New York Central Railroad

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The New York Central Railroad was established from several different railway lines that were joined together to consolidate railway lines throughout the state of New York. George W. Featherstonhaugh applied to the New York state legislature to incorporate the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad Company (M&H) on December 28, 1825. Four months later, on April 17, 1826, Featherstonhaugh appointed Stephen Van Rensselaer III as the first president of M&H. Other key players in the inception of the railroad line were Lynde Catlin (president of the Merchant's Bank of New York City), James Renwick (a mathematics professor at Columbia University), and John Jacob Astor (fur trader and merchant).

Oddly enough, M&H remained essentially inactive until January 1829, when construction began on a line running from Albany to Schenectady, New York, to augment the flourishing cargo business conducted on the Erie Canal. Engineer Peter Fleming was hired to construct this 16-mile stretch of track. Fleming, however, relinquished this position in 1830 and was replaced by John B. Jervis. The railroad finally opened for business in August 1831, at twice the estimated cost. Both horses and the line's only locomotive were used to pull cars during its initial operating phase, although more locomotives were purchased shortly thereafter.

The next link in the line, connecting Utica and Schenectady, began service in 1836. However, since these tracks paralleled the cargo-laden Erie Canal, state legislature proclaimed it illegal to transport freight until 1844. Even then, freight could only be shipped by this railway during the winter months.

During this time other railroads were expanding across the state of New York. Cross-state lines thrived, although the Hudson River proved to be a significant barrier due to the high speed and relatively low cost at which it could be used to transport freight. In 1849 this obstacle was overcome by the construction of a line running from Poughkeepsie to New York. This track was lengthened to East Greenbush, and it soon became apparent that a consolidation of the cross-state lines was in order. The tracks were finally linked in 1853, and the New York Central Railroad (NYC) was formed.

Famous railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (17941877) gained control of the New York Central in 1868, and combined it with the Hudson River Railroad. Acting as president of both lines, Vanderbilt set about expanding the reach of these railroads to Chicago, Illinois. He began a series of acquisitions, starting with the purchase of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. Vanderbilt's son, William, continued to expand the empire through the acquisition of the Nickel Plate Road (1883) and the West Shore (1885). The Vanderbilt influence continued to hold sway even after William H. Vanderbilt's death in 1885. More railroads were acquired under the leadership of Chauncey Depew, and soon the line reached as far west as the Mississippi River. In 1900 the company leased the Boston & Albany line, creating one of the most powerful corporations in the United States and a far-reaching railway that spread north from New York to Canada and west from Boston, through Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri.

The New York Central Railroad made many contributions to the railroad industry. These included the American-type No. 999 steam engine, the invention of the dynamometer (an apparatus used to gauge the force exerted by locomotives when hauling trains), and the opening of the first railroad apprentice school. The New York Central was also the first line to adopt the use of high-powered brakes designed specifically for heavy steel passenger equipment.

Unfortunately, troubled times lay ahead. In 1954 Robert R. Young gained control of the New York Central. Alfred E. Perlman was appointed president of the railroad, the last person to ever hold this title. Automotive and airline travel had begun to draw passengers away from the rails. In 1962 the directors of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Central decided the merge both systems in an effort to eliminate overlapping rail facilities and develop a single powerful railway. Various legal issues held up the merger until 1968, but by then it was too late. The combined railroads, dubbed the New Penn Central, went bankrupt in 1970. What started in 1825 as the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad Company and thrived for years as the New York Central, became a portion of the government-operated Consolidated Rail Corporation (ConRail) in 1976.

See also: John Jacob Astor, Baltimore and Ohio, Erie Canal, Railroad Industry


Cavanaugh, H.F. New York Central System, Gone But Not Forgotten. New Jersey: International, 1983.

"Federal Railroad Administration: United States Department of Transportation," [cited March 22, 1998] available from the World Wide Web @

Klein, Aaron E. History of the New York Central System. New York: Bonanza Books, 1985.

. Encyclopedia of North American Railroads. Bookthrift, 1985.

"The New York Central Railroad Homepage," [cited March 22, 1998] available from the World Wide Web @

"NJ, NY, & CT Railroad Page," [cited March 22, 1998] available from the World Wide Web @

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New York Central Railroad

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New York Central Railroad