[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

Alvin F. Harlow

Creative Age Press, Inc.,
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p407  Chapter XIX
Twentieth Century

Henry Clews was opposed to monopolies. He said so publicly and in his book, Twenty-Eight Years in Wall Street, published in 1887. But of the New York Central lines he said:

I regard the Vanderbilt property, however, in the light of a great trust, the four young men​1 above referred to, with Chauncey M. Depew as trustees, and I question very much if that eminent team of honest and able reformers, Henry George and the Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn, with other minor lights of the Anti-Poverty Society, could administer that trust with greater benefit to the public, nor could they employ a greater army of well-paid, easy-worked and well-fed men by any State or national supervision or management, or by breaking up a great corporation into a hundred or so small companies.

The Vanderbilt system employs 200,000 people at better wages than they can obtain elsewhere, any place in the world. It pays over $150 an hour for taxes. The State is paid over $1 for every $2.70 received by the stockholders.

And the proportion it paid then was a mere pin-prick compared with what it pays today. Mr. Clews' words may appear a bit excessive, but they had their points. The Vanderbilt lines had become a national institution. Largely through the genius of this family, plus that of their predecessors and contemporaries who built the four great systems (and several smaller ones) that went into it, the New York Central & Hudson River had become a 10,000‑mile organism binding eleven of the busiest States of the Union (containing more than half its population)  p409 and two provinces of Canada in a steel web which extended from the Atlantic seaboard to the great interior valley, its waterways and westbound rails. That area makes 64 percent of the manufactured products of the nation and mines three-quarters of its coal.

About 1890, a pudgy, chin-whiskered passenger agent named George H. Daniels, perhaps the topmost of all that fraternity, pinned on New York Central & Hudson River (including all its dependencies, of course) the vaunt, "America's Greatest Railroad." One or two other concerns in the same business writhed under the indignity, but they could do nothing about it. He had beaten them to the slogan; and it is notorious that a first impression well broadcast can never be successfully confuted or even quite overtaken.

[image ALT: Individual photographs of nine men in 19c dress, most of them middle-aged or older. Two are clean-shaven, one wears a mustache, three wear beards, and three wear full beards and mustaches. They are presidents of various railroad companies.]

Recent Executives and a Passenger Agent

Chauncey M. Depew

George H. Daniels, GPA

S. R. Callaway

William H. Newman

William C. Brown

Alfred H. Smith

Patrick E. Crowley

F. E. Williamson

Gustav Metzman

Daniels has left upon the New York Central and indeed upon the railroads of the nation imprints of his genius which appear to be indelible. He originated the now nation-wide redcap service in 1896, as is proven by one of the first advertisements of it, which we reproduce. He made it free to the passenger at the beginning; but Americans, with their growing mania for tipping, have changed all that. The copiously illustrated books which Daniels published, advertising resorts, historic and beauty spots on the New York Central, grew to be encyclopedic; Health and Pleasure on America's Greatest Railroad, edition of 1896, had 532 pages. A mere glance at it brings tears gushing from the eyes of publicity and advertising men in this day of high cost and no paper. Daniels founded a handsome and interesting magazine, The Four-Track News, which was far from being all about the railroad. He took over the dining car and depot lunch-room service and improved that. But his greatest achievements for the New York Central were the fast and fancy trains which he originated.
[image ALT: A poster or print advertisement titled 'Free Attendant Service' with the following additional text: 'at Grand Central Station N. Y. Ask the man with the RED CAP to carry your bag and show you to your Cab, Car, or Elevated Train. This service is FREE, the New York Central pays him for it.' The text surrounds a woodcut of a man with a bowler hat at the top of the steps of a rail passenger car, the railing of which is of ornately decorated grillwork, a woman standing below him on the first step and preparing to step off the train; their bags are on the platform, and a uniformed man, wearing a cap, holds their baby. It is an advertisement of Red Cap service in 1896.]

First advertisement of Red Cap service, 1896. Just try the lower line on your Red Cap today!

In October, 1891, he launched the Empire State Express, a fine day-train between New York and Buffalo, primarily designed to take the pressure of New York state travel off the Chicago Limited, which left New York fairly early in the morning. The Empire made a test run from New York to Buffalo at the rate of 61.4 miles an hour, including stops. Of course it was not expected that it would be scheduled to run that fast; the test merely showed what could be done, and it was a record-breaking performance in its day. The train had only four cars at the start — a combination café-coach, two day coaches and a parlor  p410 car. Officials were doubtful of its success at the start, but it proved enormously popular, and was called upon steadily to increase its length.

Now the great Columbian Exposition at Chicago was approaching, the first of our big World's Fairs since 1876, and other railroads in America and Europe were preparing new and better locomotives to be exhibited there. New York Central officials decided that they must have a flyer, too, and called upon their veteran superintendent of motive power and engine builder, William Buchanan, to design the finest and fastest machine yet seen on earth. And he did it; he produced 999, one of the most beautiful engines that ever sped the rails, whose fame still reverberates through sixty years of history. Her enormous driving wheels, towering seven feet, two inches in air,​2 were the most awe-inspiring thing about her, and yet she seemed symmetrical.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Locomotives of Yesteryear
Top — Indiana, Bloomington & Western.
Center — Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis & Chicago — the original Big Four.
Bottom — The immortal 999.

After some preliminary runs, Engineer Charles H. Hogan was given the chore on May 10, 1893, of testing 999. He drove her from Syracuse to Buffalo, with experts sitting in the cars behind him, stop-watches in hand. The Empire, which she was pulling, was a few minutes late out of Syracuse, but from there to Batavia, Hogan did not force the tempo. Between Batavia and Buffalo, however, 36 miles of nearly straight, level track was his chosen speedway. The men back in the train stared at their watches in amazement as the landscape flew by, faster and faster. A mile in 42 seconds, one in 41 seconds, one in 38, and then one in 31.2 seconds — a rate of 112½ miles an hour! No locomotive had ever moved so fast before.

The story was trumpeted from ocean to ocean, and even abroad. The Queen of the Rails was promptly cleaned up and sent to the Chicago exposition, where she was one of the chief attractions of the big show.3

But 999 was, after all, mostly an exhibitionist. She had speed but not pulling power; and the late Engineer Bob Butterfield,  p411 Hogan's successor at her throttle, told the writer that she was hard to start because her pistons were fastened so close to the centers of those huge driving wheels. They were replaced by smaller ones, but still she hadn't the power. She sank from fast company and was at one time reduced to the ignominy of pulling a milk train. She would have been scrapped had not some historically minded person in Central officialdom recognized her value as a museum piece and stowed her away, to be trotted out on special occasions.

That great fair of 1893 brought forth another fast train, the Exposition Flyer, which, during the late summer and fall, skimmed over the road between New York and Chicago in the incredible time of 20 hours. It was withdrawn after the close of the fair, as it was thought that in ordinary times there would not be enough travel to justify the expense of so fast and so luxurious a train. How we have grown since then! But that train deserves mention because it was the precursor of the Twentieth Century Limited, the Commodore Vanderbilt and other flyers of today.

The Central added one more strand to its web in 1894. In Steelways of New England, we have told of the teapot wars over the little road from New York up to Brewster, 52 miles, between the Harlem and the Hudson River divisions. It was first projected in 1869 as a part of the New York & Boston, then sought as an entrance to New York by the New York & New England, its predecessors and successors changing its name finally to New York & Northern and taking over a little branch to Yonkers in 1880. During the manipulations of A. A. McLeod, the Reading firebrand, who was trying to push his system into New England, it became such a menace that the New York Central decided to gather it in. When it bought stock control, McLeod tried to get a charter for yet another parallel road into New York, but in a hot battle before the New York State Railroad Commissioner, he was defeated. Under foreclosure, et New York & Northern was sold at high noon, December 28, 1893, in the railroad station at Yonkers.

J. Pierpont Morgan, spoken of as "the confidential broker of the Vanderbilts," Judge Ashbel Green, NYC counsel, and others journeyed up to Yonkers in a special car, and according to the Yonkers Herald, "Before the sale, Mr. Morgan sat in the offices just off the waiting room and smoked fragrant cigars, as if he was only going to buy a corner lot." The sale opened, Morgan bid  p412 $1,000,000, the property was knocked down to him within a minute, he wrote a check for $100,000, ten percent of the purchase price, and all was over.

Great changes came to the Central around the turn of the century. A remodelled Grand Central Station, the old one worked over and built a little higher, appeared, though the officials knew it was only a stop-gap, and that a bigger and better one must come soon. Chauncey Depew retired as president in 1898, supplanted Cornelius Vanderbilt (whose health was failing) as chairman of the board, and served in that capacity through an amazing thirty years more, until his death at 93. Samuel R. Callaway, a Lake Shore graduate, became the Central president.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Grand Central Station yardmaster, switch tower and dispatcher, as seen by Leslie's Weekly in 1889.

In September, 1899, Cornelius Vanderbilt died, and the cortege at his funeral at St. Bartholomew's Church was a veritable Who's Who in Railroading. Reporters tried to picture them all — "President William Bliss of the Boston & Albany, phlegmatic, massive, suggesting a Scotch rather than a Yankee type; President Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ledyard of the Michigan Central, with the face of a poet, the manner of a dreamer, a philosopher" — and how the explosive Ledyard's fellow-workers would have gasped to read that! — and so on through the list. Bliss's presence was significant, for it was only a few months later when the Boston & Albany became a part of the New York Central. Then Callaway resigned in 1901 to become president of that new great combination, the American Locomotive Company, and William H. Newman, another Lake Shore alumnus, took his place.

Under Newman great physical changes and advances took place. His chief engineer, General William J. Wilgus, left new and heavier track — the first six-inch, 100‑pound rail made in the United States began to be laid on the Central in 1902 — straightened curves and reduced grades. Also in Newman's incumbency, two of the great events in the modern history of the New York Central took place. The first of these was not his doing as much as it was that of the ingenious George H. Daniels. This was nothing less than the creation of the world's most famous train, the Twentieth Century Limited. When it was announced in 1902 that a train known as the Twentieth Century (the word "Limited" was added five days after the train's first trip) would operate the year around, winter and summer, between New York and Chicago in 20 hours, British journalists were skeptical. Said one:

 p413  Surely it is only an experiment. . . . Can so high a rate of speed as will be necessary to accomplish the feat be maintained daily without injury to the engine, the rails and the coaches? The operators will soon find that they are wasting fortunes in keeping their property in condition, and then, loving money better than notoriety, the twenty-hour project will be abandoned.

But Central executives had passed the novice stage. They remembered what the Exposition Flyer had done in 1893, and in 1895 they ran a test train from Chicago to Buffalo, 525 miles, at the rate of 65.07 miles an hour. They had new locomotives known as Central Atlantics which could accomplish the speed. When the first Century left New York on June 15, 1902, it carried only three Pullman sleepers, a buffet and a diner, but Daniels had given it also a barber shop, valet, maids, stenographer, electric lights with current generated from the axle, then a comparatively new thing. Even the Lake Shore Limited had to get along with lights from a dynamo in the baggage car. The Century served a table d'hote meal for a dollar. There were only twenty-seven passengers aboard on the first trip. One of them was John W. (Bet-a‑Million) Gates, the steel and oil tycoon, who told reporters at the Grand Central Station that the train "makes Chicago a suburb of New York." Interviewed as he stepped off in Chicago, the diplomat beamed at the scribes over his cigar and said, "It makes New York a suburb of Chicago."

[image ALT: missingALT.]

The Twentieth Century Limited.

Those Atlantic engines of the 2900 series which drew the first train cost between $15,000 and $16,000, and the whole train $115,000. Twenty years later someone remarked that the cost of the cars had more than doubled, and of the locomotive had almost quadrupled. Today the figures are astronomical. One Pullman costs as much as that whole train of 1902. One five-car train could do the business then, but in recent years there have been times when the Century had to run in six or seven sections of twelve to fourteen cars each. Just one of those sections, at present-day prices, may now represent an outlay of nearly two million dollars!

Running time and locomotive power also show the trend. In 1905, with new equipment, the time was lowered to eighteen hours. But it was difficult to make this schedule practical, and for several years the time wavered back and forth between eighteen and nineteen and one-half hours. Finally, in 1912, the Century and its twin competitor on the Pennsylvania, both gave up  p414 and went back to twenty hours. But the public was crying, "Faster! Faster!' and the engine designers were doing what they could. The Hudson or 5200 series of locomotives was produced, and in 1932 the Century again became an eighteen-hour train. Three years later this was cut to sixteen hours and thirty minutes. Then in '37 the 5400's, the super-Hudsons, appeared, and a new Twentieth Century sped over the rails in sixteen hours, or a little better than a mile a minute for the whole 961‑mile course. World War II threw such a tremendous burden on the railroads that fast trains had to give ground to more prosaic traffic, and the Century during the war became a slower vehicle, but in the spring of 1946 it went back to sixteen hours again. On April 1, 1947, the time was pared once more, the eastbound Century doing the distance in fifteen and one-half hours. Meanwhile, keeping pace with the inexorable procession of progress, the Diesel locomotive, to the sorrow of all railroad fans and even of many officials and locomotive builders, has supplanted the grand old steamers, which in their dogged toil and struggle seemed so like man himself.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Modern Locomotives and a Car
Top to bottom — Super-Hudson, Mohawk, Niagara, and a 1947 day coach.

Another outgrowth of the reign of President Newman was a new, long-needed station in New York. The old one, with its crude, inadequate track approaches, befogged by its coal-burning locomotives, was becoming intolerable. There had been a number of collisions, sometimes with fatalities, in the part-open‑cut, part-tunnel area north of it, and when Newman came in, he and the executive committee decided that the whole clumsy disarrangement must cleaned out, down to the ground and under the ground, and a new plant installed. General​a William J. Wilgus and several others collaborated on the plans, and there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. You might traverse Manhattan streets for miles around it and never know that there was a railroad near by; for what used to be the train-shed and the storage yard are all under­ground now, in two levels; the huge terminal, with great hotels, office and apartment buildings and streets roaring with traffic are over its head.

Options were procured on land on both sides of Park Avenue, extending to Vanderbilt and Lexington, as far up as Fiftieth Street, as well as frontage on the west side of Park from Fiftieth to Fifty-second and from Fifty-fourth to Fifty-sixth. In 1903, workmen began wrecking the buildings along Lexington Avenue, including a hospital at Forty-second Street, which moved elsewhere. These buildings gone, they began digging and blasting, laying open a great eight-block gash up to Fiftieth Street, then  p415 reaching under the tracks in use, making slow progress because there was never so delicate a job.

The first requisite decided upon, the key of the plan, was that electricity must be the motive power; steam must disappear from the city. So third rails were installed on the existing tracks and on the new tracks being laid under them, and on December 13, 1906, the first electrically operated train, a suburban local, tooled out of Grand Central to High Bridge, which for a few years was the point of change from electric to steam engines. Six weeks later, Harlem and New Haven trains began to be electric as far as Wakefield, thirteen miles out of Grand Central. The electric engines on the main line finally began running to Harmon, 32.7 miles up the Hudson, and on the Harlem Division, to North White Plains, 24 miles.

As the workers dug caverns under the existing tracks, they laid new tracks and trains began using them. How they did it all without interrupting traffic is incomprehensible, but they did. More than 400 regular trains a day, and many more on holidays and special occasions, moved in and out of the terminal, with most passengers unaware that a modern miracle was being performed, making the labors of Hercules appear like mere thumb-twiddling.

On a part of the block between Vanderbilt, Madison, Forty-third and Forty-fourth, until recently a pasture where William H. Vanderbilt's Maud S. once grazed, a temporary building to house some of the necessary activities was built, while immediately adjoining it the Biltmore Hotel was being reared. The temporary station was on the east side of the tracks. When a few dozen of the under­ground tracks were ready, the Commodore's great train shed and the old station itself had to come down and be replaced by a new building, a bit more of a messy job for travelers, but accomplished — marvelously enough — with a minimum of inconvenience.

The new terminal which then arose upon the site was and is one of the world's handsomest and most efficient. There was no attempt at a skyscraper, as has become a fashion for stations in later years. The building is about eight stories in height at the Forty-second Street end, but its façade, by means of enormously tall windows, gives an impression of one lofty story set upon a low first story or basement. It is unique in another respect, too. Park Avenue, approaching it from the south, aims squarely at the center of it; but as it nears the building, the middle part of the  p416 street, for through traffic, rises, bridges over Forty-second Street, splits and runs around both sides of the building, northbound and southbound, on the roof above that first story, then bridges Forty-fifth Street and tunnels — two bridges and two tunnels — through the great New York Central office building, a skyscraper separate from the terminal, then glides down to earth again as it emerges from that building at Forty-sixth Street and continues in the Park Avenue stream of traffic.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Grand Central Station
Exterior, with the New York Central office building beyond.

The station itself is a city of shops clustering around the great concourse — into which you could put many a courthouse or city hall without its touching the vaulted ceiling (125 feet above the floor) on which the solar system is pictured, and which is unmarred by any supporting column. There is a great waiting room, there are several dining and lunch rooms and all the other conveniences necessary to a station, a motion picture theater, an under­ground as well as a surface taxicab terminal.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Grand Central Station
The Concourse.

No less than sixty-seven tracks serve those two levels, the locals using the lower story. Stairways are avoided by the use of easy ramps, even to the street. Three of the city's subways connect directly with the station. Most New Yorkers never learn all the byways of this anthill; you may, for example, walk through brightly lighted marble tunnels to the Biltmore, Roosevelt and Commodore Hotels, may cross under Forty-second Street to the Chanin Building, under Lexington Avenue to the Chrysler Building, and under Forty-fifth Street to the New York Central office building.

Both sides of Park Avenue for some blocks north from the station are lined with towering office and apartment buildings and hotels; and none of these buildings has any basements, for beneath them is a vast, two-story railroad yard. If you will look at the bases of those buildings, near the sidewalk, you will see an open crevice extending all the way around them. This means that they are carefully separated from the shell of sidewalk and street paving which compose Park Avenue and the cross-streets, so that the heavy, ceaseless traffic which thunders over them may not communicate any vibration to the buildings. Under that street, in the two great caverns, one below another, long trains glide in and out, to and from the far-flung termini of the system, and electric switch engines prowl hither and yon about their daily chores.

But here is one of the most curious facts of all. To be strictly accurate, the New York Central is just a tenant on the enormously  p417 valuable plot where the first Grand Central Depot was built more than three-quarters of a century ago. Officialdom thinks of the whole development up and down Park Avenue as Grand Central Terminal; but to the public the terminal is only that building where the trains arrive and leave — referred to in company offices as "the head-house," which to lay ears conveys a gruesome suggestion of a place of human execution or of deposit of the grisly relics of same. The New York & Harlem Railroad Company (we can spell it that way now, for the "a" was officially stricken out of its "Harlaem" in 1889) has always owned that plot of ground on which the "head-house" stands, and owns it yet; but as the New York Central in turn owns practically 95 percent of the $10,000,000 stock of the New York & Harlem, on which it has a 401‑year lease, there is would seem to be pretty firmly ensconced in its home. And by the way, go shopping for a share of Harlem stock today, and if you can discover one, you will find it held at but slightly under $300.

But the adjacent property which has been gathered into the great congeries shows an amazing mixture of owner­ships. The New York Central owns the ground upon which stand the Biltmore Hotel, the Graybar Building, the Grand Central Palace and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. (Incidentally, there was a big electric power station with tall chimneys on the site of the Waldorf when this work began. It is still near by, but it is 100 feet under­ground now.) Up Park Avenue, some of the plots on which big buildings stand are owned by the Central, some by the Harlem, and two are owned by the New York State Realty and Terminal Company — whose stock is entirely owned by the Central, which also owns the plot on which the Commodore Hotel stands. Four blacks of Vanderbilt Avenue, though open to public use, are really privately owned — some of it by the Harlem, some by the NYC. As for the New York Central Building, known as 230 Park Avenue — the thirty‑four-story structure crowned by a turret which at night becomes a jewelled lantern — the western third of the ground on which it stands is owned by the Harlem, the eastern third by the Central, the middle portion, covering the former Park Avenue, by the Harlem and Central jointly!

Mr. Newman resigned as president in 1909 to give all his time to the special job of completing the terminal, and was succeeded by William C. Brown, who resigned four years later because of increasing deafness. It was in his last year, 1913, that the absorption of the R. W. & O. and other roads, already mentioned,  p418 took place. Alfred H. Smith, the new president, took his seat on January 1, 1914, ushering in a momentous year and incumbency. For some time past, work had been going forward on a proposed merger of the Lake Shore and Central. It had proven to be an unexpectedly difficult task. To begin with, there were Lake Shore bond issues whose terms provided that amalgamation could not take place without the consent of 75 percent of their holders. Two years of high pressure salesman­ship were necessary to assure that. Also minority groups of stockholders fought the proposed union.

The Central at first offered 3.05 shares of stock of the new company which would result from the merger for each share of Lake Shore stock. A group headed by William A. Read, owning 15,000 shares, was in opposition, even taking the matter to court. Other, smaller groups had other ideas. Among those in opposition was the notorious Clarence H. Venner, described by the United States Railway Labor Board as "the well-known professional litigant," who actually amassed a competence out of suing and compromising or being bought off.​4 But he was comparatively a minor nuisance. The Read group finally agreed to settle at five shares of the new company for one of their Lake Shore stock, plus a reimbursement of their expenses during the battle, which amounted to $200,000 more. This was the highest price ever paid for Lake Shore stock. Holders of NYC & HR received only share for share. And so at last, at midnight on December 22, 1914, those two companies passed out of existence, along with the Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley & Pittsburgh, the Chicago, Indiana & Southern and others, and a new New York Central emerged. When it was all over, directors mopped their brows and decided not to try the same process on the Big Four and Michigan Central; for those two they would be content with leases — and these, for 99 years each, were signed on January 2, 1930.

Thus was brought into closer integration an area of which  p419 Graham Hutton in his Midwest at Noon (a tour de force in understanding by an Englishman, recently published, which should be read by every American) says:

The greatest continuous region of industrial production and urbanization in the world, only a hundred miles deep on the average, now runs from a little north of Milwaukee through Chicago, around Lake Michigan, across to Detroit and as far as Buffalo in the north and Pittsburgh in the south. That is where the greatest absolute expansion of American industrial capacity of all kinds has occurred.

That region is the particular province of the New York Central Railroad and its leased lines; and that region goes far towards explaining why the New York Central Railroad carries more freight than all the railroads of France and Great Britain combined. It has been remarked that Detroit is to the Central what Pittsburgh is to the Pennsylvania Railroad — though the Central enters Pittsburgh, too, by the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie. Fancy, then, how the automobile strike — to mention only one of those which tortured the nation's economy while this manuscript was under way — must have hurt!5

The other great achievement of the Smith regime was the building of the $25,000,000 Castleton Cutoff, including the bridge bearing Mr. Smith's name, across the Hudson ten miles below Albany, by which through freight trains bypass that city and the westward grade out of it.

During World War I, it will be remembered, the railroads were taken over by the government, and William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., served for one year as president of the New York Central, while Mr. Smith was in government service as regional chief of the railroads in the entire northeastern section of the country. The war was but little past when William K. Vanderbilt, Sr., died in 1920 at the age of 70. He has been blamed for permitting an infiltration by the Rockefeller-Stillman-Morgan interests in the early  p420 years of the century which made them for some time the dominant force in New York Central affairs. There was even talk at that time of welding the New York Central, the Chicago & Northwestern (in which the Vanderbilts still have a large interest) and the Union Pacific into one great transcontinental system, but this did not eventuate.

The Vanderbilt family continued to be the largest stockholders in the Central and dependent companies, and for many years William K., Jr., and Harold S. Vanderbilt, sons of the elder William K., were directors and executive committee members. The death of the former in 1944 left Harold S., a worthy son of a great race, as its only active representative. He is still a zealous and able director and member of the executive committee. The name of Vanderbilt is cut too deeply in the structure of the New York Central ever to be erased.

The heroic-size statue of the Commodore, removed from the downtown freight house to stand in front of the Grand Central station, looks down Park Avenue, where once came his trains, drawn now by horses, now by steam. It could not be in a more appropriate place. Mutely and not immodestly it hints at the genius which made Forty-second Street the heart of New York, and which strung together a tissue of steel linking that heart with the Great Lakes, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

When the government relinquished control of the railroads in 1919 — leaving them in frightful condition, it may be added — A. H. Smith came back as president, but five years later, in March, 1924, he was killed by a fall from his horse while riding in Central Park. He was succeeded by Patrick E. Crowley, who held the position until the end of 1931, and was followed by Frederick E. Williamson. Ill health brought about Mr. Williamson's resignation in 1944 — he died only a few weeks later — and he was succeeded by Gustav Metzman, who had come from the Middle West to the job in the midst of the harrowing conditions of a World War, and who is still in office as this is written.

During those administrations between the two wars, the business of the Central had grown enormously, but so had the competition. Air travel had been given a great stimulus by the war, a widespread network of paved roads was spun across the country, and the motor vehicle, too, became a threat.

War seems to inoculate people with an itch to go places, and the prosperity of the 1920's made it possible for them to do so. The Central's fleet of fast trains grew apace, and as the menace  p421 of the automobile, bus and plane increased, so did the speed and luxury of the trains. Emerging from the second world conflict, President Metzman is confronted by similar conditions under still higher pressure.

The Empire State Express has become a glittering steel projectile in which there are day coaches of a luxury that would startle even the insatiable George H. Daniels, with a seat reserved for your own particular use, though at no extra cost. Leaving New York at 9 A.M., it speeds to Buffalo, splits there into two parts which flash away to Detroit and Cleveland, landing passengers at each place in time to sleep in hotel or home. At the other end of the road, a similar flyer, the Mercury, performs the same service between Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

The silver-steel Empire State Express.

But the Century and the Empire are by no means the NYC's only show trains. There are shoals of them; the Commodore Vanderbilt, for example, a seventeen-hour, all-Pullman, New York-Chicago speedster, which does not make a station stop between New York and Toledo, Ohio, and but for the Century's dominance, would be a world marvel. No less than thirty-five named trains streak to and fro each way daily over the New York-Chicago course or parts of it, some diverging to St. Louis; while others ply between Cleveland and St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati and Cincinnati and Chicago. All are air-conditioned, of course; that has long since become an ordinary but expensive requisite of fast train travel, and all are equipped with the latest types of mellow yet adequate lighting.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Modern Stations
1. Albany. 2 Detroit. 3. Buffalo. 4. Cleveland. 5. Syracuse. 6. Chicago.

Early in 1946, the Central announced a $56,000,000 order for new passenger cars, 720 of them, to be distributed among 52 trains, including the Century, which is to be completely rehabilitated. There will be greater luxury than ever before, including public address and telephone equipment, for announcing stations, calling attention to points of interest by the way, car-to‑car and train-to‑train communication, etc. It is to be hoped that they will not be tempted into offering soap operas and jazz "music" over them, else some of us will be driven to trying other forms of transportation. And these sybaritic vehicles, which the railroads are straining their exchequers to create in the hope of wooing travel away from plane and motor vehicle competition, make no other impression upon most people than a vague notion that the railroads must be making pots of money, to be able to afford such gorgeous equipment.

The summer of 1946 saw the inauguration of through sleeping  p422 car service to greater distances than ever before; New York to California, New York to Mexico. It was claimed that passengers never before passed through Chicago without being compelled to change trains; but we read in the Schenectady Evening Star of June 4, 1867, that "The first through train from Albany to Omaha passed through Schenectady this morning about 9 o'clock." That service, to be sure, did not last long; and the Boston Board of Trade excursion to California in 1870, traversing the Central and allied lines from New York to Chicago, was a private affair. Now the real through service has come, and the traveler need not leave his car unless he tires of it, between the Atlantic and the Pacific shores.

Not only into cars but into motive power are millions being poured; as this is written, the Central has sixty-six Diesel units on order.​6 Two and a half millions are to be spent in straightening a curve at Little Falls which will involve changing the course of the Mohawk River. A new station at Toledo is blueprinted and will be constructed as soon as materials are available; and in Chicago a great new Union Station is planned, which will eliminate several of the scattered ones that now pester the voyager though that city.

Some $650,000,000 of new funds invested in improvements since that first World War can be noticed only briefly. Among its fruits of which the public are unaware are bypasses, mostly for freight but for some passenger service, by which many trains avoid such cities as Albany, Schenectady, Syracuse, Buffalo and Cleveland;​7 splendid new terminals at Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland and elsewhere, and a share in the modernistic Cincinnati union station; West Side freight job in New York City by which, at a cost of $100,000,000, 13 miles of track sprawling down the middle of important avenues, was partly depressed, partly elevated, so as to run directly through many vast loft, warehouse  p423 and manufacturing buildings ending in the new St. John Park Terminal, which covers three city blocks.

Here it may be pertinent to mention the fact that the New York Central is the only railroad having freight tracks into Manhattan. As such it is one of the most important factors in the city's food supply, bringing in, among other things, 40 percent of its milk and cream. Through New York passes nearly half of the foreign commerce of the United States, and the New York Central handles one-quarter of this over its piers or on its harbor fleet of 300 vessels. At to end of the system, in Chicago, through the acquisition of the Chicago River & Indiana, the Chicago Junction Railroad and the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company, the Central controls some 226 miles of trackage and terminals within the Nation's greatest inland city, not to mention trackage of other lines.

The company has kept pace with science in all its advances towards greater efficiency and safety. Central traffic control, automatic signalling, train to train and caboose to cab radio are among today's wonders rapidly becoming commonplaces. The NYC has yards so huge that communication among their various parts is carried on by radio and pneumatic tubes. In these yards, retarder devices obviate the necessity for a human rider on every shunted car to brake it to a stop.

There are those who wonder where railroad managements draw their seemingly inexhaustible draughts of optimism. Their burdens have become pretty difficult to bear. There appears to be no understanding of their problems in state or national governmental halls, no appreciation on the part of either public or politicians of their services or their absolute essentiality in our national life. In fact, the politicians' only occasional attention to the railroads consists of more regulation, higher taxes, more favors for the unions. Someone made a count in 1938 and found that there were then 49 recognized regulatory commissions on railroads. How many citizens know that more than one-half of the railroads' income is now spent on wages and pensions? How many realize that if railroad taxes were eliminated, thousands of village and country schools would be shut?

Glamor counts for far more in the average human mind than sturdy, uncolorful labor; which explains why the iron highways have never received their share of credit for our victory in the latest world conflict. We think of the three arms of military service, army, navy and air, as having fought and won the war. But  p424 there is a fourth agency which deserves equal recognition with the others — namely, the railroads. Without them the other three could have gotten nowhere, the war could not have been waged by us. No other industry so prodigiously increased its effort and achievement, doing far more than ever before, and with the same or fewer hands. Well might the railroads wear the proudly humble, centuries-old motto of the Princes of Wales — "Ich Dien," "I serve." After the war they received some casual praise, a few official pats on back, but no easing of their burdens, no balancing of opportunity between them and those who live on them, as well as those they serve.

As far back as 1916, Otto H. Kahn commented in the World's Work upon the meanness of the government in compelling the railroads to accept grossly inadequate pay for carrying mail and parcels post. "If any large corporation," said he, "were to take advantage of its position and power as the Government does in this instance, it would not take the Federal Trade Commission long to denounce such practices and compel redress for the aggrieved party." On top of this, it has long been subsidizing the air mail, and is recently trying to attract business to it by reducing the rates to levels little above those on mail carried by train.

The public and legislative mind alike seems to think that the railroads are big and tough enough to be able to endure any amount of beating. This could conceivably prove to be erroneous. Public money has created and is still creating and fostering hurtful competition to the rails; and the taxpayers do not appear to realize that one element in their high taxes is the subsidizing of those forms of transportation which are thereby given unfair advantage over a private enterprise which played a leading role in the making of the nation, and which has never asked any subsidy, never asked anything but a fair chance to stand on its own feet and earn a decent profit.

Over publicly built and maintained paved roads, myriads of motor vehicles, carrying millions of dollars' worth of freight and passenger traffic, move in unending streams, paying fees for the privilege which are grossly inadequate by comparison with the taxes laid upon the railroads. Nor do they pay any local taxes which help to support city and county governments, as the rails do. In desperation, some of the railroads have been driven into fighting the devil with fire — using motor traffic of their own. The NYC has gone into this on a fairly extensive scale, especially in its Big Four territory. The government is now in the inland- p425 waterway barging business, but does not set any schedule of rates, merely saying with refreshing impudence that they will be 80 percent of those of the competing railroads. If they lose money, the taxpayers foot the bill.

As Mr. Metzman pointed out in 1944, the Grand Central Terminal property is assessed for taxing purpose at somewhere under $100,000,000, and the taxes on it range around $3,000,000; while over in Queens Borough, La Guardia Airport, built by the city at a cost of $50,000,000 (and now sinking into the muck of Flushing Bay), plus another, still bigger airport not yet completed, are tax free, and the subsidized air lines which use them pay rentals too low to liquidate the public investment. J. J. Pelley, president of the Association of American Railroads, said in an address a few months ago that if traffic were diverted to these other forms of transportation because of their superior service and lower real cost, there could be no objection on the part of the railroads:

But where the diversion is due to the fact that a major part of the cost of the competing service is borne by the taxpayers, who provide the waterways, airways and highways, rather than by those who use them commercially, there is valid ground for objection.

In the autumn of 1946, it was pointed out that since 1933, five wage increases to American railroad employees have been granted. "Fuel prices are up 117 percent and other supplies 86 percent. Yet freight rates today are lower than they were then; and the rate of return on investment has averaged only 2.75 percent, an amount pitifully inadequate to attract new capital." As these final words are being written, a slight rise in rate has been granted, which is still insufficient to give the companies the relief that they need. Yet they carry on, still hoping for better understanding.

We have but lightly sketched the picture of that vast organism known as New York Central. Within the compass of some 500 small pages, it is impossible to tell in all detail the story of 120 years, of 11,820 miles of track, of more than 650 charters and recharterings. Many episodes, many small lines can be touched only lightly or not touched at all. But so far as the author is aware, nothing vitally essential has been omitted.

It is a proud story this — of many beginnings by widely-scattered amateurs, small-town business and professional men, often  p426 with little more than their bare hands and the will to progress, of repeated failures and losses, of the replacing of those who fell broken in the first struggles by others with the indomitable spirit to carry on. Not all of them were saints, though it is not always easy to label the exceptions with the epithet, "robber barons," so lightly flung about nowadays by those who like to vilify the American past. It is a story of the genius of a family of great builders and executives who have written their name indelibly upon the history of New York City and of America. In the teeth of odds such as no line of big business has ever before encountered, the New York Central, along with its fellow carriers, faces the future with the same unshakable courage which inspired those who built it and made it what it is.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Happy are the feet of those who tread the crimson-and‑gray carpet in the Grand Central Station to the world's most famous train

The Author's Notes:

1 The four sons of the lately deceased William H. Vanderbilt. As we have said, two of them took no active part in railroading.

2 In various accounts, even in that of Edward Hungerford, who should know, if anybody does, the diameter of her drivers is given as 84 inches. But this writer has a distinct recollection that on the tablet beside her when she was exhibited at the Chicago Fair, their diameter was stated to be 86 inches. Whether this was accurate or not, he has no means of knowing.

3 Those who were fortunate enough to attend that most beautiful of all expositions will recall that not far off in the Transportation Building there was a big, handsome Big Four locomotive — still proudly flaunting the name Big Four — on a short portico track — a turntable, in fact — elevated above the heads of the crowd on a single, slender, central column.

4 He had his occasional backsets, as in one instance when he sued and was forced to post a bond for $50,000. He lost the suit after long-drawn‑out litigation, and was compelled to pay out most of his $50,000 in attorneys' fees and costs. He once sued August Belmont for libel, and Mr. Belmont set investigators at work compiling the Venner personal history, almost from the cradle. The unbeautiful story was published in a 155‑page book jestingly known in financial and legal circles as the "Belmont-Venner Bible." There are still a few copies of it in existence.

5 Not until the author had made a tour of the NYC system, had observed its industrial and realty agents at work and seen the numerous plants brought to each city by those men and their co-workers, did he realize how great is the railroad's part in building a city. Its functionaries have information on raw material sources, power rates, labor supply, etc.; they learn what sort of ground and location a manufacturer wants, seek out likely plots, dicker for the best possible prices, obtain options, and when the prospective buyer has selected one, clear the title, put through the sale and see that the plant gets the rail connections it desires.

6 There is a new steam giant, too, the Niagara, which — differing from the old freight hog of yesteryear, has not only terrific power, but high speed as well, and is therefore useful for passenger as well as freight service. Either it or the Mohawk type can pull the Pacemaker, a fast freight train, all charmingly gowned in crimson and gray, between New York and Buffalo, a goodly portion of the way at mile-a‑minute speed. One Niagara can take a train through from New York to Chicago without relief.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Pacemaker, the rose-and‑gray, mile-a‑minute freight train, here 75 cars long.

7 The flyers which do not stop at Cleveland whisk over the old track along the lake shore past the spot where the first station stood on piles a century ago, with the lake waves gnawing at the strand under it. Much through freight, however, passes over a course south of the city.

Thayer's Note:

a In 1903‑1907 when he designed the new Grand Central Station, fairly early in his career, William Wilgus (1865‑1949) was not a general, nor had he even ever yet seen military service: that would come only with World War I, when his railroad experience was put to use in France, and by 1918 he had risen to Deputy Director General of Transportation in the Allied Expeditionary Forces, in which capacity he earned high military decorations from both the United States and France. Wilgus chaired the advisory board of engineers for the rail tunnel under the Detroit River (1905‑1910) and was the author of detailed proposals to improve the Port of New York, incorporated into long-terms plans by the Port Authority although the plans themselves were never implemented. Wilgus wrote and translated a number of books and papers relating chiefly to rail transportation and its military uses, and would eventually serve as a technical adviser to the War Department at the beginning of World War II.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 25 Feb 13