New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Trains, Boats, and Things That Move

Island of Forgotten Dreams

co700_new_york_13bnew-york-around-staten-island-and-long-island-1700-postersFrom New York Press, March 24, 1998

St. George, a city set upon a hill, the seat of Richmond County, is my hometown. On clear days, I look from my table across the Upper Bay to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, the Lower Bay, the sea, and the horizon, where the distant Atlantic Highlands sink into mellow blueness.

Merchantmen lie for hours or days at anchor, waiting for space in the Port of Newark or lightering cargo to a barge or coastal tanker. Other vessels pass, day and night: pleasure yachts, container ships, tug boats, auto transports, cruise liners, guided missile frigates. Fogs change this utterly. Here, the sea vanishes, then the bridge, the bay, the mansard-roofed 1881 brick mansion next door. Out of the swirling mist come the foghorns’ moans, punctuated by the deeper calls of the ships, feeling their way through the channels.

Despite radar and radio, the mists are still dangerous: in 1981, the Staten Island ferry American Legion was rammed amidships by a Norwegian merchantman during a heavy fog, seriously injuring several passengers and putting her out of service for months, her side smashed in the shape of the freighter’s bow.

Yet foggy or clear, twenty-four hours a day the ferries toot their diesel horns once as they depart the ferry slips at St. George on their five-mile voyage for Whitehall. The old names remain. Ferrymen are traditionalists. Sailing ferries were traveling the Upper Bay before the War of 1812, long before the five-borough City of New York was even a dream. Hence Whitehall and St. George, rather than Manhattan and Staten Island.

co700_new_york_13bnew-york-around-staten-island-and-long-island-1700-postersFrom St. George, the ferries bustle past the little pepperpot lighthouse on Robbins Reef. In the last century, when its  keeper died in the line of duty, his widow was given the job in lieu of a pension. It was round-the-clock work. She lived in the lighthouse with her children. Every morning and afternoon, in all weathers, she rowed them to and from St. George, where they attended the public schools. They are all long gone; the lighthouse is automated.

No trip is the same. Early morning skies can be delicate pink and silver, with the waves like mother of pearl. Or the horizon can be a thin line of fire, with a band of light sky beneath and rolling thunderheads above. The sunsets are often riotous with colors—outrageous scarlets, magentas, and purples, born of the pollutants emitted from the refineries along New Jersey’s Chemical Coast.

An incoherent would-be evangelist sometimes wanders the boat, his unmemorable ranting punctuated by “Praise God!” Cameras always click at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island as the boat begins rounding Governor’s Island to head into the Whitehall slips. Some evenings, the ferry is full of raucous, obnoxious drunks. The Manhattan skyline often seems a beatific vision, and I can only imagine my peasant grandfather’s emotions when he first saw New York from the deck of an immigrant ship in 1905.

siferry-april-1959If you have a choice, take one of the old car-carrying ferries, the John F. Kennedy, the American Legion, or The Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. Like their steam-powered predecessors, their second decks have outdoor seating at the bow and stern, and the third decks have a roofed promenade. Both classes of newer passenger-only ferries—the enormous Samuel I. Newhouse and Andrew J. Barbieri, and the tiny Alice Austen and John A. Noble—lack outdoor seating. You might as well be on the subway.

Another ferryboat, the tiny Michael J. Cosgrove, sometimes moors at St. George for maintenance and repairs. She handles a .37 mile run up in The Bronx, from City Island to Hart Island. Although she is only sixty feet long, her passengers never complain of overcrowding. Most make only one trip, for her terminus is Potter’s Field.

Although the last steam ferries were built only fifteen years before the Kennedy class diesel boats, their melodious whistles sound no longer. The Cornelius G. Kolff and Private Joseph F. Merrill became prison hulks at Riker’s Island in  1987. After the Verrazzano was decommissioned in 1981, the City docked her at Pier 7, Staten Island. For the next two decades, people endlessly discussed converting her to a waterfront restaurant as a Connecticut businessman did  the 1938 steam ferry Miss New York. Using her for something was better than letting her rot in the mud, like the old ferries Dongan Hills and Astoria, now at their last moorings among a hundred hulks off Rossville in the Arthur Kill.

Then Pier 7 collapsed into the harbor. Years of neglect can do that to a dock. (Perversely, cleaning up the river helped, too, since marine borers, for which a neglected pier is bread and butter, can now live in the harbor’s oxygenated water.) So a tugboat took the Verrazzano to Brooklyn. At least the City’s planning and execution seem consistent: when the tugboat’s captain arrived at Erie Basin with a 269-foot ferryboat, no one had told the Basin’s management that he was coming.

How did St. George get its name? It has little to do with the warrior-hero and martyr, always shown astride his rearing  white horse, his lance impaling a dragon. Until 1886, the ferries landed at Clifton, further down the East Shore, the northern terminus of the Staten Island Railroad, an isolated short line controlled by the Vanderbilts (when it wasn’t in receivership). The future St. George was called Ducksberry Point, was undeveloped and even unpleasant waterfront real estate owned by one George Law, an entrepreneur regarded as something of a minor scoundrel but with a sense of humor.

There was also a man with a vision named Erastus Wiman, a bit of a hustler himself. (His first name is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning “beloved.” It was not a condition he would know throughout his life.) Born in 1834, Wiman came to Staten Island as an agent for R. G. Dun & Company of Toronto, which later evolved into Dun & Bradstreet. His manor house overlooking the Upper Bay was one of the finer residences on the island. If he had moved to Louisiana, he would have gone into oil. Having come to Staten Island, he went into real estate.

To enhance his investment’s value, he improved local transportation. In 1884, with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s financial support, Wiman merged the ferries with the railroad to form one company, the Staten Island Rapid Transit. He wanted a new terminal for the Manhattan-bound ferries at the northernmost point on the island, where he had an option to buy George Law’s land.

The option was expiring and Wiman was short of cash to complete the deal. According to local historian William T. Davis, Wiman asked Law for an extension of time, promising only to name the new ferry terminal “in Law’s honor, but…with a title Law could hardly expect to earn either on his own or in his lifetime. Law thought it was all a fine idea [and] gave Wiman what he wanted.”

The B&O had an agenda: its own terminal facilities on New York Harbor. Wiman sold Robert Garrett, the B&O’s president, on building it at St. George. Wiman begged and borrowed every dollar he could and bought acre upon acre of Staten Island waterfront property, all of it mortgaged to the hilt as well. The B&O’s money financed the extension of the Staten Island Rapid Transit–from St. George along the island’s north shore over a huge railroad bridge to New Jersey. Once the connection was in place, Garrett and Wiman envisioned having the B&O’s passenger trains terminate at St. George, where passengers would take the ferries to Manhattan. They saw an enormous freight terminal, with barges carrying B&O freight cars throughout the harbor, and perhaps even a transatlantic shipping terminal, so passengers might pass from trains to liners. St. George would have become a great seaport. Erastus Wiman would have become filthy rich.

It never quite worked out. Garrett’s health failed and he lost control of the B&O, which went into receivership in 1891. The St. George project resulted in a big ferry terminal and freight yards, but no more. The B&O’s passenger trains never came to St. George. Two years later, R. G. Dun & Company accused Wiman of forgery. He was convicted in 1894, although the verdict was reversed on appeal. His empire of real estate, ferries, and railroads flew apart like autumn leaves in a high wind.

Ten years later, Wiman died. He kept his fine house to the end. But a week before his death every stick of furniture he had–save his actual deathbed–was auctioned off for the benefit of his creditors. After his conviction, even the Staten Island Rapid Transit changed the name of its ferryboat from Erastus Wiman to Castleton, after one of Staten Island’s towns.sirt-tank-14-stgeoterm-1921

The Staten Island Rapid Transit gradually dwindled to a passenger commuter line, losing its last freight customers in 1979. The great Arthur Kill railroad bridge, still the largest vertical lift span in the world, was embargoed from 1991 to 2007, when freight service was restored along part of the North Shore line, still Staten Island’s only link to America’s railroads.

Even the one mayor who had great dreams for Staten Island saw them fail. John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, Mayor from 1918 to 1925, was an old-fashioned Democrat from Brooklyn with a full head of red hair and an enormous mustache. With Thomas Jefferson, he would have “strangled in their cradles the moneyed corporations, lest their organized power oppress the people.” M.R. Werner, a New York World reporter, said wrote that he was “…possessed of…the loudest voice east of Omaha.”

When he spoke from the steps of City Hall, small children burst into tears at 23rd Street, and the echoes of his eloquence drowned out the low moaning of the tugboats as they skittered down the bay. His tonal quality is hard to describe; it was somewhere between the trumpeting of an enraged elephant and the rumble of underground blasting, and the miracle was that his passionate outcries did not split his throat from ear to ear.

Hylan apparently enjoyed fighting more than winning. His was the kind of open mind that sometimes, as Damon Runyon observed in another context, “should have been closed for repairs.” He dreamed of building a free port in Stapleton, a ten-minute walk from St. George, and spent millions of tax dollars on piers, warehouses, and rail connections.


Unfortunately, first the Congress of the United States declined to cut tariffs or pass special legislation to exempt the Stapleton free port from them. Then, container ships replaced the old freighters. There was no incentive to rebuild the Stapleton facilities. The warehouses fell into ruin, the piers collapsed into weathered stumps, and the railroad tracks were paved over.

Hylan envisioned a railroad tunnel under the Narrows from Staten Island to Brooklyn, linking the SIRT with the subway of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company in Bay Ridge. His eloquence was so persuasive that the B&O lent $5 million to the SIRT for complete third-rail electrification comparable to that of the BMT. The City even began digging the tunnel.

Then Hylan was defeated by James J. Walker at the 1925 Democratic primary. After Walker took the oath, he canceled the project. (Some years later, asked why he had appointed Hylan a Judge of the Children’s Court, Walker replied, “So the kids could be judged by their peer.”) Hylan Boulevard, which bears his name, runs from Victorian photographer Alice Austen’s gingerbread cottage on Upper New York Bay at Clifton across the South Shore to Tottenville, on the Arthur Kill, across from Perth Amboy.

Even the Homeport, the naval base built a decade ago in the hope that some defense dollars might drop into the local economy, was scheduled for closing before it was finished. Most of the money and jobs went to out of state contractors. Stapleton’s streets are still lined with shuttered bars and night clubs.

Thus, Staten Island is the isle of forgotten dreams and St. George, the fruit of a real estate deal, its sleepy capital. St. George’s relative poverty has encouraged development elsewhere, so it has become a backwater with convenient transportation. Its ethnic and religious diversity are astonishing; its quiet streets are lined with buildings from the bombastic to the boarded-up: courthouses like classical temples; a Babylonian movie theater; a Carnegie library; a 1920s Georgian bank, and numerous Victorian gingerbread mansions, ranging from exquisite restorations to rundown boarding houses.

Above all, almost literally, is Borough Hall, a Beaux Arts French chateau with an Italian Renaissance tower (its narrow windows presumably ready for the Borough President’s use in pouring molten lead on his enemies), its illuminated clock guiding the ferries home, its bells gently striking every hour. Architecturally incoherent yet romantic, imposing, and homey, Borough Hall has dominated St. George without oppressing it for nearly a century.

Erastus Wiman no longer schemes in his manor house. The SIRT’s old camelback steam locomotives no longer wheeze about the St. George railroad yards. But the ferries still run, quiet largely reigns, and beyond my window the wooded hills roll down to the sea.


March 24, 2015   No Comments

The Eagle of the Sea

The senior ship on the United States Navy list and the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world last visited New York in August 1931. Her arrival was reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire: the square-rigged wooden man-of-war being nudged along by the minesweeper USS Grebe. Freshly restored after three years in dry dock, the ship had been ordered on a nationwide tour by Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams, under whose administration she had first gone to sea.

She wore the Star-Spangled Banner of the War of 1812 and the long commission pennant of a warship of the US Navy, and her whitejackets lined the rail. The broadsides that had swept the Barbary Pirates from the Bay of Tunis, provided fire support to the Marines landing on the shores of Tripoli, and blasted the guts out of HMS Java off the Brazilian coast now only exchanged salutes with the forts at the Narrows and Governor’s Island. The studding sails, jibs, staysails and square sails that had made her the fastest warship of her size in the world were carefully furled.

USS Constitution has met the enemies of the United States over thirty times in battle, taken thirty-three enemy ships, and never struck her colors in surrender. She was sailing for New York harbor shortly before the fight against the British frigate HMS Guerriere—on August 19, 1812—that won her nickname. An American sailor, watching Guerriere‘s cannonballs bounce off his ship’s oaken hull, cried, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”

The United States Navy began with the USS Constitution and her sisters. Corsairs operating from the shores of North Africa, the Barbary Coast, were seizing American merchant ships and holding their crews hostage with impunity. On March 27, 1794 Congress authorized six frigates. All were designed by Joshua Humphreys to be powerful enough to defeat any enemy of comparable size and outsail anything larger. Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard, in Boston, built Constitution for less than $300,000. Paul Revere forged her copper spikes, bolts, and sheathing. Launched on October 2, 1797, she first put to sea under Captain Samuel Nicholson in July 1798.

When President Jefferson took office he disfavored a large military establishment and ordered the seagoing frigates of the Navy laid up. Piracy then resuming along the Barbary Coast, Congress determined that a state of war existed between this country and the North African states. The President ordered a squadron to the Mediterranean under Commodore Edward Preble, who spread Constitution‘s canvas on August 14, 1803.

An old revolutionary, Preble had an irresistible touch of audacity. One dark evening, as Constitution was entering the Straits of Gibraltar, she found herself near an unknown man-of-war. Preble ordered his crew brought to quarters and gave the usual hail, “What ship is that?” The question was returned—simply repeated word for word. Preble gave the ship’s name and repeated the hail. Again the question was returned. Preble, somewhat testily, replied and then repeated the question. A third time, the question was returned. Preble took the trumpet himself and replied, “I am going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.” The stranger promptly replied, “If you fire a shot, I will return a broadside.”

Preble cried, “What ship is that?” The reply came, “This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, eighty-four guns, Sir Richard Strahan, an English Commodore. Send your boat on board.” This was an insult, as it was the inferior’s place to send its boat to the greater.

Preble leapt onto the rail and roared back, “This is the United States Ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Edward Preble, an American Commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel!” The conversation ceased. A boat was heard coming from the stranger, bearing an extremely apologetic lieutenant from a very small British man-of-war, HMS Maidstone, which had been bluffing.

Preble blockaded the Barbary ports, bombarded their cities, sank their ships and sent the Marines ashore. In 1805, the treaty of peace between the United States and Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria, “negotiated at the cannon’s mouth,” was signed aboard Constitution. She then remained on patrol for two years to enforce the treaty.

By early 1812, relations with Great Britain had deteriorated and the Navy began preparing for war, which was declared June 18. Captain Isaac Hull, who had taken command of Constitution in 1810, put to sea from Washington on July 12, without orders, to make for New York.

Constitution sighted five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey on July 17. As she began to run for it, the wind died with each side just out of gunnery range. Hull put boats over the side to tow his ship and the British did likewise. Lieutenant Charles Morris, one of Hull’s officers, suggested kedging: carrying an anchor out before the ship, dropping it, and winching the ship up to it. The crew manned the capstan all night. Slowly, despite the July heat, Hull made headway. A light breeze rose at dawn. Hull slipped away.

On August 19, 1812 Constitution sighted the frigate HMS Guerriere, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Hull waited until the ships were abreast. Then he roared, “Now, boys, pour it into them.” Two broadsides swept Guerriere and her mizzenmast collapsed. Constitution passed ahead and fired a broadside down Guerriere‘s decks as the Englishman’s bowsprit fouled in Constitution‘s rigging. As the ships parted, Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast collapsed, leaving her helpless. Thirty-five minutes and some 900 rounds after the first broadside, Guerriere struck her colors.

Four months later, around 1:30 a.m. on December 29, 1812, Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge commanding, was thirty miles off the Brazilian coast when a large frigate was sighted to windward. They sailed on converging parallel courses, Bainbridge allowing the frigate to overhaul him. At noon, Bainbridge ran up the Stars and Stripes. Captain Lambert, commanding the frigate HMS Java, raised his colors. At 2 p.m., Bainbridge, who had developed his gun crews’ skill through constant practice with live ammunition, opened fire at one mile believing that he could damage Java before she could injure him.

Java’s return fire destroyed Constitution’s helm. Bainbridge sent forty-nine Marines below to manually steer the ship as he barked his orders from the quarterdeck. By 5:30 p.m., Constitution had dismasted Java and killed her commander. She struck her colors and Bainbridge sent the Marines aboard. They returned with Java’s survivors and supplies, including Java’s wheel to replace the one her fire had reduced to kindling. Then Bainbridge sank Java and sailed home.

In December 1814, after Constitution had been blockaded in Boston harbor for eight months, her new captain, Charles Stewart (guts ran in that family: his grandson was Charles Stewart Parnell), ran the gantlet. On February 20, 1815 Stewart fell in with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant off Madeira. Though each was smaller and lighter than Constitution, together they outgunned her. At 6:05 p.m., amidst heavy mist, Constitution came abreast of Levant with Cyane sailing up astern. Stewart exchanged broadsides with Levant and, under cover of the smoke, braced his yards aback and went astern. (In other words, he sailed her backwards.) Constitution loomed out of the mist and smoke, surprised Cyane and loosed a broadside into her.

Stewart then shifted his yards, filled the sails with wind again, pulled ahead, and fired two broadsides into Levant as she turned to Cyane’s aid. Stewart fired another broadside at close range into Cyane’s stern, and the Englishman struck around 6:45 p.m. At 8:50 p.m., Constitution and Levant exchanged broadsides at fifty yards. Stewart then maneuvered across Levant’s stern, fired another broadside with the usual deadly results, and Levant surrendered about 10 p.m. It was Constitution’s last victory. Stewart dropped anchor at New York on May 15, 1815.

After more years of patrolling the Mediterranean, the ship returned to the Boston Navy Yard on July 19, 1828. A Navy board of inspection and survey reported her unseaworthy and recommended scrapping. Then Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father of the great jurist, published “Old Ironsides” in the Boston Advertiser.

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout
And burst the cannon’s roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale.

Holmes’s wildly popular poem made an old ship into a national monument. Against its will, the Navy repaired Old Ironsides. Thereafter, she served as flagship of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and south Pacific squadrons. She patrolled the African coast to suppress the slave trade. She trained midshipmen for the Naval Academy. In 1878, she made her last cruise in foreign waters, transporting exhibits to the Paris Exposition. In December 1881, she paid off her crew at New York and went to sea no more, becoming a receiving ship for recruits. In 1897, the Navy towed her to Boston for her 100th anniversary, and there she remained, leaving only for her 1931-’34 tour.

On September 25, 1992 Constitution was dry-docked, emerging three years later. This time, she would go down to the sea again. In March 1996, Constitution’s crew began seventeen months’ training in an extraordinarily complicated, obsolescent technology: running a square-rigged sailing ship. Learning the ropes is no cliché to a square-rigger sailor. Truss tackles, pendant tackles, clew garnets, clew jiggers, topsail sheets, topsail clew jiggers, topgallant clewlines, royal clewlines and each of the 200 or so other lines comprising Constitution’s running rigging (the lines pulled to steer her by manipulating her sails)-each has a distinct function. Confusing a clewline with a halliard or a lee brace with a weather backstay could dismast the ship and endanger everyone aboard her.

On July 21, 1997 two Navy tugs towed Constitution into Massachusetts Bay. Her crew set her sails for battle, as she had worn them to meet Guerriere. At midday, her captain, Commander Michael Beck, USN, ordered the towlines released, her canvas bellied in the wind, and she was again under sail for the first time in 116 years. The cannons of USS Ramage and USS Halyburton, two guided missile ships, barked their salutes. Constitution’s broadside boomed in response. She was on her own for an single glorious hour. Then the towlines were reattached and the old warship went home to Charlestown.

Several times a year, a tugboat tows her into Boston harbor on a turnaround cruise so she can be reversed at her dock so the hull wears out evenly on both sides. At sunset, a lone bugler sounds “The Last Post.” With the final note, a single gun speaks from Constitution’s lee side. Sometimes, amidst the traffic, one can hear the echo.

New York Press, September 18, 2001

February 9, 2015   No Comments

The Malbone Street Wreck

Among the stories recently published in the dailies about past transit strikes, I saw none about the brief strike by motor-men employed by the privately owned Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) in November 1918. It led directly to the Malbone Street wreck, in which a strikebreaker lost control of a Brighton Beach train during the evening rush on the grade down Crown Heights between Park Place and a tunnel under Flatbush Avenue at Malbone Street, killing 93 people. Eighty-four years later, it remains the worst disaster in the history of New York’s subway system.

Formerly the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad, the Brighton Beach line dated from the 1870s. It had been one of several lightly built steam railroads linking the city of Brooklyn with its seaside resorts. In 1913, the BRT controlled the line, now electrified, along with streetcar and elevated lines throughout Kings County.

Throughout 1918, the last year of the Great War, tensions between the BRT and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had escalated. At least twenty-nine motormen had been fired for membership in the union. The Brotherhood had filed a grievance with the National War Labor Board, a federal review panel created to strengthen the war effort by improving labor-management relations. In late October, the Board had recommended that the BRT rehire the men with back pay, but the Board had no power of enforcement, and the BRT declined to even meet with the union’s delegation. A strike was called for 5 a.m. on Friday, November 1, 1918.

The walkout staggered the BRT. Supervisors and clerks with little or no training as motormen filled empty cabs. Among the strikebreakers was Edward Luciano, a young clerk working under the assumed name of Billy Lewis to blunt anti-Italian prejudice. He had been with the BRT for two years, recording crew assignments. Earlier in 1918, he had received two hours of classroom instruction to become a motorman. In the fall, he had spent two days riding with regular motormen as practical experience in train operations.

This—as Brian Cudahy notes in The Malbone Street Wreck—fell far short of the BRT’s usual sixty hours of training, ninety-question exam, sixty hours of apprenticeship aboard regular trains, as well as a physical examination and further testing and certification. After all this, a motorman would spend weeks taking empty trains on practice runs in and around yards and terminals before being allowed to operate a train carrying passengers.

At 5 a.m. on November 1, Luciano began his usual eleven-and-a-half-hour tour of duty. When it ended at 4:30 p.m., his superiors offered him a $20 bonus and a post-strike raise to pilot a rush-hour train from Kings Highway to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn over the Brighton Beach line to Coney Island. (“A man has to earn a living,” he later explained to a reporter from The New York Times.)

At trial, William Brody, a BRT trainmaster, testified that Thomas Blewitt, a BRT superintendent responsible for certifying motormen, had represented Luciano as properly qualified. Cudahy speculates that as men with similar “qualifications” had taken trains over the line all day, Brody and Blewitt felt they could take a chance with Luciano. At the yard, he was given a train, four of whose five cars were at least thirty years old, each car with a steel underframe and a wooden body and roof.

At 6:08 p.m., Luciano’s train arrived at Park Row terminal, a great vaulted train shed that stood at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, between the Municipal Building and the golden-domed tower that Joseph Pulitzer had built for the New York World.

At 6:14 p.m., Luciano began his return trip to Brighton Beach. Charles Darling, a lawyer riding in the first car, later said the train moved with starts and stops and sped a curve at Sands Street, the first station in Brooklyn. The train then rumbled onto the Fulton Street elevated line. Walter H. Simonson, a civil engineer, recalled that the car was jammed to near standing-room only.

At 6:29 p.m., Luciano departed Grand Avenue for the junction at Franklin Avenue. The switch there was wrongly set, keeping the train on the Fulton Avenue line toward East New York, rather than turning it southward toward Brighton Beach. After some delay, the train was properly routed onto the Brighton Beach line at 6:38 p.m. Two minutes later, Luciano left Park Place station.

Crown Heights is a land form as well as a neighborhood. Between Park Place, at the crest of the Heights, and Prospect Park, the station at the foot of the hill, the track dropped seventy feet over a distance of less than a mile. By now, Luciano was probably frazzled. His conductor signaled a stop at the next station, Consumers’ Park, but Luciano rushed through without stopping. Simonson felt the train accelerate, as if to make up for lost time. Now the next stop was Prospect Park, just the other side of Flatbush Avenue.

Making trains move is relatively easy. Stopping them is less so. Braking a subway train safely and smoothly, to halt it in proper alignment with a station platform so passengers may depart and board, is an art. Train brakes operate with compressed air. By maximizing air pressure in a train’s main brake line, a motorman releases the brakes—that is, he permits the air to push the brake shoes from the wheels so the train can move.

When a motorman wants to slow a train, he applies the brakes by reducing the air pressure, permitting the brake shoes to make contact with the wheels. Air brakes take time to apply and to take effect; thus a train may travel hundreds of feet while stopping. A motorman who knows from training and experience how his train will respond to a particular uphill or downhill grade can gauge when to begin braking. Luciano had no such experience. He had never run a train over the Brighton Beach line—or anywhere else before that day.

At the foot of the hill, the line curved sharply, entering a short tunnel beneath the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Malbone Street. The speed limit for this curve was six miles an hour. Luciano later testified he was going thirty. However, he also testified that the air brakes had failed, after which he had applied the emergency brakes and thrown the train into reverse. Investigators from both the New York State Public Service Commission and the BRT found when examining the wreckage that the brakes had not failed, the emergency brakes had never been applied and the motors were never reversed. The New York Times quoted a naval officer who had survived the wreck as estimating the train’s speed as fully 70 mph when it left the track.

It was 6:42 p.m. when Luciano reached Malbone Street. The control car, No. 726, roared into the curve and derailed, ripping up the third rail in a burst of blue sparks. The second car, No. 80, and the third, No. 100, also jumped the tracks, smashing into the wall with a crash heard nearly a mile away.

No. 726 skidded along the roadbed into the tunnel, its front and rear corners crashing into the tunnel wall, windows fragmenting in shards upon screaming passengers. The two following cars had swung wider. No. 80 struck the edge of the tunnel’s mouth and ripped along its inner wall, where steel girders strong enough to support the tunnel roof and Flatbush Avenue above it protruded from the concrete surface. These tore into the car’s roof and left side, disintegrating it in a burst of wood, steel, glass and flesh.

Back in No. 100, Walter Simonson felt the car rising beneath him. It tilted to the left, squarely striking the concrete pier at the opening of the tunnel. In the moment before the lights went out, Simonson saw the left side of the car fragment and its benches shatter, their riders crushed and impaled on splintering car timbers. He saw other passengers beheaded by the tunnel girders and the car’s roof crumple into the car, all as quickly as that. Centrifugal force threw straphangers against stone and steel. Simonson himself was flung against a stump of No. 100’s left side, which kept him from flying into the tunnel.

Then the train stopped. Ten seconds had passed. It was still 6:42 p.m.

The two last cars had not derailed. Car No. 100, however, was mere fragments of wood and broken and twisted bits of iron and steel. It had been fifty feet long going into the tunnel. Now its wreckage was compressed into a space of forty feet. From beneath part of its roof, Simonson squeezed free and staggered down toward the open cut in the darkness.

Up at the front of the train, Car No. 726, too, was largely intact. Charles Darling watched as Luciano emerged unscathed from the cab. (The power had shorted out when No. 746 tore up the third rail.) The lawyer asked what had happened. “I don’t know,” Luciano replied. “I lost control of the damn thing. That’s all.” Then he stepped from the car and walked up the track to Prospect Park station. A newsboy, waiting there for the train, had heard the crash, the silence and the screams. A minute or so later, he saw a man walk out of the tunnel from the middle of the tracks—presumably Luciano, who got home between 8 and 9 p.m., probably by trolley.

The first rescuers to arrive on the scene found the tunnel jammed with debris “so tightly…that no crevice or opening was left,” reported The New York Times. With lanterns at hand, they began removing wreckage piece by piece. Cops and firemen set about removing the wounded from the tangle of steel, glass and splintered wood, “which stuck out like bayonets in all directions, some of them having already pierced those in the cars.” Those who could walk staggered from the tunnel. Others had to be carried out. Cradles of burlap were made for the recovered bodies, which were hoisted by the rescuers to the street and laid out in rows before being taken to the morgue.

Automobiles were commandeered and their headlights shone on the wreckage. Brooklyn Gas Company and Brooklyn Edison Company also sent gangs of men with searchlights to illuminate the site. Down in the tunnel, surgeons were working by lantern light, side-by-side with priests administering last rites. Ebbets Field was opened as an aid station for the least seriously injured passengers. Some 200 others were taken to local hospitals.

Luciano and five BRT officials were indicted for manslaughter. Before the trial began, however, the BRT’s lawyers obtained a change of venue from Brooklyn to Nassau County. Mysteriously, although the prosecution knew that Luciano had perjured himself by lying that he had applied the brakes, they never used the evidence. All cases ended in hung juries, acquittals and dismissals.

In December, the BRT went into receivership. This delayed the payment of any claims for over three years. Eventually, the company paid damages totaling $1.6 million. In 1923, the BRT was reorganized as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation—the BMT. It, too, went into receivership and then dissolved itself on November 1, 1941, the 23rd anniversary of the wreck.

After his 1919 acquittal, Luciano moved and entered the real estate business. Then he vanished.

After the wreck, even the name of Malbone Street was tainted. It was eventually changed to Empire Boulevard.

A trace of the BRT may survive endures in the letters “TRB,” under which The New Republic, once published in New York, runs its weekly opening editorial. Legend has it that an editor at the magazine, Bruce Bliven, under pressure from the composing room to invent a byline for a new column, simply reversed the initials of the subway he had ridden into the city.

New York Press, December 31, 2002

February 9, 2015   2 Comments

The Jay Street Connecting Railroad

Acommercial for the last season of Sex and the City showed Sarah Jessica Parker doing an elegant balancing act in stilettos along old steel rails set in a Brooklyn cobblestone street. I recognized the location: I had been there myself.

Around 1994, attending to business down in the old industrial district between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges once known as Vinegar Hill, now re-christened DUMBO (for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), I came across an abandoned railroad. Steel rails ran through the cobbled streets, with here and there a spur turning off the main line into a factory or industrial loft. In some cases the line ran straight into the blank wall of what had become a luxury apartment building. Of course, there were no trains. The many asphalt and concrete patches over the rails showed the line to be long abandoned.

This had once been the Jay Street Connecting Railroad—JSC for short. You can see on the Port Authority’s New York Harbor Terminal map for 1949 where the JSC and the harbor’s many other railroads ran: They stand out bright red against the elegant expanses of blue water and buff-gold land. Like the yards, piers, and terminals that fringe the waterfront, they’re the color of Monopoly board hotels. You can see the short line’s spaghetti tangle of tracks (at a scale of one inch to 400 feet) on the Port Series maps published by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s records, the JSC operated from 1904 to June 1959.

From the Port Series map alone, the JSC seems to have been among the shortest railroads in the United States, with a main line no more than a half-mile long. It began in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, just north of New Dock Street, in what is now the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park. It then ran north along Plymouth Street. At Adams Street, the main line swung west for a block, toward the East River, and then north into John Street, finally terminating amidst the complex of piers, warehouses, and factories between Jay, Bridge, and Gold Streets owned by Arbuckle Brothers, the family firm that made Yuban Coffee and owned the little railroad.

In its life and death, the short line’s history illuminates change: in industrial technology, in the regional economy, in the neighborhood it served (named Vinegar Hill by an 1820s developer to commemorate a fierce battle during the Irish rebellion of 1798). For example, Empire-Fulton Ferry Park exists today only because the railroad used that open space for team tracks: an open-air freight terminal where the crews of horse-drawn teams and wagons (and later trucks) could unload cargoes from freight cars directly into their vehicles. Unlike most railroads, the JSC had no direct connection with another railroad. On the map, it seems as solitary as a Lionel train set on a kitchen table. In fact, it interchanged with other railroads by car floats: long, flat-decked barges with railroad tracks on them for transporting freight cars about the harbor. This was not unusual: at one time, New York’s railroads used tugboats and barges to move over 5,300 freight cars every day about the harbor, providing direct service to pier heads in all five boroughs.

From the 1830s onward, the harbor handled almost half of the nation’s foreign trade while serving the largest manufacturing region in the United States. Numerous railroads tapped into this business by building to the Jersey side of the Hudson River: the Pennsylvania, the Erie, the Lackawanna, the Lehigh Valley, the Jersey Central, the Reading. As Thomas R. Flagg notes in New York Harbor Railroads, serving New York was not easy. The area is divided by rivers and bays. Building direct railroad connections in and about the harbor was technologically challenging and prohibitively expensive. Until 1910, when the Pennsylvania Railroad built the huge Pennsylvania Station complex, tunneling both the Hudson and East Rivers, and 1917, when Hell Gate Bridge brought the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad from the Bronx into Long Island, Brooklyn, and Long Island had no direct rail connections to the rest of the country. (Even then, the Pennsylvania’s Hudson tunnel was only for passenger trains, being too small for freight.)

During the 19th century, Brooklyn’s waterfront saw explosive industrial growth. Factories and warehouses were built at the water’s edge, many with their own piers. From the 1880s, most railroads used car floats to carry freight cars between waterfront freight yards in, say, Jersey City or Weehawken, and waterside freight terminals in the five boroughs. Cars with Manhattan- or Brooklyn-bound freight were shunted toward float bridges, with steel structures attached at their land end by hinges and the other end either floating freely with the tides or suspended from an overhead framework. A tugboat hauling a float loaded with freight cars shoved it up to a float bridge. Once the float was pinned to the bridge—secured with toggle bars and heavy ropes—a locomotive pulled the cars from the float, one at a time to prevent capsizing, replacing them with cars from the yard. Then the tugboat hauled the car float to another terminal to repeat the process.

The JSC was created by Arbuckle Brothers, once synonymous with Ariosa and Yuban coffees, a huge wholesale grocery firm founded before the Civil War: Even the railroad’s locomotives were painted in Arbuckle’s signature orange and black. In 1860, Arbuckle Brothers operated a single store in Pittsburg; within two decades, it would be among the largest importers of coffee and sugar in the United States. This was due largely to John Arbuckle, an amazingly imaginative man, who devised a sugar-based glaze to keep roasted coffee beans from going stale. He then invented a machine that graded, filled, weighed, and sealed roasted coffee beans in paper packages of uniform weight and quality. One machine replaced 500 people who had previously done the same work by hand. The machine even labeled the bags. By the 1870s, Arbuckle was shipping its coffee across the country in brightly colored one-pound bags. Cowboys had a passion for it—some call Arbuckle’s Ariosa “the coffee that won the West.”

By the turn of the century, Arbuckle’s owned a factory and warehouse complex on the waterfront north of the Manhattan Bridge, with ocean-going freighters docking at its three piers to unload Colombian coffee beans for its roasters. Believing that a railroad would be more efficient in shifting cargoes among the buildings, John Arbuckle started what became the JSC in 1904. On realizing the railroad might profit from serving neighboring businesses, Arbuckle’s extended it along Plymouth Street, eventually reaching North Dock Street around 1920.

From the beginning, the JSC relied on import-export traffic from the steamship lines at its piers and freight cars interchanged by car float at its Jay Street float bridge. Short trains of two or three cars constantly rumbled through Vinegar Hill for delivery to factories and warehouses along the right of way. Goods requiring delivery to other parts of Brooklyn were unloaded at the team track by express men with wagons and trucks.

The JSC’s identical steam locomotives, respectively numbered 1 and 2, were powerful six-wheel switchers ordered new in 1906 from the world’s largest locomotive builder, the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Short wheelbases let them shove boxcars along the railroad’s extremely sharp curves into its customers’ warehouses and industrial lofts. The railroad also had its own barn-red tugboats, with unusually tall pilot houses (so that their captains might see over the tops of the boxcars on their floats) and slender stacks painted in Arbuckle Brothers orange and black.

Other railroad freight terminals, similarly interchanging freight cars by car float, lined the shores of the five boroughs. The Bush Terminal Railroad, serving the massive industrial complex built by Irving T. Bush at the beginning of the 20th century, was the largest. On a 200-acre Brooklyn lot, Bush constructed fifteen industrial lofts (each six to eight stories high), eight steamship piers, more than 100 warehouses and a railroad that, at its busiest, used eight locomotives and even provided commuter service into the complex.

By the 1930s, the JSC had replaced its aging steamers with an offbeat collection of cheap, second-hand gasoline and diesel-electric locomotives from three different builders, as diverse as a sampler box of chocolates. Most were literally unique, built to demonstrate some manufacturer’s pioneering technology. Oldest and freakiest was Number 3, the second-oldest gasoline-powered freight locomotive in America. It was essentially a shack housing a 175-horsepower engine on a flatcar, built by General Electric in 1915, a generation before anyone believed internal combustion would replace steam in powering American transportation.

Arbuckle’s began selling their properties during the Great Depression. Eventually, even Yuban Coffee (the name comes from “Yuletide Banquet”) went to what is now Kraft Foods. The railroad soldiered on, enjoying a booming business during World War II. Then change came to Brooklyn’s waterfront and the JSC. Coal for home heating and industrial use, once the single largest category of harbor railroad freight, vanished with the adoption of oil and gas heat. Suburbia demanded better roads and highways: the consequent construction of a right of way maintained at taxpayer expense made motor trucking more flexible and economical than railroads and car floats, which had to pay for their equipment and pay taxes on it as well.

In 1955, Sea Land Service, Inc. pioneered containerization at its Weehawken docks. Within a generation, stevedoring—the labor-intensive break-bulk or piecemeal system of unloading ships we see in films such as On the Waterfront—had been replaced by intermodal containers: standardized trailer-sized steel boxes that could be freely shifted with a crane from one mode of transportation to another-from ship to flatbed trailer, say-within two or three minutes. Containerization’s efficiency, combined with construction of the Port Authority’s container ports in Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey, nearly destroyed Brooklyn’s seaport. Finally, the factories themselves began relocating from the city. In any case, car float service was profitable only with cheap labor. As labor unions pressed for better wages, building, operating, and maintaining fleets of tugboats and car floats had become astronomically expensive almost overnight.

As late as 1955, the JSC was busy enough to need yet another second-hand diesel. But within four years, its business shriveled away. On June 27, 1959, the railroad was abandoned. Its equipment was scrapped on site or sold. It was the first harbor terminal railroad to fail. Today, the sole survivor is the New York Cross-Harbor Railroad, which operates the remains of the former Bush Terminal and New York Dock railroads in Brooklyn and a daily car float across the Upper Bay to CSX and Norfolk Southern at Greenville, New Jersey. On land, the Cross-Harbor interchanges with the South Brooklyn Railway, another tiny railroad, surviving by the skin of its teeth, which once, legend says, attempted to haul a dead whale by flatcar to the Coney Island Aquarium. The whale proved too big for the tunnel south of Fourth Avenue, but that, as they say, is another story.

Of the JSC, only the rails in the street remain. About a year and a half ago, I noticed that my local New York Sports Club displays a huge poster of a buff runner sprinting up a Brooklyn street near the Manhattan Bridge. There are rails embedded in the cobblestones beneath his feet. The photographer used them to focus the viewer’s attention on the runner.

New York Press, April 16, 2003

February 7, 2015   No Comments

Celestial Railroad

Those led by dreams shall be misled, O King.

-William Sharp, “The Immortal Hour”

Acentury ago, the railroad was the cutting edge of practical technology, moving freight and people as the Internet now moves information and thought. One of the last and most spectacular railroad promoters was Arthur Stilwell. Some called him a visionary. Only toward the end would he reveal how visionary he was.

Stilwell was born in Rochester on October 21, 1859. Hamblin Stilwell, his grandfather, once brought Arthur to dinner with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. When the old rogue asked the six-year-old what he wanted to do when he grew up, the boy replied, “I’m going West to build a railroad.” At fourteen or fifteen, Arthur ran away from home. He worked as a hotel clerk and a printer while selling advertising, insurance and even his own patent medicine: Stilwell’s Specific. At nineteen, he married Jennie Wood, his childhood sweetheart. They were inseparable for the rest of their lives.

Stilwell was a born salesman: he believed in himself and his products. His charm, energy, and enthusiasm made him radiate optimism. Tall and powerfully built, his blond good looks were enhanced by impeccable grooming and tailoring. Even as an adolescent, he wore bespoke suits: he ran away from home in part because his father wanted him to wear clothes off the rack.

He was already a Travelers Insurance vice president, drawing a phenomenal $8,000 salary, when he devised a real estate promotion. In 1886, he moved to Kansas City, established the Real Estate Trust Company with his life savings of $25,000, and successfully implemented his plan. Stilwell understood that railroad service skyrocketed real estate values. His first railroad promotion literally walked into the office: one of his associates came by on a Tuesday complaining that his railroad franchise–a permit to build a railroad–would expire Friday night for lack of construction. Stilwell glanced at the franchise, boarded the next train for Philadelphia, and formulated his plan on the train. On Friday morning, he persuaded Drexel, Drexel and Company, investment bankers impressed by Stilwell’s successful real estate operations and extraordinary charisma, to invest $300,000 in the Kansas City Suburban Belt Railroad. He telegraphed his partner at noon. Construction began within minutes.

Stilwell’s railroad promotions all involved watered securities. This meant the par value was greater than their actual worth. For example, he sold his investors six percent Suburban Belt bonds nominally worth $1,000 for $660, tossing in twenty shares of $100 par value common stock as a bonus. The trust company’s commission was the odd $16. The railroad thus received $600 cash for securities apparently worth $3,000. Of course, they were only so much fancy wallpaper until the railroad succeeded.

Stilwell, not yet forty, was rich. What his friends did not know was that the financier was literally a visionary: he believed in spirits and omens, heard voices, and saw visions. Their message, however, was how to combine real estate development with railroad construction and make money.

Stilwell had a hunch. He glanced at a wall map. Kansas City, though 1400 miles from the East Coast, is only 800 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Cheap north-south rail transportation would bring wheat, corn, and lumber at competitive prices to Southern seaports. He organized the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railway–the Pee-Gee for short–raised his first $3 million, and began driving south, “straight as the crow flies.” As his tracklayers moved toward the Gulf, Stilwell sold millions of dollars worth of securities in the Pee-Gee and its numerous subsidiaries and affiliates. In 1898, he would be president of fifty-two corporations.

Stilwell’s gift for public relations was amazing. For example, he began promoting real estate development at Mena, Arizona, the halfway point on the line, while the Pee-Gee was forty miles away. He announced that the Pee-Gee would be in Mena in forty days. He claimed no one in human history had ever laid an average of a mile of track a day. This was an outrageous lie. The Union Pacific had regularly laid five to ten miles of track daily some thirty years before. However, the reporters didn’t know that, didn’t check their facts, and no one bothered telling them, either.

His track gangs began laying a mile a day, every day, to a barrage of Stilwell media releases in the Eastern and European press. His clipping service kept his investors informed and the investors kept up the flow of funds. On August 19, 1896, forty days to the day after his boast, Arthur Stilwell rode the first steam locomotive into Mena.

The Pee-Gee’s last spike was driven on September 11, 1897. Its Gulf terminal was a new city, modestly named Port Arthur. Although his railroad was fundamentally sound, it was overextended: In the fall of 1900, a Wall Street ring headed by John W. “Bet-a-Million” Gates forced the Pee-Gee into receivership and Stilwell out of a job through a court order granted by a federal judge in a hearing held at the judge’s home at 2 a.m. over an unpaid $40 printing bill.

On February 10, 1900, Stilwell announced he would build a railroad from Kansas City to Topolobampo, Mexico, a Pacific seaport 500 miles closer than San Francisco. The Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway would unlock the riches of Mexico’s northwest while carrying through traffic from the East on a faster route to the Orient.

In fact, the Orient crosses a land of unrelenting loneliness, drought, blizzards, and locusts from the Staked Plains across miles of alkali desert to Chihuahua City. After that was the hard part: crossing the Sierra Madre to the Sea of Cortez. His engineers found this part of the line alone would require thirty-nine bridges, eighty-seven tunnels and three complete loops over itself to descend 300 feet in 122 miles through five climatic zones.

Nonetheless, the Mexican government granted the Orient a subsidy of 5000 silver pesos per kilometer, a ninety-nine-year title to its right of way and free importation of construction materials for five years. Stilwell placed numerous stories about the Orient in leading magazines and newspapers. He spoke at luncheons and dinners along the route and in Europe, where he sold millions of dollars’ worth of stocks, bonds and notes, based on his record with the Pee-Gee and other promotions.

Then came the revolution. One of Stilwell’s contractors was part of it. Stilwell had met the man face to face in 1907 and disliked him immediately because he smelled of hair oil. He had been born Doroteo Arango. At sixteen, he killed the man who had raped his sister, then made his way as a bank robber and thief. He was probably the only cattle rustler with the bravado to list himself in a city directory as a “wholesale meat dealer.” Mexicans still honor his 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, as their country’s only victory in the 20th century against the North Americans. He was Pancho Villa.

In late 1910, Francisco Madero, a liberal revolutionist, took up arms against longtime President Porfirio Diaz, who had fixed one election too many. In April 1911, Villa joined Madero. Diaz left Mexico before the end of May. In a Kansas City Star interview, Stilwell complained that the revolutionists were blowing up bridges and tearing up track. Villa also robbed the Orient’s payrolls, killed its employees, and wrecked its trains.

Investors stopped buying Mexican securities. The Orient ran out of money only two-thirds complete. The peasants began calling the railroad “El Kansado” (from cansado, “the tired one”). On March 7, 1912, the Orient went into receivership and Stilwell was again out of a job. One accountant observed that $28 million had been raised and spent on a railroad worth no more than $8 million as scrap. Virtually every dollar raised by Stilwell for the Orient had gone into its construction. He had simply underestimated his expenses and operating profit. He later argued that even if the stockholders lost $20 million, the West and Mexico saw $250 million in increased property values. This is not what the investors wanted to hear. The Orient alone represents one-tenth of all foreign investment lost during the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican government completed the line across the Sierra Madre only in 1961, at a cost of $88 million. Topolobampo remains a fishing town.

Stilwell and his wife moved to France. Now his energy flowed into writing. He wrote Cannibals of Finance: Fifteen Years’ Contest with the Money Trust (1912). Stilwell never admitted responsibility for his failures. He even justified the Orient: a sound idea, honestly financed, with great potential. It was not his fault that crops failed, the Mexican Revolution broke out, and the money trust’s machinations cut off the railroad’s credit. (One hears the same thing from today’s dotcom promoters, who blame their investors for refusing to pour yet more money into unprofitable schemes.)

Stilwell’s writings reflected an increasing interest in the occult. His introduction to his novel The Light that Never Failed, a title that owes something to Kipling, alleged all his schemes-real estate promotions, railroads, coal mines, seaports, ship canals, trust companies-resulted from visions and plans received from the spirit world through messengers he called “brownies.” The faintly favorable reviews of the novel were inconsequential beside the massive publicity focused on the brownies. He would later claim to have foreseen World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the return of the Jews to Palestine. Apparently, no one asked why he had not foreseen the Mexican Revolution. One can only imagine what the Orient’s investors felt at learning their railroad had been the stuff that dreams are made of.

In 1922, the Stilwells returned to the United States. They lived in a luxurious apartment at 305 West End Ave. On September 26, 1928, Arthur Stilwell died after a brief illness. Two weeks later, Jennie Stilwell stepped from a window of their twelfth-floor apartment. She left a note to her sister-in-law: “I must go to Arthur.” Some claim he died worth about $1,000. As he had requested, his body was cremated and the ashes flung to the four winds.

New York Press, April 17, 2001

February 6, 2015   No Comments

The Attack of the Turtle

Demonstrations and riots had torn New York for over a year. The legal government had fled and nearly three-quarters of the population with it. Committees of public safety dominated by radicals ruled the streets. An army of 23,000 insurgents held lower Manhattan.

On the morning of July 9, messengers from Philadelphia crossed the Hudson with a document for the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary army. Five days before, Congress had approved a clear policy statement that coincidentally clarified his personal position. Until now he had been a rebel. Now he was a traitor.

The Commander-in-Chief ordered that six long-hand copies of the document be made and distributed to his brigade commanders. Then he ordered Retreat—the military ceremony ending the day—for 6:00 p.m., a half-hour earlier than usual. Most of his troops were bivouacked in the rolling wooded hills of what is now midtown. Their ceremonies would be held wherever brigade commanders could find sufficiently large, flat, open spaces.

The two brigades encamped in the city proper were ordered to form on the Common—from roughly the south end of City Hall Park to the intersection of Broadway and Park Row. By 5:30, the Common was a chaos of dust, marching regiments, bellowed orders, rolling drums, and piercing fifes. The adjoining streets were full of civilians, drawn by the stir.

The Commander-in-Chief swung into the saddle shortly before six for a brief ride to the Common. He was in his mid-forties, a big man, about 210 pounds and six feet-two inches tall. From early manhood, as Bruce Bliven Jr. wrote, his tremendous natural presence had made him “a man people looked to when he was in the room.” His face was ruddy, with the clear, pale skin that burns rather than tans. He was remarkably strong and, except for his teeth, in fine health. He was so broad-shouldered that his uniform coats needed no padding. He sat easily and gracefully in the saddle: he was, as a fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, said, “the finest horseman on the continent.”

He rode into the hollow square of men amid a cacophony of shouting as the company officers reported to their regimental commanders, the regimental commanders to the brigade commanders, and the brigade commanders to the Commander-in-Chief that all men were present or accounted for.  “Then the formation was ordered to stand at ease,” Bliven wrote in Under the Guns, “and it was quiet.”

He habitually wore an assumed expression of good-humored reserve. This was in part due to physical discomfort—his teeth hurt—but more to force of habit. He consciously worked to conceal his emotions and generally succeeded (Bliven notes in Battle for Manhattan that the Commander-in-Chief was naturally passionate and hot-tempered). At worst, he sometimes showed irritation by withdrawing into an icy, impenetrable formality.

Only a few, such as General Charles Lee, whom the Commander-in-Chief would personally relieve of command on the battlefield after Lee’s bungling the Battle of Monmouth, would taste the extraordinary, almost terrifying rage coiled within George Washington: the sudden flush, the calm features contorted with contempt and anger, the narrowed blue eyes turned to slate, the grating roar of the voice, so rarely raised above a conversational tone, and the savage words striking like the butt end of a bullwhip.

walcutt-george-detBut this was not such a day. The ceremonies opened with routine announcements: the Commander-in- Chief approved sentences of flogging passed by court-martial against two deserters; the form of the passes for the Hudson River ferries had changed; the Congress had authorized each regiment to have its own chaplain and pay him thirty-three-and-a-third dollars a month.

Then an aide-de-camp declaimed the document from Philadelphia:

When in the Course of human Events…We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…that when any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government…A Prince whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free people…And for the support of this declaration, with a firm Reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

The chaplain read from the Eightieth Psalm; the brigades gave three cheers; and the troops were dismissed. That night, a mob quietly toppled the gilt-lead statue of King George III at Bowling Green, where the fountain is now, and broke it into sections small enough to cart away for melting into shot.

From contemporary descriptions of his looks and personality, David Bushnell was probably a nerd. He sold his share of the family farm to pay his tuition at Yale College. From his arrival as a thirty-one-year-old freshman, Bushnell studied the Transactions of the Royal Society and other scientific journals in the library. His obsession was solving a particular problem: detonating explosives under water.

By 1773, he had succeeded. Dr. Benjamin Gale observed him place two ounces of gunpowder in a container, which Bushnell then submerged and detonated. Before graduating in 1775, he had devised a bomb, which he called a “powder magazine.” Two hollowed blocks of oak, bound with iron bands, contained 150 pounds of gunpowder. When an adjustable clockwork timer ran down, it released a gunlock “with a good flint” to detonate the bomb. The device was buoyant, to float up against the bottom of its target.

Now Bushnell turned to the means of delivering the bomb. Apparently this was much easier. Over the summer of 1775, he designed and built the world’s first working submarine.

The Turtle was 7 1/2 feet long, 6 feet high, and built of oak in the shape of an egg or a clam, bound with iron bands, the seams caulked, and “the whole smear’ d over with tar.” The conning tower was made of metal, with a hinged door and eight small windows of thick glass, each about the size of a half-dollar. When afloat, it was nearly awash. Once under water, it could be navigated by compass. Both compass and depth gauge were illuminated by fox fire: phosphorescent wood.

She moved with three crank-driven pair of oars, “crossed like a windmill,” that drove the boat forward and back, up and down, and to port and starboard. Her operator could make as much as three knots by vigorously turning the crank. When the operator wanted to submerge, he pressed a spring-operated valve, opening a seacock that admitted water into a ballast tank. To surface, he expelled the water by pedaling a pump with his feet.

0844101When on the surface, a ventilator admitted fresh and expelled stale air. Its valves automatically closed as the boat submerged and opened as she surfaced. When submerged, the operator had about a half-hour’s supply of oxygen.

The powder magazine was carried on the Turtle‘s back. Once the submarine had reached its target, the operator used a crank-operated drill to hole the ship’s underwater planking. The drill then inserted a screw into the hole. The screw, in turn, was linked to the bomb.

Now the ship needed a crew. Sergeant Ezra Lee, from Lyme, Connecticut volunteered and  Bushnell trained him, while the British seized Staten Island, Long Island, and Governor’s Island. In late July, 1776, the Turtle was carted overland to the Hudson. The time had come.

On a calm August night, Lee began history’s first submarine combat mission. Off Whitehall Stairs, near the Battery, he entered the craft, the hatch was clamped tight, and he cast off, setting out to sink Lord Howe’s flagship, H.M.S. Eagle.

Few warships have set forth “so open to fatal accident,” as Stewart Holbrook wrote in Lost Men of American History. He summarized Lee’s situation: “…should a leak start, the operator could do little but drown where he was, for he was clamped in from outside. A floating log might break one of the eight windows. A good stiff jolt could set off the devilish infernal machine that rode on the Turtle‘s back.”

The ebbing tide pulled Lee past the British fleet and toward the open sea. He cranked furiously to bring her about and then, against the tide, back to the fleet. It took two-and-a-half hours.

In the darkness, to a man seeing her from six inches above the water, the Eagle seemed gigantic. Lee glided to her stern, opened the seacock, and submerged. He felt the Turtle rubbing against the man-of-war. Save for the foxfire glowing on his compass and depth gauge, Lee was in utter darkness. He began drilling into the Eagle’s hull.

Within a few seconds, Lee realized the drill wasn’t penetrating the ship.  Unbeknownst to him, the Eagle’s bottom had been sheathed with copper against fouling. He paddled a little further and tried again. No luck. He went into a dive, passed under the Eagle, and came up on the other side. Still no luck.  Lee now realized the bomb couldn’t be delivered to the target.

The dawn’s early light now filtered through the Turtle‘s windows. Lee heard orders being given on the decks above him. He still had a four-mile voyage through the Royal Navy to get home, cranking every inch of the way. Worse, the foxfire had failed and he couldn’t read his compass. He surfaced to get his bearings, submerged, and started north for the Battery, now, thankfully, traveling with the tide.

Turtle Attacking the Eagle

But he still had to resurface periodically to check his course, and he was noticed. As he passed Governor’s Island, a barge started for him. When the redcoats approached “within fifty to sixty yards of the machine,” Lee “suddenly detached…the magazine,” which bobbed to the surface. The redcoats, suspecting “a Yankee trick, took alarm, and returned to the island.”

As the Turtle moved on, the mine slowly drifted in the tide.  It was barely past Governor’s Island when it explodedwith “a report like thunder,” raising a huge column of water and chunks of wood and iron into the air. Meanwhile, Lee reached Whitehall Stairs, his crew opened the hatch, and he crawled out. Years later, Washington wrote of this to Jefferson, “I thought then and still think it was an effort of genius.”

On October 9, 1776, a British fleet sank an American sloop carrying the Turtle. Bushnell raised the submarine, but what happened next is unclear. Some suggest that Bushnell was unable to repair the boat. Holbrook indicates the Turtle went back to sea in 1777. West of New London, Connecticut, the frigate H.M.S. Cerberus was holding a captured schooner as a prize. One of the prize crew found and hauled on a long line that seemed to have fouled on the schooner. At its end was “a machine up to one hundred weight” that the sailors hauled aboard.  They shook it. It blasted the schooner to bits. Bushnell’s magazines were later released as drift mines in the Delaware River where they went bumping, and sometimes exploding, among a terrorized British fleet.

Sergeant Lee was personally congratulated for his valor by the Commander-in-Chief. He went on to fight at Trenton, Brandywine, and Monmouth and achieved the rank of  “ensign,” which we now call second lieutenant. He later served as a secret agent for Army intelligence. He died at Lyme on October 29, 1821, venerated as a hero of the Revolution. His tombstone states that he was “Esteemed by Washington.” An 1824 entry in Rogers’s New American Biographical Dictionary states that Lee was “the only man of which it can be said that he fought the enemy upon land, upon water, and under the water.”

After David Bushnell was discharged from the Army in 1781 as a captain, he vanished. His family heard of him in 1787: a request that they ship a chest of papers to him at an address in New London. There were rumors he had gone to France, experimented on secret weapons for the French Republic, and died in the Terror. Then, nothing.

In January or February 1826, nearly fifty years after the Turtle’s attack on H.M.S. Eagle, a Georgia country doctor known as Bush died quietly at home in Columbia County. He had been something of a solitary, though pleasant in his personal dealings.  His patients thought well of him. We now know Dr. Bush was David Bushnell.  At some point between 1787 and 1796, Bushnell had changed his name, obtained a medical degree (not as difficult then as now), and moved to Georgia, where he established a practice and spent his spare time tinkering with “curious machinery” of which little is known.

At Bushnell’s death, according to H. L. Abbot’s The Beginning of Modern Submarine Warfare, “his workshop contained the unassembled pieces of a spherical wooden boat.”

New York Press, July 7, 1999

February 4, 2015   No Comments

The Road of Hubris

Occasionally, we think about investments we  could have made that might have made us rich. Armed with clairvoyance, who would not have sunk the farm into Microsoft, back when Bill Gates was a nebbish? But we probably would have put our money into AT&T, U.S. Steel or Western Union—sound investments that would become much riskier through technological change and management by mediocrity.

It’s easy to see why a century ago, an investor choosing between, on the one hand, an automobile factory promoted by an obscure Michigan mechanic named Henry Ford and, on the other, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway, backed by J.P. Morgan & Company and controlled by the bluest of blue chips, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, might have opted for the known quantity.

The Westchester—“the Road of Ease”—ran its first train on May 29, 1912 and its last on December 31, 1937. It was safe, stylish, and efficient. Its trains ran on time. Though it never turned a profit, part of its main line survives as part of the IRT number 5 line, carrying passengers  between East 180th Street and Dyre Avenue in the Bronx.

The Westchester was an old idea. On March 20, 1872, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway was incorporated to build from New York through the Bronx to the Connecticut border beyond Portchester. The Panic of 1873 cut off new investment in the scheme as abruptly as the 2001 recession cut off the dotcoms, and so the Westchester slumbered as a paper railroad—a file of corporate papers, including its franchise to build through the Bronx to Westchester—in its lawyers’ office. In 1906 investors headed by J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller (John D.’s roguish brother) bought control of the Westchester for $11 million. This was a lot of money for an abstraction.

However, the corporate charter and the franchise justified the expense to Charles Sanger Mellen, the New Haven railroad’s arrogant, sharp-tongued, and audacious president. Throughout his presidency, from 1904 to 1913, Mellen enjoyed the confidence of J.P. Morgan, who was as much a financial statesman as an investment banker.

Morgan had dominated the New Haven through sheer force of personality since 1892. Mellen later testified that without Morgan the New Haven’s board of directors would have been “as lacking in interest as a herd of cows deprived of a bull.” Morgan’s policy was simple: eliminate competition. He saw the railroad as a route to a monopoly over southern New England’s surface transportation that would literally control “everything that moved.”

By 1912, Mellen had achieved this. Through new construction, stock control, or lease, the New Haven operated over 2,000 miles of track: nearly every inch of steam railroad and trolley in Connecticut and Rhode Island and most of southern Massachusetts. The New Haven even controlled the coastal shipping companies—like the great Fall River Line with its huge white wedding-cake four-decker steamers Commonwealth and Priscilla. (The heroine of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 ends her life aboard a thinly disguised Fall River Line steamer.)

The Westchester’s peculiarity was that, though controlled by the New Haven, it would directly compete with its parent for commuter passengers between New York City and its northern termini, White Plains and Portchester. Yet this wasn’t an absurdity. First, Mellen believed the Westchester would eventually save the New Haven money. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which regulated railroads, required the New Haven to operate commuter trains with cheap tickets between Westchester and Connecticut and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, which was owned by a rival company, the New York Central. The New York Central charged the New Haven up to twenty-four cents for each New Haven passenger passing through Grand Central. This meant the New Haven lost money on every commuter it carried.

The Westchester’s planned southern terminus was at 132nd Street and Willis Avenue, where its riders could board the IRT subway at 129th Street or the el train at 133rd. This obviated Grand Central’s terminal charges. If the Westchester charged lower fares than the New Haven, New Haven commuters might shift to the Westchester, cutting Mellen’s losses.

Second, Mellen believed that New York City’s commercial center would continue expanding northward. Between 1800 and 1850, the commercial district had grown from the tip of Manhattan to Canal Street; by 1900, it had passed 42nd Street. Mellen expected that it would reach the South Bronx between the 1930s and 1950s. (The city fathers planned for this: look at a map of the roads, railroads, and subways that converge at 149th Street in the South Bronx neighborhood nicknamed “The Hub.”) The Westchester would be right there, waiting for it.

The Westchester drove its first spike in 1909. Mellen spared no expense: Roger Arcara described it in Westchester’s Forgotten Railway as “the culmination of railway development: the most modern and efficient design, the most solid and sturdy construction, the greatest capacity (for its amount of trackage), and the most attractive layout and appearance of any line in the world.” It cut through rocks and hills and filled gullies and bogs to keep a straight, level right of way. Its bridges, viaducts, embankments, and retaining walls were designed to last for the ages. Although most of its route was then rural, the line was solidly built as a four-track heavy-duty electric railroad using the finest technology of the day.

It opened on May 29, 1912. From the beginning to the end, it was a first-class operation. Its 72-foot-long olive-green steel cars, with upholstered double-seat benches and a toilet compartment, could reach 57 mph within a minute. At E. 180th Street, Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Gun Hill Road, Baychester Avenue, and Dyre Avenue the railroad built fabulously ornate stations of poured concrete and steel, designed in a kind of Spanish Renaissance style (“modified Mission” it was called), several of which still serve the MTA today. It carried 2.8 million passengers in 1913, 4.5 million in 1916, and 14 million in 1928.

Yet the Westchester never quite caught on. Its elegant trains were rarely more than five coaches long, in contrast to the fourteen-coach commuter trains run by the New York Central and the New Haven. Commuters preferred a one-seat ride to midtown over changing to the subway at the East 133rd Street terminal. Second, the city’s zoning laws, adopted four years after the Westchester opened, effectively set the northern limit of commercial development at 59th Street.

Third, the Westchester never developed much freight traffic: indeed, it operated only one freight locomotive throughout its existence. Some said it hauled a single load of coal up to White Plains in the fall and took out the ashes in the spring.

Fourth was the fall of Charles S. Mellen. The New Haven’s press bureau made the railroad seem a financial Rock of Gibraltar. Yet as early as 1907, Louis Brandeis, then a Boston lawyer, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court, had shown that Mellen’s profits were largely bookkeeping magic. Few paid attention then. In May 1912, a few days before the Westchester accepted its first paying passenger, the ICC began a routine review of the New Haven’s services and freight rates. Their accountants found confusing transactions between the New Haven and its 336 identified subsidiaries. The review became a full-scale investigation.

The report, issued in early 1913, proved Brandeis correct. The New Haven was insolvent: it had lent money to its money-losing subsidiaries, which they used to pay dividends to the parent company, which the parent then classified as income. Worse, Mellen had constantly shuffled assets between subsidiaries to inflate profits. One relatively clear example, outlined in George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin’s Splendor Sailed the Sound, was the New Haven’s coastal steamship operations. The ships themselves were sold in 1907 by one subsidiary, New England Navigation, to another, Consolidated Railway. They were not paid for in cash but with Consolidated Railway stock, worth $20 million but only because Mellen said it was.

The New Haven’s accountants showed a paper profit on the sale for New England Navigation, which was reported as real income, and an increase in the assets of Consolidated Railway. It looked like the real thing. With each transfer, though, the corporate books became works of increasingly elaborate fiction, showing explosive growth without any real increase in value. The steamboats alone shuttled from subsidiary to subsidiary (Consolidated Railway to New England Steamship to New England Navigation and back) over the next five years, pumping up the asset values on one or another set of books, depending on which one needed to be made attractive to investors at any point in time.

An immediate result of the investigation was Mellen’s resignation in August 1913. Within the year, the ICC offered and Mellen accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He described the steamboat deals and numerous other secret transactions. The New Haven’s treasurer, Hiram Kochersperger, was taken ill; his doctors advised him to travel to Europe for a rest, rendering him regrettably unable to testify. Mellen, when asked how long Kochersperger had been ill, replied, “Since the Commission began to get after the New Haven’s accounts.”

On November 2, 1914, a federal grand jury indicted twenty-one New Haven directors; Mellen spent thirty-one days on the stand at their trial.

Meanwhile, the Westchester lost money on its day-to-day operations from 1912 until 1921 and from 1932 through 1937. Even in the good years, it never made enough to cover the bond interest, which was paid by the New Haven. Much as the dotcoms relied on infusions of fresh venture capital, so the Westchester relied on advances from its parent. In 1935, six years into the Great Depression, the New Haven went broke. The advances stopped. In its annual report for 1935, the New Haven wrote off the Westchester, stating that “The advances made to the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company amount to $21,460,494.87, but as the prospect of their being repaid is very remote, they have been reduced to a nominal value of $1.” The next day the Westchester defaulted on its bonds and filed for bankruptcy.

By April 15, 1937, the Westchester’s receiver determined the line was hopelessly insolvent. On December 31, 1937, the Westchester made its final run. In June 1939, scrappers began removing the tracks in Westchester County; a year later, the City of New York purchased the line between E. 174th Street and Dyre Avenue for $1.7 million—much less than it had cost to build—and began operating it on May 15, 1941.

Here and there, the Westchester survives. The East 180th Street and Morris Park stations still bear the initials “N.Y.W.B.” The overpass at Brady and Matthews Avenues bears the railroad’s symbol: the caduceus, a staff entwined with coiled snakes, symbol of Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods. According to Cox Rail, an online site for collectors of obsolescent railroad securities, one of the Westchester’s handsomely engraved bonds, meant to be redeemed in 1946 for $1,000 in gold, is worth about $50.

New York Press, February 19,2002

February 3, 2015   No Comments

The Road of Anthracite

Phoebe Snow started here. I mean the train, not the singer–although she started here too, come to think of it. Born in New York City, she borrowed her stage name from the premiere express train of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, “The Route of Phoebe Snow,” “The Road of Anthracite,” which passengers boarded by taking a ferry boat from the railroad’s lower West Side ferry terminal to the massive Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The ninety-two-year-old ramshackle bronze-green Beaux-Arts giant, now operated by New Jersey Transit, still crouches a mile upriver from Jersey City’s financial district, its ferry slips gaping toward Manhattan. There, the Lackawanna began its long run to Scranton, Elmira, Binghamton, and Buffalo, where it connected with the Wabash, the Erie, the Nickel Plate,  and other trains serving all points west. It is the last working railroad-ferry terminal on the Hudson’s west shore.

Until the Hudson Tubes (now the PATH lines) linked New Jersey and New York in 1908, the Hudson had been untunneled and unbridged south of Poughkeepsie, ninety miles from the sea. Most regional railroads terminated at Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, or Edgewater. They built or shared vast terminal stations where trains met the Manhattan steam ferries. It was a magnificent, leisurely way to enter or leave the city.

At the turn of the century, the Lackawanna’s locomotives burned what they hauled, smokeless anthracite coal. The railroad’s advertising emphasized this cleanliness through Phoebe Snow, a fictional woman passenger whose flowing white dress remained spotless by using the Lackawanna. The line even named its premiere express train for her. Thus the jingles ran:

Says Phoebe Snow about to go
Upon a trip to Buffalo,
“My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite.”

With dimpling face all full of grace
Fair Phoebe pictures in a daze
That journey bright when clad in white.
She used the Road of Anthracite.

The same copy writer probably later worked on Burma Shave.

In 1914, the Pennsylvania Railroad—The Standard Railroad of the World (their ads said so)—finished tunneling under the Hudson, through Manhattan, and under the East River to Long Island while completing Pennsylvania Station at 34th Street. The Pennsy spent some 400 million prewar dollars over two decades to create history’s greatest privately financed public works project. (Advocates of a new Yankee Stadium should note: not one cent was the taxpayers’ money.)

However, the Pennsy monopolized Penn Station. At Hoboken, the Lackawanna’s passengers still changed to either ferries or the Tubes. A new jingle made the best of it:

Now Phoebe Snow direct can go
From Thirty-Third to Buffalo.
From Broadway bright the “Tubes” run right
Into the Road of Anthracite.

For another two generations—until they went bankrupt one after another—The Lackawanna and the other railroads ran passenger trains into their Jersey terminals. The Lackawanna ran boats between Hoboken and Manhattan’s Barclay Street until November 25, 1967, when the old steam ferry Elmira made its last run. The Phoebe Snow was discontinued. The Lackawanna (which in its last years was nicknamed the “Lackamoney”), vanished into Conrail and New Jersey Transit. Most of the terminals were torn down. But Lackawanna Terminal endured to link New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains with PATH and New York Waterways.

In May 1998 New Jersey Transit held its annual Hoboken Transit Festival in the Terminal’s great train shed. NJT displayed its latest, brightest, and best equipment. Little railroads also showed off their toys. The Morristown & Erie (called the “Ben Central” after its late president, Ben Friedman) had a fire-engine red switcher and the New York, Susquehanna & Western (“The Susie-Q”) a stainless steel rail-diesel car.

I thought of the fallen flags, the railroads that run no more. Gone are Thomas Wolfe’s “names of the mighty rails that bind the nation,” those names “that roll richly from the tongue and fire the imagining with sonorous and heroic imagery, with the sweep and wonder of plains and deserts, great rivers of empire…” Most modern railroad names seem selected by the accounting department. The CSX Corporation is the anonymous successor to nearly a dozen famous lines: Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, Western Maryland, Seaboard Air Line, Atlantic Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, whose Pan American express—“Old Reliable”—was so prompt that a radio station used its thunderous passage by an open mike to signal noon every day.

Some names live on in old songs. The Wabash Cannonball. The Rock Island Line. The City of New Orleans. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. And who would not be intrigued by the Memphis, Ultima Thule & Arkadelphia?

Amid all the cheery modern colors at the festival darkly loomed a massive steam locomotive. The legend CHESAPEAKE AND OHIO in gold lettering emblazoned its tender, while the number 614 decorated its cab. The engine is the last dual-service steam locomotive built in North America, and it used to haul passenger trains across the Appalachians to Chicago, as well as deliver half-mile long strings of coal-laden hopper cars from West Virginia to tidewater, no sweat.

As with any work of art, the 614 symbolizes things uncontemplated by her makers, particularly the speed of obsolescence. The machine is fifteen years younger than my father, who in 1948 was shooting hoops with Waterford High’s sophomore team as the 614 rolled new from the Lima Locomotive Works in Hamilton, Ohio. Only eight years later, the C&O put her in storage where she remained for a generation until a new owner restored her to service.The 614 is as complicated as its 28,000 parts and as simple as boiling water. The same force that makes your teapot whistle sounds the 614 steam chimes,which can be heard five miles away booming two octaves below middle A.

As recently as a decade ago, the United States government tested the 614 for fuel efficiency, putting her back to work hauling coal trains in the West Virginia mountains. The results were inconclusive. Diesels are much less expensive to operate and maintain. However, a steam locomotive as large as the 614 is more powerful than most individual diesel-electric units, and it burns domestic coal, not imported oil. Only recently have diesels rolled out of the shops with power approaching that of Union Pacific’s Big Boy steamers, which hauled freight trains of up to five miles long at 55 to 60 miles an hour across the Rockies.

Even forty years ago, steam locomotives had largely disappeared from American railroads. And yet, and yet…on July 8, 1998, an express freight train failed at a siding at Carr, Colorado. The ultra-modern diesel’s computer went down, poor thing. Oddly, the nearest locomotive was one of Union Pacific’s two working steamers—the 844, a fifty-six-year old similar to the 614. Union Pacific had never retired the 844 (the railroad proudly claims it never totally dieselized), which now hauls fan trips and employee specials.

Now UP put the 844 to work. She passed and backed into the siding. The crews coupled her to the dead diesel, hooked up the air hoses, and tested the brakes. Waves of heat rippled off the firebox as gray oil smoke drifted from the stack.

The whistle sounded twice. The engineer released the brakes. The 844 sighed and eight brake shoes relaxed their grip on the drivers. He set the valve gear forward. Then, the engineer’s gloved hand opened the throttle, one notch, releasing steam into the cylinders, slowly forcing back the pistons, moving the main rods, turning the drivers.

A puff of exhaust burst from the stack. Steam hissed from the cylinder cock and the pistons returned. She crept forward. The engineer opened the throttle, notch by notch, and she slowly accelerated.

At five miles an hour, the exhaust began barking up the stack in rhythm with the moving pistons. She gained speed, effortlessly rolling into the Colorado hills, the stack talk faster and louder until the blasts blended into continuous roar that lasted all the way to Denver.

New York Press, September 1, 1998

January 31, 2015   No Comments