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Chapter 8

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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p189  Chapter IX
The Knotting of Three Strands

President Vanderbilt and those nearest to him in habits of thought composed the New York Central's new executive committee. It was a tightly governed concern. The Herald, with surprising moderation — and yet, not so surprising, for Bennett was growing old and mellow — admitted that while the control of three railroads by one man might have "the look of monopoly," it could be, after all, not prejudicial to the public interest. Wall Street thought well of Vanderbilt control, for NYC stock rose to 118, while Hudson and Harlaem also strengthened. The American Express Company was forced to accept a new and not quite so favorable express contract, and the free passes which its directors had been junketing around on were revoked. The Commodore, in a letter to Fargo, expressed horror at the Central's pass system, which had so long "disgraced its administration and defrauded its stockholders." But after that moral lesson, he turned right around and issued passes to the state legislators. You couldn't afford to slight the politicians!

Characteristic Vanderbilt policy was soon manifest on the Central. Money was spent freely but wisely for improvements, and the dividend rate was presently raised from 6 to 8 percent. Torrance and William H. attended to most of the details of operation, though legend has it that it was the Old Man himself who, to the sorrow of railroaders, decreed the banishment from locomotives of the gay colors and the brass ornaments which engine crews spent so much time in polishing. Locomotives thereafter were to be plain black and steel. As the story comes down to us, Torrance, who carried out the order, even had the bells painted black. Railroad men called the sombre machines "Black Crooks," the shocking extravaganza of that name having recently made a terrific hit in New York. But later the order was relaxed a little,  p190 and when they named a new locomotive Commodore Vanderbilt, with his portrait painted on each side of the headlight, he was willing to let that one be as gay and brassy as they liked.

A valid traffic agreement between the Central and the Hudson was of course promptly arranged, and the golden era of steamboating on the Hudson River was over. Incidentally, early in 1867, the Commodore owned 22,800 shares of Hudson, out of 69,687 outstanding. That year the capitalization was doubled. To win stockholder support for the inflation, they were permitted to buy shares of the new issue at half price; the rest was sold to the public at par. The cash was considered necessary to complete double-tracking the line, supply new equipment and retire some bonded indebtedness. One item of additional equipment needed was a big freight terminal building in lower New York, and this job Mr. Vanderbilt himself handled. From Trinity Parish and other property owners he purchased for a million dollars in March, 1867, a considerable area along Hudson Street, a few blocks north of the passenger station in the St. Johns Park section, once a fashionable residence district, but then fading. There a huge three-story building was erected, freight cars being loaded and unloaded in the lower story, while the two upper floors were a warehouse.

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Dedication of the St. Johns Park freight terminal, 1869.

Friends and adulators of the magnate decided to make the big building a memorial to him, and so engaged a sculptor of contemporary prominence to design a large pediment for the facade, more than 150 feet long and 31 feet high at its central apex, where it culminated in a giantesque statue of Vanderbilt in a fur-lined overcoat, that being the swankiest thing a sculptor could think of in those days. South of this figure was a design representing sea transportation, north of it railroads. Greeley in the Tribune lamented that the statue failed "to do justice to that physiognomy, one of the finest in America, which has never yet been rendered worthily by any photograph, bronze or picture that we have seen." But a prominent attorney, George T. Strong, wrote in his diary:

Have inspected the grand $800,000 Vanderbilt bronze. It's a "mixellaneous biling" of cog-wheels, steamships, primeval forests, anchors, locomotives, periaugas ("pettyaugers," we called them when I was a boy), R. R. Trains, wild ducks (or possibly seagulls) & squatter shanties, with a colossal Cornelius Vanderbilt looming up in the midst of the chaos, & beaming benignantly down on Hudson Street, like a Pater Patriae — draped in a dressing  p191 gown or overcoat, the folds whereof are most wooden. As a work of art, it is bestial.

The unveiling of this chef d'oeuvre in November, 1869, was a great ceremony, at which Tammany Mayor A. Oakey Hall made the principal address, whilst among the dignitaries present were two admirals and an honorary committee of citizens which included three noted editors (sometimes and variously best friends and severest critics), Greeley, Bennett and Weed, and believe it or not, Uncle Dan'l Drew, almost fresh from his latest treachery to Vanderbilt in the Erie imbroglio, but ready to be on anybody's side at a moment's notice, if it served his purpose. The mayor apostrophized the statue: "Stand there, familiar image of an honored man! Stand there and breast the storms or glitter in the sunshine of coming centuries. . . . Stand there and tell those whose industry has been crowned by wealth that the honors of life and the praise of future generations follow those and those only, who make the world better for their living in it."

Bennett was not in agreement with the mayor in the order to "Stand there." It was his opinion that "So costly and splendid a monument should not be doomed to concealment where few will see it." He insisted that this "tribute to a famous exponent of the untiring industry, the boundless enterprise and the incalculable wealth of the New World," this "well-merited memorial to a single individual," should stand in Central Park as encouragement to millions of others, a symbol of New World opportunity.

However, the statue remained on the freight-house for sixty years — until 1929, a few years before the St. Johns Park building was demolished, when it was removed and placed in front of the present Grand Central Terminal. The pediment was destroyed.​a

Hudson River stock was increased by $2,100,000 more in 1868, which was sold to the stockholders at par, the cash being used to redeem bonds maturing in the following two years. Vanderbilt now owned 46,400 shares. But the 8 percent dividend rate was maintained, and even critics, if they were honest, had to admit that nearly all the new stock represented an investment and enhancement in the value of the proportion.

Chronologically, the Commodore's adventure in Erie, though not a vital part of our story, must be glanced at here. After he became head of the New York Central, he sought to end the rate-cutting hostilities between Central, Erie and Pennsylvania. The last-named was agreeable, but the Erie was recalcitrant, wanting  p192 too large a share of the profits, and Vanderbilt, much annoyed, decided to get rid of the nuisance by taking it over. In this he reckoned without the genius of two newcomers to Wall Street, Jay Gould and James Fisk, Jr., who, in alliance with none other than Daniel Drew, now dominated the Erie. When Vanderbilt tried to corner Erie, these three worthies simply printed and threw on the market millions of counterfeit stock, and when New York became too hot for them as a result, all fled to New Jersey. Vanderbilt was unused to that sort of strategy, and the courts were too corrupt to depend on for relief.

Presently the conspirators' agents were in Albany, asking the Legislature for a law that would legalize their acts. Gould himself ventured up there with a trunk said to be full of $1,000 bills, and though under technical arrest, negotiated actively with the lawmakers. The New York Herald remarked that "the Drew party were willing to spend $2,000,000 to secure the success of the measure," which was "a godsend to the hungry legislators and lobbymen, who have had up to this time such a beggarly session that their board bills and whiskey bills are all in arrears." Vanderbilt sent a flock of agents to Albany, including Clark and a young lawyer named Chauncey M. Depew, who now for the first time comes into the Central picture; but they found themselves so outclassed that the old man decided to withdraw his opposition to the bill. When, says Adams, news of this, "as of some great public disaster, spread panic and terror through hotel and corridor," it is asserted that the asking price of votes dropped in a few minutes from $5,000 to $100. The bill passed, and Vanderbilt, after losing somewhere between one and two millions, gave up for all time the notion of controlling Erie.​b

The New York Central picture was more dubious than the Hudson's. The Commodore decided that that road possessed a potential dividend-paying power far beyond that which it had shown, and that with improved facilities, it would manifest that power; wherefore, he proposed to swell its capital stock by no less than 80 percent. He pondered the matter for months, discussed its legal aspects with that shrewd lawyer, Horace Clark, and then took it up with a few of the leading stockholders. Most of these, after they had recovered their breath, bowed to his superior skill as a railroad financier, and agreed to back him. But he knew that there would be those who would fight the move vigorously.

For that reason, he called the directors together in a secret meeting  p193 at Clark's home, 10 East Twenty-second Street, on the evening of December 19, 1868 — a Saturday night, so that no injunction could be issued to interfere with his plan until he had it well under way. At that meeting resolutions were passed, declaring that Whereas the company had already expended in the construction and equipment of its road moneys equal in value to 80 percent of its capital stock, and whereas the stockholders of the company were entitled to evidence of such expenditure and to reimbursement at some future period, now therefore it was ordered that scrip be issued to the stockholders, entitling them to company stock to the amount of 80 percent of their holdings.

Mr. Chapin, of the Boston & Albany, a man for whose judgment Vanderbilt always had a profound respect, was one of the directors who was startled by the proposition.

"Commodore, this is a pretty large scheme," said he. "I doubt that you can continue to pay 8 percent dividend on the increased capital."

"How much can we pay?" asked Vanderbilt.

Chapin pondered. "Perhaps 6 percent," he guessed.

"Well," the Commodore flashed back, "that ought to be enough for any investor who obtains his capital as easy as this."

The scrip certificates were already prepared, and Treasurer E. D. Worcester and others worked most of Saturday night and Sunday, getting them parcelled out. On Monday morning the Union Trust Company began sending them to shareholders. Worcester admitted that he had been routed out of bed at 3 o'clock that morning to be served with "something," in reality an injunction, which he ignored on the ground that not he, but the Union Trust was issuing the certificates. Central, then above par, had been wabbling on the Exchange, the Gould-Fisk-Erie gang trying to hammer it by selling it short. On Saturday it closed at 134. Monday morning, oddly enough, news of the melon-cutting caused it to open at 162 and steady later at 153 — evidence of the profound faith of the market that Vanderbilt could make good on any boost he chose to make. And this despite the opinion of some commentators that the Central had thrown ethics to the winds and embarked on the primrose path of inflation. A conservative financial journal called the coup "A bold deception upon the public."

A group of shorts had persuaded a stockholder to bring suit to prevent the new issue, and early in January a hearing was held by the State Supreme Court, in which Vanderbilt, Clark and  p194 Schell, among others, were called as witnesses. The Commodore's testimony, as might be expected, tended to show his confidence, amounting to certainty, that the Central would justify that inflation. He declared that if any other man was running a railroad for nine or ten millions, and he couldn't take it over and run it just as well for eight, he would quit. He added that in his steamship experience, he found that he could operate a boat alongside another man and do it as well as the other chap for 20 percent less. Asked about the Harlaem, he said it was too small at the moment to stand any such stock dividend as the Central, but it might have a similar experience later on. "I use the Harlaem," said he, boldly, "just as though it all belonged to me, and that is the way I shall control every other road as long as I control any — as though it all belonged to me."

The court ruled that the New York Central had the right to issue the scrip, but could not pay dividends on it, and suggested that the Legislature might remedy the situation by approving the conversion of scrip into stock. A bill was accordingly introduced at Albany, and many persons expected that wholesale bribery would be used to put it through. But Vanderbilt was too wise for that. He knew that many of the legislators had, like other folk, become followers of the Vanderbilt star, and had bought Central shares in the belief that there would be a rise in them when the bill passed. The Herald said it was well known that the "Albany ring" had bought heavily. "They are all long and must vote for the conversion bill. . . . The veteran railroad king has again overreached his annual blackmailers; they are securely caught, and there is no choice left them what to do." And they did very nicely on the job. When they passed the bill, the stock rose to 180, and when Governor Hoffmann signed it, to 189 — "a cruel torture to hundreds of the bear element of Wall Street."

A few weeks later, a special meeting of the New York Central directors were called, to approve the issuance of stock in exchange for the scrip. There was not a dissenting vote. In this meeting, the Commodore voted 23,600 shares, William H. 17,000, William's eldest son, Cornelius II, who was now coming into harness at the age of 25, voted 17,600, and Clapp & Grinnell, the Vanderbilt brokers, 33,300.

Subsequent events were simply the unfolding of manifest destiny. At a meeting of Central directors on June 9, 1869, a resolution, offered by Horace Clark (also a Hudson director, remember) and passed, stated that it would be for the best interests of  p195 the two companies to amalgamate. Hudson directors, too, were agreeable, and machinery to that end was set in motion; but meanwhile, there was a disturbing incident — the newest devilry of those two miscreants, Gould and Fisk, whose attempt to corner gold caused the brief panic of Black Friday, September 24, 1869. With the collapse of the corner, about noon of that day, stocks were falling like burnt rockets amid the cries of the sufferers. The Commodore found his own office at 25 West Fourth Street too far from the vortex, so he rushed downtown, established headquarters at the Bank of New York, which, together with the Union Trust Company, handled his financial affairs, and began supporting the market, first of all his own stocks, Central, Hudson and Harlaem, of which he bought all that were offered. And here it came out that he was also buying heavily into Lake Shore, taking advantage of a golden opportunity to acquire cheaply the control of that invaluable extension to Chicago; a matter which we shall deal with later. The Tribune reported that

It is said that all day long, in the parlor of one of the city banks, the Railroad King had been quietly reviewing the situation. His brokers had been busily engaged in buying his stocks; that he was as well prepared for the rise as he had been, previously, for the decline. It was rumored that the Vanderbilt and the old Northwestern (Keep) party were in full accord, and that the Vanderbilt shares would go higher than ever. "I knew it, I knew it," said a member of an old commission house. "The old rat never forgets his friends." Certainly the rumor spread that the Commodore had come to the rescue, and his stocks were firmly advancing. In the street and offices, a better feeling was noticed at once.

But the "better feeling" strengthened only slowly during the following week. By the first of October, the Street was beginning to collect its scattered wits, though many men had been ruined in those few brief days. With Lake Shore now firmly in his grasp, Vanderbilt was in better position than ever for the merger already authorized. On November 1, 1869, the job was done, and that young colossus, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, emerged, a powerful through line from New York to Buffalo, with a greatly increased capitalization. Stockholders of the old companies received share for share in the new, plus a scrip dividend, interchangeable for stock, called "consolidation  p196 certificates," Central shareholders receiving a 27 percent bonus, Hudson no less than 85 percent! Thus within three years, $47,988,190 in stock had been added to the capitalization of the company coming into being, bringing its total capital obligation to the dizzying figure of $89,503,840.​1 Rufus Hatch, a stock-broker (in a pamphlet entitled Frauds in Railroad Management), declaring vehemently that the increase was pure vapor and represented no increase whatsoever in the value of the company's property, placed the average "watering" for the 442 miles of the Central between New York and Buffalo at $110,145. Or, said he, if you included the melon of 1853, when the fourteen little railroads organized the Central, the per-mile water would be $130,264.

Naturally, there was a clamor of scathing denunciation of these moves, which has not died away entirely even at the present day, when they are invariably cited by critics of nineteenth century capitalism as a typical example of the evils of that regime. It is a pity that the Commodore, with all his genius for making roads genuinely profitable, should have given later gossips such rich material for derogation. The attacks in his own time were excoriating. Hatch, among other things, brought up the income tax — for we had such a thing through several of those post-Civil War years.​c Hatch thought he ought to be taxed on the increase itself as well as the dividends, yet the magnate, he said, refused to pay "the paltry sum of 5 percent" on this easy money.

To Hatch the whole idea of such inflation was immoral and  p197 fraudulent. If the railroad, said he, was able to pay 8 percent dividends on millions of practically bogus stock, they should let the shipping and traveling public and their employees have a little of the gravy, instead of lapping it all up themselves — which was a bit hard to answer.

These darts got under the Commodore's skin sufficiently to draw retorts from him. He adduced some incontrovertible facts: namely, that his passenger fares were restricted by law to two cents, and competition with ruthless rivals held down his freight rates, so where was the fraud on the public? He did not mention the fact brought out many years later by the Hepburn Committee that for the small towns on the New York Central not reached by the Erie or other competitors, freight rates were exceedingly stiff. Mr. Vanderbilt asserted that the increase in stock had been matched by an increase in earnings, and that the company would continue to pay 8 percent dividends, which he denied were being paid out of capital; he invited an inspection of the books to prove his words. Everyone knew that there was no waste or stealing in a Vanderbilt organization, and finally, he said, all the stockholders, small as well as large, had a share in the melon-cutting and the management of the road.

Labor was beginning to stir restlessly, to want more pay and shorter hours, to show a tendency to organize. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers came into being in 1863, with headquarters in Cleveland, where it still is, and the firemen formed a brotherhood in 1873. In 1868, the conductors organized an insurance association, popularly known as "Old Reliable," first of its kind among railroad men. But none of these organizations for a number of years made any move towards a controversy with their employers — at least, not on the New York Central. There was an unorganized incident at Albany in 1868, when several hundred men, mostly laborers, left their work and marched to the general office to demand an eight-hour day; but that did not eventuate until many years later. However, the Utica Observer, in July, 1873, spoke of the high earnings of some railroad men; two engineers, by doing some overtime, had drawn about $190 each in a month — which was big money for those days. In probably no other line of industry was a workman able to earn so much.

Yet the low salaries of the time undoubtedly contributed something towards the earning capacity of the roads. Even the panic of 1873 did not halt the NYC & HRR's 8 percent dividend (though  p198 it was a strain to pay it), a rate which no other railroad in the country could match; in fact, many railroads paid no dividends at all for years after the crash. Vanderbilt lines thereby acquired an unshakable reputation for financial soundness, good management and dependability.

Charles Francis Adams, writing of Vanderbilt in 1869, remarked that if the Commodore had gone into politics, he "might have made himself a great and successful despot." He added:

It is impossible to regard Vanderbilt's methods or aims without recognizing the magnitude of the man's ideas and conceding his abilities. He voluntarily excites feelings of admiration for himself and alarm for the public. His ambition is a great one. It seems to be nothing less than to make himself master in his own right of the great channels of communication which connect the city of New York with the continent, and to control them as his private property.

Mr. Adams, sound thinker though he was, and an authority whom we have often quoted, shows signs of having been momentarily thrown off balance by the Commodore's recent exploits. Far from trying to grab all lines leading to the interior, he was interested only in extending his own line through to the Middle West. As we have shown, he had tried to take over the Erie only to get rid of a nuisance, and after a costly setback, had abandoned that idea; and he had shown no signs whatsoever of a desire to control other lines traversing New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But to begin with, as we have already pointed out, he was led into his first railroad investment in the present New York Central group — the Harlaem — against his will, and for years took little interest in it.

With his involvement in Hudson River, however, his liking for the railroad game began to grow. Natural transportation genius that he was, he saw that Hudson as it stood, alone, could never be anything better than a Class B or C railroad — and he was not content to head a second- or third-rate concern. The Hudson was only a beginning of a potentially great westbound traffic highway. Its extension to the Lakes could not be regarded as anything else than a decree of Fate; and so he bought into the New York Central.

But once launched on such a program, there was no stopping this side of that lusty city which was rapidly becoming the vital transportation ganglion and central entrepot of the nation, Chicago —  p199 in fact, on its way to becoming the greatest railroad center on the globe. There and at St. Louis (world's second largest railroad hub) is the frontier, the dividing line between East and West. Railroads do not run through those cities — they stop there; and the larger eastern lines were pushing their own rails or control towards them as rapidly as possible. Even the stumbling Erie, handicapped from birth, first by its winding, hilly course and then by gambler control, had managed with British capital to finance an extension from western New York to Cincinnati, which, with the Ohio & Mississippi, completed a 6‑foot gauge from New York City to St. Louis. But John W. Garrett of the Baltimore & Ohio, who had pushed his rails to Wheeling and Parkersburg, on the Ohio, had helped to finance a line from Parkersburg to Cincinnati, and already had his eye on the Ohio & Mississippi.

The Pennsylvania was doing the best job of all. Not to mention footholds in New York, Baltimore and Washington, it had gotten control of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis and of the 468‑mile Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago; in fact, that road had been built with its assistance, though it suffered a bad fright when the Erie came near snatching the new job right out from under its nose. The Pennsylvania therefore had bases on both Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River before any other of the eastern lines drew near to those waters. And with these two longer roads, it had acquired shorter ones leading to Cleveland and other important cities.

It was high time for the New York Central & Hudson River to acquire its own tracks into Chicago, and the Commodore was attending to that very chore with his usual efficiency. Also, it needed a New York City terminal worthy of its might, and that was another task highly congenial to its white-haired, seventy-five-year‑old but still dynamic president. He — or his son — or the two of them together — for no one now can tell how much of the strategy of those years sprang from the brain of Cornelius and how much was William's — chose the best possible site for it, the Harlaem depot at Forty-second Street and Fourth Avenue, whose upper portion was now coming to be called Park Avenue. Too far uptown! cried many voices; why, all the good hotels in the city were from a half-mile to three miles farther south. But the city was growing northward rapidly, and Forty-second Street had potentialities. An occasional Manhattan cross-street is wider than the others, and Forty-second was one of these. It had been paved, and there was a crosstown horse-car line on it. It can be  p200 said that Forty-second Street made itself the Harlaem terminal, and the great station in turn made Forty-second Street the hub of New York.

Operating conditions on the Harlaem in the city were still primitive. The city had long since forbidden steam locomotives to come south of Forty-second Street, and between there and the fine double building on Fourth Avenue between Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Streets which was the road's main terminal, horses must be used. The Harlaem and the New Haven each occupied one of the twin structures which composed the terminal. Stuart Inglis​2 gives us a vivid picture of travel into and out of New York via Harlaem in 1865 — that being the year when he, a small boy, went on a journey with his mother via the New Haven Railroad to Boston.

They had eight-wheeled day coaches then, still flat-topped mostly, though Wagner's monitor roof was beginning to appear. The Harlaem painted its cars dark blue or pea green, the New Haven liked straw color. When a train was ready to start, the gate closing the exit from the station slid upward, and the train, one car at a time, was drawn forth by horses around a sharp curve into Fourth Avenue — the baggage car first, the coaches following, one by one, each amid cries of "All aboard!" Going up the Avenue, the horses in a trot, with bells jingling, sometimes hit it up to seven miles an hour — boys stealing rides on the car-tails, at the risk of being run over by the following ones. At Thirty-second to Thirty-third Streets they passed a big street-car barn and roundhouse where engines were formerly stabled when they were permitted to come that far south, but now vacant. Through Murray Hill tunnel, feebly lit by oil lamps, they trotted, and reached the Forty-second Street depot, where the engine was waiting. Mr. Inglis goes on:

It was fascinating . . . to witness the speed and precision with which the cars were linked into a train. As a car from 26th or 27th Street neared the locomotive, the driver, holding reins and whip in his left hand, with his right reached down the three-foot hook which was part of his outfit, and caught the team-pole. As his hook caught, the brakeman at his side leaned to lift the pin. As the pin came up, the driver shouted to his horses and they sharply swerved from the track, while he, still grasping reins and whip and holding up the team pole, strode down the  p201 steps and sprang to the ground. The brakeman now turned the wheel to retard. So neatly did he gauge it that the coupling link protruding from the tender came gently within the jaw, and at that instant he dropped the pin into the drawhead. Then straightening, he reached over his head for the bell cord, in the same moment catching with the other hand the cord which the fireman, gaucho style, twirled from the cab. Snapping the ends together, the brakeman bolted down the steps and raced rearward to board the next oncoming car. Upon the platform of this, the manoeuvres just described were reenacted. Thus unit after unit was coupled, forming an assembled train. The time consumed in coupling six cars was not more than is the case today at Harmon, where the locomotive — steam or electric — takes a solid train.

Standard time had not yet been thought of, and the time for the entire Harlaem Railroad was governed by the "Clock in Superintendent's Office, 26th Street, New York." For some reason,​d Albany time was two minutes slower than New York's, though it is not surprising that Buffalo's was twenty-three minutes slower, Cleveland's thirty-eight minutes, and Chicago's an hour and six minutes. Cards were regularly printed, showing what the time was all over the country — every place different.

And so at Forty-second Street, Vanderbilt, as he took over the New York Central, planned to build a great station, the biggest in America; yes, as his imagination expanded, the biggest in the world; a structure that would make Boston, Philadelphia, London and other envious municipalities look sick. But for New York Central trains to reach it, there must be a connection between the Hudson River and Harlaem tracks. By the recent amalgamation, Harlaem had been ruled out of any possible consideration as the Vanderbilt line to Albany. It had its own rails only to Chatham, and it was not direct enough nor level enough to compete with the Hudson. But its future was made safe — and how opulently safe! — as host to the New York Central & Hudson River and the New Haven.

The Commodore had thought of this necessary connection so far in advance that on April 24, 1867, eight months before he moved in on New York Central, we find the Legislature chartering a Spuyten Duyvil & Port Morris Railroad, to operate from a connection with the Hudson River Railroad at the mouth of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, along the banks of that inlet and the Harlem River, across the Harlaem Railroad to Port Morris, "with a branch  p202 to Long Island Sound in the town of Westchester." The applicants included such gentlemen as Gouverneur Morris, Lewis G. Morris, William B. Ogden, Azariah Boody, John B. Dutcher, Leonard W. Jerome, Elliott F. Shepard, the publisher, Richard M. Hoe, the printing press manufacturer, and others; not a Vanderbilt among them. It sounded like a promotion of Mr. Morris's to give his holding an outlet to the Hudson River. But when the stockholders met quietly on October 8 following and elected directors, lo! — among those chosen were three Vanderbilts — Cornelius, William H. and Cornelius, Junior, also Horace Clark, Kissam, Schell, Banker, Dutcher — the old familiar coterie. But that meeting was not publicly heard of for a year and a half, and the official date for the organization of the company is now given as March 4, 1869. Fearing slip-ups and obstructionism, the Commodore just didn't want his plans known too soon.

This expensive little road, completed in 1871 at a cost of $989,000, touched the Harlaem track at Mott Haven, just north of the Harlem River, and therefore formed the desired connection. Of course the extensions to Port Morris and the Sound were never built. They were not intended to be. To complete the story, the SD & PM was leased to the New York Central & Hudson River in 1871 and merged with it in 1913.3

Here the curious feature of the Grand Central Station story appears. This was really an NYC & HRR station, built for the joint use of that road, the Harlaem and its tenant, the New Haven; but the Central did not build the station. At that time, it did not own a square rod of ground in that part of Manhattan. Instead, the New York & Harlaem financed and constructed the first  p203 Grand Central Station and became a landlord, with the Central and the New Haven as its renters, and it has owned the Grand Central Terminal sites one after another, ever since.

Vanderbilt summoned I. C. Buckhout, who had designed the St. Johns Park freight terminal, and together they worked out plans for the great terminal. What would have been Park Avenue, north of Forty-second Street, at that time, as described by Inglis, was for several blocks a tangle of railroad tracks, engine houses, rapid shops, woodpiles (now giving way to coal bins), "corrals for cattle, shed-like buildings for freight, regiments of box and gondola cars, the latter in many cases dripping with brewers' grains loaded in them from an adjacent brewery, and row upon row of rusty wheels — all the Railroadiana to be expected about the domicile of the locomotive." At cross-streets horse vehicles and pedestrians picked their way through this plexus at the peril of their physical integrity. With the beginning of work on the new station, confusion there became worse confounded. The Commodore probably never dreamed of what he was letting himself in for, and it would not have daunted him if he had.

Work began on November 15, 1869, and proceeded under the superintendency of William H. Vanderbilt. Of course traffic must go on while the great structure and its accessory yard were under way, and to say that this was a strain is putting it mildly. One difficulty was that the builders, from the Commodore on down, were just groping. They had had no experience with planning or creating such an organism as this, and the result was that they made many mistakes, including some which seem inexplicable to us now.

As for the station itself, it was a huge structure with a frontage of 249 feet on Forty-second Street, and 695 feet in length from north to south; a monster building covering five acres. A new short street, Vanderbilt Avenue, was created along its west side. The architectural style was one which a large element in the mid-Victorian period considered beautiful. The material of the walls was red brick with cast-iron trimmings which were painted white to simulate marble. There were three mansard-roofed turrets along the south front and two along the side. The L‑shaped station building enclosed on the south and west sides the 200‑foot side train-shed, with its vast arched glass roof, which was the wonder of the day. It was announced that the staff would number 500 persons, and that there would be a separate lunch-room for them. But a critic sneered that "The Mansard roof had to be  p204 dragged in because it happens to be the fashion of the day . . . the present mode is that every public building, be it hospital, hotel or depot, must have a French roof, with a large tower in the center, and a small one at each end."

But the errors in planning were worse than the architecture. To begin with, they at first thought to continue with the tracks at surface level, as those of the Harlaem had been, with the exception of the short tunnel at Sixty-eighth to Seventy-first Streets and the longer one through Observatory or Yorkville Hill. This was later proven impracticable. Next, the mistake was made of dividing the building into three separate stations, for the Harlaem, Central and New Haven respectively, each with its own waiting room, ticket office and other accommodations for the public, and each completely stated from the rest. To change from one railroad to another, travelers had to go out into the street. Not until a new terminal was built in 1898 was there a common waiting room provided for all three roads.

The most amusing blunder of the planners was that of giving their tenant, the New Haven — for whose welfare they were not greatly concerned — the best location in the building, namely, the Forty-second Street front. The Harlaem had 200 feet on the Vanderbilt Avenue side, and the Central the remaining 495 feet, extending to the north end at Forty-fifth Street — the poorest portion of all, although it had the greatest number of through fast trains. While the station was under construction two tracks of course continued to run through it and down to Twenty-sixth Street, and practically all passengers had to cross several tracks to reach their trains. Even after the building was completed, most passengers had to do this to reach their particular tracks among the twelve in the train-shed (six more were later added in an annex), though portable bridges, which could be moved by several men, were finally devised for those who could climb stairs to cross over without risking anything worse than a fall.

But the most incredible thing was the track arrangement. Right-hand passing on wagon-road and railroad has always been the rule in America; but in the Grand Central Station, under Mr. Buckhout's astute planning, the outbound trains left from the west side of the shed, the inbound arrived on the east side! This made it necessary for trains to cross each other's paths, which for several years they did at Fifty-third Street. It was at length decided to move the crossover to Spuyten Duyvil on the Central and to Woodlawn on the Harlaem, and the road had to operate  p205 left-handed that far until the present Grand Central Station was built.

Letters to the papers — and by the way, what would historians do without "Citizen," "Constant Reader," "Pro Bono Publico," "Disgusted," and others who for a century and a half have been writing to the editor with pens which are like little flashlights, illuminating nooks and corners of the life of their age which would be dark to us otherwise? — complained that the waiting rooms were poorly heated, the seats were uncomfortable and you had to walk two or three blocks to reach your train and rush to get a seat. Well, trains are so long nowadays that if your seat is at the other end . . . But no matter.

Another nonsensical idea at the old Grand Central was that waiting rooms were only for outbound passengers; inbound folk could not even pass through them, but were siphoned right out of the building, no matter what the weather, and no provision had been made for hacks or other vehicles to drive under shelter to take them in. An open letter to Mr. Vanderbilt, published in the newspapers, told of a trainload of people arriving in the midst of a heavy rainstorm. They were not permitted to go into the waiting room, they had no place to sit, so they stood crowded in corridors until finally some elderly and feeble persons and even well-dressed women sat on the floor.

A final asininity was the placing of the baggage-room so that it opened into the train-shed, and you had to show your ticket and go through the gate before you could check your baggage. An instance was cited of a man who escorted two ladies to the station and essayed to attend to their baggage, the ladies themselves being inexperienced in traveling, as so many American women were at the time. The man himself was not leaving town, so he took the two women's tickets and went through the gate in the baggage room. But the baggagemen were so leisurely in their handling of the job that just as the man was rushing back with tickets and checks, the starting bell rang, which it did just a moment or so before the train pulled out. Another rigid rule was that no one could pass through the gates after the bell rang; no train would wait even ten seconds for you, and you were not allowed to run to catch it. The result was that the two women's baggage was checked — though one may doubt that it got on the train — but they themselves were left behind. By this time, people were calling the terminal the Grand Swindle Depot. It took a long time to get these rough spots ironed out.

 p206  At the street intersections for few blocks north of the station, the danger of crossing and the occasional casualties — which, to be sure, were exaggerated — caused great public clamor. When the station was put into partial operation in the autumn of 1871, there were 104 regular trains crossing those streets, not to mention switching operations. Winter evenings, when dusk fell early and people were going home to supper, when locomotives with blinding headlights or the voiceless, unlighted ends of strings of cars bore down on one from both directions, were particularly bad. A Times reporter kept watch on one such evening and saw some hairbreadth escapes.

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First Grand Central Station, completed in 1871.

At Forty-ninth Street iron chains were strung across the street on each side of the yard, barring the way until watchmen dropped them and permitted vehicles and pedestrians to swarm across. Even then, switch engines were apt to barge through the terror-stricken host. One locomotive, Number 7, known to the railroad men as Old Danger, became such a menace that the Times published a list of its alleged killings and maimings. William H. Vanderbilt claimed that he had tried to get permits from the Council to erect some bridges across the tracks, but had failed.

By the time of the opening, late in 1871, public opinion had decreed that the tracks north of the station must be lowered below surface level. The Vanderbilts pointed out that they could not lower the tracks in the already completed terminal without enormous expense and inconvenience, not to mention weakening the foundations of the building. Nevertheless, a bill intended to force the action was introduced in the Legislature. Chauncey Depew was at lay, lobbying against it, and the Commodore, desperate at the prospect of pouring millions more into the job, circulated petitions through the state, seeking aid against the bill a futile gesture, it seems to us. A Manhattan poet issued a broadside, entitled, "Lines Addressed to the President of the New-York & Harlem Railroad, by a party injuriously affected by said road," from whose numerous stanzas we can select only a few:

Don't you think it a usurpation

To use Fourth Avenue as now used

By your railroad complication,

And that your powers are thus abused? . . .

 p207  You run a steam car each five minutes

At sixteen miles an hour speed,

Within thickly settled limits,

Dangerous both to man and steed.

Property lies a waste — neglected,

All along your railroad bed,

And human life is not protected,

As proven by the maimed and dead. . . .

In the middle of the poem, he grew very stern:

Sink your track, you railroad magnate!

Arch it over well and strong,

Do not wait the law's stern mandate,

And your nuisance thus prolong.

The closing stanza plainly shows the influence upon the poet of Longfellow's Psalm of Life:

Let your last act be so noble

That it may be called sublime;

And posterity be able

To praise it through all coming time.

Public opinion was too strong for the Commodore, and he had to dig in. But a compromise was effected; the city, recognizing the problem at the terminal, agreed to let the tracks continue on the surface up to Forty-ninth Street (with an occasional cross-street bridge), and at Forty-ninth start sinking below the surface so that the cross-streets could bridge the cut at grade level. The city agreed to pay half the cost of all this, which brought forth a journalistic roar of protest, but it seemed fair enough to the Council and Legislature. From the north end of the Yorkville tunnel, in the upper 90's, there was a long trestle, then another cut at Harlem, so that the 125th Street station was below ground level. But the city later lowered the whole surface of Harlem, and that station is now up in the air.

The bridging of the streets below Forty-ninth and the sinking of the tracks north of that street — what with hand-drilling of the iron-like Manhattan rock and lack of modern machinery — was a slow, costly and messy job. For several years, what would have  p208 been Park Avenue north of the station was a scene of utter devastation — a long, pitted, debris-strewn gash in earth and rock, with human ants apparently muddling about aimlessly in it. Press and public, unacquainted with the difficulties, grew impatient, often unreasonably so, at the slow progress of the work, and the Commodore got all the blame. The frequent headlines, "Vanderbilt's Railroad," "Vanderbilt's Tunnel," etc., were proof that for most folk the railroad was personified in its president. Along with the editorial barbs came letters from indignant citizens, usually addressed to "C. Vanderbilt, Esq.," but sent to a newspaper instead of the addressee, so that really to encompass his morning mail and learn what all the complaints were, the Commodore would have had to read all the newspapers, too. "Subscriber," who lived near the job, complained that he was being given "rapid transit to the other world by being kept awake every night" by blasting "much more severe than the earthquakes of San Francisco."​e A woman at the very edge of the operation lamented the showers of soot, smoke, cinders and dust which befouled her home, and expected at any moment to see an engine or car come through her wall from a stub track which ended just back of it.

Times reporter in 1873, "having said farewell to his friends, made his will . . . stationed aids at several points to receive his notes, so that should the daring explorer fall into the abyss and lose his life, the information obtained at such a sacrifice might not be lost to the world," set forth with alpenstock and lifeline about his waist to explore the excavated area. His description of the chaos and the pitfalls was appalling. Every few days other articles, headed, "The Fourth Avenue Trap," "Mr. Vanderbilt's 'Improvement'," "Fourth Avenue Horrors," "Fourth Avenue Butchers' Pen," "The Uptown Man Trap," kept the subject alive. The word "monopoly" was used daily.

Some people complained that they had to go a mile or two out of the way to get around the cut. It does seem that a bridge or two might have been thrown across it here and there, but the Commodore, in a gruff temper towards city and state over having been forced into this trouble and expense, was not disposed to oblige them — which of course did not increase his popularity. When a newspaper reported that Vanderbilt had said he would rather haul hogs than human beings, the remark was trumpeted the country over as another proof of his brutal tyranny, his insensibility to all decency. But the Commodore was merely stating an economic adjudication which any modern railroad executive  p209 would instantly confirm; hogs are far more profitable freight than the pampered human animal.

An Albany editor remarked that the general attitude towards the railroads was, "Hit him again; he ain't got no friends." The uproar against Vanderbilt continued through 1872, punctuated by mass meetings in New York and Harlem, protests from the Fourth Avenue Association and others. A cartoon entitled, "The Monarch of Slaughter Avenue" pictured a skeleton with the Commodore's head, sitting on the mouth of a tunnel, with the wreckage of trains and human bodies strewn around. The Commodore's face must have hardened as he looked at that picture. People even blamed him for the picking of their pockets on the Harlaem's Fourth Avenue street cars, although this was happening on street cars all over town. One man wrote of seeing a team of three-card monte men, the leader in blue glasses, gypping passengers — one to the tune of $150 — on a Harlaem train en route to Albany, benignly overlooked by conductor. But an occasional citizen wrote to say that he had suffered little trouble or delay, had seen no one killed on Park Avenue and heard of no provable case of the sort.

An example produced by the "hit him again" complex was the letter from the misanthrope who claimed that "Westchester County is practically unimproved and uninhabited," while neighboring New Jersey was blossoming like the rose, as the result of the "greed and avarice of the Harlaem Corporation," which has "created a desert where there should be a paradise. It is the fate of Mr. Vanderbilt to blast and blight whatever region he fastens his iron grip upon," rendering "the loveliest region in this vicinity little better than a wilderness." And this when not only Westchester but Putnam County above it were rapidly filling with population, when dairying had become such an industry that whole carloads of milk were coming into New York daily, and a "condensery" at Brewster was putting it into cans, when Harlaem suburban trains were so long and so crowded that conductors couldn't work through them fast enough, and slick commuters were buying dime tickets to Harlem or Mott Haven, boarding the rear car and riding to their home several stations farther than they had paid for. The railroad finally checkmated these fellows by putting another conductor on the rear cars and stopping the train to eject any passenger found riding beyond his ticket.

Park Avenue had been made 140 feet wide above as well as below 42d Street. The two through tracks in the center were in  p210 an open walled cut. From 49th to 53d, the cross streets had to rise a little to bridge over the cut, but north of 53d, they crossed at their own level and at full width, with grass plots at the sides. Through tunnels on each side of the open cut, the local tracks ran, supposedly ventilated from the cut, though the ventilation was very poor. Through these the Harlaem at first tried to do semi-street‑car service with its local trains, having stations at 59th, 72d, 86th and 110th Streets, but it was of little consequence, and one after another the stations were closed. Operating or traveling on one of these trains drawn by a steam engine through those tunnels was a terrifying experience. The dense coal smoke was not only stifling, especially in summer, but increased the danger of collisions by blanking out visibility. At times an engineer actually halted his train and sent a brakeman groping ahead with a lantern, to find out if possible where he was. At 100th Street, just north of Yorkville Tunnel, were the railroad's stockyards, where cattle trains unloaded, and not infrequently a steer escaped and tangled with a train on the tracks. If hard pressed, it might run into the tunnel and become a still greater hazard.

When the newly consolidated railroad — which upstate papers frequently called the Central Hudson or Central and Hudson, and which was apt to issue a time-table, calling itself the Hudson River & Central — began to operate into the new terminal, the old Hudson River line down the west side of Manhattan, now just a branch, could not be left without service; so a shuttle train (nicknamed Dolly Varden, like the cars that used to operate below Thirty-first Street) ran back and forth three or four times a day between Chambers Street and Spuyten Duyvil. This continued until well into the present century before it was entirely abandoned.

In April, 1872, it was reported that the New York, Boston & Montreal, a shadowy protégé of the Central Vermont​4 and the Boston, Hartford & Erie, was to come down to the city and connect with the Central Under­ground Railway in Broadway, a franchise for which had been granted in 1868, but which had done nothing. It was chartered under the Beach patent, which proposed to shoot cars from the Battery to Harlem through a subterranean tube by compressed air. A rival, the Gilbert device, to do the same thing through a tube elevated above the street, had still less chance of getting anywhere. But all these  p211 prodded the Commodore into trying for a franchise of his own for a subway from the Grand Central Station to the Battery, and sending Depew to Albany in behalf of the idea. The Evening Post found that many "shrewd observers" didn't believe Vanderbilt intended to do anything but boost the price of Harlaem stock and kill off the Montreal road by the same stroke. The final outcome was that nobody did anything.

As upper Park Avenue began to assume an orderly appearance, with its great width and grass plots, even a certain attractiveness, the trend towards its latter-day development into the swagger residence of New York had its small beginning. Now mercurial New Yorkers even began to take pride in their great terminal and the Park Avenue improvement, and conveniently to forget how they had reviled Vanderbilt for the inconveniences caused by the development. A more temperate tone had slowly become manifest in some sectors of editorial comment, too.

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Upper Park Avenue in the 1870's, with the railroad underneath.

The Graphic in 1874 pointed out that the interests of the city and of the Central Railroad were closely linked. "It is our impression that New-York owes a great deal to the Central Railroad, and that it may receive from it much more in the future." It is true, said the editor, "that Commodore Vanderbilt does not manage his road as a public benefaction; he does not pretend to." He had made a great deal of money out of it; he was "a remorseless combatant, and when throats are to be cut, he has slashed at those of his rivals without hesitation. But on the whole, New-York has not suffered, so far as we can see, by his policy." The editor then showed by comparative figures that freight rates on the Central had been reduced 22 percent in two years, and drew some invidious comparisons with the treatment of Baltimore by the B. & O. The latter road, he said, charged 72 cents for carrying a barrel of flour 152 miles, whereas the NYC would carry it the same distance for 20 cents in summer and 35 cents in winter. "It seems to us that on any fair showing, the Central Railroad has done and is doing a good deal for the city of New-York."

Other journals later published columns of comparative rates. From New York to Albany, Troy and Schenectady, for example, 144 to 161 miles, New York Central rates on first-class matter were 30 cents per hundred; for the same distances, the B. & O. charged 60 to 62 cents.

The Park Avenue job was not considered complete until the spring of 1876. An interesting note is the installation of a railroad  p212 men's club and reading room in the terminal building, opening on November 20, 1875, with a concert by a quartette and a pianist. The younger Cornelius Vanderbilt may have had a hand in this; he was much interested in the Y. M. C. A. later on, as we shall see.

There was another city that got a new station during this period, and with an unusual attendant circumstance. Syracusans had been fuming for years over the draughty old barn erected by the Syracuse & Utica in 1839, and which sturdily refused to catch fire from a spark and eliminate itself, as so many other wooden stations did. It had seen many notables; Henry Clay was received there when he visited the State Fair in 1849, as were Daniel Webster, Louis Kossuth, John Brown, Stephen A. Douglas and other notables. There thirteen locomotives had been grouped in 1858 to whistle all at once, along with cannon firing and the ringing of all the city's church bells, to celebrate, in the typical American way, the first laying of the Atlantic Cable.

But Syracusans cared nothing for the old shack's history; they wanted a decent station and they finally got it — built of brick, though still right in the middle of the main street. Then word was circulated among the city's factories that workers might have all the firewood they could carry away, from the old station. On February 27, 1869, two locomotives were hooked to it with cables and pulled it down in ruin with a thunderous crash. By daybreak next morning the wood-gatherers had cleared the site of wreckage.

The Author's Notes:

1 As the author figures it. According to the minutes, at the amalgamation, Central stock stood at $28,795,000 — not counting the 80 percent dividend of the year before — and Hudson River at $16,200,800 — a total of $44,995,800. Stockholders of each were to receive share for share in the new company; but the directors decided to fix its capital at around $45,000,000 — not counting dividends, of course. What became of that additional $4,200 in stock, the present writer cannot discover from the minutes. Also, for some reason, there was "to be retained out of the assets of the New York Central Railroad $518,310, to be distributed rateably among holders of stock certificates and holders of interest certificates of New York Central." Add to this the 80 and 27 percent on NYC stock and 85 on Hudson River, deduct the $3,484,350 discount to stockholders in 1867, in order not to count it twice, and you have the total mentioned above.

In the election held to approve the consolidation, one finds the names of many stockholders in England, a considerable number in Scotland, others in Canada, Ireland, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sicily, British Guiana, even one in China. To these foreigners these enormous melons must indeed have made America seem like the Land of Canaan.

2 In Bulletin No. 12 of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, 1926.

3 When a ship canal was cut through from Spuyten Duyvil Creek to the Harlem River, making those two estuaries one piece of water, the Central tracks were realigned, to follow its banks, shortening the road from seven miles to six.

For a time an occasional passenger train continued to run over the old Hudson River track down the west side of Manhattan, but at length it was given over entirely to freight traffic. With its big yard at Thirtieth to Thirty-third Streets, it has been called "the life-line of New York," so important is it in bringing food and other commodities into the city. Nearly a mile of it used to occupy the middle of Eleventh Avenue, and for decades trains crept along there, preceded by a man on horseback with a red flag to warn other traffic of their approach. To obviate this, in the 1930's, millions were poured into realignment, cutting through blocks, a part of the track have been sunk in a cutting, the rest of it elevated, of tunneling through the second stories of huge buildings and throwing off elevated switches into them.

4 See Harlow, Steelways of New England, pp276‑277.

Thayer's Notes:

a A photo of the statue, with good details on its location and access, could once be found at Forgotten Delights, a site by the publishers of a book on the outdoor monuments of Manhattan, but like many other sites, as the Web continues to shrink, the entire site has disappeared.

b For a rollicking, detailed account of the amazing hijinks barely touched on here, see Moody, The Railroad Builders, pp73 ff.

c A salutary reminder that unlike death, taxes are not inevitable. From the inception of the federal government thru 1913, the United States taxed incomes only briefly: Lincoln's war tax of 1861 expired in 1873: and hard as it may be to believe when Americans pay an average 29% of our income in taxes — more than for food, clothing and housing combined — the country ran fine without it.

d "For some reason" because Albany is slightly east of New York City, and its time should therefore have been fast. The other times are similarly inaccurate:

W. Long. True Local
Time Difference
New York City (at 42d and Broadway) 73°59
Albany 73°47 48″ fast
Buffalo 78°51 19′28″ slow
Cleveland 81°41 30′48″ slow
Chicago 87°38 54′36″ slow

The railroads were so inconvenienced by the hundreds of local times along their routes that it was at their instigation that the standard time zones in the United States were established, on November 18, 1883: good details and some interesting rail photographs can be found at American Memory.

e San Francisco was notorious for the severity of its earthquakes well before the killer in 1906; see The San Francisco Horror, p234.

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