On February 1, 1913, more than 150,000 people eagerly rushed to Grand Central Terminal to gaze at New York City's newest landmark. A marvel of engineering, architecture, and vision, the new Beaux Arts structure on 42nd street housed an underground electric train station that would revolutionize the way people traveled and transform midtown Manhattan. Only 10 years earlier, The New York Times had called Grand Central "a cruel disgrace;" now, it was heralded as the greatest railway terminal in the world.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Grand Central, from award-winning filmmaker Michael Epstein (The Battle Over Citizen Kane). The one-hour film tells the dramatic story of the famous landmark's construction through interviews with historians, architects, and engineers, while weaving in contemporary portraits from present day New Yorkers who describe their personal connections to Grand Central.
"It's a story of the wealth, ambition, and ingenuity of the railroad age, and in many ways it's the quintessential American dream," says producer Michael Epstein. "It was a construction of epic proportion; it completely transformed New York and it remains the heart of the city today."
In 1869, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt bought 23 acres of land on 42nd Street, then a 45 minute journey from the heart of New York City. It was here that Vanderbilt decided to build a rail depot for his New York Central Railroad. As the sole owner of all rail service into and out of Manhattan, Vanderbilt would soon become the richest man in America; his Grand Central Depot was to be a lasting monument to the power and glory of his rail empire.
"It celebrated these incredible new machines. We were crossing the country, hundreds of miles in a day. Nobody had ever done that before. And how were we doing it? These beasts of steel and steam," says John Belle, chief architect of the restoration of Grand Central Terminal.
But within a few years, New York City rapidly grew beyond 42nd street, and Grand Central's maze of track soot and noise was now in the center of town. The coal locomotives, hundreds racing back and forth at all hours, spewed smoke, cinders, noise, and noxious fumes at street level, and were rumored to be killing scores of pedestrians on a regular basis. The public vocally resented the railroad monopoly, and despite Vanderbilt's attempts to address their concerns by building footbridges and tunnels to house the trains, the improvements were woefully inadequate.
On the morning of January 8, 1902, a southbound commuter train traveling through a smoky, congested tunnel in New York City's Grand Central Station slammed into the rear of another train, instantly killing 15 passengers and injuring 38, two of whom later died. Public outcry over the crash was immediate, and newspapers launched a campaign against the directors of New York Central Railroad and the Vanderbilt family.
In the wake of the 1902 accident steam locomotives were banned in Manhattan, forcing the New York Central to electrify their rail yard. The job fell to William Wilgus, the New York Central's visionary chief engineer. Wilgus' plan was revolutionary: gone were the old maze of track that clogged Manhattan from 42nd Street all the way to 53rd, and the once-great wrought iron train shed of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In their place William Wilgus proposed building a new electrified Grand Central, 90 feet below the Manhattan bedrock.
Twenty-five miles of water and sewer lines had to be removed or relocated, and more than three million cubic yards of rock and dirt had to be excavated and hauled away. Two hundred buildings were demolished, and 60 million tons of concrete laid. Designing two completely different track layouts on the upper and lower levels required unprecedented engineering work, and converting from steam to electric power necessitated the building of electric power plants and an elaborate distribution system throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester. Above all, none of the construction could interrupt existing rail service. To date, it remains the most complex construction project in New York City's history.
Four years later, on February 15, 1907, electrified rail service began to the Westchester suburb of White Plains. The following evening, as a train left Grand Central, it sped around a curve and flew off the tracks, killing 20 people and injuring 150, with wreckage stretching for over a mile. The press and the public had not forgotten the collision in 1902, and demanded accountability. Ultimately, it was William Wilgus, the pioneer responsible for leading New York transportation into the electric age, who bore the brunt of the blame. In July 1907, Wilgus resigned from New York Central.
The railroad now turned its attention to the building that would house Grand Central's main concourse. Earlier, Wilgus had hired the architectural firm Reed and Stem to build Grand Central's terminal, but their design lacked grandeur and scale, and paled when compared to Pennsylvania Station, which had just been built seven blocks south. At the urging of the Vanderbilt family, the New York Central hired Whitney Warren.
Warren was an arrogant and difficult man, but also brilliant. It is his vision for Grand Central that people live with today: the classically rendered arched windows, which act as a gateway welcoming travelers to New York, and the color, ornament, scale, and detail of the main concourse. "Everything works together, in consort, to make every visitor to Grand Central feel comfortable, safe, and alive," says Epstein.
"Thousands of people pass through Grand Central Terminal every day, but few know the triumph of this monumental project," says executive producer Mark Samels. "It became a city within a city, and ultimately gave rise to midtown Manhattan, establishing it as a center of wealth and commerce."
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