Training Ride: Guest Blogger Bike Snob NYC Goes Back In Time
In our world, mysteries abound, and few are more tantalizing than the past. All around us lie scattered the breadcrumbs of history, and it is by following them that we learn not only where humanity came from (the primordial soup), but also where we are heading (hell in a hand basket). Perhaps most profoundly, in the process of exploring these mysteries, we gain precious insight into ourselves.
So recently I traveled through the mists of time to uncover a lost artifact. The object of my quest was not the Holy Grail, nor the Ark of the Covenant, nor even that lost Shakespeare play about two roommates who are always getting on each other's nerves because one's neat and the other's a slob. No, if cycling has taught me anything it's that you should always start small and leave ambition to the insecure, and so I grabbed my bike and went off in search of an old railway line in Yonkers:
The above map is of the long-defunct New York and Putnam Railroad. The main line is now a rail-trail that I use all the time as a launchpad for my cycling adventures. That little spur to Yonkers, however, (the so-called "Getty Square branch") was never repurposed. Instead, it ran from 1888 to 1943 and then basically just disappeared. Since the spur started in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, which is essentially my backyard, I was curious to know if any of it remained. So I resolved to retrace its path as accurately as I possibly could.
So I put on my Indiana Jones hat and headed to the start of the Old Putnam Trail in Van Cortlandt Park:
By analyzing the materials and design of the old railroad bridge, I deduced that it must have been built in or around 1904.
Also, it says so right on the abutment:
That's called "sleuthing."
Here are the remains of the Van Cortlandt station, which last sheltered passengers in 1958:
Right nearby is the bucolic Van Cortlandt Lake, formed when Old Man Van Cortlandt dammed Tibbetts Brook to build a grist mill back in the late 1600s:
The Old Putnam Trail carries you north through Van Cortlandt Park, out of the Bronx, and into the suburbs beyond. While most Freds head over the George Washington Bridge to begin their cycling adventures this is by far my favorite escape route from New York City:
But today I was looking for the beginning of the Getty Square spur, which according to this abandoned railroad Fred web page would have split off just ahead but is now "hard to see:"
A short walk north up the right of way, now a park trail, leads to the site of the junction with the Getty Square branch, much overgrown and hard to see. To the west of the line at this point are stone pillars, said to have been set out when railroad management wanted to test the effects of weathering (?).
Though the stone pillars are still very much in evidence:
They're one of the city's more arcane landmarks, and I'm sure I've mentioned them in prior blogs but here's the deal with them:
In the 1910s, before the Grand Central Terminal was built, it was decided to test different varieties of stone to see what could stand up to the weather the best. These pillars were used to make the decision. The second pillar as you walk north (in the center in the above photo), made of Indiana limestone, contains the stone selected…not for its durability, but because it was cheapest.
I've ridden by these things about a million times and have never seen any evidence of the Getty Square branch junction, nor was I able to find anything on this occasion either, but if you scamper up the slope behind them you wind up on the Van Cortlandt Park Parade Ground:
Which has a long history and was once Old Man Van Cortlandt's backyard. Here's his house, which is now a museum:
So I skirted the Parade Grounds in roughly the direction the Getty Square branch must have traveled:
And this picture of military drills being held on the Parade Grounds in 1902 suggests that it did:
At the north end of the Parade Grounds I came to the start of this bridle path:
I suspected this must follow the route of the old railway line, and my suspicions were confirmed when it crossed the Henry Hudson Parkway:
Yeah, looks like an old railway bridge to me:
Now confident I was following the railroad right of way, I soon passed the Riverdale Stables, and while I'm no engineer I'd bet my Cambium that's some old railroad crap there in the underbrush:
I knew I was on the right track (literally and metaphorically), and I could see the ruins of some sort of vine-covered ziggurat in the distance, but my elation turned to terror when I found myself standing at the edge of a precipice:
Indeed, I was standing on top of one railroad bridge abutment:
And the ruin I had seen in the distance was the other:
This would have been the Mosholu station:
Mosholu. Also inside the park, at Mosholu Avenue, this was a minor station on the Getty Square branch that was gone well before the closing of the line. Walk in from Broadway along Mosholu Avenue to the site. The branch was on an embankment, and the stone abutments of its now-missing bridge over the street are easily found, but there is no trace of a station.
I'd made a crucial discovery, but with the bridge now gone I now had only two choices:
1) Backtrack a bit, build up a head of steam, and attempt to leap across the chasm:
(Yeah, that's me on a recumbent, Grant Petesen made me do it.)
2) Or, you know, follow the bridle path and easily walk around it:
I chose option number two.
At this point I should mention that, strictly speaking, I should not have been riding my bicycle on the bridle path. Please know that I have nothing less than the utmost respect for our city parks, but there are times when the potential for archaeological discovery transcends man's law, and this was one such moment. Also, in the event I encountered an equestrian I was more than ready to dismount, kneel, and grovel, which as I understand it is the proper protocol. But as it turned out I didn't encounter a soul, human or equine, and so was free to marvel at how what was once a clattering railroad line was now a peaceful woodland trail that magically changed color as I followed it. Once moment it was brown:
And the next it was yellow:
I found it all enchanting, though I did experience a chill when I came across the remains of an explorer who had come before me:
I can only assume he was forced to eat his Brooks before ultimately starving to death, and that if I were to venture off the trail and into the forest I'd find a skeleton in a bicycle helmet sitting against a tree.
The situation grew even more dire when I came to the end of the park and New York City and found the forbidding buildings of Yonkers towering above me:
I could see where the train would have continued on through what is now a parking lot, but there was an iron gate at the property line, and on either side of it the building foundations formed a wall between New York City and Westchester as impenetrable as if it had been built by Donald Trump himself:
"This is it," I thought. "I'm trapped in the park and am going to die." In fact I'd just started nibbling my Brooks saddle when, in the distance, I noticed a gap in a fence:
So I slipped through it and found myself in an alley in Yonkers:
I felt as though I'd passed through a portal, and I gave New York City a parting glance before pressing on into this strange new world:
Once the train left Van Cortlandt Park and entered Yonkers it would have passed under Caryl Avenue where these cars are now parked:
And indeed the Caryl station house would have been where there's now a little playground on the left side of this photo:
As described here:
Caryl. This was just N of the Caryl Ave bridge (which is still there), barely across the city line. The right of way, a half-block W of Van Cortlandt Park Ave, has an apartment house on it S of the bridge and a parking lot on the original grade N of the bridge. The stationhouse site W of the line is a small park and there is no trace.
I'd now visited three ghost stations, but I could not afford to stand around congratulating myself, for I had not yet attained the terminus and who knew what trials still awaited me:
As soon as I skirted the fence I was convinced I'd discovered a secret trail that I'd be incorporating into future rides:
Though conditions deteriorated in short order:
And before long I found myself in this vacant lot:
Which is where the Lowerre station once stood:
Lowerre. This was on the S side of Lawrence St between Western Ave and Van Cortlandt Park Ave. The bridge abutment remains on the S side of the street, but nothing on the north, not even an embankment. Presumably the line ran on a viaduct for 2 blocks N from this point; another abutment is high on the N side of McLean Ave. No trace of the stationhouse, which was on W side of the line.
The cement slabs strewn with trash on a lot off Lawrence Street may look like a dumping ground, but come next summer, the lot will transform into a park along a new trail.
Groundwork Hudson Valley and the City of Yonkers are putting the finishing touches on a plan to connect Caryl and McLean avenues with a half-mile trail that would run along a former railroad line that once connected Getty Square to a defunct railroad in the Bronx.
Sounds good to me.
I next identified the abutment by Lowerre station:
Then followed what I figured was the most likely path of the tracks:
And found the next abutment high above McLean Avenue:
From here it seemed the railroad must have continued along the embankment, which is now flanked by stores, so I followed it as closely as I could by going from parking lot to parking lot:
Shoppers no doubt wondered why I was snooping around the AutoZone:
And lurking behind the CleanCity Super Laundromat:
The answer, of course, is that I was looking for railroad remains up on that embankment, now strewn with discarded mattresses and empty beer bottles:
I continued on in this fashion until the right of way met up with the street again and I found the spot where the Park Hill station must have been:
Park Hill. This was a half-block E of Broadway, S of the grade crossing with Park Hill Terrace. The stationhouse site W of the line has been built over by an apartment block, but the right of way is vacant and there are a few steps down from road in the retaining wall on the E side. There was a footbridge over the line at the S end of the station, about opposite the incline; no trace.
As its name suggests, Park Hill sits on top of a very steep hill with sweeping views of downtown Yonkers, the Hudson River, and the Palisades beyond. It was pretty fancy in those days, and once you climb up there its grandeur is still very much in evidence. Anyway, back in the pre-war era, if you were a well-heeled Park Hill denizen you would have de-trained here and then ascended to your lofty perch via funicular:
The Park Hill Elevator in Yonkers opened in 1894. The single track, hydraulic-powered incline, built by the Otis Company, climbed from the east side of Park Hill Terrace, by the train station, up to Alta Avenue. The stations at the top and bottom have been converted to homes. The lower station, known as the "Elevator House" was almost completely rebuilt after a fire in 1992. The driving machinery was located at the top. The entire track was enclosed. The single car carried 10 passengers. The track, set at a 40 degree angle, climbed 107 feet.
The incline closed in 1937. JW Thomas reports that he remembers seeing remnants a few years later. More recent visitors don't report seeing any traces of the right of way.
Here's the bottom station as it looked then:
And here it is today:
The funicular would have scaled this hill:
And brought you all the way up here to Fancytown:
Here's the upper station as it looked then:
And here it is now:
It's a nursery school today, in case you're wondering, and it still has an incredible view:
Standing here one gets the sense that with its steep slopes and its funicular Yonkers must have felt like some sort of magical Alpine kingdom until they scrapped all their cool conveyances and sold out to the car.
Back down the hill, I identified where the railroad must have continued on along the embankment, and--SURPRISE!--it's now used for parking:
I began to venture into the brush along what must have been the right of way:
But the pieces of cardboard surrounded by empty condom wrappers compelled me to back out and stick to the surface streets:
So I continued on:
Past the local businesses:
And the Saw Mill River where it emerges from its man-made subterranean tomb on the way to the Hudson:
And this mescaline-induced mural:
To here, which is where I figure is more or less where the terminal would have been:
Getty Square. Not far north of Park Hill, the line went onto an elevated structure for a few blocks, over private right of way just E of Broadway and New Main St, until it entered the Washington Park (City Hall) block and ended where there is now a parking lot W of New Main St, at the rear of the First National Bank building. No trace.
So yeah, more parking.
From there I imagined I'd just gotten off the train at the terminal and took in the sights of downtown Yonkers, which was at this moment quite sleepy since it was early on a Sunday morning. One noteworthy feature of Yonkers is that its taxi fleet seems to consist almost entirely of recycled New York City cabs:
Some even still have that telltale "T" which is official NYC taxi logo:
There's something endearing about how Yonkers makes do with our hand-me-downs.
There was also holiday cheer:
And more eye-crossing mural art:
And another Saw Mill River cameo:
And the Palisades looming behind it all:
And from there I scampered onto some more disused infrastructure from yesteryear and kept on riding, content in the knowledge I'd followed the Getty Square branch to the best of my ability and had accomplished something few other people would bother to do:
Now to find that Grail thingy.