Historical Information on Penn Central's Harlem Branch
March 20, 1998, marks 26 years since Penn Central discontinued passenger service on the Upper Harlem Line of the PC Metropolitan Region outside of New York City. Today this line would be operated by the Metro-North Railroad which operates the ex-PC Metropolitan Region.
The passenger service Penn Central discontinued was a historic service that began in 1850 by the New York and Harlem Railroad when they constructed the first railroad on Manhattan Island of any form in 1831. They built the railroad to the then rural upper Manhattan village of Harlem and thus adapted the name the "New York and Harlem Railroad." The railroad finally reached the Village of Chatham, New York in 1852. Throughout it's route it ran through dairy farming country in Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties and finally encountered hills and apple orchards in Columbia County. In Chatham the north-south Harlem connected with the east-west Boston and Albany Railroad which bacame the New York Central's line between Albany, New York and Boston, Mass. The 127 mile long Harlem line which terminated at Chatham, N.Y. just southeast of Albany, N.Y. (the N.Y. State capital located along the Central's main-line) came under New York Central control in the early 1870's. Eventually a nicely sized union station (which is soon to be restored as a local history museum) made of cut stone was constructed in Chatham.
When the New York Central began leasing the New York and Harlem Railroad they renamed it the Harlem Division of the New York Central. The New York Central operated the Harlem for many years. Eventually some trains were extended to North Adams, Mass. via the Boston and Albany main-line between Chatham and Pittsfield, MA, and then up the Boston and Albany's North Adams Branch to North Adams. Most of the North Adams trains contained dining cars, parlor- lounge cars and coaches. Some of the trains terminating or originating in Chatham also contained dining cars.
The Central operated the Harlem's passenger and some of the freight trains with K-11, K-14 and other Pacific steam locomotives. When the New York Central dieselized it's Boston and Albany Line in the late forties, the Hudson locomotives on the B and A were relettered from the NYCentral style "Boston and Albany" lettering to saying "New York Central" and assigned to the Harlem. By the summer of '52 the Harlem was controlled by lightning striped RS-3's and Fairbanks Morse F-M's. Also in the 50's all trains were cut back to Chatham and therefore ran only on the Harlem and it was no longer neccessary for a Boston and Albany line crew to take the train over.
Most commuter trains had terminated at Brewster, New York, 51 miles north of Grand Central Terminal. The Harlem was back then third-rail elecrtrified to North White Plains 24 miles north of New York City. In 1984 Metro-North electrified it to Brewster. The New York Central operated the Harlem until February 1, 1968. By then the number of daily trains was down to one in each direction and two in each directio on weekends. In the early fifties N.Y. Central began operating "Bee-liners" (NYC's term for Rail Diesel Cars- RDC's), which made connections with diesel hauled (usually RS-3) trains from New York City-between Brewster and Pawling as well as Brewster and Dover Plains on the Harlem Division to elimate having to run the several trains that ran through from New York City to Dover Plains or Pawling. Therefore, service to Dover Plains was more frequent although only about two RDC's in each direction connected with the frequent service between New York and Brewster.
When Penn Central took over their first thing was wanting to get rid of Harlem passenger trains north of Brewster. However one thing stood in their way-the Harlem Valley Transportation Association. Formed when New York Central threatened to abandon Harlem passenger service above Dover Plains in the early 60's, the HVTA fought a horoic battle between 1968 and 1972 against the worst railroad copmpany to ever exist on the face of the earth - the Penn Central. The Harlem was previously the New York Central's back door route between Albany, New York and New York City. Frequently main-line New York Central trains were routed down the Harlem to New York's Grand Central if there was a problem on the Hudson Division (mudslides, derailments, etc...). However the PC did not want to acknowledge the Harlem in any way and on one occasion when there was a problem on the Hudson Division they cancelled the trains instead of sending them up or down the Harlem. In New York Central days if there was a problem on the Hudson Division one could see the "20th Century Limited" and other famous NYC trains on the Harlem Division. The HVTA fought the Penn Central in every peaceful way they could. They held demonstrations and public hearings. The HVTA tried to stop the pathetic excuse for a railroad Penn Central from terminating passenger service in every way they could. Their effects were very good. In April of 1971 PC tried to terminate the Harlem passenger trains above Dover Plains but the HVTA got the court to order the service to continue. However nobody was truely sure that passeneger service would truely remain. Finally, on Monday, March 20, 1972 what ended up being the last passenger train to run north of Dover Plains on the Harlem train #922, departed Chatham at 6:55 A.M. on it's southbound (eastbound by timetable) journey. Those who boarded the train at any of the stops including the train crew had no clue this was to be the last passenger train north of Dover Plains on the Harlem. Even the PC officials didn't know this that morning. However during the day the Penn Central got permission from the courts in Philadelphia (because that is where the PC headquarters were as you know) to drop the Chatham trains. When the passengers got to GCT to board the single Chatham bound train that evening, thay found that it was no longer Chatham bound - it was to go only as far north as Dover Plains, 77 miles north out of the 127 miles to Chatham. The passengers and train crew were droppped off at Dover Plains and had to find their own way home from what is still almost the middle of nowhere - Dover Plains, New York.
When the New York Central had discontinued it's passenger trains over certain routes they had announced most of them to the public ahead of time. Ceremonies where often held and the last passenger runs were jam packed. At least the Penn Central could have waited until that Friday to eliminate the train service to Chatham, having announced it to the public and letting them say their farewells to a good friend--the Harlem. However they didn't. Unlike the New York Central officials would have acted, the PC officials acted like trash, discontinuning the Harlem passenger service like they were disposing of a piece of garbage.
There is a fantastic book about the Harlem that some people may want to read that find this lines history interesting. This books title is "The Coming of the New York and Harlem Railroad" written by Louis V. Grogan. It is a wonderfully discriptive book that shows the Harlem in all time periods and it also contains many photos of the Harlem trains being operated by the Penn Central. It also gives as detailed history on how the HVTA fought the Penn Central on the subject of the pasenger service - there is an entire chapter on that.