harlem Line.

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Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line (Part 5)


A train crash postcard

Imagine that we are in the year 1920. A train has just had an accident. As people rush over to attempt to assist, so too does a photographer. Camera in hand, the photographer takes a couple snaps of the wreck. Not only for event detailing purposes, but for postcards too. I’ve become a crazy postcard-collecting nutjob, and every time I see a train crash postcard, it makes me chuckle a little. Postcards were printed with pretty much anything and everything on them… but I suppose it makes sense, they provided an easy way to share (back before we had this thing called internet, boggles the mind!) Of course, it is just human nature to want to see a train crash, or any crash, period. Any person that has ever been in a car moving past an accident knows exactly what I’m talking about.


And if I wanted to send you a LOLCat back in the day, I’d send you this.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to discover a Harlem Division train crash postcard. I have found quite a few station images, many of which I’ve posted previously. Today I have a few more of those for you, as well as some more “everyday” scenes: track workers at Dover Plains, a locomotive crossing a road in the snow, and horse carts delivering milk to the train station to be transported to the city. Thrown in the mix is a card of the Harlem Valley State Hospital, with the location of the current Harlem Valley-Wingdale station visible.

Make sure you enjoy this somewhat chilly Friday (where’s my hat?!), and don’t get too frustrated if you see anybody rubbernecking on your way home this evening! Just think, hey, that could be on a postcard!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

If you missed parts one through four, you can find them here:
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 1
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 2
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 3
Sending Postcards from the Harlem Line, Part 4

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