NY Central Lines 1925-1931

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.