A most interesting period in the history of the New York Central was the period from US Railway Administration (USRA) control during the First World War until the mid Nineteen Twenties. This period is well chronicled in the “New York Central Lines” magazine.
During this period, many of the employees who had shared in and contributed to the early growth of the system were still present. For instance, Albert Stone, the railroad’s oldest employee, was still busy at his desk in passenger accounting. He had been hired by Commodore Vanderbilt as a result of loosing a leg in a horse car accident and worked faithfully into his eighties, putting in over 70 years service.
William L. Davis retired after being chief ticket taker at Grand Central for 28 years and John O’Sullivan retired after being station agent at Potsdam, NY for 50 years. Martin Ryan, the first engineman on the “20th Century” in 1902, died after 45 years of service. Other deaths in this period were William K. Vanderbilt (his sons William and Harold would continue to play a part in the New York Central); Grant Johnson, the head of the telegraph school in Utica; A.T. Hardin; the Vice President of Operations; and Director William Rockefeller.
Throughout this period, the Chairman of the Board of Directors was Chauncey Depew. He had 56 years of service on his eighty-eighth birthday in 1922 and still came into his office in the Grand Central Office Building. His advice to employees was to “have a hobby not a fad”.
The magazine contained articles by veterans such as W.I. Boyle who described the building of the famous locomotive “999” at West Albany. Dr. Plimmon H. Dudley, the railroad’s expert on rail metallurgy, would also accurately predict the weather. He was considered the “scientist of rails”. He died in 1924 at age 81. He had joined the New York Central in 1880 and had lived in the Hotel Commodore since it was built.
Historical topics were well covered in the magazine. For instance, horse cars on the Harlem & Hudson; the 1893 “Exposition Flyer”; and Albany terminals. Any movement of either locomotive “999” or the “Dewitt Clinton” was a newsworthy event. For instance, in 1920, the “Dewitt Clinton” was displayed in Grand Central. Normally, it was stored at Karner, near West Albany. It was taken on a flat car down the West Side Freight Line to 30th Street and then trucked over to Grand Central. I assume it was brought into Grand Central Terminal via the taxi driveway under the Biltmore Hotel (like four elephants in 1921 who had to be brought from New York to Boston). One article by a veteran of the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburgh told of the building of the 1861 branch between Dekalb and Ogdensburg; the rivalry with the Utica and Black River; and the 1892 purchase by the New York Central. Another told of railroading 50 years ago on the “Peanut” Branch. The Canandaigua & Niagara Falls was a broad-gauge line.
There were many fascinating articles on the jobs which various employees carried out. For instance, the “trouble trio” of Grand Central were three ticket takers who worked outside their cages and helped solve problems on the floor. The employees who manned the information booth at Grand Central as well as the six phone operators and their chief were described. A 1924 conference in Cleveland of Company surgeons included Dr. E. McDonald Stanton of Schenectady and Dr. E.A. VanderVeer of Albany. There was a story on the three signal directors at MO Tower (Mott Haven) and one on the stenographer on the “20th Century Limited”. Several articles described the Red Caps at Grand Central. Many were college graduates. By the 1920’s, there were 467 Red Caps-all African-Americans. The force had been all-White in 1900. The Company was proud of the World War 1 record of several. A 1921 article described P.J. Shay, the heroic Grand Central police officer who had foiled a robbery of a New Haven cashier. Even specialized jobs such as a workaday ride on a marine department tugboat were included.
Technological improvements of the day were always well described. The Grand Central signal stations were such an interesting subject that a film was made about them and shown in theaters. “Q” telegraph office in New York was the wire communications center for 13,000 miles of railroad. An experimental freight accounting system was initiated at Utica and was extended system-wide. Locomotive “boosters” to increase traction power were a New York Central invention. The electric baggage trucks in use at Grand Central were a big deal in their day. There were 51 in use by 1921. They weighed 3000 lbs. and could carry 4000 lbs. One of them had 17,000 miles on it. They could go 4-6 mph and get about 15 miles on a battery charge. Even the advent of loud speaking phones to replace telegraphs were covered. The Shay-geared engines on New York’s West Side were important because their quiet sound did not spook the horse that “guided” the train down city streets. The big news in 1924 was that “20th Century” passengers were able to listen to the election results via such historic radio stations as WEAF, WGY and KDKA.
Articles taken from other railroads were also included. For instance, there was a D&H Bulletin story on employee passes. It cautioned employees to give seats to paying customers.
Advertisements in the magazine were numerous and interesting. Every issue contained ads for the Bowman Hotels on Pershing Square (Belmont; Biltmore; Commodore and proposed Murray Hill). The Commodore (the Grand Hyatt is there now) offered 2000 rooms and 2000 baths with circulating ice water in the rooms. Many businesses still in existence advertised: Cushing Stone Co. (Schenectady and South Amsterdam); and the New York State National Bank of Albany (later State Bank of Albany now Norstar Bank). Others are not: First National Bank of Utica; Union News Company; and Albany Hardware and Iron Co. (39-43 State Street). The Johns-Manville Co. of New York advertised that “asbestos saves in the home”. The Utica Uniform Company sold its “UTUNCO” uniforms “within sight of the station”. GRS Products of Albany (a subsidiary of General Railway Signal Co.) advertised the “best clothes washer built”. Another faithful advertiser was the Crow Hollow Coal Co. Spring featured ads on where to spend the summer. Perhaps the Adirondack Inn at Sacandaga or the Hotel Westminister at Alexandria Bay?
Of interest to me was how the railroad was paid. By 1920, there were 20,000 employees paid by check. In that year, William Ingraham replaced John L. Burdett as railroad paymaster. Ingraham retired in 1931 with 41 years service. At one time, Burdett supervised seven pay cars.
Plant additions received excellent coverage in the magazine, from a 1919 Cleveland freight house to a new engine terminal at Solvay (Syracuse). In this era, a new Cleveland Union Terminal, complete with electrification, was announced. The Michigan Central bridge at Niagara Gorge was built. This was actually owned by the Canadian Southern Railway Company (The New York Central’s Canadian affiliate). Although not a rail bridge, the Bear Mountain Bridge was built over the Hudson and River Divisions by the Terry & Tench Co., a Grand Central Office Building tenant. One of the biggest projects of this era was the Castleton Cutoff which would replace the grades and drawbridge at Albany with a high-level river crossing several miles south of Albany.
The Castleton Cutoff was not only a bridge (later named the A.H. Smith Memorial Bridge) but included the new yard at Selkirk which eventually replaced West Albany in importance. In 1924, A.H. Smith, the president of the New York Central, predicted a greater Albany. He expected Albany to grow to the Castleton Bridge. The bridge cost $25,000,000 and is 135 feet above the river. It consists of a 600 foot span and a 400 foot span. The bridge contains 23,000 tons of steel and 52,000 yards of concrete. The bridge, and 28 miles of track owned by affiliate Hudson River Connecting Railroad, connected the Boston & Albany, Hudson Division and West Shore (River Division) with the Mohawk Division. The new yard at Selkirk had 250 miles of track connected by 430 switches and served by 2 roundhouses. The opening ceremonies were attended by a large crowd including the Van Sweringen brothers who owned the Nickel Plate, W.H. Truesdale of the Lackawanna. William K. and Harold Vanderbilt, Mayor Hackett of Albany and New York Lt. Governor Lunn.
The period in the history of the New York Central from the middle of the Nineteen Twenties until the Great Depression was one of great change. This period can be seen in depth in the “New York Central Lines” magazine (of which the Mohawk & Hudson Chapter of the NRHS had an almost-complete collection).
During this period the “Southwestern Limited” began all-Pullman service to St. Louis. This service was advertised as “just like the 20th Century”. Leaving New York at 4:45 p.m., it arrived in St. Louis at 5 p.m. the next day. Also initiated in this period was the “Northern New Yorker” to Massena. Its importance to the North Country was described by Professor R.C. Ellsworth of St. Lawrence University. In 1931, the time from New York City to Lake Placid was cut by 50 minutes.
The recently-opened Selkirk rail yard was the center of much attention. A railroad “Y” (YMCA) was built which had 113 rooms. The yard was lit by giant floodlights manufactured by General Electric. The ‘centerfold’ of one issue of the magazine was an air photo by Major Hamilton Maxwell.
Maxwell’s air photos appeared on a regular basis and included: Grand Central; progress on the Castleton cutoff; Oswego; Lake Placid; the west side rail yards in New York; and the West Albany shops.
Many other interesting and now-historic photos appeared in the magazine, often accompanied by an article. The Schenectady, Troy and Albany stations, both old and new, were covered. The tugboat “Albany” is shown being placed in service. A late 1800’s picture showed where the New York Central and New Haven crossed at Boston Corner, NY. There is a picture of the power plant which served West Albany from 1861 to 1906. Like any other employee-oriented magazine, group photos were popular. For instance, all the painters and steel fabricators at West Albany paused for a photograph in 1931. Also included were important people such as Company officers or Charles H. Hogan, famous for setting a speed record on the “Empire State Express” who by the 1920’s had become manager of shop labor at Buffalo. Another favorite topic was “where steam meets electric” at Harmon.
This was the era of the gas cars designed to replace steam trains on branch lines. The New York Central purchased 7 Brill 175 h.p. cars which were used: Niagara Falls-Lockport; Lake Mahopac-Golden’s Bridge on the Putnam; Batavia-Canandaigua; Lyons-Corning; Cape Vincent-Watertown on the St. Lawrence; Ogdensburg-Dekalb also on the St. Lawrence; and Keating-Irvona in the coal district. Later they were also used between Utica and Ravenna.
The new Cleveland Union Terminal opened. It had 22 electric locomotives so that steam did not have to enter the underground terminal which also served the Nickel Plate, Erie, B&O and Wheeling & Lake Erie. Many smaller stations such as Brewster opened during this period. $20 million was spent for the new Buffalo terminal. The Big Four Riverside Yards at Cincinnati were rebuilt.
The magazine contained some entertainment as well. There was a story almost every month written by George H. Wooding who was a towerman in Ghent, NY. It was labeled “a series of merry minglings of fact and fable, chiefly along the Harlem Division but just as interesting to the folks all along the main line”.
One man who’s name appeared constantly throughout the period was Gerard Van Tassell. He had been long-time Superintendent of the Harlem and Putnam Divisions and was appointed Assistant General Superintendent of the railroad in 1926. When the Putnam-Harlem baseball team defeated Albany, he was given a cup by his employees in appreciation of his leadership. He was highly regarded as a superintendent and many a man who might have otherwise been fired became a highly valued employee. He died in 1931.
Another name appearing frequently in the magazine was Lt. Col. Hiram W. Taylor (“Hi” Taylor). He was appointed Supervisor of Athletics in 1922. He had been a division paymaster and was known personally to most New York Central employees. He had served with honor in the First World War and remained a National Guard officer. His sports programs included a baseball “world series” pitting the Line East champions against the Line West champions with the winners being given a New York City harbor tour on a railroad tugboat or other similar trips. The Albany baseball league of 1930 contained six teams: car shop; locomotive shop; Mohawk Division; Albany Division; Rensselaer; and Selkirk. Taylor formed very competitive bowling leagues and golf matches. In 1925, Albany, the New York Central champions, played baseball against the Pennsylvania RR champions at the D&H field in Colonie before 10,000 spectators. A big activity of the day were sports smokers held by the various New York Central athletic associations. A typical smoker held in the West Albany YMCA featured four boxing bouts.
One article described a “typical” day at Grand Central Terminal: (1) A special train from Vassar College arrives just before a holiday. All the girls were greeted at the station or else found their destinations except for one who was helped by Traveler’s Aid. (2) A political candidate is escorted through the terminal by the Stationmaster. (3) Several immigrants wait for their train, sitting quietly together eating dark bread. (4) A high school team is going off to play a championship game in Chicago and is sent away by a large crowd of students. (5) A group of convicts changing prisons is escorted uneventfully through the station in handcuffs. (6) Boy Scouts bound for a “jamboree” are met at the station by other scouts. (7) All the Red Caps in the station run to meet the “20th Century”.
Equipment orders always received good coverage in the magazine. In 1925, the railroad placed an order with General Electric for seven “Q” class electric switchers and two “R” class electric freight locomotives. Alco built a new rotary snowplow for $50,000 for use on the St. Lawrence Division. In 1927, 25 new 2-8-4 locomotives were built by Lima for the Boston & Albany and 20 more were ordered. In 1928, gas/electric/battery locomotives were ordered for use on the West Side Freight Line as well as new cars for the “20th Century Limited”. Freight electrics were used above 60th Street and the 3-power units below 60th Street. In 1929, six new dining cars for the “Century” were received. Their interiors were done in pastel colors, had new style chairs and lights, double windows and weighed 86 tons. A new oil-electric was also received and saw service on the Harlem.
Being an employee magazine, it contained articles of local interest to employees along the railroad as well as articles of interest to their families. There was a “woman’s page” with sewing and cooking hints, a cartoon for the kids, and an idea for building a house. For instance, one article described an attractive cement house for a small family and offered copies of blueprints for a nominal amount. Camp Undercliff in Lake Placid was available to employees for $17-$25 per week. It was owned by the New York Central Veteran’s Association. Projects for the welfare of employees such as a new seven room emergency hospital in West Albany were well covered. Also popular were such articles as how to build a radio amplifier.
The New York Central police force was always a topic of articles. Its first chief (Humphrey) retired in 1919 and had served with Teddy Roosevelt. The police were referred to as the men who see you without being seen.
As part of the West Side Improvement Project, St. John’s Park Station was abandoned and the statue of Commodore Vanderbilt was moved to Grand Central. It is 17 feet high and shows the old gentleman in an overcoat without a hat.
During this period Daniel Brady died. He was the brother of “Diamond Jim” and worked for the New York Central between 1871 and 1880. He was the founder of Brady Brass. George A. Harwood died in 1926 at age 52. He was a Tufts graduate who began railroad service in 1900. In 1906 he was placed in charge of electric improvement and is credited with completing the construction of Grand Central that William Wilgus had started. Chauncey Depew died in 1928. He was a Yale graduate of 1856. He was buried in Peekskill. In his honor, the huge concourse of Grand Central Terminal was draped in mourning.
Railroad accomplishments and growth were, of course, given prominent coverage. The railroad’s centennial in 1926 featured a parade of locomotives. Mayor Thatcher of Albany presented a plaque and there were celebrations in Schenectady. In the same year, the 75th anniversary of New York to Albany trains saw Dan Sullivan carrying messages between Mayor Thatcher and Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York. Each day the New York Central had $1,725,000 in receipts, $810,000 in wages and $111,000 in taxes. It carried 35,000 tons of coal and 231,000 passengers. New trainboards at Grand Central Terminal were installed in this period. In 1929, the New York Central and Chesapeake & Ohio jointly acquired the 29-mile Nicholas, Fayette & Greenbrier RR which served the Kanawha coal district of West Virginia. In that year, the “20th Century” ran in seven sections and carried 822 passengers Chicago to New York City as well as 64 to Boston. The Falls Road was double tracked between Rochester and Suspension Bridge with 105-lb. rail. Breakneck Tunnel near Garrison was enlarged. The Yonkers Branch was electrified in 1926 (only to be abandoned a few short years later). The “Empire State Express” was the fastest scheduled passenger run in the world. Reverse block signaling was introduced between Mott Haven and Grand Central. This advance allowed two trains to run where one did. In 1929, the railroad requested Federal Radio Commission permission to use 2-way radios on freights.
Unusual happenings along the railroad were the source of many articles. A waiter saved a man hanging on the outside of a train in Schenectady. He was late for the train and grabbed a door rail as it headed west from Schenectady station. The waiter pulled him inside just before he would have hit the Erie Boulevard bridge. In 1924 several gondola loads of snow were sent from Thendara on the Adirondack Division to Briarcliff for a ski show. In a switch from today, an engineer’s widow received $50,000 from a trucker who ran into a train. One article covered the art gallery which was once in Grand Central as “the only art gallery in the world containing a railroad station”. Another article described the magic tricks performed by Arthur French. In real life, he was a brakeman on the “Southwestern Limited”. One large snowstorm required 200 locomotives to clean it up.