NY Central Lines 1919-1925

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. Ken Knapp followed. He paid the railroad during WW2 when the number of employees topped 100,000. But by then the paycars were all replaced by checks!

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.