Monday, February 4, 2013

The Lost 1871 Grand Central Depot -- 42nd Street

Vanderbilt's massive structure stretched far north along the newly-created Vanderbilt Avenue -- sketch from the NYPL Collection

In post-Civil War Manhattan railroad passengers were faced with a confusion of train lines and stations.  Train ridership into the city increased and each of the three major lines, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and New haven Railroad, and the New York and Harlem Railroad, necessarily had separate stations.  Because an 1856 law forbade passenger trains south of 42nd Street in order to reduce accidents between trains and pedestrians, the terminals were 45 minutes north of the business district by trolley.

Departing tourists and businessmen unfamiliar with the city often went to the wrong station, and because of the proximity of the depots, baggage sent ahead from hotels often ended up at the wrong place.  In 1869 The Sun reported that “the thousands of strangers daily arriving here from all directions have been dumped in the open streets, or, at best, landed in some old dilapidated shed, and then left to the tender mercies of heartless hackmen, rowdy runners, and other sharks that prey upon strange visitors.”

Cornelius Vanderbilt was poised to turn confusion into order—and profit.

In 1857 he had entered the railroad business.  He gained control of the New York and Harlem Railroad, and added to it in 1869 by obtaining the New York Central.   The Sun, on February 5, 1869, commented that “Vanderbilt…wants to be considered the ‘Colloesus [sic] of Rhodes’—that is to say, of the rail-roads.” That year he began his ambitious Grand Union Depot plan by buying up property between 42nd and 48th Streets, and Lexington and Madison Avenue.  He announced plans for a consolidated terminal with stations for the three lines and a large rail yard.  

The Sun was elated, saying that Vanderbilt’s scheme was “a source of gratification and pride to our own citizens, to learn that this mortifying omission in the appointments for the reception and care of the throngs of guests constantly arriving and departing is to exist no longer.  Commodore Vanderbilt, whose word is law in such matters, has decreed that New York shall have the most spacious, elegant, and convenient depot to be found in the country.  And having issued the decree, the work of construction commences at once, hundreds of laborers and mechanics rushing at the call of the sturdy and enterprising old monarch to expedite the work.”

Not everyone was happy about the "enterprising old monarch’s" venture.  Vanderbilt’s project was threateningly close to Fifth Avenue which was quickly becoming Manhattan’s most exclusive address.   By December 14 he had acquired a full 33 acres of valuable property.   When Vanderbilt encountered resistant property owners, he ruthlessly used “seizure rights conferred by the general railroad law,” according to The Sun.  Among the new buildings in the path of the depot were the Croton Market and “an elegant new building for the hospital for the relief of the ruptured and crippled.”  The newspaper said “It is understood that the Commodore designs a raid on these institutions in order to secure possession of the entire block for the purposes of the railroad.”  The same was true of the new Gothic-style stone Church of the Resurrection.

Among the property owners who refused to sell was the immensely powerful and wealthy Peter Goelet.  The Goelet family owned vast real estate holdings in Manhattan and its tradition was constant, quiet acquisition of property with one cardinal rule:  land was never sold.   Peter Goelet owned the entire block between 46th and 47th Streets, between Madison and Fourth Avenues (later renamed Park Avenue).  And he had no intentions to sell.

A few days after his unfriendly meeting with Vanderbilt, Goelet was informed that the Commodore had taken possession of the block and had already put men to work there.  Peter Goelet rushed to his lawyer, demanding a lawsuit for trespass and damages.  The Sun reported that Goelet ordered “Run him out entirely.  I’ll teach him that he can’t force me to sell him my land.”

The attorney explained to the disgruntled millionaire that “the Commodore has taken your land under the seizure rights granted under the General Railroad law of the State.”  He advised Goelet that it would be in his best interest to negotiate a price before the courts appraised the price “that he will be obliged to pay you and nothing more.”

The pretty Church of the Resurrection was slated for demolition.  The Sun said on December 14, 1869, “Neither private interests, the claims of churches, asylums, public markets, nor any other obstacle, baulks the old veteran when he undertakes a job of this kind.”  The newspaper claimed that if the law was not on his side, he would simply have laws put in place.  “He goes quietly to the Legislature and reinforces himself with such special enactments as he desires, and being thus fully prepared enters upon his grand schemes, regardless of whatever opposition may present itself.”

With his opposition crushed, Vanderbilt pushed on with his plans.  He commissioned architect John B. Snook to design the structure.  Snook had already been taken with the recently-popular French Second Empire style, which The Sun preferred to call French Renaissance.  For the Grand Union Depot he turned to it in spades. 

Vanderbilt ensured that his monumental depot would be even more so by convincing the city to allow him to straddle Fourth Avenue at 42nd Street.  Looking north up the avenue from the established city the great Grand Union Depot—called by some the Vanderbilt Depot—would command center stage.

The streets around the newly-completed terminal were still unpaved -- photo NYPL Collection

The station proper would be L-shaped with the shorter section fronting 42nd Street.  Here three conspicuous towers with bulbous mansard caps served as separate depots—each announcing the name of the train line on the upper fa├žade.  The center tower would rise 120 feet and hold three enormous clocks which were illuminated at night.  Snook used Philadelphia pressed brick trimmed with marble and granite.  The Sun assured that “the roofs [are constructed] of iron, with floors resting upon iron girders, thus making the building perfectly fire-proof.”

Inside, each line had its “separate and exclusive apartments, both as to waiting rooms, ticket offices, baggage rooms and so on, and each finding ample accommodation in the upper stories for its general offices.”  It would be the most impressive train station in the country.

A new street, Vanderbilt Avenue, was created for the western, longer front.  Here a large restaurant was included and several “spacious rooms” were reserved in the basement for rental and business purposes.  Also in the basement was the clubhouse of the Railroad Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association, composed of employees of the New York Central, Harlem, and New Haven Railroads. 

Snook worked with J. C. Burkhout, Engineer of the Harlem Railroad in designing that station.  Burkhout’s contribution was possibly most evident in the immense "car house” hidden behind the two fronts and inspired by England’s Paddington Station.  A model of modern engineering it was 600 feet long and 200 feet wide “and entirely unbroken by pillar, column, or wall,” said The Sun.  An arched glass ceiling rose 112 feet, supported by iron trusses.  Here twelve tracks were separated by raised platforms—an innovation that eliminated the need for steps.

Passengers enjoyed elevated platforms in a sun-drenched glass-and-iron space -- NYPL Collection

The train shed would become the second most popular tourist attraction in the United States, with only the United States Capitol luring more visitors.  The space was illuminated by gas lamps at night, giving the thousands of panes of glass an ethereal  glow from outside. The New York Herald called it “The largest railway and passenger caravansary in the world.”

Because Vanderbilt had no intentions of allowing the smoke-belching locomotives to dirty his glass train shed, engineers were instructed on a procedure called “flying in.”  As they approached the station, the locomotive was unhitched from the cars.  The engineer then sped up the locomotive to remove itself from the remainder of the train and drove onto a side track.   The passenger cars then slid softly into the train shed, soot free, where the brakeman brought them to a smooth rest.

With expected fanfare, the completed $6.4 million depot ($5 million over estimate) was opened on October 9, 1871.  The Sun commented on the scope of the complex.  “The handling of nearly one hundred trains both arriving and departing daily, it will be readily apprehended, will require much space and the ground here taken for that purpose will be none too extensive.”

The eastern facade, facing away from the exclusive Fifth Avenue neighborhood, was purposely less elaborate -- photo  NYPL Collection

Indeed, it was none too extensive.  Nearly from its opening the depot was obsolete.  But there were other, more immediate problems to be overcome first.  One was customer service.

On October 31, 1871 a young women arrived, struggling with her two small sons and two large trunks.  She was told she could not check her luggage without a ticket; then was told she could not buy a ticket so early before her departure time.  She was rebuffed by the ticket agent who snapped, “You ought to know better than to get here an hour too soon.”

The frustrated woman finally paid a railroad employee ten cents each to guard her trunks.  A relative shot off a letter to The New York Times complaining that “the lady was obliged to pay.  Is this fair?  And if there is a rule to this effect, is the rule fair?  And who got the twenty cents?”  The writer registered his “sincere disgust” at the treatment of a lady “at the new depot.”

A month later Brooklyn resident A. B. Davenport had more to complain about than the loss of 20 cents.  The rush of hundreds of distracted passengers was fertile ground for thieves and pickpockets as Davenport sadly found out on December 13.  He entered the depot with $40 in cash (over $600 today) and $6,000 in railroad and Government bonds.   The money and bonds left the station with a pickpocket, not Davenport.

Worse than poor customer service and crime was the layout of the tracks coming south into the station.  The poor design immediately resulted in fatalities.  The New-York Tribune reported on November 16 that “City Sanitary Inspector Morris presented a report complaining that the Grand Union Depot is dangerous to life.  He said that the network of tracks from Forty-fifth to Fifty-fourth-st is crowded with cars, which obstruct the view of approaching trains, and that many accidents have happened since the opening of the depot, partly in consequent of the additional number of trains sent out each hour.  He stated that within the past twelve days seven persons have lost their lives by being run over by trains approaching or leaving this depot.”

Nevertheless, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s massive undertaking—slowly becoming known as Grand Central Depot—was a source of pride to New Yorkers.  It put the city on a par with the Paris and London in terms of train stations. 

Three years after the opening the terminal was threatened by a no-so-bright move on the part of an employee.  Around 3:00 on the afternoon of June 18, 1874 a gas-fitter was searching for a gas leak in the pipes under the station.   To help him see, he used a lighted lamp; apparently forgetting that open flames and gas are a dangerous combination.  Homer Moore, indeed, found the gas leak.

The New York Times reported that “the escaping gas ignited, causing an explosion.  A great deal of excitement ensured, and an alarm of fire was sounded.”  The damage to the building was slight; however the damage to Moore was a bit worse.  He was “severely burned about the face by the explosion.”

Below ground the Railroad Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association became not just a haven for railroad employees, but for their families on holidays.  Cornelius Vanderbilt II was an officer of the club and its rooms were “comfortably fitted up” so the men could “indulge in profitable reading or conversation or amuse themselves with music.  A library has been gradually built up and the books are allowed to be taken by the members to their homes for short periods,” said The Times.

Every holiday the families of the conductors, brakemen, engineers, firemen and other employees of the depots were given a festive dinner here.  Related organizations like the New-York Central Railroad Company and the American Express Company contributed to the events.  “At these dinners the fare is the best that the market affords,” assessed The New York Times on December 27, 1881, “every kind of meat being provided, from mutton to venison.”

The female family members apparently had to work for their holiday meal, however.  That year the newspaper reported that “During this time yesterday 400 meals were served by a bevy of pretty young women, the wives, sisters, or daughters of the members of the association.  During the afternoon there was a chorus singing at intervals, and in the evening a very pleasant musical entertainment was given by members of the association.”

As early as 1873 the residents north of the terminal complained about the noise and soot of the trains approaching the station.  There was public outcry to sink the tracks below ground level and the city agreed, asking the railroad to submerge the tracks as far up as 96th Street.  Having just spent over $6 million on the new depot,  Cornelius Vanderbilt was not over-eager to incur additional outlay.  The city compromised by shouldering half of the cost and in 1875 the tracks on Fourth Avenue north of the terminal were buried.

For decades the bustling station would see the expected lost little boys, petty criminals, the arrival and departure of heads of states, diplomatic funeral corteges, and frantic passengers searching for lost articles.  But the train and passenger traffic, nearly at the depot’s capacity when built, continued to increase.  In 1889 the Railway Gazette said “The Grand Central yard is now one of the most crowded in the country…Engines are flying around in so many directions that injuries to employees are somewhat frequent, and no financial obstacles should stand in the way of the substantial abatement of the confusion now existing.”

In the 1890s the towers had lost their iron cresting and 42nd Street reflected the growth in the neighborhood -- postcard from the NYPL Collection

In 1898 the depot was renovated and updated.  Three floors were added to the 42nd Street front by architect Bradford Gilbert.  He disposed of Snook’s Second Empire mansards and replaced them with French Renaissance designs and did away with the central tower altogether.  The remodeled building was stylish and elegant.  But refurbishing would not be enough.

The Fourth Avenue tunnels relieved the nuisance of smoke and steam to the residents above ground; but they caused a new, deadlier problem.  Engineers were often unable to see clearly in the smoke-filled tunnels and on February 20, 1891, a tragic head-on collision of passenger trains occurred.  The headline on the front page of The Evening World read “A HORROR!” and “Human Beings Roasted to Death in View of Spectators.”  The grisly details were splashed throughout the newspapers, such as the pleas of one of the engine’s pilots, his legs and body pinned in the burning wreckage.  “For God’s sake kill me, help me, I am burning alive.”

The public reacted with expected horror and cried out for a solution to the dangerous situation.  But it would not be the last of the tragedies.

Stone eagles perch at the corners of the remodeled towers in 1898 -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 

In 1899 Grand Central Depot was serving 1.5 million passengers per day.  The outdated facility could no longer handle the demands and New Yorkers were reaching the end of their patience with the grand old lady.  The New York Times complained that “Nothing pertaining to New York City except its government has been so discreditable to it as its principal railroad station.”  The newspaper called it cramped and “ill-arranged, dark, and repelling.”  A later editorial said “The ugly structure has been a cruel disgrace to the metropolis and its inhabitants.”

It all boiled over when, on January 8, 1902, a commuter train from Connecticut was stopped in the Park Avenue tunnel waiting for a signal to enter the terminal.  Unable to see in the smoke-chocked tunnel, the engineer of another train arriving from New Rochelle crashed full-speed into the stopped train.   Stoves for heating the cars spilled their burning coals and, as happened in 1891, the cars were set ablaze.   Hundreds were injured and 15 lost their lives.

The press and the public demanded answers and solutions.  Some politicians pushed to have the terminal moved  to the Bronx.  The task of providing those answers and solutions was laid on the shoulders of engineer William J. Wilgus.  His vast plan, laid out to the railroad’s president on December 22, 1902, included a two-story electrified underground train yard (thereby doing away with the smoke and steam), a new, modern terminal building, and a first-class hotel connected to the station.  He anticipated the project would cost $35 million.

photo Library of Congress

On February 1, 1913 the magnificent Beaux Arts style Grand Central Terminal was opened.  Throughout the demolition of the old depot and the construction of the new, train service was never interrupted.  The glorious new station in the middle of Park Avenue became a New York City icon, and a century later few remember that an earlier grand depot sat there—the construction of which one determined millionaire would allow nothing to get in the way of.


  1. Great Job. I like your blog. I am full of admiration. Maybe you would like appreciate what I'm doing. Regards.

  2. As usual, late to the party, but a fascinating post!

  3. Curious about the need to acquire the Goelet property, as other properties bordering the west side of Fourth Avenue, e.g., Columbia University, remained in place.