New York in History and Anecdote
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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 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