Miracle Under 42nd Street
A century ago, a railroad engineer devised the Grand Central Terminal, a brilliant and engaging solution to a complex problem
Fifth Avenue is the parade route for St. Patrick’s Day; three blocks to the east is Park Avenue. Many honorary Irishmen arrive from points east on that day, so police usually block motor traffic from a stretch of Park Avenue north of Grand Central Terminal. To a person waiting to meet friends at the corner of East 47th and Park, this looks like a fine stretch of midtown Manhattan, where the breadth of the avenue gives it a more spacious feel. There is a parkway with a grassy margin separating the streets, and glossy buildings with shops that front on the wide sidewalks. A typical condo here costs about $TK.
It’s all a veneer over a railyard averaging fifty feet deep that funnels passengers into and out of Grand Central. Most of what you see, including the skyscrapers fronting on Park are held up by steel beams spaced between the railroad tracks, all of which were laid down between 1903 and 1913. It was the product of an exciting, raucous era known by several names.
While Mark Twain and others called the post-Civil-War boom the Gilded Age, ribbing its plutocrats for their trappings of Euro-fied pride, boosters thought of it as the Age of Energy, when American technology, military power, and business surged ahead, pausing only for the occasional crash.
Whatever the age is called, the Brooklyn Bridge is a familiar symbol of the period’s can-do spirit. But things that are mostly hidden under streets can be equally as impressive. Imagine this scenario: a decade or so after the Brooklyn Bridge is up, a contractor is told to take the bridge down in such a way to keep daily traffic moving through the exact same airspace; but also to build in two or three times more traffic capacity; and also design it for an entirely new transportation system, for which the equipment doesn’t exist; and to do it all without subsidy. And get it done in ten years. It’s a pretty close analogy for what the owners of the Grand Central Station at 42nd and Park had ten years to accomplish. Leading the way was Buffalo-born, self-taught engineer William J. Wilgus.
What they produced, Grand Central Terminal at 89 E. 42nd Street, is a heartening example of how a very wicked problem can end in an elegant solution. While it’s easy to see the main building in the complex terminal as an architectural treasure (the Beaux Arts structure was designated a national historic landmark in 1976), most of the magic is underground or rooted in the peculiar history of railroading in the days of the robber barons. Though a hundred years on, some aspects may hold long-lasting lessons on how public and private sectors can work through infrastructure dilemmas, even without that relationship being so warm as to constitute the fabled “public-private partnership.” The splendidly successful project would go far to burnish the railroad’s reputation, which had long suffered from outrage over fatal crashes, along with an 1882 quote from rail baron William Henry Vanderbilt, son of the Commodore. Quoth William in an unguarded moment, “the public be damned.”
Every city with a major rail line needs a train station; New York only had one passenger rail link to begin with (the New York and Harlem Rail Road, crossing into Manhattan over the Harlem River from Yonkers and heading south down Fourth Avenue), so at first the island needed only one train station. This was near City Hall at Center Street. Because the city’s population took hold in the south and later moved north, all the early railroad stations began on the lower end of the island. In the 1850s, the principal station on the East side had moved to Fourth Avenue and 26th Street. Horses pulled individual cars south of this location because the Common Council feared locomotive boiler explosions on the crowded streets of lower East Side Manhattan. The railroad would need a new station suited for steam locomotives, but where? The farseeing Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt by this time had taken control of two lines and decided to build a major station on Fourth Avenue at 42nd Street. It was then far north of commercial development but – as he foretold – was destined for greatness as midtown Manhattan. Here rose the first of three stations called Grand Central, the first called a depot and finished in 1871. It served three lines (New York Central, the New Haven, and the creaky line known as the New York and Harlem Rail Road, which owned the land. Each got its own walled-off waiting room. Most notably, Grand Central Depot featured a huge arched space for passengers to board trains out of the weather. The glass-roofed train shed, 600 feet long and with a clear span of 200 feet that protected 19 tracks and platforms from the weather, was a wonder of the age. Experts expected the depot to offer plenty of capacity, and well into the 20th Century.
But even before the century turned, New Yorkers had lost their romance with the big headhouse and glass-roofed shed. By 1898 the phalanx of pedestrians, baggage and steam locomotives that converged daily at Grand Central stood as one of the young nation’s first aging-infrastructure dilemmas. It was not just one problem, but a set of interlinked dilemmas and puzzles. As with the wickedest of problems today, a misguided attempt to remedy one difficulty was likely to aggravate other problems. B’rer Rabbit comes to mind. The station’s co-owners, by then New York Central and the New Haven railroads, agreed to renovate the building to ease passenger movements, and to spruce it up with a new stone facing. These were complete by 1901.
This didn’t solve any of the big problems, the foremost of which was a ridiculous increase in demand, driven by New York’s rapid rise to prominence in shipping, shopping, finance, and manufacturing. At the time Grand Central was the principal railroad station in Manhattan, serving New York Central and the New Haven lines; another line on the West Side, going down Eleventh Avenue, was mainly for freight trains. There wasn’t room to squeeze in one more track outside the building or platform inside. So any significant hike in capacity would require the facility to be fixed from the ground up, but it couldn’t be fixed because there was no acreage for a sufficiently large railyard. And even if there had been such a vacant lot, a complete rebuild would shut it down and business didn’t justify it: even the clunky terminal was plenty profitable since no competing line had yet thrown a line over, or under, the rivers to Manhattan. These were private lines and therefore any major transportation project would have to pay for its own infrastructure through tolls and tickets.
The obstinacy of the railroad oligarchs was obvious enough to residents of the gritty residential and commercial zone north of Grand Central Station. All complaints about the railyard went ignored. The approach to the station was through an open trench and a surface railyard that split this part of midtown into two parts. From 42nd to 50th there was no way to drive a cart or a car across the gap. Dust and cinders showered down on every building and laundry line for blocks, because all the engines ran on on coal. (Beginning in 1888, some American streetcar lines and later a short stretch of railroad tunnel in Baltimore were electrically powered, but no American long-haul trains were.) Coal-burning engines produce a great deal of smoke and water vapor, which is a health nuisance all the time and a severe visibility hazard in cold weather. Because smoke tended to collect in the train shed, Grand Central trainmen of 1900 had worked out a risky method to keep down the smoke by hurling strings of free-rolling passenger cars into the space and stopping them just in time with energetic applications of the brake wheels. This “flying switch” worked but was an accident waiting to happen.
While the railroad appeared fully capable of throwing roadblocks in front of unfunded mandates from Albany or City Hall, that state of affairs ended abruptly on January 8, 1902. That morning, one train was stopped and waiting for orders in the Park Avenue tunnel when a second train slammed into it. Smoke and steam in the tunnel had kept the second train’s engineer from seeing the danger signal. City newspapers carried etchings and stories of the horror and bravery below.
“That men and women should be ground to pieces in this way in the very heart of the city while going about their daily vocations passes understanding and tolerance,” wrote The New York Times in an editorial. “The compelling process of legislation must now be invoked, for it has long been demonstrated that the management of the railroad will submit itself to no minor authority.”
Seizing this brief opportunity to steal a march on Vanderbilt’s political army, in 1903 the New York City Council working with the state legislature ordered a wholesale shift from steam power to electric throughout the Grand Central district. Under a revised contract, the city gave the railroad five years to finish the job.
Designing such engines would be one of many hurdles ahead. Whatever the company’s decisions about the new locomotives – whether operated on AC or DC power, whether served by overhead lines or third rail – many miles of track would need reworking, along with new power stations and a transmission grid. Since there was no other station to take up the slack, all changes to rails, switches, and signals would have carried out as trains went by, at the rate of one every three minutes. The cash would have to come from massive loans and trimmed profits.
This sounded like plenty of problems, so no reasonable person would have suggested tearing down the station to boot, an 800-foot-long structure on which the paint of renovation had hardly dried. And he would hardly suggest digging up the entire railyard too, which stretched more than a half mile from the station’s north wall to the mouth of the Park Avenue tunnel at 59th Street.
Fortunately, William J. Wilgus was a practical man rather than a reasonable one. Born in Buffalo in 1865, he was a self-taught engineer, his only formal education past high school a correspondence course from Cornell in drafting. He worked for a variety of railroads, then took a job with the New York Central in 1893 to head up construction of stations and track. Known for his insights, remarkable clarity of thought, and convincing presentations, he rose to the position of chief engineer and vice president for the Vanderbilts’ vast web of railroads.
In one remarkable afternoon, in September 1902, Wilgus laid out all problems facing the terminal railroad (some of which he had been musing over for three years) and puzzled his way to an elegant solution. Others had prognosticated on the terrible terminal, but with little to show. Scientific American magazine, for example, had proposed a modest solution that would have improved commuter traffic modestly by looping it around the terminal.
Any modern-day system chart would have highlighted the two-mile train tunnel under Park Avenue, which at the time provided the only rail access from the rest of the nation into Grand Central. The old Harlem Railroad (New York’s first) blazed this trail in the 1830’s. The New York Central deepened and enlarged the tunnel to four tracks in 1876 but it remained a critical bottleneck, capping passenger flow into the station. But the city didn’t want the railroad to mess with it, so New York Central had to look for solutions other than a wider tunnel. While Wilgus couldn’t fix the tunnel, he realized that if the terminal could come up with more track space it might be possible to reduce unnecessary traffic through the tunnel.
The reason was that trains had to be cleaned once empty, and supplies replenished, before new passengers got on. The railroads lacked yard space for this at the existing Grand Central Station, and so routed the empties five miles north to a railyard in Mott Haven, across the Harlem River. As an example, each express train from Chicago had to pass through the Park Avenue tunnel chokepoint four times before departing again for points west; two times should have sufficed. Wilgus recognized that adding two loops on the south side of the station would allow empty trains to pull away from the platform and off to the side for freshening … but only if a new Grand Central could come up with a lot more train-parking tracks.
Wilgus had been handed another problem to solve, and it provided the clue on how to unravel this apparently intractable tangle.
New York Central needed more office space and other executives wanted to throw up a tower on a bit of spare property called the Annex. Wilgus thought that an unattractive solution, given the many old and low buildings in the vicinity … and what could be regarded as all the vacant space in the railyard.
Why not arrange to put it on top of the railyard instead? Wilgus realized if he changed the setting from two dimensions to three, entirely new solutions began appearing. Before the afternoon was up he drew and redrew a plan that in the end would meet the electrification deadline, triple the station’s commuter capacity, improve the neighborhood, fix every chokepoint he could get his hands on, and turn a profit. (And serve as a backdrop for many movies, including North by Northwest, Cotton Club, The Fisher King, and Men in Black). The proof of Wilgus’ insight, and what the team of engineers and architects built, is that while other termini and depots have come and gone, Grand Central is as grand and functional as ever, almost one hundred years on. All in all, it was a good day.
Wilgus saw that while the railroad would never be able to buy enough surface acreage to solve its traffic problems by widening the railyard, the yard was long enough for a grade that would separate the express lines and local commuter lines into two levels. He could send express trains to the upper level of a new station, and commuters below. The separation would almost double the acreage of the railyard and platform area, and also go far to improve the flow of passengers and baggage in the new station, although the engineering would be much more challenging. How to split the levels?
It might have seemed easier for him to leave some of the tracks on the ground and stack on an extra level above them like a massive El, but this would have annoyed the neighbors, kept the streets blocked, and missed out on a fine business opportunity. What if New York Central ripped out the existing tracks and dug so deep that all trains entered underground? It would mean blasting out a quarry-sized chasm in the middle of a city and hauling away a few hundred carloads of rock each day on the same tracks the passengers used, but no matter; this was the Age of Energy and there were platoons of steam shovels and rock drills, and carloads of dynamite; and immigrant laborers eager to use them.
What Wilgus saw, as did the other executives he collared in March 1903, was that burying the tracks opened a way for the railroad to pay for everything. If the railroad planned ahead in laying out the tracks, and if it erected sufficiently stout columns and beams among those tracks, it could lay foundations for rentable buildings to come. Lawyers call this an “air rights development.” It means company A owns the ground and uses it for one purpose, but rents the space above to company B for some other purpose. Medieval examples of dual-use structures are the London Bridge and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, both of which received revenue from artisans and shops located along the edges of the structure. Grand Central was the first to take the concept so far and so vertically with the idea called Terminal City, a series of buildings averaging 16 stories that went up from 1915 to 1931. Many other such projects followed.
The railroad didn’t have to build the hotels, apartments, and offices itself. In return for leases stretching for decades, developers would handle the construction and later write annual rent checks to the railroad. This cash, estimated Wilgus, should pay back all the costs of the new station at Grand Central. Why would developers want to build in such a neighborhood, where in 1903 the barricaded streets and the locomotives’ noise and smoke laid a blight on land values near and far? The answer was part of Wilgus’ string of “aha” moments that afternoon: after New York Central sunk and covered over the sooty railyard, developers desperate for prime midtown acreage would beat down the door.
In short: in the right hands, the legal mandate to drop steam in favor of electric locomotives would prove a bounteous blessing to the shareholders, rather than the curse that lobbyists in Albany and at City Hall had warned about. The city profited also. Since developers wouldn’t want the tenants of their new apartments, offices, and hotels overlooking a sunken railyard, even a cleanly electric one, New York Central would put Park Avenue and all the cross streets back where they belonged. All told the railroad created 15 acres of street pavement, propping it atop two miles of steel viaduct.
“And so from air is taken wealth,” wrote Wilgus in a 1940 retrospective. His was a solution of breathtaking scope and ambition, and the payback turned out much as he predicted 109 years ago, except that the railroad property north of Grand Central is worth a great deal more than anyone anticipated, somewhere north of $ TK billion if the current landowners were so foolish as to sell it outright.
Return to June 1903, after the company reached an understanding with the city, but before the earth started moving. Three vital details had to be settled, and soon: how to electrify the operations, how to dig while keeping the trains on time, and the design of the terminal. Settling on a design for the electric traction engines had to come first because of the legal deadline. Despite heavy lobbying by Westinghouse Electric in favor of alternating-current locomotives, New York Central chose Frank Sprague’s direct-current engines. Together buyer and seller worked out a powerful, compact locomotive that drew its power from a third rail, rather than an overhead line. These were tested extensively on New Central tracks, then built in quantity. While the up-front costs were higher than for steam locomotives, the Sprague engines were cheaper to operate and accelerated faster. Mindful of safety concerns about such a wide use of third-rail power delivery, Wilgus and a partner came up with a design that covered the electrified rail on three sides, which eliminated almost all risk of accidental electrocution.
The railroad dispatched its lawyers to buy or condemn the extra city blocks it needed. This would require the demolition of two hundred tenements, stables, saloons, shops, and a hospital called the Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled. For all this dusty work New York Central hired O’Rourke Engineering & Construction Co. The excavation brought a bit of the Panama Canal into midtown New York; it required pulling up old tracks and laying down temporary ones in notches and along ledges. Because the excavation left some sizable buildings such as the Steinway piano factory on Park Avenue teetering on the edge of a cliff, it also required extensive underpinning and shoring.
The schedule called for nine thousand cubic yards to be removed some weeks, all by train. This required daily, sometimes hourly negotiations with the operating department. The builders had to agree not to blast during commuting hours, but coping with tracks and platforms taken out of service was a constant challenge. In return for permission to enlarge the excavation, the builders often had to lay down a temporary track for passenger trains to get through the work zone, even if the track was usable only for one day. After much rancor over unmet quotas and who was responsible, O’Rourke quit in 1907 and the railroad took over.
The excavation proceeded one “bite” at a time, moving from Lexington Avenue on the east to Madison on the west. This required tearing up the permanent tracks, stripping soil to expose the bedrock gneiss and schist of Manhattan Island, and blasting down to an average depth of 50 feet. Digging down one ledge at a time, steam shovels on temporary tracks filled up flat cars on other temporary tracks. In places, the hole reached a dept of 70 feet. As the new grade was reached, steelwork began on the two-layer tracks.
The structural plan was complicated not just by the grade transition between levels and the need for extremely tight spacing between trains, but also by the need for steelwork to support the streets above and to underpin massive buildings that might not be constructed for decades to come. The single most challenging area lay under Park Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, where four tracks coming out of the tunnel fanned into the railyard. In some tight spots this required setting columns atop immensely strong horizontal girders ten feet thick. The safety-conscious engineers encased the most vulnerable columns in massive concrete walls, so as not to bring down Park Avenue or a skyscraper in case of derailment.
The railroad had the chance to try out its air-rights concept in 1912 with the construction of a new, 13-story Grand Central Palace, putting up structural steel over moving trains each night from 11:00 pm to 7:00 am.
Even as the project moved into full throttle in 1907, Wilgus resigned due to a conflict with New York Central’s management. It grew out of a train derailment earlier that year in the Bronx that killed 21 passengers. The plaintiffs’ lawyers claimed that the short, massive electric locomotive had forced the tracks apart, a problem called nosing. Since Wilgus had had much to say in the engine’s design and was protective of his reputation for skill and judgment, the accusation rankled. After hearing that New York Central planned to add extra wheels to the engines that would spread the tonnage and prevent nosing, Wilgus saw this as an unacceptable, if silent, admission of fault. Unable to change the railroads’ decision (which was a wise one), he quit.
Before leaving Wilgus contributed much to the unusual layout of the terminal building, which has gone on to inform airport terminals and other complex structures hosting huge numbers of people. Consider the problem: Many passengers arrived from street level, then needed to work their way down to express and commuter levels. Elevators were much too slow, and escalators were not in common use. Stairs would have been the obvious solution, but not a good one.
The new terminal would be built around ramps, service windows, and rooms that separated commuters from long-distance travelers, and arrivals from departures. Simply by following the ramps and signs, a passenger to Chicago would migrate smoothly past ticket counters and baggage checks and ticket counters to the platforms, without having to cross paths with commuters or arriving express passengers. Checked baggage followed a separate path to the trains, relying on dedicated elevators and even a miniature subway. Engineers decided on the grade of the ramps only after running volunteers of all ages and sizes, over a variety of mockup slopes, while burdened with packages and grips and crutches.
The most dangerous part of the work came at the halfway point, in 1908 shortly after Wilgus moved on: dismantling the train shed erected in 1871. It was almost the size of a professional indoor football stadium, weighed two thousand tons and was 600 feet long. While original plans assumed that workers would be able to divert all trains before wrecking it, traffic grew to the point where, by the time the work had to start, the tracks inside the shed had to be kept in service even as the demolition proceeded overhead. The solution was a “traveler,” a movable framework that workers jacked into position so that it sat underneath each shed section as it was taken apart. The traveler shielded passengers from falling objects and provided a scaffold for the workers.
The new terminal opened just after midnight on February 2, 1913, to great enthusiasm. Engineers predicted that the terminal could handle up to 200 trains an hour, giving a theoretical annual capacity of 100 million people per year, but that was never reached. Traffic peaked in 1947 at 60 million passenger movements, then dropped as highways and airliners lured away the long-distance traffic. Still, the twists and turns of the future could bring new waves of people. The first twist is a tunneling machine approaching from the south, which will bring in Long Island Rail Road trains. When complete about 2016 the East Side Access Project will drive the terminal to new depths, at 175 feet.
Looking further down the calendar, the story of Grand Central Terminal and the immensely valuable railyard to the north could take an interesting twist on Wednesday, April 1, 2274. That’s when the original 401-year lease of the station property from the New York & Harlem Rail Road to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad is up. Whoever can raise high the gilt-edged Harlem stock that day is in for quite a windfall.