Trains & Conspiracy Theories (I worked for a day at a “FEMA Concentration Camp”, AMA!)

Conspiracy theorists have always been around. People have long questioned the veracity of events like the moon landing, or the assassination of President Kennedy. Thanks to the internet, such theories spread faster and further, and pretty much every major event that happens in the world today has some person screaming behind a computer screen that it was a “false flag” or a fake event perpetrated by crisis actors hired by some shady government entity. Taking advantage the bulletin board systems of the early internet was Indianapolis lawyer Linda Thompson, who founded the American Justice Foundation – a fancy sounding organization that peddled conspiracy theories online and through anti-government video tapes. One of her most famous claims, made in the ’90s but surviving to this day, is that the government is building concentration camps to round up citizens – one such camp being the Amtrak repair facility in Beech Grove, Indiana.

If you’re into such conspiracy theories, then you’re now reading the blog of a person who has worked inside a “FEMA death camp” – ask me anything! On the other hand, if you’re a normal person, you’re reading the blog of a person who has gotten a chance to film and interview Amtrak employees who work at the historical shops at Beech Grove (and could probably spend weeks of her life content to wander the shops merely recording all of the interesting work that happens there every day). Originally built in 1904 by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four) Railway, the shops were later acquired by the New York Central. With the merger of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads in 1968, the shops became the property of the Penn Central, who later sold it to Amtrak in 1975. One of the facility’s first major projects was to convert old steam-based power systems to electric Head-End Power (HEP).

Men of the Car Shop
Men of the Car Shop, Big Four Shops in Beech Grove, 1919. Photo from the Indiana Historical Society.

Today, the shop is used for all sorts of heavy maintenance for Amtrak’s fleet of train cars and locomotives. Each building on the campus has a particular function – none of which include gas chambers for mass executions (I honestly wish I were kidding. Some people actually think this stuff). Two coach shops overhaul passenger coaches (one does light repairs, while the other takes care of heavier damage like from wrecks), while a locomotive shop overhauls, rebuilds, and performs maintenance on locomotives and NPCUs. Historically the Forge shop was where you would find blacksmiths fabricating train parts, but today you’ll find folks doing things like rebuilding couplers or truck assemblies (the wheels under your train cars). One of my favorites, the Trim shop, puts the visual touches on train cars, from upholstery to paint, and includes a special shop devoted to decal making. There’s also a building devoted to training and maintenance, and another with offices for administrators. You’ll also find plenty of train cars and locomotives stored on tracks throughout the facility – many of which came for evaluation on whether they would make good candidates for overhauling/rebuilding (some just aren’t, unfortunately). Although there are certainly a lot of moving parts across the whole facility, the major bread and butter of the work that goes on here is overhauling train cars. In many instances it is cheaper to completely rebuild a coach or locomotive than it is to outright purchase a new one, so the shop is constantly performing this task. In 2013 Beech Grove repaired and returned to service five wrecked locomotives, overhauled/remanufactured 91 Superliner cars, 20 Horizon coaches, 13 Viewliner sleepers, 13 Surfliners, 3 NPCU/cabbages, and 5 heritage dining cars. That is a heck of a lot of work, and Beech Grove is quite the hub of activity – but hardly the death camp that Thompson made so many believe.


Read More


SmartCat Sundays: The New York & Harlem’s Street Railway

When first conceived, the New York & Harlem Railroad was intended to do just what its name implied – connect lower Manhattan to Harlem. The original charter was granted by the New York State Legislature on April 25th, 1831, authorizing a single or double tracked road from 23rd Street to any point on the Harlem River between Third and Eighth Avenues (Fourth Avenue – later renamed Park – was the route ultimately chosen). Less than a year later, that mandate was expanded to allow construction as far south as 14th Street, and was expanded several more times to ultimately allow construction as far as Ann Street, just beyond City Hall. When the first mile of track opened for business in November of 1832, stretching from Prince Street to 14th Street, only 38 other miles of railroad track existed in the state.

New York and Harlem Railroad
An early horsecar on the New York and Harlem Railroad. Initial service was powered by horse, and later provided all service south of 14th Street, where locomotives were not permitted

Street Railway Lines
Map of the New York & Harlem’s street railway

At Harlem, the northernmost portion of the chartered line, the New York & Harlem would meet up with the New York & Albany Railroad, providing a much-needed year-round link to the state capital (sailing up the Hudson at that time was difficult if not impossible in the winter months). Despite groundbreakings at several points along the proposed line, the New York & Albany never succeeded in creating this link. Slowly the New York & Harlem was given permission to do what the New York & Albany could not – first into Westchester County in 1840, and was later granted full rights to build to Albany in 1846. At that time the The New York & Harlem purchased the what was left of the failed road, including the land it had secured to build its line, for $35,000. Although the New York & Harlem never reached Albany – entering into an agreement with the Boston & Albany Railroad, which it met in Chatham – this trackage became the bread-and-butter of what became the Harlem Division when it was leased to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in 1873.

“The benefit to the City of New York, possessing as it does, the best seaport in the Union, will be incalculable.”

“Gentlemen must judge for themselves, but of one thing we are certain: the road will be built, and the most gratifying results may be anticipated.”

-Co-founder and Vice President John Mason, at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the New York & Harlem Railroad on Murray Hill in 1832.

The remainder of the New York & Harlem, which ran south of Grand Central Depot, was leased in 1897 to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company. Today’s tidbits from the archive deal with just that subject – before the lease of the street railway portion of the New York & Harlem, a letter was sent to all shareholders regarding the decision at the most recent Board of Directors meeting. Shareholders were instructed to sign and return a paper stating that they approved of the decision. Below is a scan of an original copy of this mailing, which this particular shareholder never responded to.

Envelope sent to shareholders

Letter sent to shareholders Response shareholders were supposed to send

Read More


SmartCat Sundays: Milk on the Harlem Division

Milk has long been a staple of the American diet, and since the New York and Harlem Railroad was founded up until the 1950s, it was also a staple commodity carried by rail. Early in New York City’s history, dairy cows were kept and milked in the city proper near distilleries. Often sick cows were kept in cramped conditions, and fed the byproducts of whiskey making – resulting in a blue tinted “milk” that was lacking in cream content and dangerous to drink. Unscrupulous businessmen used additives – including water, sugar, molasses, egg, and even plaster of paris – to give it the appearance of fresh milk and sell it to an unwitting public. This tainted milk led to an increased infant mortality in the city, and was coined the “Swill Milk Scandal” when exposed in the periodicals of the day. The scandal eventually led to regulation of the milk industry, and a push for “pure milk” from dairies far outside the city. Stepping up to transport this milk were, of course, the railroads.

Rut Milk in the 1950s
The famous “Rut Milk” train passes through Mott Haven in the 1950s. The milk trains were eventually replaced by trucks. Photo by Victor Zollinsky.

Milk depots were established at many train depots, and local farmers could bring and sell their milk, which was then transported to the city. One of the Harlem’s most famous freights was the Rutland Milk train, which brought milk to New York City from Vermont – transferring from the Rutland Railroad to the Harlem in Chatham. Every day a swap would occur where a train full of milk changed hands at Chatham, exchanged for the previous day’s empties.

Today’s random tidbit from the archive is a letter from F.T. Hopkins to William Hooker. Hopkins was a milk dealer who operated the Harlem Railroad Milk Depot in New York City. The letter is addressed to Hooker at Wing’s Station – an earlier name for Wingdale.

Milk Depot Letter

Milk Depot Letter


Borden on the Harlem Line

Condensed milk promo card
New York Condensed Milk Company / Eagle Brand condensed milk promotional card.

Even if the milk transported by train to the city was considered “pure” and not of the “swill” variety, it did not last very long before spoilage in the days prior to refrigeration. Condensed milk stored in cans, however, could last for years without spoiling. Not only was condensed milk transported along the Harlem, it got its start here.

There are many ways to describe Gail Borden Jr.: a perpetual wanderer, deeply religious (anecdotal evidence suggests that he bought bibles for placement on the Harlem’s trains), eccentric inventor (he scared his friends by taking them on a ride straight into a river in a self-invented amphibious wagon – the “terraqueous machine”), an endlessly stubborn optimist that never gave up. All of those traits led him from his birthplace of Norwich, New York to Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Texas, Connecticut, and ultimately back to New York and the Harlem Railroad to launch his most successful invention – condensed milk.

For some time Borden had been interested in preventing food from spoilage. One of his first food related inventions was a meat biscuit, made from rendered meat and flour or potato and baked into a cracker, which could be eaten as is, or crushed into boiling water to make soup. He also experimented with preserving and concentrating fruit to make juices, and making coffee extract which took up far less space than regular coffee. Despite winning prizes for the meat biscuit, none of those endeavors were commercial successes. After debts forced him to give up on the meat biscuit and sell some of his property to pay creditors, Borden wholeheartedly pursued his milk preservation idea in Connecticut – starting a factory in Wolcottville. He eventually ran out of money and that factory closed, later replaced by a different factory in Burrville. Unfortunately, the Financial Panic of 1857 marked the end of that venture as well.

The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York
The first successful condensed milk factory, Wassaic, New York

The original Borden factory in Wassaic today The original Borden factory in Wassaic today
The original Borden factory today, now occupied by the Pawling Corporation, which manufactures architectural products.

A chance encounter on a train ride, however, brought Gail Borden and financer Jeremiah Milbank together, and Milbank found promise in Borden’s idea. With Milbank’s money, Borden founded the New York Condensed Milk Company in Wassaic, New York, right next the the tracks of the Harlem Railroad. Borden’s tenacious spirit had finally paid off this time around, as his product became a commercial success. Another factory was constructed along the Harlem in Brewster to keep up with demand – and condensed milk became a staple for members of the Union Army during the Civil War.

After Borden’s successes he moved back to Texas, but upon death was returned by train to New York. He forever remains next to the Harlem Line, buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with a large monument that bears the following quote:
“I tried and failed. I tried again and again and succeeded.”

Borden's final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery
Borden’s final resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery

Read More


The Never Ending Journey, Part 1

It has been nearly two months since I posted last, a fact that pains me greatly. Things have been just as busy since the last time I checked in – lots of places to be, trains to ride and see, but not a lot of time to write. If you follow the site on Facebook, or RailPictures (where I’ve only been submitting for a few months now) you may have seen some of the more recent adventures that I’ve been on.

Suffice it to say, it has been a whirlwind. In just a few months I’ve been to New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Diego, Indianapolis, Chicago, Lynchburg, Charlotte, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh… the list goes on. In April I rode the Cardinal to Indianapolis, got a tour at Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops, before continuing on to Chicago on the Hoosier State. From there I went to Lake Forest to present at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s annual conference. After spending a few more days in Chicago – including a tour of the renovations happening in Union Station – I returned home via the Capitol Limited.

May included a trip to Washington DC, and then Atlanta, with various stops to chase 611 on the way down and visits to Lynchburg and Charlotte. On the way home after three weeks I headed north through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio – including a stop to see the final runs of the Secret City excursion trains in Oak Ridge, a tour of Cincinnati Union Terminal, and time to fly a drone around Pittsburgh and Horseshoe Curve.

June led me to Norfolk, Virginia, and July will bring me back to Washington DC. To make a long story short, I feel like my camera and I are on a never ending journey – a journey that I can finally share with you.

The map indicates some of the larger cities that I’ve visited within the past few months. Red lines denote mileage traveled by train over the Keystone, Northeast Corridor, Pennsylvanian, Capitol Limited, Hoosier State, and Cardinal routes. Grey lines denote mileage traveled by car.

The Pennsylvanian crosses the Pennsy's famous Rockville Bridge
Many of my journeys now begin in Pennsylvania – and one favorite in the area that is hard to miss is the famous Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna, used by Norfolk Southern and the Amtrak Pennsylvanian.

The bridges of Harrisburg
It took me a while to work up the courage, but this is one of the first times I flew my drone over water. Here I fly over the Susquehanna River to capture five of the six bridges of Harrisburg proper – the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Bridge (now in use by Norfolk Southern), the defunct Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge, Market Street Bridge, Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, and the Harvey Taylor Bridge.

Acela at Wilmington
An Acela to Washington arrives at Wilmington station, as I wait for a train heading in the opposite direction.

The Amtrak shops at Wilmington
Getting a chance to tour many of Amtrak’s shops and facilities is always a treat – this is the Wilmington shops.


Read More


Flight & Light: Photos from Southern California

As too many people have informed me, I haven’t posted on this site for quite a while. Suffice it to say, things have been quite busy. Earlier this month I presented at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s Conversations 2016 conference, and picked up a few new blog followers. To the new folks, welcome. To everyone that has stuck with me along the way, my thanks!

Today’s post consists of a collection of photos, presented with little commentary. All of the photos I captured when on a week long trip to southern California earlier this year. If you follow the site on Facebook, my account on RailPictures, or were at the Conversations conference some of these photos may look familiar. The general running theme for the collection is Flight & Light, as many of the photos were either captured by drone, or at sunset. Throughout it all I was entranced by the landscapes, the endless waves along the beach, and the clouds that occasionally caused havoc but at the same time created diverse opportunities for intriguing photos.


Sunset light reflects on the top of the rails

Flying high above Del Mar

Sunset over Los Angeles


Read More


Smartcat Sundays: All Aboard for the Westchester County Fair

These days if you want to get to a county fair on Metro-North you head up to Dutchess County, are conveniently met by a bus at Poughkeepsie station, and are whisked away to the long-running Dutchess County Fair. Westchester County used to have a fair too, although it wasn’t quite as constant – stopping and starting numerous times over the years, and is now defunct (folks from the ’80s may recall this catchy tune when the fair was revived and held at Yonkers Raceway).

Today’s artifact is from 1889 – a special Harlem Division brochure advertising railroad specials for the fair, including fare and admission. Held in White Plains at that time, eventually the land on which the fair was held was sold and led to several years of dormancy.

Brochure Inside

Brochure Outside

While the horse racing is, of course, to be expected, don’t forget the big event – the BABY SHOW! All the handsome babies of Westchester county are competing, after all!

Dog show and sale at the Westchester County Fair
The fair also featured a dog show and sale…

Horse racing at the fair
The main event – horse racing at the fair.

The midway at the Westchester County Fair
Midway at the Westchester County Fair, circa 1900. Photos from the Library of Congress.

After several years of dormancy, the fair was revived in the ’40s before going defunct again, only to be revived in the ’80s, and again later cancelled.

Read More


SmartCat Sundays: Restoring a Grand Central to Chatham Roll Banner

Original image of the roll sign Not everything you’ll find in my collection is printed on paper… Admittedly, I have a little thing for roll banners (I own three for the Harlem Division). Long before computers and other technology, these roll banners used to be displayed in Grand Central Terminal at each gate, letting passengers know what stops the train made. Each train had it’s own roll sign, which were stored in cabinets by the gate. The roll banner featured in this post was my third banner acquisition – but it was one I couldn’t resist, as it was originally an Upper Harlem Division banner. Sold by the SONO Switch Tower Museum on eBay as a fundraiser, their original photo of it is at right. As you can see, after the 1972 discontinuation of the Upper Harlem Line, those stops listed were blacked out. All of the banners were actually hand-painted by a real person, and when train names were changed, the signs were modified to fit – in the case of the black paint, some more drastically than others.

With the aid of old timetables, I was able to track the history of the banner, and the trains it once represented. Though the train number changed a few times, for the majority of it’s life, the it was for a Sunday-only morning train from New York to Chatham.

Unknown – 1958: Train 1053, which made a stop at Boston Corners.
1958 – June 30, 1964: Train 905. Ghent was blacked out in 1959 when it was removed as a stop.
July 1, 1964 – November 30, 1968: Train 909.
December 1, 1968 – March 19, 1972: Train 9009. Number was changed after the Penn Central merger.
March 20th, 1972 – unknown: Eliminated stations were covered in black paint, and used for Train 9013, a Saturday and Sunday train.

The lower level of GCT
Early photo of Grand Central’s lower level, showing two departure banners, and the cabinets the banners were stored in when not being used.

After purchasing the banner, I was slightly torn as to what I should do with it. Keep it as is, as a testament to what happened when Penn Central eliminated the Upper Harlem? Or should I restore it, to what it once was, showing all of the original stops? Part of what swayed my decision was that it was obvious that the writing underneath was not completely gone. You could just barely make it out under the black layer of paint, but it was still there. I decided to see how difficult removing the black would be, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. With a little bit of elbow grease, I revealed a line once hidden under black – “Visitors not permitted through gate”:

Black paint slowly disappears


Read More


Smartcat Sundays: An Executive’s Train Ticket

Another one of the many things I enjoy collecting are interesting train tickets. Old commutation passes, complete with photo identification of the user, are one of my favorites – however today’s artifact is a bit different. While the tickets belonging to commuters are occasionally found, it is definitely more rare to encounter a ticket belonging to one of the New York Central Railroad’s executives. This leatherbound ticket folio, belonging to C. R. Dugan, has decorative golden corners, and is personalized with gold lettering. Inside are an array of passes for various railroads that Mr. Dugan was able to enjoy in his retirement.

Information regarding Dugan is a bit difficult to find, though he had a long career with the New York Central. In the 1920s, Dugan was an Assistant to the Vice President, and was part of a special committee that prepared the funeral arrangements for New York Central president Alfred Holland Smith (who died suddenly after being thrown from a horse in Central Park). Eventually, he worked his way up to the Manager of Public Relations, and from that position retired.

Though information about Dugan himself is scarce, there are a few mentions of the work he did for the railroad that I could find. Earlier in the week I posted about the New York Central’s donated B-26 bombers – Dugan was the main point of contact between the railroad and Anthony Gibbs, furloughed railroad employee on the New York Central II’s ground crew. In his role as Manager of Public Relations, he apparently spent quite a bit of time dealing with author Ayn Rand during her 1947 New York trip as she researched train operations for her seemingly-never-ending tome Atlas Shrugged. Rand conducted interviews with Dugan, and took several cab rides in various New York Central locomotives.

Passes belonging to C.R. Dugan

Passes belonging to C.R. Dugan

If you find old railroad tickets of interest, tickets of every variety can be found in the archives of SmartCat.

Read More


Planes of the New York Central – The Railroad’s WW2 Combat Bombers

While the New York Central’s famous trains are legendary, it seems that few know of their planes. Believe it or not, the New York Central and its employees raised the funds to purchase two planes, claiming to be the only railroad to have done so, and donated them to the war effort. Each plane was painted with the name “New York Central” and was flown by Army Air Force crews in World War II. At this time, the New York Central’s company magazine, The Headlight, was filled with photos of railroad employees off at war, and updates on their sponsored planes were always a highlight. In some instances, the crews were in fact railroad employees, or family members. And in a perhaps-not-coincidental twist of fate, several of the bomber’s targets were essential German infrastructure – its railroads.

Dedication of the "New York Central System" bomber
Dedication of the “New York Central System” bomber, attended by railroad president Frederick Williamson (left). Photo from the October 1942 issue of the Central Headlight.

The first New York Central sponsored plane
The first New York Central-sponsored plane. Photo courtesy b26.com.

The New York Central’s first twin-engine bomber, named simply “The New York Central System” was purchased with the funds raised by the railroad and its employees – $170,062.06 in total, money delivered on April 2, 1942 to the US Treasury. The idea was conceived by the employees of the Electric Locomotive shop in Collinwood, Ohio, who proposed small paycheck deductions from willing participants in order to fund the purchase. Nearly 90% of the Central’s workforce donated to this and other wartime fundraisers. Sadly, the bomber was shot down in February 1943 over North Africa after only 13 missions. However, determined railroad employees decided to raise further funds and purchased a replacement bomber, which was named the “New York Central II.” Though it was not unheard of for a group to sponsor a plane, this was the first time a group had come together a second time to purchase a replacement after the first’s loss.


Read More


SmartCat Sundays: New York Central Company Manners

Railfans are an interesting bunch – found within the group of us are all different types. Some like to ride trains and collect “rare mileage.” Others eschew riding the trains altogether so they can get that perfect photo of it. Some build their old memories in models, and others do the same in vast collections of ephemera and artifacts. It is fairly obvious that I am one of those folks that loves taking photos of trains, but I am also a serious collector of timetables (public – not employee, though I do have a few of those) and other paper items from the New York Central (generally with a focus on the Harlem Division, as you’d probably guess). Over the years, a fraction of my collection has made it online. I started SmartCat as an archive to it, but like the site, updates were hardly frequent.

One of my goals for the year is to scan a lot of my collection, and share it with you – on Sundays. The items I upload here will eventually be archived in SmartCat as well, hence the name, SmartCat Sundays. Hopefully a lot of the items I have you will find as interesting as I do! Today’s example is a short booklet printed by the New York Central for employees on how to have proper manners and be courteous. As a graphic designer, I found the illustrations sort of comical. But the piece also shows a little bit of the mindset of the company before its downfall. But perhaps, it was a foreshadowing of that which was to come

In the long run, it is the traveling and shipping public that writes our pay checks and provides us with the opportunity to win security and advancement. That is why building good public relations is a job for us all. It’s the best insurance for our jobs!



Read More