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.”

By 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 from 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 important 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.

In 1968, the New York Central Railroad merged with its former archrival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, to form a mega-railroad, the Penn Central Corporation. 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 the “Upper 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 Authority (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 new facilities 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 the Upper 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.

Note: Many thanks to local railroad historians Heyward Cohen, Jack Shufelt, 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.