New York City (NYC) was created in 1898 with the consolidation of five “boroughs” e.g., Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens , Staten Island and Manhattan.

New York City (NYC) was created in 1898 with the consolidation of five “boroughs” e.g., Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens , Staten Island and Manhattan.

Manhattan island is 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide. Three rivers create the island: The Hudson on the West, Harlem on the North, and East River where you would guess. With a population of 1.6 million living in 31 square miles, each person has a total living area of 546 square feet. Obviously, they had nowhere to go but up.

They couldn’t go up until Elisha Graves Otis invented an elevator brake in 1853, making elevators safe from yoo-hoo-hoo, unplanned rapid descents.

Land is so scarce and valuable there that buildings had small architectural footprints. That meant skyscrapers had to be narrow and tall, meaning huge pressures per square inch, which would not be possible in soil.

But, Manhattan is resting on hard metamorphic rock (schist, marble, gneiss) 150 to 500 feet thick, making possible giant skyscrapers.

It also makes possible extensive tunneling, rendering the underground like swiss cheese without weakening foundations.

NYC’s water is better than the pricey bottled water they drink because it comes from pristine lakes and streams up north. The best comes in through a 17-foot high metal tube 175 feet below the surface from the Catskill Mountains, 163 miles north of the city.

For the last 42 years, they have been building a $6 billion aqueduct due for completion in 2020.

The island is honeycombed underground with 842 total miles of subway tracks, and 209 miles of routes providing 1.6 billion rides a year.

In 1983, all the commuter rail lines running into GCS were consolidated into the Metro-North Railroad (MNRR).

In 1991, long-distance train service stopped serving GCS.

Most residents have to use public transportation because autos are so expensive to own and park there. Subways are cheap, and with 468 stations, are accessible. They are also quite arty with local artists providing ubiquitous graffiti. The more affluent ride is the 13,237 taxis having medallions (licenses issued by the city) now selling for over $800,000 each.

Manhattan Railroads

At the turn of the 20th century, 700 trains a day were entering Manhattan and creating huge traffic jams because of their surface tracks a mile long and two blocks wide.

Coal-fired locomotives created suffocating pollution in the tunnels and in the air, causing the legislature in 1902 to ban “smoking locomotives” in Manhattan.

By 1906, all lines had switched to electric locomotives on the island. That was the situation in 1902 when a New York Central Railroad (NYCRR) engineer had an epiphany of building Grand Central Station (GCS) to fix all these problems. He wrote the president of NYCRR, who made him CEO and in charge of building GCS (1903-1913).

Grand Central Station

Construction began in 1903 and took 10 years.

As each section of the new building was completed, a comparable section of the 1871 structure on that site was demolished so that service was never interrupted.

This magnificent Beaux Arts structure occupies 70 acres on 42nd street between fourth and sixth streets. With 123 tracks and 46 platforms, it is the largest train station in the world. (Because routes end there, GCS is a “terminal.”)

Smokeless locomotives permitted all rail traffic to enter through tunnels.

Freight trains are serviced in a separate facility.

Local and long-distance trains entered on different levels, and arriving and departing passengers used separate platform areas.

It was — and is — a marvel of efficiency made possible by professional managers.

Railroads were the first large corporations and helped establish the professional manager occupation.

The building has a 245-foot front on 45th street and is a Beaux Arts showcase.

By a Supreme Court decision, it is now an honored and protected national historic structure. Its main concourse is 275 feet long and 125 feet high with a concave ceiling painted as an October sky with 2,500 stars and various constellations. The iconic four-faced clocks over the information booth in the center of the main concourse have pure agate faces with an appraised value of $10 to $20 million. The building is “stairless” due to ramps used in place of stairs. Constructed now, it would cost over $1 billion — without counting its 70 acres of priceless prime real estate in midtown Manhattan.

By 1906, steam locomotives had been replaced by diesel.

The industry was depressed due to cars replacing trains for passengers and trucks replacing trains for freight.

The Pennsylvania and NYC roads merged in 1964 into the Penn-Central which two years later filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Today, U.S. railroads lease track to Amtrak for passenger traffic, and private rail lines have been merged into Con-Rail to handle freight.

In 1998-90 GCS was given a $200 million total reconditioning. The main waiting room was converted into an exhibition hall and 65,000 square feet of retail space added. It is a vital, living art museum and center of civic activity celebrating its 100 birthday this month.

If you go to NYC now, you won’t arrive there by train, but you certainly should go there.

Roberts, Sam, “100 Years of Grandeur,” NYT, January 20, 2013.

Westwood, John and Ian Wood, The Historical Atlas of North American Railroads, NY: Chartwell Books, 2007.

Beatty, Jack, Colossus, NY: Broadway Books, 2001, pp92-102.