Railroad and Local History
In 1852, the New York & Harlem Railroad was built north to
Chatham, NY. This completed an extension of the railroad more than
125 miles northward from its origins in Manhattan. Products could
now be transported by rail directly to New York City rather than
depending on river transport via Poughkeepsie. The extended line
also provided a rail route for people and commerce northward to
Albany, Boston, and towns in Vermont and Canada.
The New York & Harlem Railroad originated in the 1830's as
an early commuter railroad linking lower Manhattan (New York City)
with the affluent new "suburb" of Harlem in northern
Manhattan. In the early 1840's, businessmen pushed for an extension
of the railroad much farther north after Boston was connected to
Albany via the new Western Railroad of Massachusetts. Albany was
the terminus for both the Erie Canal to the west and the newly
constructed Buffalo-to-Albany New York Central Railroad. New York
City businessmen worried that Boston would have a competitive advantage
over New York City for the expanding "western trade."
the early 1840's, the New York & Harlem Railroad had been
extended northward into Westchester County. In 1845, the New York
State Legislature authorized further extension northward to create
a connection with Albany. An inland route up what later became
known as the "Harlem Valley" was chosen. The valley route
was easier and less costly to construct than a route following
the Hudson River. However, business interests in important cities
along the Hudson River such as Poughkeepsie soon raised the capital
to construct a second railroad line, the Hudson River Railroad.
This competing project was completed to Albany at almost the same
time as the New York & Harlem Railroad and wound up becoming
the primary route.
Both railroad lines were acquired by Commodore Vanderbilt in
the 1870's and became part of the rail baron's empire stretching
New York City to Chicago and St. Louis. The northern portion
of the New York & Harlem Railroad became the Harlem Division of
the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, later shortened
to New York Central Railroad. In 1968, the Harlem Division became
the Upper Harlem Line of the new Penn Central Railroad. The series
of swamps, floodplains and valleys from Brewster to Hillsdale later
became known as the "Harlem Valley" because
of the New York & Harlem Railroad.
The upper portion of the New York & Harlem Railroad became
a secondary line (the Harlem Division) in the vast Vanderbilt
New York Central Railroad empire. Nonetheless, it remained
to the transportation needs and commercial activity of eastern
New York State and western New England for over 100 years.
By the 1960's, new highways, turnpikes, interstates, a changing
economy and new lifestyles caused a decline in traffic and revenues
on the Harlem Division. This
led to service cutbacks and deferred maintenance which then caused further
loss of business, both freight and passenger.
1968, the New York Central Railroad merged with its former archrival, the
Pennsylvania Railroad, to form a mega-railroad, the Penn Central
This new railroad was an operational and financial disaster and was soon
bankrupt. Its management then embarked on drastic cost-cutting
measures and sought to
abandon thousands of miles of low-profit branch and secondary lines including
Harlem Line" (Penn Central's term for the Harlem Division) between Millerton
and Chatham. This was vigorously opposed by Millerton's Lettie G. Carson
and a citizens group known as the Harlem Valley Transportation Association. Despite
some remarkably successful court victories, a new federal plan to re-organize
the Penn Central into a "down-sized" Conrail System eliminated the
Harlem Line north of Millerton in 1976. Subsequent "downsizing" cut
it back even further south, to Wassaic, in 1980. Eventually, service was
cut back farther to Dover Plains. New York State's Metropolitan Transporation
(MTA) assumed responsibility for commuter services in 1972.
The service district was extended in 2000 back to Wassaic from Dover Plains.
MTA's Metro-North has vastly upgraded the Upper Harlem Line and constructed
new facilities located just north and outside of the hamlet of Wassaic. The
increase service capacity and frequency. This reflects a new and expanding
market for passenger rail service in the Tri-State region (NY-CT-MA). Although
Harlem Line was abandoned and the track removed between Wassaic and Millerton
and on northward to Chatham by 1981, the Harlem Valley Rail Trail preserves
a linear corridor for alternative public use.
Many thanks to local railroad historians Heyward Cohen, Jack
and Lou Grogan (The Coming of the New York and Harlem Railroad,
Pawling, NY: Louis V. Grogan, 1989) for much of the railroad
history that is found throughout this website.
TO TOP OF PAGE