Park Avenue Rail Tunnel

Here we see a modern day view of the Park Avenue Railroad Tunnel leading to and from Grand Central Terminal.


Built in 1913, Grand Central Terminal is considered by many to be finest train terminal in the world, and many people flock to visit this grand old station. However out of sight of the public eye, but just as important as the terminal’s grand concourse and busy platforms are the Park Avenue railroad tunnels, a feat of engineering that not only allowed for the construction of the new Grand Central Terminal but also helped innovate railroad technology in the early twentieth century.

When the New York and Harlem Railroad first opened this rail line in 1837, it was just humble set of tracks for horses to pull carts between Manhattan and Harlem. It wouldn’t take long before the first steam locomotive started to pull trains along this line. The successor to the New York and Harlem Railroad, the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad decided to lower the tracks leading to their Manhattan station, the first Grand Central Depot. The new station was a simple stub end terminal with a station house and train shed with platforms for passengers to board and disembark their trains. In design and purpose, it was not too different from other rail terminals across the country. The new depot was supposed to consolidate three separate depots being used by three different railroads that Cornelius Vanderbilt owned. With three different railroads using the depot, and with New York City growing, the terminal started to become crowded with the immense amount of trains utilizing the terminal. With the only mode of locomotive traction being steam locomotive, the terminal area and the Park Avenue area would fill up with a considerable amount of steam and smoke. This often resulted in a low visibility for train’s crews taking trains in and out of New York City.  Officials from the New York Central Railroad had studied electrifying the tunnel and terminal’s operations as far back 1899.[1]

Disaster struck in early 1902. The engineer of an express commuter train that was bound for New York City from White Plains was navigating the Park Avenue tunnel when, because of the limited visibility, the engineer proceeded through several red signals and hit a train that was stopped ahead of it.  After all was said and done, fifteen people had been killed and dozens more were injured from the wreck. Curiously, a New York Times article from the time referred to the engineer of the train that caused the derailment “to be young and ambitious.”[2] The newspaper does indicate, however, that the engineer could be faulted for not exercising caution when he entered the tunnel “choked with fog, smoke, and steam.”[3] The wreck had been devasating, one scene at a station further up the line where body identification was taking place was described by the New York Times. One man came up to identify a body but as “he was about to speak spied an article of clothing in the pile of torn and bloody garments at the side of the Sergeant’s desk, which told him the story sufficiently. He did not ask his question, but cried like a child, afterward identifying a brother.”[4] Coincidentally enough, as the paper pointed out “the place where the wreck occurred is within a stone’s throw away of the former home of the late Cornelius Vanderbilt.”[5]  Many soon realized that the true culprit of the accident had been lack of visibility. This accident, combined with air pollution generated by steam locomotive working in railyards and terminals in New York City, prompted calls for a solution. This revelation also coincided with plans for a new Grand Central Terminal to be built; this new plan would be truly revolutionary. Some in New York City called for the New York Central Railroad to shift its terminal to the Bronx since “the Central owned considerable property in Mott Haven, just across the Harlem River in the Bronx.”[6]

By May of 1903, the New York Central was in a jam; new legislation had prevented railroads from using steam locomotives south of the Harlem River. This legislation “imposed a deadline of July 1, 1908. Not only could the Central no longer use steam power, but without a solution for the railroad’s myriad problems at Grand Central, the New York Central would forfeit the cornerstone of its entire passenger system—access to midtown Manhattan at 42nd Street.”[7] New York Central’s chief engineer, William J. Wilgus would come up with a solution that would profoundly impact both railroading and New York City development. It was stated in Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan “he proposed a complex, integrated plan to replace the old depot and train yard and switch motive power from steam to electricity.”[8] He also wanted to “take the entire open train yard and place it underground and build not just one train yard, but a two-story, underground train yard powered by electricity.”[9] While work started in 1903 to implement this bold, new plan, it would not be until 1910 when the New York Times would unveil the new Grand Central Terminal and rail yards. What Wilgus hoped was to pioneer a new concept called “air rights” where the track work for the new terminal would be decked over and developed like normal property. It was estimated in 1910 that the property that would become freed up would be worth $50,000,000 and that property values in the neighborhood of Grand Central had jumped 25%.[10]

By 1907, all trains operating in and out of Grand Central Terminal would use electric locomotives as motive power. This was a radical concept as the use of electricity was rather new and electrification of a mainline railroad had only happened once on a small scale. This had occurred in 1895 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had electrified its Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore but this electrification only extended for a few miles. What the New York Central Railroad intended to do, was to use 660 volts of DC electric current supplied to the new electric locomotives via a third rail to propel their trains. General Electric would manufacture the locomotives needed to power these trains. These innovations would prove successful and would serve as a model for countless other railroads, the rival Pennsylvania Railroad would adopt electrification for its terminal and would build over its terminal and yard to sell its valuable “air rights.” Outside of New York, as far away as Chicago, the Illinois Central Railroad would electrify its suburban commuter lines originating out of its Central Station. The New York Central would allow engineers from the Illinois Central Railroad to visit the short section of electrification in operation in 1908.[11] The New York Central would find that their ambitious plan had worked and would eventually electrify their mainline as far north as Croton-Harmon. All of this thanks to a smoky railroad tunnel that often doesn’t receive more than a brief glance by commuters.

Here we see a General Electric built S-Motor locomotive pulling what is believed to be the first electric train on the New York Central after the railroad electrified its main line NYC. This train is paused at High Bridge in the Bronx. These husky haulers would serve the New York Central from 1907 into the 1970’s. Three of the original forty seven were sparred the cutter’s torch.


[1] Burpo, Robert S. “A Brief History of the First Electric Locomotives on the New York Central Railroad.” The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin, no. 106 (1962) 19

[2] “FIFTEEN KILLED IN REAR END COLLISION.” (1902, Jan 09). New York Times (1857-1922) 1

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Schlichting, Kurt C. Grand Central’s Engineer : William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan. [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012] 46

[7] ibid

[8] ibid 47

[9] ibid

[10] “FIRST DETAILED OFFICIAL PLANS OF THE NEW YORK CENTRAL’S IMPROVEMENTS.” 1910.New York Times (1857-1922), Mar 27 1910, 1

[11] “TO ADOPT N.Y. CENTRAL PLAN.” New York Times (1857-1922), Sep 28, 1908 16

Descriptive Narrative/Significance:

Since the Park Avenue Tunnel is a railroad tunnel, few people often realize the significance of what they are about to pass through. For commuters riding a modern day Metro-North commuter train they will find the north entrance of the Park Avenue tunnel to be at intersection of Park Avenue and 97th Street in the Carnegie Hill section of the city. Commuters will find that tunnel is always bustling with commuter train activity throughout any given day. North of the tunnel entrance at 97th Street, travelers will find that the line travels along Park Avenue on a massive viaduct through the city as it heads toward the Harlem River. South of 97th Street, travelers will have a hard time seeing much as the train heads south for Grand Central, however the line is dotted with four abandoned stations at 86th Street, 72nd Street and 59th Street. These stations were closed as commuter trains grew too long for these stations and their small platforms, but they still remain there, often being used as storage by the Metro-North Railroad. The south end of the Park Avenue tunnel is the rail line’s entrance into Grand Central Terminal at about 42nd Street.


“FIFTEEN KILLED IN REAR END COLLISION.” (1902, Jan 09). New York Times (1857-1922)


“TO ADOPT N.Y. CENTRAL PLAN.” New York Times (1857-1922), (Sep 28, 1908)

Burpo, Robert S. “A Brief History of the First Electric Locomotives on the New York Central Railroad.” The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin, no. 106 (1962): 19-23

Schlichting, Kurt C. Grand Central Terminal : railroads, engineering, and architecture in New York City. n.p.: Baltimore, Md. : Johns Hopkins University Press,  2001.

Schlichting, Kurt C. Grand Central’s Engineer : William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012