It is fitting that my son who has just begun a daily commute to Grand Central gave me a copy of Sam Roberts book Grand Central, How A Train Station Transformed America.
During the better part of four decades , I commuted through Grand Central during periods of its greatest decay and glorious rebirth. For me, and millions of others, the book is personal and the FOREWORD by Pete Hamill gives the work a New York City imprimatur that only Hamill could provide. Hamill: ” It was a week before Christmas in 1945. Wait my mother said. I want to show you something. And she led me into the largest space I had ever seen. There were people moving across shiny marble floors in many directions, a gigantic clock, and a large board with numbers and the names of cities. A deep voice kept speaking from somewhere, the voice echoing off gleaming walls. We were in a place called Grand Central Station.”
The name is technically not Grand Central Station but rather Grand Central Terminal although few have ever called it anything but the former. The short-lived original named Grand Central Station, located nearby on 42nd Street, was demolished when the brilliant New York Central Railroad Chief Engineer William Wilgus convinced Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son, William, that the future of railroading was electric locomotives that would allow the Park Avenue rail lines to be placed underground leading to a new two tiered Grand Central Terminal.
Roberts brings the detail of the construction of the terminal into a readable and understandable epic, with a coupling of wonderful photography. The magic and glamour of long distance train travel abounded in Grand Central long before it became a commuter hub. Track 34, today a common departure point for the Harlem Line, was where nightly they rolled out the celebrity red carpet for the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. The train with speeds up to 123 miles per hour made the trip in 20 hours, therefore the name. The 20th Century made its inaugural trip on June 17, 1902 and its last on December 2, 1967. By that time the once glorious Grand Central along with long-distance train travel had fallen into disrepair and neglect and the terminal was only a shadow of the wonder in Pete Hamill’s youthful eyes back in 1945.
Robert’s history of Grand Central is complete, but the excitement surrounding the terminal’s renewal, in many ways, lays the foundation of the renewal of New York City itself, and the indomitable spirit of New Yorker’s following the city-wide declines during the 1970s. This spirit, prevalent today, harkens back to the introduction of a popular radio program in the 1940s on NBC titled Grand Central Station. See if you don’t agree that even though the 20th Century Limited and Empire Express are distant memories, the preamble to each radio show remains real as you walk through Grand Central today.
As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nations greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-haf-mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then…Grand Central Station! Crossroads of a million private lives! Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.
Sam Roberts has given anyone who has ever paced the marble floors of Grand Central a great gift. Beyond rails, renovation, railroad barons , conductors, porters and engineers, this is the story of how for over 100 years a building has played such a huge role in defining New York City. For those of us for whom Grand Central has been part of our lives we owe Sam Roberts a special debt of gratitude. Grand Central celebrates a victory for a city we love.
Sam Roberts has covered New York City for the Daily News and the New York Times for over 40 years. He has written seven books of non-fiction including The Changing Face of America in the 21st Century.