New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — The Urban Landscape

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.

staten_island_1937_wpa_poster

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.

statenislandferry


March 24, 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

Sheridan’s Ride

Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square is not named for Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote The Rivals. The statue of General Philip Sheridan, for whom the square is named, is around the corner in Christopher Park. And the only nearby battle was the Stonewall Riot at 53 Christopher Street in June 1969. Sheridan’s statue, erected in 1936, is so poorly executed one might not know the subject without his name on the plinth. The sculptor was one of those of whom Hilaire Belloc observed, “We dream in fire and work in clay, and some of us puddle in butter with our toes.”

One can forgive bad public art if it is bad on a truly grand scale—the kind of stuff that Peter Fleming describes so well in Brazilian Adventure: “Victory has got a half Nelson on Liberty from behind. Liberty is giving away about half a ton, and also carrying weight in the shape of a dying President and a brace of cherubs. (One of the cherubs is doing a cartwheel on the dying President’s head, while the other, scarcely less considerate, attempts to pull his trousers off.) Meanwhile an unclothed male figure, probably symbolical, unquestionably winged, and carrying in one hand a model railway, is in the very act of delivering a running kick at the two struggling ladies, from whose drapery on the opposite side an eagle is escaping, apparently unnoticed. Around the feet of these gigantic principals all is bustle and confusion. Cavalry are charging, aboriginals are being emancipated, and liners launched. Farmers, liberators, nuns, firemen, and a poet pick their way with benign insouciance over a subsoil thickly carpeted with corpses, cannon balls, and scrolls.”

The works of Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) are—sadly—a cut above this. Her genius was for small, subtle, vivid animal sculptures, and she is not forgotten: the National Museum of Women in the Arts sells a reproduction of her Yawning Jaguar in genuine hydrostone for $99.99 online, shipping and handling extra. Huntington’s large sculptures combine her superb technique with overblown romantic bombast. She studied with Gutzon Borglum, whose megalomaniacal later works include Mount Rushmore and the Confederate monument on Stone Mountain, Georgia. (Borglum began what became the world’s largest bas-relief, three acres of Lee, Jackson, and Davis on horseback, all at least nine stories high.)

In 1923, Anna Hyatt married Archer Milton Huntington, who bankrolled the Hispanic Society of America. Understandably, then, her flamboyant El Cid Campeador dominates the society’s forecourt at Audubon Terrace, between 155th and 156th Streets. An admirer wrote, “The Cid gloriously bestrides his mount, he carries himself with exactly the flourish that is associated with his legend, and from the tips of his feet to the hand clenching the staff of his flaunting banner he is magnificently alive.” Mrs. Huntington added four statues of seated warriors about the base, surrounded by heraldic lions, stags, does, bears, jaguars, vultures, and wild boar, and then, energies unquenched, designed the bases of two nearby flagpoles, carved with “muscular men and frantic horses entangled in desperate struggle, kneeling monks and churchmen, and statuettes symbolic of the arts.” On the rear walls of the forecourt are equestrian bas-reliefs of Don Quixote and of Boabdil, Granada’s last Muslim king, who has reined up to turn and gaze at his lost city. On its base is engraved a verse by Mr. Huntington:

He wore the cloak of grandeur. It was bright
With stolen promises and colours thin,
But now and then the wind—the wind of night
Raised it and showed the broken thing within.

Mrs. Huntington’s genius sometimes overwhelms. Yet if she had sculpted Sheridan’s statue in Christopher Park, we would recognize the subject. He is better represented in the bravura statue by Borglum at Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd and R Streets in Washington: having pulled up his warhorse Rienzi, Sheridan has turned in the saddle, hat crumpled in his gloved right hand, ready to roar out his orders and turn the tide at Cedar Creek.

Philip Henry “Little Phil” Sheridan, who never lost a battle, was short—about 5 feet 5 inches tall, with a long torso, stumpy legs, and, as Lincoln quipped, “such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.” After eight years’ active duty, Sheridan was still a second lieutenant in 1861. Within a year he would be a general. Like most great American commanders of the past, he would be unwelcome in today’s Army, corrupted by Robert McNamara and his successors into a puddle of political correctness.

Sheridan was quick-tempered and blunt: West Point suspended him for a year after he assaulted a cadet officer with a bayonet and his fists. Ten years later, Major Generals Sheridan and George H. Thomas—the latter justly called the Rock of Chickamauga—were conferring in a day coach when a Southern railroad conductor spoke to Little Phil with “less than adequate respect.” Sheridan wordlessly rose, beat the conductor senseless, threw him off his own train, returned to his seat, and resumed the conversation, “no explanation given and none required.”

Yet Sheridan’s planning reflected a deliberate, thoroughly professional mind. He had been a quartermaster, one who marshals men and supplies, and the discipline took. His commands fought hard, but never without food, clothing, shelter, or ammunition.

Perversely, he became immortal for the day he was surprised. In the fall of 1864, Sheridan was campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley, transforming the breadbasket of the Confederacy into a wasteland, where “crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their own provender.”

Before dawn on October 19, 1864, the Confederate Army of the Valley, Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early commanding, fell upon Sheridan’s encamped army at Cedar Creek, Virginia. Like Sheridan, Early was tough, irritable and profane. Always outnumbered, always outgunned, he was audacious and imaginative. Three months before, he e had terrified the Union when he had reached the gates of Washington, having slipped his command through the Army of the Potomac. Now he had surprised Sheridan’s army and hoped to stop the campaign of destruction.

He shattered the Union’s left and center. The entire Eighth Corps, nine thousand strong, panicked and ran. The attack happened so quickly that a goodly number of federal troops fled in their underwear. The rebels were looting Sheridan’s tents as the sun rose over the Shenandoah Valley.

Little Phil was not there.  He was returning from a conference in Washington. He had reached Winchester, Virginia, and Thomas Buchanan Read’s most famous poem, “Sheridan’s Ride,” begins there:

Up from the South at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste, to the chieftain’s door
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.

When called at dawn on October 19, in Winchester, “twenty miles away,” Sheridan heard distant artillery fire. He thought it part of a reconnaissance in force he had ordered before departing for Washington. He stepped outside around 9 a.m. The guns seemed louder. He mounted his warhorse Rienzi and met his cavalry escort. Then, puzzled, he dismounted and put his ear to the ground. What the ex-Indian fighter heard was the continuous roar of full battle and the sound was approaching. His army was in retreat. Now he trotted forward. As he crested a rise, Sheridan suddenly saw, in Maj. George “Sandy” Forsyth’s words, “hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but utterly demoralized, and baggage-wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion.” He received reports as Rienzi walked forward at a measured pace. A conventional commander might have regrouped just outside Winchester, gathering stragglers into a defensive line. Instead, he ordered the stragglers collected and funneled back up the turnpike toward the front.

Then he spurred Rienzi toward the sound of the guns. At his right, an orderly carried Sheridan’s personal battle flag, bearing the two stars of a major general.

But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good broad highway leading down…
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.

It was a brilliant Indian summer morning. Rienzi stretched his legs, leaving most of the escort in the dust. The Newtown crossroads were jammed with supply wagons and caissons. Sheridan took Rienzi over the wall and into the fields.

Then, striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line ’mid a storm of huzzas…

Sheridan thundered through the files of retreating men, most wounded only in their pride. He roared, “Come on back, boys, face the other way, we’ll giveem hell, God damn them, we’re going to lick those fellows out of their boots,” among other things. A witness of Sheridan’s verbal skills wrote he “didn’t spare anybody in the bunch and included all their kinfolk, direct and collateral. It was a liberal education in profanity to hear him.” And it worked. Thure de Thurlstrup’s painting, Sheridan’s Ride, now at Brown University, shows Sheridan at full gallop, the pennant whipping in the breeze, as the stragglers stop, stare, begin cheering and turn around.

South of Newtown, he regained the road to find the Sixth Corps standing fast in line of battle. Not everyone had run away. General Alfred Torbert rode up, saluted, and said, “My God, I’m glad you’ve come.” Sheridan rode out before the troops, wheeled Rienzi and shouted, “Men, by God, we’ll whip them yet. We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight.” The men roared back. He found his three corps commanders conferring nearby. Brigadier General Emory murmured that his men were ready to cover the retreat. Sheridan spat his reply: “Retreat! Hell, I just got here!”

It was 10:30 a.m. His men hungry and exhausted, Early’s assault had bogged down. Major General John Brown Gordon, who had broken Sheridan’s left that morning, begged to renew the attack. Early replied, “This is glory enough for one day.” Sheridan brought up his reserves and regrouped. At noon, he rode the length of his own front, as biographer Roy Morris Jr. put it, “swinging his hat in his right hand to give the soldiers a glimpse of his familiar bullet-shaped head.” Their thunderous cheers rolled down the line with him. At 4 p.m., 200 Union buglers sounded the charge. Sheridan smashed into the Confederate left, turned it and then rolled up Early’s line. By 5:30 the fighting was over. Sheridan’s horsemen pursued the rebels into the night.

Cedar Creek was Sheridan’s greatest triumph. At 9 a.m., he was beaten; by sundown, he had driven the enemy from the field. Within a week, Read’s poem was a bestseller. The horse gets the best lines:

I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester, down to save the day!

“Sheridan’s Ride” was recited in high schools for nearly a century.

On April 1, 1865, Sheridan personally commanded the charge at Five Forks, leaping Rienzi over the rebel breastworks into, as Morris noted, “a group of astonished southerners like the angel of death,” forcing General Robert E. Lee from Richmond. On April 6, he forced six generals and 10,000 men to surrender at Sayler’s Creek. On April 8, he blocked Lee’s last line of retreat. Around 1 p.m. on April 9, Grant and Sheridan rode up to Wilmer McLean’s home at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Lee waited in the parlor.

The performance of Sheridan and his men during the first nine days of April 1865 is nearly unparalleled. As Grant said, “Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal.” Little Phil was then 34 years old.

Rienzi died in 1878. Sheridan had his body preserved. Today, in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Armed Forces History, Rienzi stands, saddled as he was that golden October morning:

Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester, twenty miles away!

New York Press, August 29, 2000

February 6, 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

Dem Brooklyn Bums Go West

Walter Francis O’Malley is infamous because he moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957. Thirty-six years later, Wilfred Sheed dedicated My Life as a Fan not to, but against, “the villainous Walter O’Malley.” According to Peter Golenbock’s Bums, one man claimed the best news he ever received was that of O’Malley’s death. Carl E. Prince, in Brooklyn’s Dodgers, collects these opinions: O’Malley was a “Gaelic Machiavelli,” a “cold schemer who would cast aside any loyalties in order to make a dollar,” “lured by the glint of gold in California, and oblivious of the loyal, broken-hearted fans [the Dodgers] left behind them.”

This, as Neil Sullivan observed in The Dodgers Move West, is “poor history.” Yet emotion is reality: Brooklyn Dodgers fans have a legendary intensity of feeling. Even the New York Times observed that “Few baseball clubs have had greater identity with, and greater impact on, their communities than the Dodgers have had on Brooklyn.”

In 1883, Charles Byrne, a Brooklyn real estate developer, bought a professional baseball franchise and hired Charles Ebbets as the office clerk. Their East New York ballpark stood at the junction of several streetcar lines. Fans dodged speeding cars to get into the park. They were called dodgers. The team adopted this nickname. In 1912, Ebbets, who became club president in 1898, built a 25,000-seat stadium in Pigtown, a four-acre shantytown on the border of Flatbush and Crown Heights, and named it for himself.

After his death in 1925, Ebbets was succeeded by Wilbert Robinson, the club’s eccentric general manager. Uncle Robbie once handed an umpire his laundry list instead of the starting lineup, into which he did not put men if he could not spell their names. Sometimes, he forgot their names entirely: players might not touch a bat for an entire season.

Some players also betrayed a shaky grasp on the essentials: in 1926, Babe Herman hit “the most remarkable triple in the history of the game.” It put three men on base—after a fashion—when the runner on second, the runner on first and Herman all slid into third, one after the other.

The quality of play so declined that by 1937 few minded when a leather-lunged fan finally began bellowing “ya bum ya” at bad players. Willard Mullin, a World-Telegram cartoonist, left Ebbets after a losing double-header: his cab driver asked, “What’d dem bums do today?” Mullin began caricaturing the team and its fans with a tatterdemalion derelict resembling Emmett Kelly. Thus, the Dodgers won their final nickname: the Bums.

Meanwhile, the fans were in a class by themselves. Hilda Chester, “a rather large woman with a leaning toward flowered print dresses,” rang cowbells, one in each hand, to support the Dodger cause. The Dodger Sym-Phony—five guys from Williamsburg with tuba, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, and trumpet—first made noise at Ebbets on Aug. 24, 1941. When the band disagreed with an umpire’s call, they played “Three Blind Mice.” The trumpeter blew “Charge” whenever the Dodgers rallied. The tuba played a funeral march as visiting players stalked back to the dugout after an out, the bass drummer timing his stroke to coincide with the player’s bottom hitting the bench.

A sign on the right field wall read: THE DODGERS USE LIFEBUOY. There, early one morning, a Giants fan scrawled in red: AND THEY STILL STINK. The “h” in the Schaefer Beer sign lit up to indicate a hit; the “e” to indicate an error. Abe Stark, a clothier from Pitkin Aveenue, promised a new suit to any hitter whose ball hit his billboard: HIT SIGN-WIN SUIT. His fame from the sign helped elect him Brooklyn borough president and City Council president.

In 1950, O’Malley, a corporation lawyer, became president and principal shareholder of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He first contemplated replacing Ebbets Field in 1948 and announced his intentions in 1953. No one took him seriously. People were more focused on the team. Brooklyn Major League Baseball’s greatest moment was 3:43 p.m. on Tuesday, October 4, 1955. Bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series, Dodgers ahead 2-0, Yankees at bat. With two men out, Elston Howard grounded to Pee Wee Reese at short. The Dodger snagged and threw the ball to first, where Gil Hodges, one foot nailed to the bag, leaned far to his left and caught it. From 3:44 until 4:01, it was practically impossible to get a dial tone on Manhattan’s telephones: the system was overwhelmed by the largest volume of calls since V-J Day in 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites poured into the streets, cheering, laughing, weeping tears of joy.

Motorcades clogged Flatbush Avenue, Kings Highway, Atlantic Avenue, Ocean Parkway, 86th Street, and 4th Avenue. Long into the night, Brooklyn resounded with clanging cowbells, popping toy cannons, and firecrackers; there were bonfires and dancing in the streets, wild cheering, auto horns sounding, and spoons banging against pots and pans. The bars were jammed and the drinks were free.

O’Malley had announced two months before that the team would “…have to have a new stadium…” after the 1957 season. Then he sold Ebbets Field to a real estate developer, subject to a three-year lease. O’Malley wanted to show that the “show was on the road.”

At a glance, the team had never been more prosperous. The ballpark had drawn two million paying customers in 1951 and led the National League in home attendance five times between 1947 and 1957. Yet the team’s attendance figures showed a declining trend. For less discriminating fans, televised baseball obviated going to the ballpark.

O’Malley blamed Ebbets itself. With a capacity of 32,111, it was among the country’s smallest Major League stadiums. Posts and girders blocked the view from many seats. Worse, the stadium had only 700 parking spaces in a single lot on Montgomery Street. Hundreds of thousands of Dodger fans had moved from the tenements to suburbia. At first, fans drove from the suburbs to find only on-street parking. Many complained of vandalism to their cars.

Furthermore, Jackie Robinson drew a new audience to the ballpark for which many old-line fans were unprepared. Sullivan quotes an interviewee: “When the blacks started coming to the game, a lot of whites stopped coming… [The blacks] didn’t care about the Sym-Phony or Hilda Chester… They didn’t have the history that we had.” To such bigots, Ebbets seemed “an uninviting place in an increasingly unfamiliar neighborhood.”

O’Malley proposed that the Dodgers would build their own domed stadium, with no posts, protection from inclement weather, convenient restrooms and 12,000 parking spaces. He would build it above the Long Island Rail Road terminal at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, which would provide easy access by mass transit. However, he wanted the city to use its power of eminent domain to condemn the land, assemble the site and sell it to the Dodgers at a reasonable price. Otherwise, the private landowners would gouge him.

The man to make the decision was Robert Moses, the chairman of the city’s committee on slum clearance, who turned it down in August 1955. Moses directed more than thirty different public agencies, most created under laws that he had drafted, and all serving his agenda: the construction of highways to speed automobile traffic to and from suburbia. Public funds diverted to a new stadium was money diverted from highway and bridge projects. Also, Moses disliked spectator sports: here, as elsewhere, Moses’ private prejudices dictated public policy.

New York politicians did not take O’Malley seriously because they did not believe he would leave Brooklyn. This was a mistake. O’Malley had contacted Los Angeles officials during the 1956 World Series. In October 1956, while the Dodgers stopped in Los Angeles on their way to Japan, O’Malley met with Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. A few months later, in early 1957, he visited Los Angeles to meet Hahn and Mayor Norris Poulson.

Nearly a decade before, the city of Los Angeles had assembled a 183-acre site at Chavez Ravine for a housing project that had never been built. Poulson determined the city could transfer the site to the Dodgers by structuring the deal to satisfy the federal requirement of a substantial public purpose.

In May 1957, the National League authorized the Dodgers to move if the decision were announced by October 1, 1957. A month later, O’Malley bought the Chicago Cubs’ Pacific Coast League franchise and Wrigley Field stadium in Los Angeles for $1 million. Now he had a place to play ball until the new stadium was completed.

The Brooklyn fans realized O’Malley was serious. They demonstrated at Borough Hall, Ebbets Field, and the Dodgers’ main office at 215 Montague Street, their picket signs reading “Brooklyn is the Dodgers. The Dodgers are Brooklyn,” and their buttons “Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.” Robert Moses published his opinions in an article, modestly entitled “Robert Moses and the Battle of Brooklyn,” in the July 22, 1957, issue of Sports Illustrated. He wrote that losing the Dodgers was a “damn shame,” while arguing that most of Brooklyn’s three million residents really did not care. He cited declining attendance at Ebbets.

On Sept. 14, 1957, seventeen days before the National League’s deadline, New York City Corporation Counsel Peter Campbell Brown finally ruled that the city could condemn the Atlantic Avenue site for the Dodgers. Two days later, Los Angeles announced its formal negotiations with the Dodgers. The deal had been reached some time before. The city would give the Dodgers the Chavez Ravine site and allocate $2 million for preliminary grading. The county of Los Angeles would spend $3 million for access roads. The Dodgers would build a $10 million stadium with 50,000 seats and parking for 24,000 cars; give Wrigley to the city and any oil and gas revenues derived from the site to a trust fund for youth recreation.

On September 17, Mayor Wagner and Nelson Rockefeller offered O’Malley a new deal for the Atlantic Avenue site. O’Malley murmured the offer had merits. The city’s board of estimate wanted more money. O’Malley objected. That ended the new deal.

On September 24, the Dodgers beat the Pirates in the last game ever played at Ebbets. After the last out, Gladys Gooding, the Dodgers’ organist for a generation, played “Auld Lang Syne.” On Oct. 7, 1957, the Los Angeles City Council approved the deal and the Dodgers announced the move in an Oct. 8 press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria. The New York Times attacked O’Malley as motivated by greed. O’Malley was burned in effigy before Borough Hall.

The Bums went west because Poulson and Hahn could structure a deal and no one could in New York. O’Malley’s crime, as Sullivan observes, was to remove the fig leaf from baseball. He betrayed the secret that the game is a business, assaulting the fans’ romantic attachment to the team, the set of illusions against which all talk of profit and loss, demographic shifts and market forces struggles in vain. Perhaps the price of candor is infamy.

New York Press, April 2, 2002

February 2, 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

The Towers Gain a New Perspective

We must not forget how undistinguished the World Trade Center was. “When completed,” the authors of the 2000 edition of the AIA Guide to New York City wrote, “these stolid, banal monoliths came to overshadow Lower Manhattan’s cluster of filigreed towers, which had previously been the romantic evocation that symbolized the very concept of ‘skyline.'” Ada Louise Huxtable, former architecture critic for The New York Times, described their style as “General Motors Gothic.” Her successor, Paul Goldberger, called them “boring, so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha.” Wolf von Eckhardt published an article in Harper’s calling the World Trade Center a “fearful instrument of urbicide,” and “one of the ugliest buildings in the world.” They were monuments to money and power, brutish and ugly, and only in the agony of their final hour did they take on nobility from the valor of those who sought to save the people who worked within their walls.

Until some forty years ago, the lower west side was an industrial neighborhood. Washington Market, a block-square two-story building at Washington Street between Fulton and Vesey Streets, where 175 merchants dealt in meat, poultry, cheese, butter, and garden produce delivered by boat, wagon, and truck, dominated the local economy. At Cortlandt Street, the huge, faintly seedy Hudson Terminal buildings towered above the terminus of the Hudson Tubes, now the PATH line. Printing plants, warehouses, and factories jostled delicatessens, bars, cobblers, hardware stores and barbers. Cortlandt Street had so many electronics retailers that some called it “Radio Row.”

David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, had plans for lower Manhattan. After Chase built its sixty-story tower on Pine Street in 1960—the first new skyscraper in the financial district in a generation—he sought lower Manhattan’s redevelopment through a form of central planning reconciling private interest and public power, rather than the largely spontaneous entrepreneurial development that had historically molded the city’s economy. His urge for civic uplift dovetailed with the real estate interests of his bank and his family. He founded a civic group, the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, which in 1958 commissioned the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to develop an overall plan for lower Manhattan. It included a World Trade Center, which Rockefeller believed would catalyze regional development. He forwarded the plan to the Port of New York Authority, now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Austin Tobin, the Port Authority’s executive director from the 1940s into the 1970s, presided over the decline of New York’s port into what often seems a virtual harbor, a thing of nostalgia trading on the images of its past as at South Street Seaport. Like a minor Robert Moses, Tobin built highway tunnels, airports and the container port at Elizabeth, New Jersey. Tobin often quoted Daniel Burnham, a brilliant 19th-century Chicago architect and apostle of centralized urban planning: “Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the blood.” Thus, Tobin’s pride and the Port Authority’s internal culture fueled the ambition to build the world’s tallest building. Government power advanced the World Trade Center: the power of the Authority to condemn land and avoid most local environmental laws; of the city to close streets and issue permits; and of the state to transfer its offices into the building to provide it with tenants.

The vision of David Rockefeller and his allies transformed the city’s economy from its traditional base as an industrially diverse seaport to one narrowly dependent on finance, insurance, and real estate. The World Trade Center, the transformation’s monument, was an esthetic debacle: merely the first of the “million-square-foot, flat-topped boxes” that, as the AIA Guide notes, “muffle…the constellation of tall, slender, 1920s and 1930s Art Deco office buildings and the flamboyant pinnacles of their earlier, shorter, neo-Classical cousins, the structures that made up the inspired—if unplanned—Lower Manhattan skyline that was once the world-renowned symbol of New York City.”

For some four years, a friend daily rode an early ferry to Manhattan. He often reflected on the oddly rootless, alienating quality of the World Trade Center. Last week, he was horrified by his instinctive response to films of the skyline after the fall of the World Trade Center. He found beauty and harmony restored by the towers’ absence. They had merely been big buildings, not great buildings such as the Chrysler, Empire State, or Woolworth buildings.

To be sure, mere size does not make a building inhumane. Buildings as large as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London retain humanity in their proportions, perhaps because they were designed to exist in an harmonious relation with the society that created them. In the case of cathedrals, they glorified something greater than man, and at least half of the idea of building their spires ever higher was that the created might reach closer to his Creator.

The World Trade Center, despite its Gothic touches, glorified only power. And, by God, its towers became symbols of power last Tuesday. In the moments between the first and second attacks, one saw the compelling, powerful image of a symbol of power with a great gaping hole. For all our horrified wonderment at the scale, timing, and organization of the attack, the buildings were nonetheless destroyed by men who simply stole airplanes—using ingenuity and intelligence to overcome the security systems that, though able to make airplane travel obnoxious, could not prevent a group of people utterly dedicated to the destruction of the society represented by those buildings from their obscene and symbolic act.

Minoru Yamasaki, the Center’s architect, had supposedly claimed the towers were engineered to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. His calculations, like his personality, were a little off.

He designed the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was built in 1955 and entirely leveled by implosion in July 1972. One can only note that the local politicians, probably not profound esthetes, seriously held the buildings themselves were alienating: that they somehow actually encouraged criminal behavior. Like the terrorists who last week destroyed his most famous project, Yamasaki apparently viewed, as Eric Darton wrote, “living processes in general, and social life in particular, with a high degree of abstraction,” perhaps seeing the people who used his buildings as so many ants.

Yet Yamasaki had a keen business sense. The Port Authority was obsessed with maximizing the rentable square footage of the towers. He did this by discarding the conventional interior support columns: the steel framework used in older buildings, such as that permitting the Empire State Building to survive the crash of a B-25 bomber into its upper floors in 1945. Rather, Yamasaki suspended the towers from their own skins and from the core columns containing the buildings’ machinery: air conduits, electric and telecommunications cables, and water pipes. This meant that, last Tuesday, once the buildings’ envelopes were violated and the burning jet fuel swiftly melted the steel supports linking the upper floors with the walls, the towers pancaked within ninety minutes because they could no longer support themselves.

The walls consisted of alternating surfaces: eighteen inches of metal and twenty-two inches of glass. This created the structures’ least humane quality: their oddly narrow windows, “projecting an image that seems more radiator than building,” as John Tauranac wrote, that made them seem windowless at a distance of only a few blocks. Until the sickening moment when the towers began to fall, one could not comprehend the damage because the building was incomprehensible.

Now one can comprehend it. At dawn last Tuesday, the World Trade Center’s towers were 110 stories tall. Their remains piled about ten stories high.

New York Press, September 25, 2001

February 9, 2009   Comments Off on The Towers Gain a New Perspective