The task of replacing the vastly outdated and overburdened New York Central & Hudson River Railroad’s Grand Central Depot at 42nd Street in Manhattan fell to William John Wilgus, the railroad’s chief engineer, who was given the job in 1903 of designing and supervising the construction of the new terminal.
Wilgus and the building of Grand Central Terminal are the subject of two recent books by Kurt C. Schlichting that were published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Schlichting, professor of sociology and the E. Gerald Corrigan ’63 Chair in Humanities and Social Sciences at Fairfield University in Connecticut, is the author of “Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan” and “Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City.”
Baltimore played a slight role in the technical development of Grand Central, when Wilgus commissioned Frank Sprague and Bion Arnold, two pioneering electrical engineers, to study electrified streetcar and elevated systems and subways across the United States, Britain and Europe.
Included was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Belt Line, which opened in 1895. The Howard Street Tunnel and new Mount Royal Station were featured in the three miles of electrified track. It marked the first mainline electrification of a steam railroad in the world.
Wilgus, a Buffalo native who was born in 1865, joined the New York Central Railroad in 1893 and quickly rose through the ranks until being named chief engineer in 1899 of the entire system.
When he arrived in New York, he immediately began studying the complicated problems of the outdated station, the smoke-filled tunnels that led to it and a sprawling open-air railroad yard to the north.
A 1902 wreck in the Park Avenue tunnel killed 15 and injured hundreds of others, when an inbound commuter train rear-ended another commuter train that had stopped in the steam- and smoke-filled tunnel. The accident convinced Wilgus that the time had come to replace the existing station and steam-powered rail line with a new station and an electric railroad.
Wilgus outlined his plan in a three-page letter to W.H. Newman, president of the New York Central, which pushed for the demolition of the station and elimination of all steam-powered trains.
The proposed project included a new terminal building on 42nd Street with an upper level for long-distance trains, a lower level for suburban trains, a 12-story office and hotel tower, and an underground railroad yard.
Ramps, rather than stairs, would connect all areas of the terminal, making it easier to get around for passengers of all ages.
There were numerous challenges in building the new Grand Central Terminal, including keeping the existing station functioning without disruption to the 500 trains that arrived and departed each day while its replacement rose on a 70-acre site.
Demolition began in 1910, the same year the Pennsylvania Railroad unveiled its sprawling new terminal between 31st and 33rd streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues in Manhattan, a structure so grand that railroad historian Lucius Beebe called it that “massive affront to the Vanderbilts,” owners of the New York Central.
The projected cost was $35 million, which had doubled to $71 million by the time the new station opened in 1913. As opposed to rival PRR’s station, which had 21 tracks and 11 platforms, Grand Central had 46 tracks that served 30 platforms.
The first electrified train rolled into Grand Central in 1906. A year later, after a wreck at Woodlawn in the Bronx that left 25 dead and hundreds injured, erroneous reports stated that people were electrocuted and passenger cars were set on fire by electricity.
When railroad executives believed that electrification had caused the wreck, Wilgus, unable to convince them otherwise, resigned.
“My peace of mind was at stake. … I did not wish to remain under circumstances so disturbing to my spirit,” wrote Wilgus, who left his office for the last time Sept. 30, 1907, after overseeing an orderly transfer of the work.
Wilgus established his own firm and was the consulting engineer for the Holland Tunnel that connected New Jersey and New York and opened for traffic in 1927.
Wilgus’ name and role in the design and building of Grand Central had been eliminated for a century until 2013, when the American Society of Civil Engineers unveiled a plaque honoring him at Track 34 in the station.