The Railroads in Patterson - Part 1

Introduction

Most people familiar with Patterson are aware of the commuter rail service provided by the Metro North Commuter Railroad. But fewer people are aware of how that railroad was built, or that there were actually two major railroads in Patterson's history. Operating under different names depending on ownership, the New York Central and the New Haven Railroads are the two names that are the best known. Both railroads brought major changes to the town of Patterson.

The Railroads in Patterson

The New York and Harlem Railroad

The New York and Harlem Railroad is the predecessor of today's Metro North Commuter Railroad, and was the first railroad built in New York State. The New York and Harlem Railroad was chartered in 1831 to operate from 23rd Street in Manhattan to the Harlem River. At the time, 23rd Street was considered the northern edge of New York City, and the northern end of Manhattan Island was still very rural. It was quickly decided that 23rd Street was too far north, and the charter was amended to move the starting point south to Prince Street. The charter was further amended in 1840 to permit the Railroad to extend service into Westchester County, and eventually north into Columbia County and terminating in Chatham Four Corners, which it reached in 1852. The total run from New York City was 127 miles. Chatham was a strategic goal for the New York and Harlem because the line would be able to connect with the Boston & Albany Railroad, which could provide connecting service into Albany to the west, or into New England to the east. The Harlem Railroad was also valuable as a winter alternative route for the frozen Erie Canal.

The best-documented period of the New York and Harlem's history - and arguably its most colorful - began when Cornelius Vanderbilt entered the picture. Vanderbilt had made his fortune in the shipping business, and was nicknamed "Commodore" as a result. His shipping empire included ships, starting with a ferry service, and stagecoaches. Vanderbilt had no apparent interest in railroads until 1862, when he was already 70 years old, when he began to acquire stock in the New York and Harlem Railroad. In 1863 he also began acquiring stock in the Hudson River Railroad.

The Hudson River Railroad was organized by a group of Poughkeepsie businessman who were interested in creating an alternate shipping route to the Hudson River. The river provided the cheapest and easiest shipping route, but northern portions of the river would freeze during winter, shutting down this vital commerce route for goods shipping between New York City and Albany. The first leg of the rail route was the portion between New York City and Peekskill, which opened in 1849. Construction proved to be very difficult. In order to provide an alternative to river traffic, the rail line needed to service the same ports that were serviced by cargo and passenger ships. That required the rail line to be constructed along the river, which provided many construction challenges. The tracks needed to either bypass or tunnel through the mountains of the Hudson Highlands that line a portion of the river. In other areas, the tracks needed to cross soft river marshes. Seasonal flooding or flooding caused by storms could also render the tracks unusable. In 1851, the Hudson River Railroad began service to Albany, but like the Harlem, actual service to Albany was not by rail but by a ferry across the Hudson River. The Harlem connected with the B&A , but ithe B&A access to Albany was not by rail, but also by a ferry across the Hudson River. The Hudson River Railroad was not prosperous and fell into disrepair, and was sliding into bankruptcy when Cornelius Vanderbilt began acquiring its stock.

The New York & Harlem Railroad summer schedule for Patterson and Towners, published in the July 5, 1859 edition of the Putnam County Courier. The Harlem Line schedule for Patterson, published in the January 17, 1898 edition of the Putnam County Courier. Before there was a shopping mall, there actually was a Danbury Fair that attracted Patterson farmers as exhibitors. The New York Central Railroad announced special trains to the Fair in this ad appearing in the October 1, 1908 edition of the Patterson News Weekly. The last Danbury Fair was in 1981. The Danbury Fair Mall opened in 1986. A northbound steam-powered train leaves Patterson Depot and approaches the road now known as NYS Route 311. An early Patterson Depot. The sign on the building's end indicates that an American Express office is located in the station. (The Patterson Historical Society)

Cornelius Vanderbilt had a reputation as a ruthless and shrewd businessman who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Once Vanderbilt decided that he wanted to be in railroads, he displayed his usual tenacity and zeal. To acquire the Harlem River Railroad, he used two of his typical tactics: stock price manipulation and bribery of public officials. New York City's Common Council was controlled at the time by the notoriously corrupt and powerful William Marcy ("Boss") Tweed, who happily took Vanderbilt's bribe money. Vanderbilt was able to make millions of dollars, and took control of the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1857. Vanderbilt placed his son William in charge of the railroad.

The next target for Vanderbilt was the declining Hudson River Railroad. Vanderbilt needed the approval of the New York State Legislature to merge the Hudson and Harlem railroads, and employed his usual methods to achieve his goal. Stock price manipulation had worked before, and Vanderbilt used it again successfully. He then lobbied - and bribed - State officials, and was able to merge the two rail lines in 1863. Prior to the merger, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad had leased the Harlem and began operating it in 1857. In later years, Vanderbilt acquired other railroads, including the New York Central, and built a railroad empire that stretched into several states. The Hudson and Harlem Railroads began operating under the New York Central name in the 1870s, with the Hudson line eventually named the "Hudson Division" and the Harlem named the "Harlem Division". Vanderbilt also acquired the Boston & Albany, but it continued to operate under its own name.

In its early years, the New York and Harlem Railroad was a profitable company. Its main strength was its run through the length of Manhattan Island. However, once Vanderbilt built the railroad empire that became the New York Central Railroad, The Harlem lost its significance and was considered a weak railroad compared to its more strategically important sister lines. The Hudson, for example, became the major line through which long distance service would feed north into Albany and Buffalo and into the Midwest. The Hudson route was scenic, and the New York Central would eventually market it as the "Scenic Water Level Route" in its ads for long distance passenger service. The Harlem, by contrast, passed through dairy farms in Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties, and apple orchards in Columbia County. Certain Harlem runs were extended into North Adams, Massachusetts, via the Boston & Albany main line between Chatham and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and then north to North Adams via the B&A North Adams branch line.

The New York - Chatham - North Adams runs were the premier passenger trains on the Harlem Division, and offered dining and parlor cars. The Harlem offered connecting service to the Putnam Division of the New York Central in Putnam Junction, which was located just south of where the Metro North rail yard in Brewster is currently located. The Putnam Division offered service in Putnam County west to the resorts at Lake Mahopac, and then south through Westchester County and into the north Bronx, with a connection to subway service into Manhattan. At Towners Junction, in Patterson, the Harlem connected with the New York and New England Railroad, which was later absorbed into the New Haven Railroad. The New Haven provided eastbound service to Danbury and to Devon, Connecticut, and westerly to Chicago for a time, and later just to Maybrook in Orange County, New York. So important was The Harlem Railroad in the growth of the region, that the area it traveled through became known as the Harlem Valley. The village of Patterson eventually became clustered around the railroad station.

Freight moving to and from New York City was mainly carried on the Hudson Division and West Shore Line on the western shore of the Hudson River. Freight service was also important on the Harlem Division, but it was mainly local freight, including dairy products, iron ore, and animals. In the years before the invention of refrigeration, ice harvesting was an important industry. A large ice harvesting operation operated along the Harlem Tracks at The Ice Pond in Patterson. Blocks of ice were cut from the frozen Pond, and loaded onto rail cars for delivery in New York City. Ice blocks could be stored in the icehouse well into the warmer weather, insulated by straw. The dairy farms along the Harlem route also supplied milk to New York City, making milk the main freight cargo on the line well into the 20th century. Milk was carried from as far north as Rutland, Vermont, and the milk trains became known as the "Rutland Milks". The milk trains had the right-of-way on the Harlem, since the milk was typically transported in non-refrigerated drums that were supplied by the farmers. Dairies and milk became such an important industry along the Harlem line, that Bordens built numerous plants along the route. Locally, the best known of the old Bordens plants was the one located in Brewster along the East Branch of the Croton River, along the road now known as NYS Route 6. Another Borden's plant operated in Towners. In 1958 a federal order stopped the flow of Vermont milk into New York, and the milk trains eventually disappeared.

A spectacular Harlem line derailment occurred in the early hours of a Sunday morning in early August, 1952. Twelve cars of a 34-car Rutland milk freight heading to West 30th Street in New York City left the tracks along Railroad Street (Front Street) in the Patterson hamlet. The train had been assembled in Chatham, New York, and consisted of six milk tanker cars, several coal gondola cars, and several flatbed cars carrying army tanks. The derailment occurred at 1:58 AM when the middle twelve cars left the track due to a hot axle, or "hot journal". The engine and first ten cars, and the last twelve cars remained on the tracks. The milk tankers remained intact and no milk was spilled, but tons of coal were strewn alongside the track. The army tanks were undisturbed atop the flatbed cars. A long section of track and ties was torn up and the cars were strewn over the destroyed rail bed. Debris was strewn along Railroad Street, with a rock tossed by the wreck breaking a plate glass door of Leader's Department Store, about 100 feet from the derailment. Wreckage also landed in front of Lee's Diner, 75 feet from the wreckage. Two of the derailed milk cars jackknifed and smashed into the Patterson Depot, lifting the building from its foundation. The station was occupied by Mrs. John Covell, who was using a pay phone in the waiting room at the north end of the building. Neither she nor the five-man train crew was injured. John Covell and two customers from the Diner were first on the scene, and notified station agent Earl Proper. Proper quickly called the New York Central office in New York City. A large crew of workers, cranes, bulldozers, and two members of the Grand Central investigation division were soon assembled. The wreck did not attract much attention until later in the morning when news began to spread and curiosity seekers came from miles around. Putnam County Sheriff Frank Lyden, a Patterson resident, and Undersheriff Robert Buck assisted with the investigation and with crowd control. The Central implemented a temporary bus shuttle service between Pawling and Brewster to accommodate the passengers of three trains that were stopped by the derailment. By 7 PM Sunday, a siding had been connected to the mainline to provide a bypass track around the wreckage, thereby restoring normal service.

Railroad Street (Front Street) in the early 20th century is pictured in this postcard by Harrie W. Wright. A northbound steam-powered train approaches Patterson Station in 1928. The line was double-tracked in Patterson, and a siding track ran behind the depot building. The car is parked in front of John E. Carey's Confectionery Store. The store on the extreme right is the First National grocery store. Curiosity seekers inspect a 1952 derailment along Front St. in the Patterson Hamlet. (The Patterson Historical Society) Albert Woody, one time owner of One Bucks Tavern, stands alongside George Pfahl in the first photo. One Bucks was located in the former Gaydos Tavern at the corner of NYS Route 311 and Orchard Street. Pfahl owned the Patterson Market on Front Street. 12 cars of a 34-car train left the track, but no one was hurt. The train was carrying a cargo of milk, army tanks, and coal. A temporary bypass track was quickly built, and the Harlem resumed service later in the day. Cranes work to remove debris in the second photo. The cranes were steam powered, and a Patterson Fire Dept. engine was kept on the scene to provide water to the cranes. The damaged Patterson Depot is seen in the last photo. These two photos appeared in the August 14, 1952 edition of the Putnam County Courier.

The Harlem Division evolved into mainly a commuter service, offering fast service to New York City. Commuter service typically ended at the Brewster Station, although some commuter runs terminated in Pawling or Dover Plains. The preferred route to Albany was the Hudson Division, whose tracks also provided long distance service to northern New York and the Midwest. The Hudson Division became the more profitable line, as a result, and was the line that featured two of the more famous New York Central runs, the Empire which ran to Albany, and the showcase 20th Century Limited, which offered luxury long distance service to Chicago. The Harlem was a weak line by comparison, but did have some unique services. Special weekend ski trains, for example, were run during the winter as late as the 1960s, providing service to the ski areas at the northern end of the line, such as Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which was accessible from the Hillsdale station. The Harlem also gave the Central a needed backup route to the Hudson, allowing the Central to reroute trains when the Hudson tracks were impassable due to flooding, mud or rockslides, snow, or derailments. Trains would leave New York via the Harlem tracks, and travel north through Chatham, then west onto the Boston & Albany tracks to Albany and rejoin the main line. Even the legendary 20th Century Limited would make an occasional appearance on the Harlem line. More efficient electric service was brought into North White Plains in 1910. Steam service ended on the Harlem in September, 1952, as diesel locomotives took over on non-electrified sections of track.

A New York Central ticket dating from World War I. The ticket was good for passage between the Patterson and Towners stations. A special excursion rate round trip ticket for passage between Patterson and Grand Central Terminal. The ticket bears a printing date of "6-1-34". The ticket was meant to be used between 1934 and 1943. A New York Central magazine ad from 1948. America's railroads had a resurgence during World War II, and the Central was announcing a modernization program. The Harlem Division map from a 1953 New York Central timetable.

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries the railroads in the United States became very powerful, and with power came abuses. The Federal government, as a result, started to heavily regulate the railroads, including freight rates and passenger ticket prices. Government regulation and the coming of the airplane and automobile, led to the decline of the railroads in the 20th century. The airplane could move passenger traffic quickly, eliminating the need for long distance trains with sleeper cabins. As roads were built, especially with the creation of the federal interstate highway system, begun during the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s, America embraced the travel independence offered by the automobile. World War II had provided a brief resurgence of the railroads as gasoline and rubber were rationed, and trains were once again needed to move people and freight for the war effort. But the decline continued as the country and its economy recovered from the War. The farms of the Harlem Valley became suburbia, and the dairy farms turned into housing subdivisions. The Harlem Division was now reduced to a commuter line. By February, 1968 service to Chatham was down to one weekday train in each direction, and two each on weekends.

The New York Central pleaded its case for the unprofitability of commuter rail service in this full-page ad appearing in the Putnam County Courier on October 18, 1951. The New York Central markets off-peak fares on its Hudson Valley commuter lines, including the Harlem, Putnam, and Hudson divisions. This full-page ad appeared in the Putnam County Courier on February 5, 1953. The New York Central timetable for Towners and Patterson, February 1, 1961.

In the 1950s, the New York Central Railroad began to curtail service in Patterson. In 1958, all station services were eliminated in Towners. In June, 1959, the New York State Public Service Commission allowed the Central to eliminate agent services in Patterson. The Railroad argued that agent services could be consolidated in Brewster, and that the revenues in Patterson did not justify the expense of maintaining the service. The annual cost of maintaining an agent, according to the Central, was $7,000, with another $1,000 in station maintenance. In May, Patterson Supervisor Emile Buechel appeared before the Public Service Commission (PSC) to argue for the continuation of services at the Patterson Station. But, in it ruling, PSC Examiner Edward L. Block noted that passengers would not be severely inconvenienced by the Central's request to eliminate the agent. Block noted that monthly ticket sales consisted of 175 one-way tickets, four 26-trip tickets, and 10 commutation tickets. He said that the one-way tickets could be purchased aboard the trains, and that all tickets types could be purchased at other stations with agents.

With little freight activity remaining in Patterson, and with no station agent services remaining, it was only a matter of time before the Patterson Depot building itself would be deemed unnecessary. In March, 1960, the Depot was demolished by the New York Central Railroad, and with it went much of Patterson's railroad history. Ironically, it was a local contractor, Gilbert Wadle of Towners, who received the contract to demolish the building. When agent services were terminated in 1959, the Central closed the Depot, and constructed a small passenger shelter slightly north of the Depot. The age of the building was unclear even at the time of its demolition. It had been enlarged over the years as freight service grew. And, in 1952, it received an unplanned remodeling when a southbound Rutland Milk struck the southern end of the Depot and did considerable damage. After the demolition, the Depot site was used to create additional parking spaces.

In December, 1959, the Railway Express Agency, Inc., also consolidated freight and parcel services in Brewster. The New York State Public Service Commission accepted revised tariffs filed by Railway Express, which allowed the company to close it offices in Patterson, Pawling, Wingdale, Carmel, and Lake Mahopac, which were towns that were also experiencing curtailments in rail service. The company explained that it needed to streamline its operation and reduce expenses.

Passenger service cutbacks drew complaints that were filed with the New York State Public Service Commission. In September, 1960, the Putnam County Board of Supervisors voiced unanimous opposition to service cutbacks on the Harlem Division. Patterson Supervisor William Millar voiced the strongest complaints, noting that Patterson had already lost its station and agency services, creating inconveniences for Patterson commuters. The Public Service Commission scheduled public hearings to investigate whether passenger service was adequate. The Central was ordered to maintain existing service until the investigation was completed.

In 1967, the New York Central Railroad announced its desire to terminate the Towners Station in Patterson and the Dykemans Station in the town of Southeast. The announcement drew a swift rebuke from Patterson Supervisor Donald B. Smith. At a March meeting of the Town Board, Smith stated, "The area is growing, not decreasing. The next thing will be cutting out the service to Patterson, too." Smith also criticized the look of Front Street, and urged the Central to improve the passenger shelter and to clean the area adjacent to the shelter to create a small park. He also urged the Central to erect a fence along the tracks. The area, he said, was looking like a "Poverty Row".

A delegation of public officials and local citizens attended a hearing of the New York State Public Service Commission on April 6 to discuss the station closures. Supervisor Smith carried an official resolution of the Putnam County Board of Supervisors condemning the closures. Several area civic associations joined the protest along with Ivan Douchkoff, chairman of the Putnam County Industrial Commission. Also attending were Patterson Town Attorney Frank Bowers, Putnam Lake Community Council President Allen Weisman, Patterson Civic Association President Raymond Maguire, Towners Association President Justin Greene, and Putnam County Chamber of Commerce William Quinn. It was noted that besides the inconvenience to commuters, the cutbacks would harm the proposed industrial complex that was to be built along Interstate 84 in the vicinity of the Towners and Dykemans stations. Lack of adequate parking facilities at either the Patterson or Brewster stations was cited as another problem, if these stations had to absorb commuters displaced from the Towners and Dykemans stations.

The end of the Towners and Dykemans Stations came in December, 1967, when the New York State Public Service Commission authorized the New York Central Railroad to abandon the stations. The Commission agreed with the Central that the number of customers using the two stations did not generate enough revenue to justify maintaining service to the two stops. Commission Examiner Harold N. Weber noted that while the communities were growing, passenger traffic at the Towners and Dykemans Stations had almost ceased.

The New York Central operated the Harlem Division until February, 1968, when the financially distressed New York Central Railroad merged with an equally weak Pennsylvania Railroad, to form the Penn Central Railroad. The Federal government would only approve the merger on the condition that Penn Central assume the bankrupt New Haven Railroad. The government was acting on the concerns of the State of Connecticut that the New Haven's vital commuter service would be lost if the New Haven shut down. Penn Central became the nation's largest, and, in the opinion of many, the worst railroad ever created. Penn Central could not stop the financial losses, and collapsed into bankruptcy on June 21, 1970.

In December, 1970, Putnam County Treasurer David D. Bruen notified the Putnam County Board of Supervisors that the Railroad owed about $180,000 in back taxes to Putnam County. The Board was also notified by the State of New York that it was being billed $244.24 for work done on the grade crossing on NYS Route 311 in Patterson some time prior to August, 1940. The New York Central had financed the work over the years, and, with the bankruptcy, would no longer make the annual payment. The Board of Supervisors, in turn, suggested that the State deduct the amount from the back taxes due Putnam County.

The Federal government attempted to provide some relief to the railroads with the creation of Amtrak in 1971. The thinking was that the nation's railroads could survive if they concentrated on the more profitable freight business, and allowed their failing passenger business to be folded into Amtrak. New York State required Penn Central to maintain its commuter service, but Penn Central lobbied to discontinue the service north of Dover Plains, in Dutchess County. A citizens group known as the Harlem Valley Transportation Authority (HVTA) was formed to fight for continued service to Chatham. In March 7, the State held a public hearing in New York City to hear a proposal by Resort Bus Lines, Inc. to operate a bus franchise to compete with the Upper Harlem rail service from Chatham to New York City. Representatives of the HVTA attended, fearing that the bus proposal was an indication that a decision had been made to terminate the rail service. Morris Goldfarb, director of the hearing division of the State Dept. of Transportation, assured the group that the hearing was very preliminary, and that the bus franchise would not be granted unless rail service was actually terminated. The HVTA then filed a request for a second hearing to be held in Millerton, one of the towns that might lose its rail service. The Millerton location would be more accessible to the passengers, businesses, and elected officials most affected by the threatened service cutbacks.

The service north of Dover Plains became a jurisdictional dispute between the Federal government and the State of New York. The Federal government considered the run to be an intercity long distance passenger route that placed it under Federal domain. The State, on the other hand, sued, arguing that it was part of the commuter operation servicing New York City. The State lost the case, and the Federal government sided with Penn Central. The Railroad finally won permission to terminate the service on March 20, 1972, when the last passenger train left Chatham for New York City in the early morning. Passengers, and even the train crew, were left with no way to get back to Chatham that evening, as commuter service was now terminating at Dover Plains.

The financial distress of Penn Central and the resulting lapse in maintenance of railroad property led a group of Patterson residents to take matters into their own hands and make repairs to the passenger shelter at the Patterson station. With donated materials and volunteer labor, the roof was replaced and the shelter was repainted. Other volunteers cleaned litter and debris from the areas surrounding the tracks and parking lot.

The first schedule for the new Penn Central Railroad shows sharply curtailed service to Chatham, with most Upper Harlem Division trains terminating in Dover Plains. The Towners Station has been discontinued. The Patterson Depot, shown in a postcard with a 1909 postmark. The view is from the tracks, looking northwest. Railroad Street (Front Street) is behind the Depot. The postcard was publisher by J. E. Carey, Confectionery, Patterson, NY. Carey's store was located at the corner of Railroad Street and Center Street. Charles Segelken was the station agent for many years, coming to Patterson in 1924, and remaining in Patterson for over 30 years. In November, 1974, Patterson's days as a major railroad depot are long gone, and a simple wooden shelter has replaced the depot building. Members of PRIDE (Patterson Residents Interested in a Decent Environment) take matters into their own hands and make repairs to the passenger shelter at Patterson. The bankrupt Penn Central had deferred maintenance on its property and equipment to save money. Repairing the roof, from left are Zoltan Handrick, Donald Gipson, Richard Saracelli, and Patterson Councilman and future Supervisor Larry Lawler. Standing to the right are Gertrude Gipson and Alberta Buxbaum.
The wooden shelter remains in October, 1982, but a few years later a smaller aluminum and glass shelter would replace the wooden one. The single Budd car entering the station was an indicator of how much train service in Patterson had declined. In the late 1990s the Upper Harlem Line had received extensive refurbishing, including new stations, new parking lots, new coaches and locomotives, and new tracks, switches and signals. (From "Commuter Trains to Grand Central Terminal" by Tom Nelligan; ©1986 Quadrant Press, Inc. Photo by Tom Nelligan) The sign from the old wooden shelter was salvaged after the structure was replaced by an aluminum and glass shelter. (The Patterson Historical Society) A northbound Harlem train leaves the Ice Pond and approaches Towners in this photograph taken in 2002. The diesel/electric dual-powered FL9 locomotives, such as the one in the photo, were common on the Harlem line. They were acquired from the New Haven Railroad after it merged with the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Penn Central Railroad in 1968.

After the collapse of Penn Central, Congress created Conrail to assume Penn Central operations. Conrail provided both freight and passenger service on the Harlem until New York State created the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which then created the Metro North Commuter Railroad, which assumed responsibility for local commuter passenger service. Metro North commenced service on January 1, 1983, leaving Conrail to handle the freight operations. Metro North extended electrified service from North White Plains to the new Brewster North Station (now known as Southeast), and in the 1990s rebuilt the stations and parking lots on the Upper Harlem spur, from Patterson to Dover Plains. Service was extended north to Wassaic on July 9, 2000.

Next: The New York & New England Railroad