The Railroads in Patterson - Part 4

The Controversy over the Grade Crossings in Patterson

Railroad grade crossings have always been dangerous. Patterson still has two grade crossings, both on the Metro North Harlem Line, formerly the New York Central's Harlem Division. One is on NYS Route 311 in the Patterson hamlet, and the second is located on NYS Route 164 in Towners.

In 1929, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) announced an effort to eliminate railroad grade crossings in New York State, with the State and the railroads splitting the costs. In 1930, $330,000 was to be spent to eliminate three crossings in Putnam County, including the Harlem crossing at NYS Route 164, which was estimated to cost $150,000.

The August 22, 1930 edition of The Putnam County Courier reported that a recent traffic survey indicated a large increase in traffic at the Towners railroad crossing. The Courier reported the results, as taken on a Saturday a few days earlier:

passenger cars with NYS licenses 147 two horse vehicles 8
passenger cars from other states 27 motorcycles 1
light delivery trucks 15 pedestrians 15
all other trucks, buses 20 total 239
one horse vehicles 6

Although insignificant by modern standards, the activity at the crossing in 1930s Patterson led to a proposal to eliminate the grade crossing. But in June 1931, a decision was made not to eliminate the crossing, but to add flashing warning lights instead. The area around the crossing was deemed sparsely populated and the traffic volumes too low to justify the expense of reconstructing the crossing.

The Harlem crossing on Main Street, also called the "Towners Corners-County Line Highway" on the PSC documents, and now known as NYS Route 311, generated a longer running controversy. In the early 1930s, the road was considered an important tourist approach to Poughkeepsie, in Dutchess County, and traffic on the road and on the railroad tracks was considered heavy. Sight lines were considered obstructed, particularly from the west. In December, 1930, the NYS Public Service Commission proposed the elimination of the crossing in the interests of public safety. Neither Putnam County nor the New York Central Railroad had serious objections to the project. The PSC proposed to move the crossing 90 feet north of the road, and then to build an overhead structure 192 feet in length to carry the road over the tracks. The overhead crossing would provide a clearance of 22 feet above the tracks. The overhead would consist of a 24 foot wide roadway with one sidewalk. The approaches would consist of a 30-foot wide roadway, consisting of 10 feet of unpaved shoulder and 20 feet of macadam pavement. The plan called for new drainage and realigned accesses to existing roads and to adjoining properties. Total cost of the project was estimated at $94,500, not including the cost of acquiring land for the right-of-way.

In June, 1933, The Public Service Commission ordered a rehearing on its proposal to eliminate the grade crossing on Main Street. The hearing was requested by the NYS Dept. of Public Works. Another rehearing was ordered by the PSC, and was held at Patterson Town Hall on September 14, 1933. The New York Central Railroad requested the hearing, and the Central now considered the project unnecessary based on the traffic volumes on Main Street, and further cited lost business since the project had first been proposed. The poor economic conditions of the Depression had also led to concerns about the cost of the project, and alternatives were discussed. An additional complication was the inability of a local property owner to convey title on land he had agreed to donate to the project, further raising the cost of acquiring land for the right-of-way. A total of eight hearings had been held up to this point.

In April, 1934, the PSC affirmed its plan to eliminate the grade crossing, as it did again in August 1939. Another public hearing was held in the Albany headquarters of the PSC on September 14, 1939. The Patterson Town Board was now petitioning the PSC to drop the project, claiming that it was no longer needed and the expense of the project was no longer justified. The Board indicated that railroad traffic had dropped significantly since the project had first been proposed in 1930, and that obstructions had been removed, increasing visibility of the crossing to motorists and pedestrians.

The New York Central flagman stops traffic at the Main Street (NYS Route 311) crossing. (Judy Kelly) The view is east towards NYS Route 22. The flagman's booth can be seen to the left of the road. The flagman drew the attention of motorists by holding a "stop" sign in one hand and ringing a bell with the other. Looking west on Main Street (NYS Route 311) at the site of the proposed bypass road. (Judy Kelly) The white building on the right is the American House, a boarding house that was destroyed by fire at the end of the 20th century. It is now the site of the Patterson Town Hall. The proposed bypass road would have directed vehicles and pedestrians from Main Street around to the right of the American House, and then back to Main Street on the other side of the tracks. Looking north on Railroad Street (Front Street). (Judy Kelly) The flagman's booth can be seen over the cars on the right side of the photo. Bloch's Department Store and the American House are on the left. Looking south towards Railroad Street from the driveway of the American House. (Judy Kelly) The crossing is to the left and the Patterson Depot is on the right in the distance.

The Town Board stated that 18 passenger trains passed through Patterson, and 14 of them stopped at the Patterson Station, requiring them to travel slowly through the crossing. The remaining 4 trains were required to travel at a restricted speed of 30 mph because they were required to stop at Patterson Station when "flagged" to pick up or discharge passengers. Four freight trains passed the crossing daily, and two stopped at the Patterson station, and the other two passed at no more than 35 mph. Two milk trains did not stop at Patterson, but traveled at no more than 40 mph.

The crossing had been obstructed in three of the four approaches, but a blacksmith shop and the Sheffield Milk Plant were removed, and the sight lines had been improved in all but one direction. The Board also asserted that traffic on Main St. had decreased since other road construction in the region had drawn traffic off Main St. The reconstruction of NYS Route 22, the construction of the Taconic State Parkway, and the construction of NYS Route 52 were given as examples. Traffic had decreased from 1206 in 1930 to 1077 in 1939, according to the Town Board, and consisted of local traffic of cars and small trucks. Accident statistics showed only five minor automobile accidents in the past ten years, most of which were cars running into the sides of passing tains.

The Board also argued that the proposed redirection of Main St. would block the Patterson Fire Department from the pond it used as a water source, and that expensive and complicated construction would be required to pipe the water from the pond under the tracks to a new holding pond that would be needed to hold the water. The PSC was also told that the redirection of Main St. would divert traffic away from the businesses and stores on Front St., causing financial hardship. Pedestrians would also have to walk a great distance to reach the stores and businesses on the other side of the tracks.

In November, 1939, the PCS agreed to drop the project, and instead ordered that the Main St. crossing be outfitted with warning lights. 24-hour automatic warning lights were ordered to be operational by March 31, 1940. In 1939, the crossing was still protected by a flagman with a warning bell. A flagman was on duty between the hours of 6 AM and 6 PM Monday through Saturday, and between 7:30 AM and 8:30 PM on Sundays. Motorists had a clear line-of-sight to the crossing, and the flagman could be seen at a distance. Replacement of the flagman with automated lights would give clearly visible protection 24-hours per day.

The automated warning light system was not put into daily service until May 2, 1940. The last flagman, Charles Valie of Pawling, was transferred to another assignment in the New York Central system. Automated gates were also installed in Towners, and the grade crossing remains.

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