To mix a cocktail of metaphors, the hands of the clock must now be turned back again to the early days of railroading, in order that we may pick up another thread of our story. New York City's first railroad venture seems a ridiculously petty affair by comparison with that of other cities. At the time when Boston was throwing out iron tentacles in three directions across New England, when Philadelphia and Baltimore were reaching westward towards goals beyond the Alleghenies, New York, then a city of 200,000, seemingly could think of nothing more important than a little iron pike to connect itself with Harlem, the suburb on the upper end of Manhattan Island. True, the metropolis was so beleaguered by water — what was regarded then as unbridgeable water, and some of it a formidable barrier to railroads even to the present moment — that she seemed to have little chance for rail connection with the outer world, save possibly to the north and northeast.
And so, on August 25, 1831, the State Legislature passed an act upon which Benjamin Bailey, Mordecai M. Noah (noted journalist), Benson McGowan, James B. Murray, Charles Henry Hall, Moses Henriques, Isaac Adriance, Thomas Addis Emmet, Gideon Lee, Silas E. Burrows, Samuel F. Halsey, Cornelius Harsen and Robert Stewart, "with such other persons as shall associate with them for that purpose, are constituted a body politic and corporate, by the name of the New York and Harlaem Railroad Company." The charter and early minutes made that the legal spelling of the name, so it remained for more than half a century, and so we must write it. The incorporators represented the various racial strains of seventeenth and eighteenth century New York business, including the Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, Scotch, Irish and Spanish and Portuguese Jews. They were empowered
p114 To construct a single or double track Rail Road or Way, from any point on the north bounds of twenty-third street to any point on the Harlaem river, between the east bounds of the third Avenue and the west bounds of eighth Avenue, with a branch to the Hudson River, between one hundred and twenty-fourth street and the north bounds of one hundred and twenty-ninth, to transport, take and carry property and persons upon the same, by the force and power of steam, of animals or of any mechanical or other power, or any combination of them, which the said Company may choose to employ.
The charter's life was fixed at thirty years, the capital stock at $350,000, in shares of fifty dollars each. It was quickly oversubscribed.
The company was organized with Campbell P. White, prominent merchant and member of Congress (1829‑35), as the first president. Benjamin Wright, Erie Canal genius, was appointed engineer, and expressed the opinion that "There is no question but the granite Rails are the best, for any line of Rail Road laid in paved Streets."
Granite and strap iron rail laid on New York & Harlaem track,
When the city's Common Council got around to putting its artistic touch on the job, the project assumed a different aspect, for the Council had thumbed its nose at several clauses in the charter. The state gave the company a •forty-foot right of way through the streets, the Council ordinance only •twenty-four feet. Under the ordinance, the city, whenever seized by the whim, could declare the railroad "an impediment or obstruction to the regulation of the city," and if the company did not provide a "remedy" within thirty days, might order it "rearranged" or removed and the street replaced at the company's expense. The ordinance reserved to the city the right to specify the sort of power to be used; the charter gave that choice to the company. The ordinance provided for seizure of the railroad's lands and reversion to public ownership if the company were dissolved or the road abandoned. In short, the company's tenure, according to the ordinance, was at the mercy of a flock of by no means upright politicians — for Tammany ruled New York.
The Harlaem directors asked eminent attorneys to decide whether it would be possible for them to go on with the project. The lawyers replied that although the city could accept or reject a charter as written, it could not amend it, as it was trying to do, or write a new charter. Some diplomacy was now required, for Tammany was so cocky that there were fears that it might even p115 defy the state. But President White had been an alderman himself for two years, and probably knew how to proceed. And one of the Harlaem directors, by the way, was Samuel Swartwout, Collector of the Port of New York, who, as an ardent supporter and personal pal of President Andrew Jackson, of course exercised great influence with the Hall.
Then and there began long decades of struggle of the New York & Harlaem Railroad for survival and prosperity under the constant menace of greedy and unscrupulous politicians — oft-times at Albany as well as in New York. The decent men to whom its care was committed — and they were numerous in its directorate and officialdom — must have gagged many times at the methods they were forced to use to protect their road and its stockholders. The off-the‑beam ordinance mentioned above was presently corrected, and whoever attended to the diplomacy did such a good job that the Council was soon ready to agree to the extension of the track down Fourth Avenue and the Bowery to Prince Street.
The company had acquired an office only a week before its first-earth-turning ceremony. In directors' meeting February 16 it was reported that
The Committee to procure a room report that that duty has been performed, that they have hired from Mr. Quesada a large and a small room over the City Bath in Chambers street, fronting the Alms House for the sum of $310 from this time to first of March, 1833, it has a separate entrance. They have also procured Table, Chairs, &c., and the room is now ready to occupy.
On February 23 they were ready to proceed with the publicity stunt, and they chose the most spectacular part of their course for it — the top of Murray Hill, where there must be a deep cut through rock. To call this breaking ground was not quite accurate, for workmen had already skimmed off the thin soil and spent many days in hand-drilling holes in the rock and filling them with black powder. The Courier and Enquirer of February 24, 1832, thus describes the scene:
Yesterday, pursuant to invitation, several members of the Corporation, visiters, engineers, contractors, &c., proceeded with the officers and directors of Harlaem Rail Road Company from their office in Chambers street in carriages to Murray Hill, on Fourth avenue, where the ceremony of breaking ground was to be performed. On their arrival at this elevated and commanding p116 spot, a number of citizens and persons engaged in the work had already assembled, the rock had been bored and thirteen blasts were exploded.
The company's president, Mr. White, being "at his post in Congress," Vice-president John Mason then addressed the assembled throng. He admitted that the project was elementally a local one, but pointed to its higher importance.
Connected, as it must be shortly, with a much greater work, embracing in its general outline the interests and convenience of at least one-half the population of this great state and the like interest and accomodation of our sister states, Connecticut and Massachusetts . . .
He repeated "most gratifying information" from Albany to the effect that there was a "strong and patriotic disposition" in the Legislature to encourage the building of the New York and Albany Railroad, "which is intended to commence where the present road terminates at the Harlem River."
The New York & Albany was a still shadowy project which p117 some enthusiasts had been mulling at for a year or two without getting anywhere. At that time few people dreamed of the possibility of such a road's following the bank of the Hudson River; practically everyone thought it must go northward through a series of valleys several miles east of the Hudson. In fact, the American Railroad Journal made it clear that they had no intention of competing with the Hudson River steamboats, which nearly everybody thought too strongly entrenched to fear any rivalry. The road would instead "open up a large agricultural and mineral area east of the river." The Harlaem promoters did not at the moment feel capable of undertaking the line to Albany, though they stood ready to aid it.
In March they ordered •"3 miles of iron rails" from England, and things really began to look up. On April 6, the state authorized the company to extend "along the fourth avenue to fourteenth street," and through such other streets as the mayor, aldermen and commonalty might prescribe — which practically took the bridle off, as far as Albany was concerned. But there was one restriction; "No carriage or vehicle shall be drawn or propelled by any other than horse power . . . south of fourteenth street." The company's capital stock limit was also raised to $500,000.
On April 17, the New York & Albany was chartered, with some names already familiar to us among its incorporators — Nicholas Fish, Samuel Swartwout, Benjamin Wright, David D. Field, two of the Hones, Lynde Catlin and others. Wright resigned from the Harlaem staff as engineer, in order to give his time to the new project, and the Harlaem directors handed him a parting gift of $500. But in November, finding that the N. Y. & A. couldn't seem to get under way, he came back to the Harlaem. The Albany company did not even try to sell stock until July 11, 1833, when it opened its subscription books at the Eagle Tavern in Albany; but there was no rush to buy shares.
The New York & Harlaem, though not intended as such, was really the beginning of street car service in New York City. Within a few years it was operating horse cars on various other streets than its main line, and even after 1900 we find it turning over franchises on certain streets to electric line companies. By the spring of 1832 the Council was in a mellow mood, most of the members now owning stock in the Harlaem — it was the only way to get along with them — and they were willing for the company to extend its tracks below Prince Street; in fact, they gave p118 it permission to do so, though that fact was kept secret for many months.
Through the summer and fall of 1832, track was being laid between Prince and Fourteenth Streets after Wright's idea — removing a strip of cobblestone pavement, digging a trench, setting stone piers •three feet deep in it at intervals of •eight feet and laying on them granite "rails" •eleven to thirteen inches square. These rails had upon their upper surface a groove •two inches wide and an inch and a quarter deep, to accommodate the car-wheel flanges. But an additional tread ran along the edge of this groove, an iron rail •an inch thick, bolted to the stone, the heads of the bolts being countersunk to prevent jolting. Like the Boston & Lowell and Mohawk & Hudson folks, builders learned by experience that solid stone wouldn't do for a rail foundation. North of Twenty-third and south of Prince Streets, the tracks were later laid on pine ties. But almost anywhere, those first rails stood from one to several inches above the street paving immediately adjoining them, making progress across them by other vehicles a crashing, teeth-jolting operation. No wonder opposition to the project quickly arose!
By mid-November there were two cars ready, but the track was not quite in final form. One of the cars was named in honor of John Mason, new president of the company, who had succeeded White when the latter retired in August.1 The American Railroad Journal said on November 17:
We were highly gratified on Wednesday last, as we were passing up the Bowery, with a view of the beautiful Cars of the Harlaem Railroad Company. We understand they were made by Miln Parker, coachmaker of this city. They are spacious and convenient, being divided into three distinct apartments, each amply large enough for eight, and can accommodate very conveniently ten persons — or twenty-four to thirty passengers inside; and when we saw them, there were at least an equal number upon and hanging around the outside, the whole drawn by two fine horses abreast, at the rate of •ten or twelve miles an hour. . . .
We have now a specimen of Railroads in a busy, bustling street, and it will, we trust, satisfy those who have been apprehensive of danger from their introduction, that they are far more safe to the pedestrian than hacks and stages, as they pursue a direct, forward course, and usually at a uniform velocity.
p119 The editor saw in the Harlaem "the first link in a long line of railroad" which would in the near future "connect this city with the far and fertile west."
The Journal's statement above contradicts the claim made by some that John Stephenson of New York built the Harlaem's first cars. Stephenson did construct some of the very early ones, evidently of the enlarged-stagecoach pattern just described; though Stephenson claims that his car seated thirty on the roof, which seems rather a tall story. They had leather thoroughbrace springs, wagon tongues, and foot-brakes operated from the driver's seat high in front, all after the manner of the old horse stages.
There is a curious item in the Commercial Advertiser, an anti-railroad paper, on November 14:
Harlaem Railroad. — There is to be a ride of •thirty rods on the Harlaem Rail-Road today, in the pleasure of which the Corporation is to participate. After the fatigues of the excursion, which, we believe, will be along the whole line that is completed, say from Spring street in the Bowery up to the Reservoir — over which, if the horses are fleet, it will take them nearly two minutes to pass — there is to be a grand Rail-Road dinner. It is expected that the stock will rise with every fresh bumper — but will fall to-morrow. Some of the buyers may fall to-night.
As we hear no more of this festivity, we can only surmise that the Commercial Advertiser may have been premature in setting the date, or that the grand opening was postponed — for it actually did not take place until the twenty-sixth. And when it did, the test could not be called a complete success, for the first street-car accident in history took place within the first two minutes of operation. The Mayor and Council, as well as some "strangers of distinction," came up from City Hall to be passengers on the first ride, along with the railroad officials. The city officials were assigned to the first car. The second followed close behind it. The journey began blithely:
The horses trotted off in handsome style, with great ease at •about twelve miles an hour. Crowds of spectators greeted the passage of the cars with shouts, and every window on the Bowery was filled.
At a prearranged signal, both cars were to stop quickly, to show how little danger there was of running over or colliding p120 with anything else. The signal was given by the vice-president, the driver on the first car threw on his brake and stopped abruptly. But the hack-driver who was tooling the second car, momentarily flustered, forgetting his brake, merely shouted "Whoa!" and reined in his horses. They, of course, could not stop the heavy car, and the point of the tongue crashed through the rear door of the one ahead. Some of the distinguished guests left the cars through the windows, and it was all very embarrassing.
During the winter the fact began to leak out that the Council in secret session on the previous May 2, had — even before the Legislature acted upon the question — granted the company the privilege of laying track down Broadway to Bowling Green, and then there was a storm! Giving over the Bowery to track was bad enough, but Broadway, the city's main street, and despite its name, narrower than any other north-and‑south street, was too much. A bill had been introduced into the Legislature to grant this privilege, and there ensued a war of pamphlets, editorials, mass meetings and political intrigue, such as New York had never before seen. Cartoons of 1830‑31 were revived, picturing crude locomotives crunching through crowds of people, killing and maiming. Maps were published, showing that the railroad was occupying more than its share of the street with its tracks; which the directors, "witnessing with surprise and regret the active efforts now making to prejudice the public mind against the enterprise committed to their care," had little difficulty in proving were exaggerated.
The antis, taking up the cause of "Cartmen, Porters, Milkmen, Bakers and all others who pass the public streets," alleged in a pamphlet that
Two carriages cannot pass in Broadway in any part exclusive of the Rail road; and the Bowery, exclusive of the Rail Road, is turned into a •30‑foot street in the widest part, and to an Alley of •9 feet in narrowest part. Where are the people to dump and saw their wood? How are carts to be backed up to unload? How are carriages to wait for ladies when shopping? What is to be done with snow off the side walks? Lastly, where is that portion of street devoted by law to Builders?
A Load of Hay or Straw, being •from 10 to 12 feet wide, how is it to pass at all if a train of Cars is to be continually passing up and down the Rail ways?
p121 And this was only the beginning. The uproar lasted for months, and the opposition was so vigorous that both Council and railroad company saw that invasion of Broadway wouldn't do, and so tacitly abandoned the idea.a Later the tracks went downtown by another route; but hostility to the Harlaem continued in varying degree for forty years thereafter.
A New York & Harlaem snow-plow, 1870.
On March 8, 1833:
The Vice President Reported that he had hired an office in the House No. 254 Bowery and had rented the same to Joseph B. Roe for same Rent, to wit, $250 pr. Ann. said Roe is to keep passenger tickets for the Cars for sale and the Company to pay said Roe Five pr. Cent Commission on all Tickets sold.
The directors were boasting that spring that they had "six good cars." The receipts from the previous November 26 to May 20 on the stretch of less than a mile between Prince and Fourteenth Streets had been $629.75. But on June 10 they opened the line to "the car-house near Sunfish Pond," that is, to Thirty-second Street, and in the following year they took in $7,327. Then the deep Murray Hill cutting was completed, and on May 1, 1834, they began operation to Eighty-fifth Street, Yorkville. The New York Farmer in June, '34, declared that the ride to Yorkville (fare "one bit," 12½ cents) was one of the most interesting in the city for either citizen or stranger. "At the termination of the ride is a spacious hotel on very elevated ground, affording one of the most extensive, varied and richest prospects to be seen in our country." This was Nowlan's Prospect Hall, and its elevation was often known as Observatory Hill — which was now giving directors and engineers some worry, for it would have to be tunneled. Tunnel-building was a new science in America then, only three small bores, all in Pennsylvania, having preceded this one. That stretch of •a little over two miles from Yorkville to Harlem was the toughest problem the builders had yet encountered.
Wooden viaduct between Observatory Hill tunnel and the Harlem River in the 1870's.
The fare between Prince and Forty-second Streets was 6¼ cents, beyond that 12½; but pupils of the Deaf and Dumb School at Fiftieth Street might ride all the way there from downtown for half a bit. Philanthropy played a large part in the nineteenth century transportation business.2 But financially the company was doing so well that in the spring of 1835 the vice-president reported that "there was at present laying in Bank a large sum p122 of money wholly unproductive," and suggested lending it at interest, which was done.
The Harlaem was involved — though innocently — in a scandalous episode that year; nothing less than the first corner in its stock. It was not a very big affair — nothing like those of thirty years later, but everything was on a smaller scale then. 'Thirty-five was a boom year in railroad shares, which were flying high and crazily. A clique of upstaters bought and forced Harlaem stock up to 190 in July, and then came the inevitable crackup. The public had no inkling of the inside story until Editor Bennett in the Herald repeated a bit of Wall Street gossip which he'd been hearing for some time past. He began his narrative in a playful way by saying that back in the early spring one official of the Commercial Bank of Albany said to another, "Why can't we maneuver in Wall Street as well as the best of them? I am cashier of the Commercial; it has a capital of $300,000, a circulation of $125,000 and specie in the vault, $18,584. We can if we choose corner some of these Wall Street brokers, and it ought to be tried, for the honor of Albany and to balance the losses on the Utica & Schenectady." So they picked Harlaem as a likely prospect, bought 8,000 shares, and all the funds they could lay hands on in Albany being exhausted, they negotiated a loan with a banking house in New York and picked up 2,000 more. Bennett suspected that the bank itself was back of the corner, but in this he was wrong.
He did not tell the whole story, but that article was the precipitate which brought the whole affair into the open. Henry Bartow was the Commercial Bank cashier, while the other official was one Webster, who, however, seems to have been involved only in a minor way. The whole affair wears an amateurish aspect, by comparison with later stock market operations. Involved with Bartow were two state senators, Isaac W. Bishop and John C. Kemble. They were all gambling, not only in Harlaem, but in Long Island, Utica & Schenectady, Rensselaer & Saratoga, Morris Canal, anything that looked good for a plane ride; and Bartow was cashing checks written by Bishop and Kemble, though they hadn't a dime on deposit in the bank. Of course, like all defaulters, they expected to make so much money that they could replace the embezzled funds, and no one would ever know of the trick.
But there was another phase. A bill was introduced in the Legislature early in April, providing for an increase in Harlaem p123 stock to $750,000, and a two-year extension of its time for completing the track. As was testified in a Senate investigation afterwards, "there was a great force here from New York" to lobby for the bill, the two leading figures being Sam Swartwout and Garrit Gilbert, prominent Tammany heeler and former Sachem. In fact, there were those who firmly believed that the bill was only a part of the plot to corner the stock.
A. H. Lovett, teller of the bank, later admitted to a Senate investigating committee that Bartow confided to him that Bishop and Kemble were going to "raise such objections to the bill as to blind the New-Yorkers until they (Bartow, Bishop and Kemble) got things to suit themselves, and then it should pass the Senate." Of course "the New-Yorkers" didn't include Swartwout and Gilbert; they knew what was what. It meant owners of the stock in New York, from whom the conspirators were buying shares all through April at 91 and 92. In pursuance of the agreement, Kemble rose in the Senate on the fifteenth, when the bill was brought up for the day, and said he couldn't imagine why such haste was being exhibited in the effort to pass this measure; he implied that an attempt was being made to shove it through without due consideration. He cast sundry sneers at the railroad, including one of that effect that it was a Jewish promotion. "Whether such were the facts, he could not pretend positively to affirm; but he believed there was some truth in them." Meeting an acquaintance named Schoolcraft on a Hudson River boat a day or two later, Kemble whispered in his ear that if he wanted to make some money, he ought to buy Harlaem shares. They were all so incredibly naive that they could not resist spilling their story all over the place.
By frenzied buying, they pushed the stock up, paying 118 to 163 for it in July. It actually touched 190 in one instance, and then came the crash. Bartow could no longer support it; he had practically swept the bank clean of funds, and the price dropped to 80. By some desperate means or other, he succeeded in concealing his defalcation for two months longer; the Herald article on September 18 brought about the long-delayed exposure, and Bartow very shortly thereafter fled to Canada, then a safe haven for defaulters, for there was as yet no extradition treaty.
Oh, yes, the bill was passed on April 18, and the company had $150,000 more in stock to sell, some of which even went into the hands of the Bartow clique at high figures and helped to break the corner. Business was good, and the directors felt so opulent p124 that in November they raised the president's salary to $3,000, the vice-president's to $500 and the secretary's to $1,500. Why, they had even raised the car-drivers' pay to $25 a month for a seven-day week! Locomotive builders were consulted, and there was talk of extending the line to Albany, Boston, even to the shores of the St. Lawrence.
That uptown tunnel was proving an expensive job. When it was first being discussed, a committee reported in September, 1834:
The question seems yet unsettled whether we shall pass the heights at Observatory Place by a deep cutting of •more than 52 feet through Solid Rock, or excavate a tunnel. . . . As a work of art, the latter would doubtless be more creditable to the Company — and as an object of curiosity, it would probably attract encouragement from the public.
After much argument pro and con, Art won, and the tunnel was ordered. They had at first contemplated a •920‑foot bore, then considered one of •582 feet as a money-saver. But again, publicity values intervened:
Your committee are apprehensive that by depriving the work of its magnitude, you will deprive it of its interest, and that a saving of 1700 dollars in expense may produce a diminution of more than that sum in the annual avails of the Road.
Much doubt appears to be entertained whether a Tunnel •16 feet high would prove sufficiently capacious to relieve passengers of the annoyance of the vapours of the Lamps by which the Tunnel must be lighted and from the smoke of the locomotive engine, if recourse should hereafter be had to that propelling power.
So they made the ceiling •two feet higher. Its final cost was $96,000, and it supplied an excellent excuse for a raise in capitalization in the spring of 1836 to $1,250,000. Those were flush times, and money was being flung about freely. It is curious, therefore, to find from President A. R. Lawrence's report on January 1, 1837, that the road was still using the old type of three-compartment cars, with eight "comfortable and spacious seats" in p125 each section, thus holding twenty-four passengers below, while sixteen more could be seated on the roof. The roof-riders climbed to their places by an iron ladder on the rear end, which was a nuisance to the driver, for boys stole rides on it, and he could only last at them wildly with his whip. Said Mr. Lawrence:
Although we are often compelled by the importunity of passengers to crowd in and upon such a car from 60 to 70, I shall confine the maximum to 40, which is the number we can comfortably seat.
He remarked that he had long since been authorized to buy two good locomotives, but was considering the relative merits of those of English and American make before buying. Several had been tested on the company's tracks between 1834 and '37 — one of them the creation of one of the company's mechanics — but none of them seemed satisfactory until the George Washington, built by Norris of Philadelphia, was exhibited, and then the directors decided in favor of American machines. Even after the first one was bought and delivered in 1837, Director Isaac Adriance wanted to discard it, but he was voted down.
There was a curious hodge-podge of service in 1837 as the tunnel neared completion. A stretch of track north of the tunnel and into Harlem Village had been built — though for a time even this was interrupted by an uncompleted viaduct at 102d Street — and Harlem passengers rode to the track-end, walked five or six blocks over the hill and paid sixpence to ride the rest of the way into their village. But on October 26 the road was finally opened, and the value of the Work of Art and Object of Curiosity was proven, for thousands paid fares just for the weird experience of riding behind trotting horses through the bowels of the hill. This pleasure was no doubt dimmed when the locomotives (two more were bought in '38) began to run through, and excursionists had to swallow smoke as well as the "vapours of the Lamps."
Considering the money spent, some critics thought the railroad should have been gold-plated. Newspapers in 1837 were figuring its cost at slightly more than $1,100,000, or $137,500 per mile, making it the most expensive highway so far in America. The directors in their 1845 report fixed the cost of the line in Manhattan at only $104,375 per mile, but that included the extension down to City Hall, which did not cost as much as the rock-work uptown; and the newspaper guesses were doubtless over-estimates, as might be expected. The American Railroad Journal p126 was of opinion that the company had overcome physical obstacles "unequalled by any road in this country or in Europe for the same distance."
The panic of 1837 hit the company hard; halcyon days were over, and the Harlaem never again knew prosperity — that is, never in its original incarnation. In addition to other things, it now had the New York & Albany to worry about; for in an amendment of the latter's charter in 1836, the Legislature had given it the right, "when they shall have completed not less than •30 miles of road in the County of Westchester," to enter upon "the island of New-York" and build along such lines "as they may deem most eligible." That was planting a time-bomb right in the Harlaem's front yard. The only pleasant aspect of the '37 panic was that it stunted the N. Y. & A.'s efforts to get under way. The two companies got together in 1838 and agreed to pool their interests, but actual consolidation did not take place until eight years later — during which time the N. Y. & A. continued to be a threat.
Notwithstanding the panic, the Harlaem labored to improve itself. The granite rails of the old track below Fourteenth Street were replaced that year with timber; they were racking the cars, and the noise the wheels made upon them could be heard for blocks. Some of the long stones were built into gutters, and some were used in the portals of the new tunnel created by roofing the deep cut through Murray Hill, which the Common Council didn't like. It was in 1837, too, that the company built offices and stables on the block between Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Streets, which presently became the southern terminal for locomotives, when large station buildings were erected there. Also during that year, the track was extended down the Bowery to Walker Street (now Canal), and they actually began discussing a waiting-room for passengers, either at Thirty-second or Forty-second Street. So far, passengers had had to wait on street corners in rain, snow, any kind of weather unless some friendly store or awning would shelter them until the cars came along. Finally, to accommodate the railroad, Fourth Avenue was ordered widened by •forty feet, from Thirty-Second Street to the Harlem River.
In 1838 new, much larger, one-compartment cars began to appear — mere ugly boxes on wheels. To Dickens who saw them three years later, they appeared as "great wooden arks." The Council gave permission that year for an extension of the track p127 from the Bowery through Broome Street to Centre, and down Centre to Chatham Street or Tryon Row, just above the City Hall. But there was no money in the till with which to build it. The company was in a serious condition that winter; there was a big floating debt, and officials were kept busy trying to stave off suits. In December, the directors pondered the suggestion of selling 1,200 shares at 50 cents on the dollar, to raise money for the construction of the City Hall extension. A director was sent to London to sell $400,000 worth of bonds, but found that news of a big drop in Harlaem stock had preceded him by one vessel. He brought the bonds back. The company gave up its Wall Street office early in '39, and for economy's sake moved headquarters into the constituent office at 77 Bowery. For some time they ceased the operation of the locomotives at 5 P.M., sending the last two trains, at 6 and 7 P.M., up to Harlem under horse-power, and bringing the first one down from Harlem at 8:30 in the morning, in the same way.
The directors could think of nothing but the old nostrum, another stock issue. In April, 1839, they were authorized to increase the capital to $1,950,000 — a pretty heavy load on a railroad only •eight miles long — and to issue mortgage bonds to the amount of the capital paid in, giving bondholders the right to convert the principal into stock if they chose, thus forecasting an ultimate, entire capitalization of no less than $3,900,000. The receipts that year were $99,811, the largest yet, but puny-looking by comparison with the enormous debt.
The company was now definitely planning greater things. Their rail-end was at "the Free Bridge over the Harlem" at 135th Street, Mr. Gouverneur Morris's highway to the city. Mr. Morris, son of the Revolutionary diplomat of the same name, was a great seigneur in what is now the Borough of the Bronx. On his estate the village of Morrisania had come into being, and in St. Ann's Churchyard there today, he and his father and grandfather, Lewis Morris, a Signer of the Declaration, lie buried.
Morris was vice-president of the New York & Albany Railroad corporation, which might be likened to that bit of chicken flesh being kept alive year after year at Rockefeller Institute by the Carrel-Lindbergh invention — technically living but inutile. Mr. Morris wanted a railroad past his domain to Albany, and he evidently saw that the N. Y. & A. was not going to build it. He may have been largely responsible for that agreement of February 28, 1840, signed by himself, Charles H. Hall, president of the p128 N. Y. & A., and Samuel R. Brooks, president of the New York & Harlaem, in which the latter company agreed to pay, in its own stock and bonds, all expenses which had been incurred by the N. Y. & A. for surveying, etc. It appears to have been understood that the Harlaem was going to take over the road-to‑Albany task; and in view of this, some of the later doings of the year are hard to puzzle out.
Once more a Harlaem delegation went up to the capitol on the hill, and on May 7, 1840, that company was given the privilege of adding another million to its capital, and of building a line from the Harlem River through Westchester County to intersect the line of the New York & Albany — which had never built a rod of track, mind you, and never would — and also to throw out a branch eastwardly to connect with the railroads in Connecticut. The law was a curiosity of confusion. It also declared that the New York & Harlaem "shall possess all the powers and be subject to all the restrictions that are contained in the several acts authorizing the construction of the New York & Albany Rail Road Company." In the face of all this, the N. Y. & A. shortly afterwards petitioned to be allowed to cross into Manhattan, and in November the Council voted to permit it to do so, "opposite the p129 Sixth or Seventh Avenue, and to extend their rails . . . to some point on the East or North River, in the business part of the city." The Harlaem directors thereupon drew up a remonstrance, which was unnecessary, for the N. Y. & A. once more relapsed into a state of suspended animation.
The Harlaem was now definitely committed to expansion. In that same year it celebrated, with a dinner at Nowlan's Prospect Hall, the completion of double track from the City Hall to the Harlem River, done "by individual enterprise, unaided by the funds of the State or Nation." To be sure, it had borrowed $300,000 from the state the year before, but it intended paying that back.
Construction began north of the Harlem River, and the track reached Fordham in 1841. (The fare to Fordham was set at a shilling, or "two bits.") No little stock was sold in Westchester County, now promised fast transportation, and this brought on the inevitable campaign of newspaper detraction: "We learn that this concern is making a desperate effort to construct their railroad up to Tuckahoe Factory, mainly by loans from Westchester, with the promise of extending to White Plains, and thus bubble up the stock." Another charge was that "The road is to be built in a makeshift manner, not in conformity to the advice of engineers of intelligence and capacity that have been consulted on the subject." But it should be said that there were other editors, such as the eminent Park Benjamin, who fought back in defense of the railroad.
When the extension northward began, the company ordered its first freight car; for up to that time it had been purely a passenger carrier. It also built a private car for President Brooks; but he became a bankrupt in 1842, and felt that he should resign his presidency. The directors pondered seriously the building of a branch to the Hudson River, opposite the terminus of the Erie at Piermont, to serve as a continuation of that road into the city, and had much correspondence with the Erie about it; but that road already had its eye on another route, then in process of creation via Paterson to Jersey City, and so the idea came to naught.
The Harlaem railhead reached Williamsbridge in 1842, Tuckahoe in July, 1844, and White Plains on December 1 following. They had authority now to continue either to the Hudson opposite Albany or to some railroad entering Albany — which of course meant the Western of Massachusetts, already completed. The Harlaem was at last learning to build track economically. The p130 report of 1845, admitting that the line in Manhattan had cost $104,375 per mile, reported the average cost from the Harlem River to Williamsbridge to be $38,475 per mile, and from Williamsbridge to White Plains $11,277. By 1846 the company really had something serious to fret over, for the Hudson River Railroad had begun construction from the west side of the city directly along the river bank to Albany; and when it got started, it went like a house afire. By January 19, 1852, when the Harlaem effected a junction with the Western Railroad at Chatham-Dour Corners (now Chatham), •128 miles from Forty-second Street, and began running through cars to East Albany, the Hudson River Road had already been sending trains through from New York for more than three months.
The railroad developed Westchester County amazingly. Villages grew like weeds, and a new type, the commuter, was born. Stephen Jenkins, historian of the Bronx, says, "The growth of the Bronx may be dated from 1842." Director Gouverneur Morris built a •two-mile branch of his own from the main line near Morrisania to the East River at a point which he called Port Morris, and that became the chief freight station for the railroad.3 Mr. Morris is found in 1843 — when freight service was still in its infancy — asking his fellow-directors to have the milk from his dairies "brought into the City daily by the Cars." Not many years later, milk trains were running.
In 1845, the Council ordered the company to cease running its locomotives south of Thirty-second Street, but somehow or other this order was staved off for several years more. In '48, the New York & New Haven, coming down from Connecticut, joined the Harlaem track at what is now Mount Vernon, and began adding to the latter's yearly income by using its rails into the city. By an unpleasant coincidence, Robert Schuyler, the evil genius of the New Haven, became president of the Harlaem in the same year.
Rail traffic on the downtown streets now became much heavier. A tiny extension, about a biscuit's toss in length, had been built from Tryon Row to Broadway and Ann Streets, in front of the Astor House, and the "short cars" were used on that stretch. At Tryon Row the passenger changed to the "long cars" of the Harlaem to go uptown or upstate. The New Haven of course could do no local carrying below Williamsbridge. Its passenger terminal p131 was at Canal Street, and its big cars, with four to six horses attached, went uptown from there without a stop save at Twenty‑sixth–Twenty‑seventh, to take on more passengers and attach the locomotive. But Harlaem cars made stops at Canal, Broome, Houston, Eight, Sixteenth and Twenty-sixth; Forty-second was a flag stop. Broome was an important station; it had a ticket office and siding for two or three cars, which fell in behind the one from City Hall. The conductor took the last car there, to see that no car was left behind; and there a ticket agent boarded the train and sold tickets to any who had none. His coat was a marvelous thing, covered with patch pockets, each containing tickets for a different station up the line. The leaving time from Twenty-sixth Street was normally twenty minutes later than from Tryon Row.
Tryon Row Station of the New York & Harlaem, 1839
At Twenty-sixth Street, about fifteen minutes before the leaving time of a train, the starter seized an iron bolt •about a foot long with a nut on the end and banged violently on an iron plate set in the top panel of the door leading from the waiting room to the platform. He then opened the door, allowing passengers access to the train, if it was ready. At five minutes before starting time a bell hung in the roof of the train-shed was struck once, and this was repeated at one-minute intervals until leaving time, when at the last stroke, the engine was supposed to start. The cars in those days were lighted by candles, with a spiral spring under the candle to push it up as it burned away. The water-boy in the cars here dispensed his cool drinks by pouring the ice water from a goose-neck kettle into a circle of tumblers set in a castor or cruet-frame such as were used to adorn dinner-tables. It was considered the decent thing, after you drank, to drop a penny in the castor. The company advertised that the cars were equipped with Creamer's brakes and
Salisbury's contrivance for the exclusion of dust, an excellent improvement, subduing, at the same time, much of the noise created by the train. The trip over the road consequently is performed without fatigue or discomfort, and passengers arrive at the respective termini as fresh, almost, as if they had been spending an equal number of hours in ordinary avocations.
The Harlaem installed a roundhouse and repair shops at Fourth Avenue and Thirty-second Street, and, in 1850, the New Haven took over a block between White, Franklin, Centre and Elm Streets and built a big freight house there. A Harlaem timetable p132 of 1855 shows twelve trains a day a way, one being a milk train and one a way freight. Of the passengers, only one went through to Albany; the others were all locals stopping short of Chatham.
By 1853, the commuter was riding high, wide and cheaply. He could buy half-yearly or yearly commutation tickets of two classes; the higher priced ones were good on all trains stopping at the desired point, the others good only on the accommodation or local trains. So there were not only first- and second-class cars, but class trains as well. Many of course had to buy the cheaper tickets because the better trains did not stop at their stations. The first-class yearly ticket from New York to Harlem or Mott Haven cost $35, the second-class $25; so if a commuter rode six days a week (and there were no Saturday holidays then) his trip each way cost him about four cents. To Tuckahoe and White Plains the yearly rates were $40 and $45 respectively. It was not many years after that that the railroads discovered that they were losing money on the commuters, and they are doing it still.
It was in 1855 that one finds the first mention of car advertising, with the application of Morgan Mapes to the directors for a contract for advertising in the cars of the company. And it was away back there, too, that race troubles began to show their heads. Philo Hurd was chief executive in 1856 when, in directors' meeting on September 15:
The President reported that a color'd man got on one of the City Cars yesterday (Sunday) and the passengers compelled the conductor to put him out on the platform, and that he threatened suit in consequence.
Remember that the company then owned several street car lines, and it was on one of these that the trouble occurred. It was no new thing, for Mr. Hurd reported two weeks later that "the long pending suit of certain people of color for refusing to stop the cars to take them in had been decided in our favour."
And now we must pause and set the stage for the entrance of the most famous character in American railroad history. The story of Cornelius Vanderbilt's earlier years — his humble birth on Staten Island, his lack of education, his business beginning as the operator of a small freight and passenger sailboat in New York Harbor at the age of 16, his progress from sail into steam navigation and his becoming one of the great magnates of Hudson River and Atlantic Coast — yes, even of ocean shipping — have been told p133 too often to need repetition here. A man possessed of such shrewd, hard-headed, two-fisted power as the strapping boy "Cornele" had exhibited in his middle teens was undoubtedly destined by fate to be a leader in transportation. But for fifty years of his life, it seemed that his only interest would be in transportation by water. The water was his first love, his fortune-maker, and for a half century he had no confidence in "them things that go on land," as he called the railroads. His distrust of them was certainly not lessened by the experience of his first journey on a railroad in October, 1833, when the Camden & Amboy train in which he was riding had a smashup, breaking several of his ribs, one of which punctured his lung and came near costing him his life.
But in the middle 1840's he found himself in the position in which many captains of industry are forced sooner or later; he was compelled to take an interest in other businesses touching or interlocking with his own. His ownership of Long Island Sound steamer lines drew him into shareholding in the connecting Long Island and Stonington Railroads. He even served as a director of the former for two years. In like manner he became a stockholder in the Central of New Jersey, the Hartford & New Haven and the New York & New Haven.
It was some time after 1850 when he began picking up at bargain prices a few bonds and stocks of the New York & Harlaem. He came in at an unfortunate period of the company's history. Robert Schuyler, scion of a highly respected New York state family, descendant of Revolutionary patriots and one of the most admired men of affairs in New York, had become the Harlaem's president, as we have related, and served until August, 1853, when the presidency was passed on to his brother, George L. Schuyler. The two were partners in a brokerage business, and Robert stood high in the railway world. Besides the Harlaem and New Haven, he was also the ruling spirit in the Illinois Central and the Vermont Valley; in fact, he had built the last-named as contractor, and made a pretty penny thereby.
Vanderbilt, now popularly known as the Commodore because of his great shipping ventures, encountered Robert Schuyler in connection with the exchange of railroad and boat traffic on the Sound, and Schuyler, who had long since gotten into deep water financially, presently was borrowing money on a large scale from the shipping magnate, handing him 2,210 shares of New York & New Haven stock as collateral. The Schuyler brothers also inveigled p134 the Commodore into buying $1,000,000 worth of Harlaem's $3,000,000 issue of mortgage bonds at a price of 93, on which he made the customary first payment of 10 percent.
When, in the first week of July, 1854, the city was rocked to its foundations by the discovery that Robert Schuyler was the most colossal swindler that New York finance had yet known,4 it was found that the New Haven shares in the Commodore's hands were part of an unauthorized overissue of nearly $2,000,000, the cash for which had disappeared into Schuyler's own till. He had also issued false Harlaem shares, 4,131 common and 1,389 preferred, which the directors eventually decided to stand back of. At the directors' meeting of July 6, it was reported that the vice-president had just been served with a notice of protest of one of R. & G. L. Schuyler's notes for iron, on which the company had allegedly gone as security. The treasurer said that $80,000 worth of Albany Extension certificates couldn't be found, and the public was warned that they had been taken fraudulently by Schuyler.
George L. Schuyler resigned as president, and William C. Wetmore became head of the company pro tem. But the most amazing circumstance very shortly took place. A letter from George Schuyler was laid before the board meeting of July 25, "returning the six Family Tickets issued to him while President of this Company, which tickets he had never used or signed." Whereupon the board promptly forwarded six tickets duly signed to him. Either they thought him less culpable than his brother, or they were overawed by the Schuyler name; and this despite the fact that lesser chicanery on his part kept coming to light. He had illegally disposed of some of the Albany Extension certificates, he had drawn money to pay bills but had not paid them, he had leased offices in the name of the company and had not paid the rent, he had let some space in the company's Twenty-seventh Street buildings and pocketed the income therefrom.
The company, impoverished by the Schuylers, was in desperate need. A lot of railroad iron just received for track replacement was sold at the best possible price, but that money did not go very far. The directors turned their eyes longingly towards the balance owed by Mr. Vanderbilt on those bonds — balance, did we say? No, indeed, they were claiming that he owed the full amount; they were repudiating the $93,000 down payment he had made, and which had gone into Robert Schuyler's scampish pocket. Their argument was that the Commodore had also taken p135 from Schuyler as security for his payment, $151,000 in bonds of the little Washington & Saratoga Railroad, which should reimburse him. They sent one of their number, R. M. Blatchford, up to Saratoga, where the Commodore was on vacation, driving his fast trotters to and fro in the afternoon, and playing whist most of the nights.
The Commodore, then just turned sixty, with graying side whiskers but darker hair, had grown into the handsome elderly man whose portrait has become so we known in the American gallery of notables. He was inclined — or at least, pretended to be — to disown a deal wheedled from him by a swindler like Schuyler; but it was resolved in a directors' meeting that "the Board will hold him to his subscription." When he came down to the city later, there were horse-trading gestures made back and forth by both sides, and finally the company advertised:
For Sale at Public Auction for a/c of said Vanderbilt one hundred of the One Thousand Dollar Mortgage bonds of the N. Y. & Harlaem Railroad Co. to pay the instalment which became due on his subscription on the 10th inst.
The Commodore retorted with public denial of any responsibility for the sale. And so the matter dragged on for three years, the company increasingly hard up and Vanderbilt standing pat. Meanwhile, in its extremity, the woes of the company were increased when it found itself involved in one of those periodical crises with the City Council. A joint resolution had passed the Council, requiring the railroad to cease the use of steam below Forty-second Street; and on top of that a resolution to impose a license fee of $100 on each city car came up, and the Aldermen began to ask the company how much it proposed to pay towards repaving the Bowery and a part of Fourth Avenue. In the Board of Councilmen a resolution appeared, directing the Street Commissioner to take up the company's rails below Twenty-third Street. Hearings were being held on a proposal to reduce fares on all city railroads. One member even threatened a measure to make all steam trains stop at the Harlem River.
It began to be plain that the city legislators' mouths were watering for another slice of Harlaem pie. And here one may pause to wonder whether the bribery of politicians by corporations has been done to obtain "special privileges" as often as it has to save the company's life? There has been too much of the former, it is true, but American business history, if truthfully told, p136 would be unpleasantly streaked with accounts of the blackmailing of business men by politicians. The question who began it, whether business or politics, is as futile as that one about Which came first, the chicken or the egg. Anyone knows that in most large cities of this country, at most times in our history, an honest business man who wanted a necessary railroad switch built to his factory could not obtain a permit for it without greasing palms at the Church Hall.
The position of a railroad corporation in New York City in the 1850's under the most corrupt municipal government that ever functioned on earth was especially precarious. A recent grand jury investigation had revealed a stinking mass of putridity, which most people knew was there, though it had never been publicized. Ferry leases, street car franchises, etc., cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 each. A citizen could not obtain a building permit or any other concession without bribery; if it was a transaction of any consequence, he might be told, "It'll take $5,000 to get it through." The police and law departments were feeding fat on vice and crime. It is not to be wondered at that such a pack of gangsters would turn to a shakedown of the Harlaem Railroad now and then as a means of bringing in a little pin money.5
p137 Somehow the Council attack was fended off, but the unfinished business with the Commodore was still an incubus. At length it was suggested to him that he join the board, which it was thought would placate him, and this he did. Before the annual election of May 19, 1857, he bought 1,001 shares of New York & Harlaem common, then selling, when it sold at all, at $10 to $15. In the election, he, his son-in‑law, Horace F. Clark, one of the coming noted railroad men of the century, and Daniel Drew, who had both rivaled and worked with the Commodore in steamboating, became members of the directorate. And it was thus that Commodore Vanderbilt came into what was destined to be the work by which he is best remembered, the crowning achievement of his life.
But if the directors thought they were through with the Schuyler affair, they were quickly disillusioned. The crafty old capitalist had made no promises as to that, and no sooner was he on the board than he brought up his claim for that $93,000 which he had paid on the bonds, demanding that it be made good. The directors refused, and in June, a month after he had joined the board, he resigned from it. This was serious; they couldn't afford to let him go, so the resignation was laid on the table, and a committee conferred with him. They agreed to yield in the matter of the $100,000 worth of bonds if he would withdraw his resignation and lend them some cash. So he and Drew lent the company $650,000, and he was back in Harlaem, to stay for the rest of his life.
1 The early cars were all named. In 1834 the minutes record a claim for $4.50 by one Griffin for damages to his horse and cart, "in contact with car Manhattoes."
2 It still does in the twentieth century. For example, blind persons may travel at reduced rates, and so may any attendants they may have.
3 The New York & Harlaem bought the branch from Mr. Morris for $118,000 in 1853, and Port Morris is an important freight yard for the New York Central today.
4 Harlow, Steelways of New England, pp186‑189.
5 The Damoclean sword which the city, state and national politician keeps suspended over the head of the transportation corporation, even at the present moment, is seen in an episode of thirty years later, when William H. Vanderbilt was president of the New York Central, and New York, like the great, dimwitted, jellyfish giant that it is, was ruled by the soi-disant "Honest John" Kelly, successor to Tweed. A minor city official, a Tammany emissary who had called on the railroad president more than once, came to him one day with the word that "Some of the boys need to go up to Albany Wednesday, and we'd like to have a special train."
"I'm afraid I can't promise that," said Mr. Vanderbilt. "We can give you a private car on a regular train, if you like, but I don't see how we can spare a whole train."
The heeler seemed to take it good-naturedly, talked on for a few minutes, and rose to take his leave. As he started towards the door, he paused, turned and said, "Oh, by the way, Mr. Vanderbilt, that ordinance comes up in Council again tomorrow."
The vexed executive knew well enough what he meant. It doesn't matter now what the measure was; suffice it to say that it was something highly inimical to the railroad, which so far had been staved off. Any reader can guess the rest of the story; the boss got his train. And it wasn't because Vanderbilt was buying special privilege from the politicians — only the privilege of temporary relief from oppression; trying to save his railroad and himself from still greater harassment and expense.
a This seems to gloss over the disposition of the matter; see the obituary notice of Gen. Thomas A. Davies (an opponent of the surface railroad) in the Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 12th, 1900.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
of the Century
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 25 Feb 13