The History of the New York Central Railroad

Operating across the Great Lakes and Northeastern regions of the United States, the New York Central Railroad (NYC) served as a primary trunk route from Boston and New York to the Midwest and Chicago. Along with other large railroads such as the Pennsylvania and Union Pacific, it is generally regarded as one of the greatest railroads in US history. 

Foundation and Early Years 

The earliest predecessor of the New York Central can be traced back to 1826, with the creation of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad. The Mohawk was the first commercial railroad to be chartered in the United States, predating the famous Baltimore and Ohio by one year. Operations however didn’t begin until 1831. Linking the Mohawk River in Schenectady with the Hudson in Albany, the railroad reduced travel time on the 16 mile route from a day (by way of the Erie Canal) to less than an hour. 

The NYC was officially formed just shy of twenty years later in 1853, when local businessman Erastus Corning successfully oversaw the merger of the Mohawk and Hudson (by now operating as the Albany and Schenectady) with 9 other railroads – some in operation, and others only existing on paper and in land acquisitions. This was followed by the acquisition of two broad gauge railroads; the Buffalo and State Line, and the Erie and North East, which were converted to standard gauge to create a direct link from Erie, Pennsylvania, through Buffalo and Schenectady, all the way to Albany and the Hudson River. 

Concurrent with the growth and mergers of the New York Central, the Hudson River Railroad, formed in 1845, commenced operation on a route out of Rensselaer (on the opposite bank of the Hudson to Albany) linking the region with New York City. Famous railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased this line in 1864 and set his sights on a connection with the growing New York Central.

Cornelius Vanderbilt & Expansion

By the end of 1867, control of the NYC was seeded to Vanderbilt in an agreement that involved the construction of a bridge over the Hudson to connect Rensselaer to Albany. In 1869, Vanderbilt’s Hudson River Railroad was officially merged into the New York Central, creating a single operation that stretched from the heart of New York City to the shores of Lake Erie. 

Over the next two decades, the NYC would continue to grow via mergers and acquisitions of other regional lines, connecting major New York cities with more rural communities and further rail operations. At the time of Vanderbilt’s death in 1876, it was possible to travel on the NYC to connect with most of the rest of the United States, as well with lines traveling into Eastern Canada.

Late 19th and Early 20th Century Growth

Undeterred by the setback of Vanderbilt’s death, the New York Central continued to grow throughout the late 1800s. 1885 saw the landmark acquisition of the New York, West Shore, and Buffalo Railway, which paralleled the western side of the Hudson River. This allowed the NYC to control the movement of freight and passengers on both sides of the river, and gained the railroad access to the 1884 built Weehawken Terminal in New Jersey, providing an opportunity for the NYC to increase capacity for passenger, freight, and car float operations out of Manhattan.

In 1892, the railroad launched one of the fastest express passenger operations in the world for its time. Known as the Empire State Express, the route connected New York City to Buffalo in just 7 hours, including intermediate stops, with a mind-blowing top speed of 82 mph. A 4-4-0 American locomotive designed specifically for the service, number 999, reportedly broke the record to become the first locomotive ever to exceed 100 miles per hour, although this achievement was never officially verified. 

Another landmark merger took place in 1906, with the acquisition of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St Louis Railroad. This gained the NYC direct access to the Mississippi River and the industrial heartland, although the CCC&STL would continue to operate as an independent subsidiary of the NYC, and wasn’t fully absorbed until 1930. 

Grand Central Terminal 

It was during the early 20th Century that the New York Central would construct the most recognized and lasting monument to its existence. In 1897, the railroad began a massive expansion project on the site of the original Hudson River Railroad station in Manhattan. A grand Neo-Renaissance masterpiece, this new station was quickly found to still be too small to handle the fast growing demand for travel in and out of the city, and less than a decade after it’s completion, the station was torn down. 

Completed and opened in 1913, the second replacement structure was the current Grand Central Terminal. Built in the popular Beaux-Arts style of the period, this grand terminal became recognized as one of the most beautiful stations in the world, and was the first building to be designated as a protected structure under the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, after the Pennsylvania Railroad’s equally grand Penn Station fell victim to urban renewal in the 1960s. 

Further Growth and Decline

Thanks to its crucial role in the movement of goods and people out of New York City, the New York Central was able to weather the impacts of the Great Depression with minimal lasting damage. As the country began to recover, the railroad invested heavily in infrastructure and equipment upgrades, joining most other major railroads in offering new luxury passenger services aboard streamlined trains designed to stimulate renewed ridership. 

The 20th Century Limited, the railroad’s flagship express from New York City to Chicago since 1902, was given a new look beginning in 1938. Using the latest equipment and specially decorated locomotives, the Limited was likened to an East Coast version of the Santa Fe’s legendary Super Chief, attracting high profile riders for its speed and style. It was nicknamed “the most famous train in the world” and was known for its art-deco styling and signature red carpet treatment given to boarding passengers.      

Through the Second World War, the NYC played a crucial role in passenger and freight transportation, carrying troops and equipment in and out of New York City. Traffic and revenue for the railroad hit an all-time peak in 1944, one year before the war ended.

Following the 1940s, the railroad began to experience new hardships. The development of subsidized air and road travel, combined with heavy taxation on the railroad, led to financial difficulties during the 1950s, and in 1955, the NYC began talks with their arch-rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, about the prospect of a merger.  

Penn Central

The NYC officially merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad on February 1, 1968, becoming the Penn Central Railroad. With both railroads having suffered major losses in passenger and freight revenue in the preceding years, the merger did little to help. Instead, the new railroad found itself responsible for double the amount of deferred maintenance, aging equipment, and now had to contend with duplicate lines.

After a desperate appeal to the US Government, the Penn Central declared bankruptcy in 1976. It was rescued by Conrail, a federally owned company formed to ensure the survival of important trunk routes owned by the ailing corporation. 

The New York Central Today

Conrail continued to operate the remainder of the system throughout the 1980s and 90s, during which time it was completely turned around, becoming one of the best functioning freight railroads in North America . In 1999, a now profitable Conrail was split between Norfolk Southern and CSX, with the CSX portion temporarily becoming an independent LLC known as New York Central (however not operated as such), until the purchase was approved by the Surface Transportation Board in 2004.

Today, the routes of the NYC have fallen to various operators including the Metro-North Commuter Railroad and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in addition to Norfolk Southern and CSX. Much of the system continues to see heavy use, and Grand Central Terminal has become an internationally recognized landmark, while continuing to operate as one of the busiest railroad stations in the country. Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited today follows the route of the legendary 20th Century Limited, and while it doesn’t have the glamor associated with the service, it still offers passengers a chance to experience the mainline of the New York Central in its entirety. 

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