Grand Central

How a Train Station Transformed America


By Sam Roberts

Foreword by Pete Hamill

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A rich, illustrated – and entertaining — history of the iconic Grand Central Terminal, from one of New York City’s favorite writers, just in time to celebrate the train station’s 100th fabulous anniversary.

In the winter of 1913, Grand Central Station was officially opened and immediately became one of the most beautiful and recognizable Manhattan landmarks. In this celebration of the one hundred year old terminal, Sam Roberts of The New York Times looks back at Grand Central’s conception, amazing history, and the far-reaching cultural effects of the station that continues to amaze tourists and shuttle busy commuters.

Along the way, Roberts will explore how the Manhattan transit hub truly foreshadowed the evolution of suburban expansion in the country, and fostered the nation’s westward expansion and growth via the railroad.

Featuring quirky anecdotes and behind-the-scenes information, this book will allow readers to peek into the secret and unseen areas of Grand Central — from the tunnels, to the command center, to the hidden passageways.

With stories about everything from the famous movies that have used Grand Central as a location to the celestial ceiling in the main lobby (including its stunning mistake) to the homeless denizens who reside in the building’s catacombs, this is a fascinating and, exciting look at a true American institution.


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THAT THE FIRST STEAM-POWERED LOCOMOTIVE operating in New York State was named the DeWitt Clinton must have been someone's idea of a bad joke. Governor Clinton, after all, had been the brains and the political maestro behind the Erie Canal, which, when it was finally completed with great fanfare in 1825, would link Manhattan's Hudson River waterfront with the Great Lakes and confirm New York as America's predominant port for years to come. Why would anyone in his right mind threaten the supremacy of the packet boats to Albany and the freight-laden canal barges by building a railroad just a few years later?

Maybe the early railroad pioneers weren't entirely in their right minds. After all, when the 9,000-pound, 13-foot-long DeWitt Clinton was cast at the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York, and fitted at the foot of Beach Street in lower Manhattan, it was only the third or fourth steam locomotive built in the United States. But the railroad men weren't completely crazy. They were shrewd enough to engage in a subterfuge sufficient to forestall a veto of railroad franchises by the state legislature, which the boatmen, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, all but owned.

Following experiments by the inventor Peter Cooper of New York on the Baltimore & Ohio and service on the Charleston & Hamburg line in South Carolina, John B. Jervis commissioned the DeWitt Clinton for the newly chartered Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, the first leg of what two decades later would become the New York Central. (Jervis, who had worked as an axman and later an engineer on the Erie Canal, would become instrumental in another aquatic project—providing freshwater from Westchester for New York City through the Croton Aqueduct.) Inauspiciously, the locomotive was delivered to Albany from the foundry by boat. On August 9, 1831—six years after George William Featherstonhaugh, a Schenectady cattle breeder, formed the railroad—the three-and-a-half-ton iron engine hauled several yellow stagecoaches crammed with passengers for a trial run over 16 miles of track between upstate Albany and Schenectady. It took 40 minutes. The Mohawk & Hudson tracks roughly paralleled the canal, but the trip by rail was much faster. One reason was the engine's speed, about 30 mph. Another reason was geographical: on that stretch of the water route, barges had to surmount more than a dozen locks on their circuitous 40-mile circumnavigation of the 90-foot-high Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River.

Two years later, the Mohawk & Hudson set another promotional precedent that would quickly spiral out of control in the railroads' zeal to win converts to its cause: the first free railroad pass was issued to a public official, this one to Reuben H. Walworth, the chancellor of New York and the state's highest judicial officer. By the time his post was abolished nearly two decades later, the practice had proliferated. Free passes had been accepted by state legislators and even minor local functionaries as a political entitlement. By the end of the 19th century, good-government watchdogs would be hard-pressed to find a public official who, one way or another, did not own railroad stock.

THE FIRST RAIL LINE IN NEW YORK CITY also began operating in 1831, but with one big caveat. Its charter from the legislature specified that while it might parallel the Hudson, the tracks would have to be laid too far east of the river—between Third and Eighth Avenues—to threaten the steamboats' passenger and freight monopoly. Moreover, the charter wrung from lawmakers in the capitol left little room for future competition with maritime traffic to Albany and on to the Midwest. It allowed for a double-track railroad from 23rd Street, but only as far north as the Harlem River. Even at the groundbreaking, though, on February 23, 1832, the line's founders, including Thomas Emmet, whose younger brother, Robert, was the famous Irish revolutionary, barely concealed their ultimate goal. Before adjourning for toasts "drunk in sparkling Champagne with great hilarity and feeling," John Mason, the railroad's vice president (the president was dutifully attending to his day job as a congressman in Washington), acknowledged that "while the road's principal objectives were necessarily local, the higher importance was to encourage the building of another road to Albany, which is intended to commence where the present road (our New York & Harlem) terminates at the Harlem River."

The railroad industry in America was still so primitive that the first iron rails had to be ordered from England. After a visit, Charles Dickens scorned some of the line's early carriages as "great wooden arks." And even before any track was laid, railroad officials realized that the terminus at 23rd Street was too remote from lower Manhattan. State legislators were importuned to grant an extension to the charter—but, pointedly, the extension was in the downtown direction, to Prince Street in what is now SoHo, and "through such streets as the mayor, aldermen and commonality might prescribe" (as a practical matter, that meant the railroad could be extorted by both state and city politicians). Another caveat was imposed after a locomotive boiler exploded, killing the engineer and injuring 20 passengers: no steam locomotives could be used to haul carriages south of 14th Street (by 1858, with the city bulging northward, steam power would be banned below 42nd Street). Only horsepower—literally—was allowed.

When the first stretch opened on November 22, 1832, between Prince Street and Union Square, the carriages, each pulled by two horses, more closely resembled streetcars than a railroad. The one-way fare was a penny. Horsecars would proliferate in the city and operate until 1917, but at least the Harlem's cars ran on rails—not on the deeply rutted unpaved avenues or jarring cobblestones, which prompted the New York Herald to describe a routine ride on a horse-drawn omnibus as "modern martyrdom." (Only about 25,000 of New York's 750,000 or so residents rode an omnibus daily by 1850, but the practice acclimated them to what the historian Glen Holt Jr. described, in transportation rather than sartorial terms, as the "riding habit.") Unfortunately, the inaugural ceremony did not go off without a hitch. A miscommunication between the drivers of the cars resulted in what the railroad historian Louis V. Grogan speculated was the first recorded instance of a rear-end collision in America.

This being New York, even the 12 mph horsecars provoked public controversy. (Below 14th Street the speed limit was a pokey 5 mph, about as fast as a hearty pedestrian could walk; the limit was rigidly enforced by an inspector, Henry Bergh, who would later found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.)

Moreover, cabbies objected to the competition (and after one protest meeting at Tammany Hall vandalized some of the company's tracks). Storeowners feared the railroad would eventually usurp the entire width of Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue and Park Avenue South), and landlords bordering the avenue, expecting an immediate bonanza in real estate values, worried instead that New York & Harlem would win further concessions from the city (which it did) and encroach upon their property. In 1833, the railroad purchased six parcels at East 26th Street and Fourth Avenue for a car barn and stables.


The reticence of the city fathers notwithstanding, the railroad was not about horses. It was about steam—even if steam, and the higher speed it allowed, was still considered unsafe and even unnatural. While the horse-drawn streetcar business would enrich other entrepreneurs for decades, it was the potential of steam power that had inspired George William Featherstonhaugh to organize the Mohawk & Hudson. Steam power was what John Mason and other officials of the New York & Harlem fully believed would redeem their investment in an untested route between bustling lower Manhattan and the bucolic precincts north of 14th Street, much less the even more pastoral outpost of Harlem. By 1840, while the New York & Harlem still owned 140 horses to haul its 36 carriages on lower Fourth Avenue, the line had also placed six wood-burning steam locomotives in service.

Also by then, three developments foreshadowed the railroad's future success. In 1834, a rock cut was completed through Murray Hill and the line was extended north to East 85th Street in Yorkville. Three years later, railroad engineers completed a 596-foot-long brick and masonry tube between 94th and 96th Streets under Mount Prospect, or Observatory Place. (It is the city's oldest tunnel and still carries two tracks of the Metro-North Railroad.) The railroad was also extended farther south to Tryon Row, today the site of the Municipal Building in lower Manhattan.

By 1839, just seven years after service was inaugurated, the fledgling railroad could celebrate the completion of its original agenda: nearly seven miles of relatively rapid transit from the city to Harlem. Regular service to 125th Street and the opening of a hotel there inspired the New York Herald to predict that "this and other improvements will make Harlem a fashionable rival to Hoboken, New Brighton and other summer resorts."

Another feat took no less finesse. Dawdling by Gouverneur Morris's New York & Albany Railroad prevented it from laying tracks south from the Bronx into the New York & Harlem's Manhattan territory. The line had frittered away its franchise and, in 1840, the legislature granted the New York & Harlem the right to bridge the Harlem River and, in effect, lay track all the way to the state capital—actually, to Greenbush, across the river, until a Hudson River railroad bridge was built in 1866. (So much for progress: today, Amtrak's Albany stop is again on the wrong side of the river, in Rensselaer.)The Harlem line, originally confined by charter, but not by ambition, to the island of Manhattan, was poised to become the little railroad that could. By 1852, its tracks would stretch from New York's City Hall nearly 131 miles north to Chatham and connect to the last 22 miles toward Albany.

THE RAILROAD NOT ONLY FULFILLED A DEMAND. It created one. Brooklyn Heights is generally regarded as America's first suburb (for the record, historians say the city's very first commuter was Jacques Cortelyou, who surveyed New Amsterdam in 1660 for the Dutch West India Company and traveled to work from Long Island), but Brooklyn was reachable from Manhattan only by boat, which was undependable in bad weather. In winter, the East River might freeze for weeks at a time. Trains, in contrast, were considerably more versatile. They opened vast tracts of land to development, sending steel runners up the fertile plains of New York's Hudson Valley and southwestern Connecticut, where the railroad would advertise "villa plots for sale" conveniently near stations. From those nodes, new towns and even cities would take root. Suburbanization was not unique to New York City. Railroads also spread development beyond city lines in places like Boston and Philadelphia. Yet in New York, the tendrils of track seemed to proliferate farther from the city center and in virtually every direction.

In 1843, the New Haven Railroad had reached its namesake city from New York. A year later, the New York Herald prophesied that within two decades "the line of this road will be nearly one continuous village as far as White Plains." With Westchester's population ballooning by 75 percent in the 1850s alone, an English traveler marveled that suburban homes were "springing up like mushrooms on spots which five years ago were part of the dense and tangled forest; and the value of property everywhere, but especially along the various lines of railroad, has increased by a ratio almost incredible."

Reaction of rural residents who overnight evolved into suburbanites was profoundly mixed.

NOT LONG AFTER THE LINE linked the teeming city to country homes in Harlem, what would become the Bronx, and Westchester and to small Hudson Valley villages, a perceptive railroad superintendent remembered only as M. Sloat noticed a new class of customer: the repeat passenger, whose to-and-fro trips to work and home represented a potential marketing bonanza. Seizing the opportunity, the railroad originated an imaginative fare structure of tickets based not on a onetime passage or even a round trip, but on unlimited rides for six months or a full year at a steep discount from the single-fare rate. The full fare was commuted, and with one bold entrepreneurial stroke the railroad commuter—in name, at the very least—was officially born. The first-class fare between downtown and Harlem was $35 for 12 months; a second-class ticket, for $25, was good only during prescribed hours and on local trains. Even with the discount, annual commutation rates from Westchester were too high for most wage earners, which forged the county's enduring identity as a verdant, affluent suburb. In a letter to the Times in 1873, a writer identified only as a blue-collar "brakeman" complained that given the high cost of commuting, "I confidently expect that, within the next 10 years, Westchester will be inhabited only by those who can afford to pay for the luxury, such as railroad directors, members of the Stock Exchange, and executors of large estates." But as Kenneth T. Jackson recalled in his book Crabgrass Frontier, even before the Civil War "the southernmost stations at Fordham, Morrisania, Tremont, and Mount Vernon were becoming centers of middle-class residence." Commuters' dependence on a reliable railroad would become manifest.


The advent of the commuter also produced an immediate and not entirely surprising corollary: the commuter complaint. Early on, a coalition of Scarsdale commuters threatened to sue the Central because "the poor train service has so discouraged people seeking real estate just south of White Plains that it has caused the market practically to collapse." The commuters complained that the haphazard service was especially hard on housewives. (Scarsdale riders griped: "It is almost impossible to keep servants, because they never know when they should have meals for their masters coming from New York, nor how long they will have to keep the meals warm.")

Similar complaints left commuters ripe for mockery. E.B. White perpetuated the stereotype in a 1929 poem:

Commuter—one who spends his life

In riding to and from his wife;

A man who shaves and takes a train

And then rides back to shave again.

But commuter revolts mattered only when riders had an alternative. And suddenly, another railroad offered one. In 1847, the Hudson River Railroad Company had finally been organized, with John B. Jervis, who was instrumental in charting the original Mohawk & Hudson, as its chief engineer. Constructing a railroad adjoining the river—hemmed on the east by a steep embankment and punctuated by ponds that ebbed and flowed with the Hudson's tidal clock and had to be either bridged or filled in—presented a challenge. Jervis cast the project as an environmental bonanza for the shoreline: "rough points will be smoothed off, the irregular indentations of the bays be hidden and a regularity and symmetry imparted to the outline." (Some of the human impediments to construction were less obliging; the line paid $3,000 to settle property claims in upper Manhattan by John J. Audubon and $800 to Madame Eliza Jumel, a widow of Aaron Burr, "notwithstanding the defects" in her title.) But constructing a riprap river wall and leveling the flinty rock surface to lay gradeless track was an engineering challenge, not an operating one, and within two years the trains were running north past Peekskill from a terminal at West 32nd Street and Ninth Avenue (a route that would extend downtown to Chambers Street on Ninth Avenue, paralleling in some places the former elevated freight tracks that were transformed into what is now the High Line park).

By midcentury, the Harlem was facing fierce competition from what one of its advertisements warned were the "dangers and disasters incident to a road running on the margin of a deep river"—namely, the new Hudson River Railroad. The railroad's route proved to be a testament to the inevitable political ascendancy of rail over river. In a sense, though, it was less a matter of ascendancy than a case of meeting the enemy and discovering he is us.



IN 1833, JUST AS THE NEW YORK & HARLEM RAILROAD was beginning service, a swashbuckling Hudson River boat mogul named Cornelius Vanderbilt boldly embarked on his first railroad trip. For a future railroad magnate, the trip could not have been more fraught with foreboding. The Camden & Amboy Railroad passenger car he was riding in rolled off an embankment in Hightstown, New Jersey. Vanderbilt was very nearly killed. He broke several ribs and punctured a lung. (If the accident alienated him from railroads in general, it also may have laid the groundwork for his later special antipathy toward the Pennsylvania, of which the Camden & Amboy was a component.) Needless to say, he was so unimpressed with the noisy, newfangled vehicle that even years later, when he was solicited to buy stock in the Harlem line, he would reply: "I would be a fool to sink my money in a business that sets out to compete with steamboats."

Vanderbilt was born in 1794 into a poor farming family on Staten Island, the great-great-grandson of a Dutchman who emigrated as an indentured servant from the village of Bilt in the Netherlands. He was 13 years old when Robert Fulton's Clermont first steamed up the Hudson. Three years later, Vanderbilt was captain of his very own flat-bottomed and oar-equipped piragua, on which he ferried passengers between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. Two decades later, as George Stephenson was engineering his first steam locomotive in England, Vanderbilt was building his first steamboat, after successfully challenging Fulton's monopoly on Hudson River shipping (first by landing at different piers to confuse the authorities).

Steamboats were still profitable, but something happened in 1847 that may have soured Vanderbilt on his identification with their fate. His coal-burning namesake steamboat, Cornelius Van Derbilt, was defeated in a round-trip boat race up the Hudson to Croton Point. Vanderbilt didn't abandon ships. But he also began investing in railroads. While he would forever be known universally as "the Commodore"—a self-styled sobriquet that celebrated his maritime coups—he was already gazing longingly on a new horizon and, by the late 1840s, was partnering with Daniel Drew, a devilishly clever sometime steamboat partner and Wall Street buccaneer. (Drew's reputation for bloating his cattle by quenching their thirst before delivering them to market and later for outwitting Vanderbilt by diluting Erie Railroad shares would give rise to the term watered-down stock.) Their first acquisition was the Boston & Stonington, which not only didn't compete with steamboats; it was practically in business with them. Its tracks provided the land link in the mostly maritime route between Boston and New York (in 1844, the Long Island Rail Road had begun carrying passengers to Greenport, where they would board the steamboat to Stonington, avoiding the hilly Connecticut land route riven by the wide-open mouths of deep rivers). But while the Boston & Stonington didn't compete with Vanderbilt's steamboats, other railroads did. And while the railroads were initially less luxurious and offered few amenities, they could navigate the route to Albany during the four or so months a year that the Hudson would freeze north of where the Tappan Zee now spans the river.

Meanwhile, the New York & Harlem was falling on hard times. Its hilly inland route to the state capital—actually, only the 131 miles to Chatham, where it would connect with the future Boston & Albany—couldn't compete with the Hudson Railroads' water-level river route. Moreover, the line had been fleeced by one of its executives in 1854 and, in part, blamed Vanderbilt, whom the executive had inveigled into buying Harlem bonds. In the Panic of 1857, after Harlem stock plunged to $9 a share, Vanderbilt was invited in as a director (his stockbroker was Leonard Jerome, whose daughter would give birth to Winston Churchill).

By 1862, rumor had it that Vanderbilt again regarded the depressed price not only as an investment opportunity but also as a vehicle to outwit his on-again, off-again nemesis Daniel Drew. As Kurt C. Schlichting, a Fairfield University sociology professor, recalled it, Vanderbilt figured the Harlem's fortunes would improve with a franchise for a streetcar line up Broadway. But Drew thwarted Vanderbilt's strategy, probably by bribing the Common Council. Vanderbilt was undaunted. He continued to buy Harlem stock, which spurted to $150, and then he demanded $180—to the dismay of Drew and other short sellers, who were committed to deliver at $110 and therefore would lose $70 on every share they sold short.

Within a year, when Vanderbilt turned 70, he was president of the Harlem. Despite an occasional setback, such was Wall Street's faith in his acumen that the stock price promptly rebounded. As if to celebrate, three months after the South surrendered at Appomattox, Vanderbilt and his son William H., the vice president of the line, accompanied General Ulysses S. Grant on the Chatham leg of the general's well-deserved vacation to Saratoga on a train hauled, naturally, by a flag-festooned engine named W.H. Vanderbilt. At the end of the two-hour, 45-minute ride, a Times reporter pronounced the Harlem line "admirably adapted for rapid travel" and said it "afforded a rich treat to the tourist and lover of nature in the magnificent scenery to be found along the whole route."

The first-class Harlem railroad Vanderbilt envisioned would remain elusive, though. Initially, the most tangible increase was in the commuter fares, to $50 for an annual ticket to Harlem, $75 to Bronxville, and $150 to the end of the line in Chatham. Service gradually improved so that by 1867 regular commuters included Horace Greeley of Chappaqua, who commented in his New York Tribune:

We lived on this road when it was poor and feebly managed—with rotten cars and wheezy old engines that could not make schedule time; and the improvement since realized is gratifying… With an underground track from the Battery to Harlem Flats, its passenger fares would be speedily doubled. Such a track 10 years ago would have kept thousands in our state who have been driven over to Jersey by the full hour now required to traverse the space between City Hall and the Harlem River. With a good underground railroad, the census of 1880 will credit Westchester County with a population of at least half a million, whereof at least 50,000 will visit our city daily.

Greeley's demographic projection proved to be hyperbolic. Nonetheless, between 1860 and 1880, the population of Westchester and the southern portion of the county that would become the Bronx more than doubled. The railroad was mostly responsible.


By 1851, the Hudson line reached all the way to Albany (actually, at first, to the ferry terminal in Greenbush). The New York train connected with the overnight express to Buffalo, a train that introduced the sleeping car—a vehicle so inferior that it inspired one rider from western New York, a carpenter named George Pullman, to devote the rest of his career to developing the perfect alternative. Whatever the defects of the sleeper from Albany, the daytime passenger business was booming. Within a year, the Hudson was claiming more than 1.1 million passengers annually.

On April 2, 1853, the state legislature authorized 10 New York railroads to consolidate into a single corporation. Ten days later, officers of the lines, including Erastus Corning and Russell Sage (a financier and often partner of Vanderbilt's nemesis Jay Gould), met to organize the New York Central, which covered the 300 miles of central New York from Albany to Buffalo and was already growing connecting tentacles to Boston, New York City, and the Midwest. Corning, though lame and quite ordinary in appearance, was the Central's preeminent personality (he accepted no salary, but his ironworks was awarded the exclusive contract to supply the line with track; in the 20th century, his great-grandson would serve as mayor of Albany for more than four decades). Once, a conductor failed to recognize him and barked, "Hurry up, old man; don't be all day about it. The train can't wait." Corning insisted he was not personally offended but fired the conductor anyway. "I'll keep no one in my employ," he said, "who is uncivil to travelers."

On February 27, 1860, Corning was at Cooper Union in Manhattan to hear Abraham Lincoln deliver the speech that catapulted him to the Republican nomination for president. The next morning, according to some accounts, Corning visited Lincoln at the Astor House and offered him $10,000 a year to be the New York Central's lawyer. "If Lincoln had accepted his offer," Edward Hungerford wrote in Men and Iron, "he unquestionably would have declined the presidency of the United States."

By midcentury, the Central owned 188 locomotives. Harper's Weekly proclaimed it a "great and perfect work" and Horace Greeley's Tribune


  • "This well-done piece of urban history will appeal to both railroad enthusiasts and general readers."
  • "A wonderful volume for New York City buffs or railroad aficionados, Roberts closes with discussions of some of the terminal's quirks and mysteries like the ubiquitous decorative acorns, the secret staircase, and various secret underground locations."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "Sam Roberts' book integrates a historical perspective with contemporary storytelling. This compelling narrative invites the reader into an immersive world of Grand Central that is personal, historically rich, and peppered with engaging anecdotes."
    American Institute of Architects

On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
320 pages

Sam Roberts

About the Author

Sam Roberts is an urban affairs correspondent and Metro Matters columnist for the New York Times and, as such, has become something of the face and voice for the city at large. He is the author of numerous books, including The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. Sam is frequently heard on NPR.

Learn more about this author