Book Review: New York Westchester & Boston Railway Company: 1906-1946

Reviews LogoNew York Westchester & Boston Railway Company: 1906-1946
By Mark Frankel
All photos Collection Robert A. Bang, used with permission.

New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company 1906-1946 CoverMost railfans harbor a dirty secret: we are fascinated by complete failure. The only thing that gets the average railfan more excited than live steam is a dead railroad. I’m not thinking about fallen flags that have merely merged of corporate existence, with their rails intact and still carrying traffic--I mean dead, defunct, extinct. How else to explain the legions of aficionados of ghost roads such as the New York, Ontario & Western; Pacific Electric; Denver & Rio Grande Southern; Central New England, and other pikes where all that remains are old photographs, musty timetables, some overgrown, barely discernable rights trails returning to nature, and mentions in ancient copies of the Official Guide.

Even by these rarified standards, the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway occupies its own special niche among lines possessing ambitions outshining either their route miles or cash reserves. Designed and built as the finest state-of-the-art high-speed electric railroad that industry minds of the early twentieth century could conceive of, the NYB&W funneled New York City-bound commuters from the northern Westchester suburbs for barely 25 years before it was abandoned shortly before World War Two. Today, almost little remains of the manicured high-speed multi-track mainline and impressive concrete stations of “The Boston-Westchester” (as it was known by local residents)--aside from a few massive embankments and bridge abutments concealed by decades of suburban development. The New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company: 1906-1946, by long-time Westchester enthusiast Robert Bang, provides a comprehensive visual retrospective of a railroad that one could argue both should never have been built, and also was decades ahead of its time. This new book contains plenty of interesting black and white pictures of the road’s construction, operation and demise, as well as reprints of newspaper accounts of the line’s drawn-out struggle to survive.

New Haven caboose C-136.
New Haven caboose C-136 was assigned to Westchester freight service, seen here resting between runs. Collection Robert A. Bang.

By most standards, the NYW&B was more of a heavy-duty rapid transit operation than a conventional railroad. Think of building San Francisco’s BART system or Washington’s Metro with private capital at the turn of the last century and you’ll get the picture. Backed by New Haven railroad interests, the railroad was conceived as a way to transfer commuter traffic from the parent company’s clogged Harlem River branch to a new dedicated route and in some places the two railroads paralleled each other only a few yards apart. The New Haven influence was apparent in other ways too. The electrification system was 11,000-volt A.C. overhead catenary, which spanned a super-elevated four-track mainline in many places; while freight was an afterthought, the road’s sole steeple-cab was a New Haven design, too. But when it came to investing in the line’s MU-cars, the NYW&B asserted its own distinct identity. Passengers rode in motorized Stillwell-designed all-steel cars similar to the commuter coaches used by the Erie just across the Hudson River, but with the additions of owl-eyed portholes on the end for the motormen, and center doors for quicker passenger egress. Initially Westchester trains ran on a 20-minute headway, 24 hours a day.

Sixth Street Station Mount Vernon, NY
The masons are putting the final touches on East Sixth Street station in Mount Vernon, New York, while the track department still has some work ahead of them. This view dates from July 25, 1911. Collection Robert A. Bang.

No expense was spared building the NYW&B, which the book notes, “was built to last a millennium.” When the final accounting was done in 1913, the 18-miles of railroad stretching between the South Bronx and White Plains, N.Y., and the accompanying rolling stock had cost more than $22 million dollars--a huge sum in pre-World War I era--giving rise to the road’s other nickname “ Westchester’s Million-Dollar-a-Mile Railroad.” Intriguingly, in a report to the New York Public Utility Commission, the New Haven revealed that the Westchester’s final price tag was over $36 million. The parent company never explained the yawning discrepancy (and back5 in those closing days of robber barons like Mellon and Morgan, nor did it have to) but the suspicion would always dog the NYW&B that it was as much a masterpiece of financial manipulation as civil engineering.

The NYW&B carried 14 million passengers a year by 1928, but thanks to its low fare--about a penny a mile for monthly commuters--it never earned its investors a dime. Yet there were other factors behind its failure. The railroad’s southern terminus in the South Bronx required passengers to transfer to the nearby subway or elevated for the final leg of their trip into Manhattan. A two-seat ride was not a selling point when both the New Haven’s and the nearby New York Central’s own commuter trains provided direct service to Grand Central. The railroad’s backers had also been over-optimistic about a population boom in New York’s northern suburbs, which would take not one, but two World Wars before it finally arrived.

Port Chester Terminal Port Chester, NY
A view of the NYW&B's Port Chester terminal, in the mid-1930s. The Port Chester extension opened for business in 1929. The station building survives today as a church. Collection Robert A. Bang.

The NYW&B was doomed long before that time, despite its best efforts to attract more riders. In an effort to generate more traffic, a nine-mile branch to Port Chester was opened in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression’s onset--which proved to be the final straw for the beleaguered carrier. By 1935 the railroad was loosing northwards of $3 million a year when its parent New Haven filed for bankruptcy and announced that it would no longer make up the losses of its stepchild NYW&B, forcing it too into bankruptcy court and sealing its fate. While a variety of local community groups and state officials tried to save the Westchester, the courts ordered the railroad’s assets liquidated and proceeds used to pay its bondholders.

The railroad built to last a millennium rolled into history on the last day of December 1937. Much of the rolling stock ended up back on the New Haven, which demotored and modified the distinctive Stillwells and used them in Old Colony commuter service out of Boston. The NYW&B right of way and stations remained intact until the 1940s, when war-driven scrap metal drives consumed the railroad’s rails and its impressive steel bridges and viaducts. The only part of the Westchester to survive was the stretch between 180th Street and Dyre Avenue in the Bronx, which was eventually incorporated into the IRT subway line and remains in operation to this day.

Kingsbridge Station Bronx, NY
A steam-powered scrapping train seen near Kingsbridge station, near the Bronx border in the 1940s. Newspaper photo, collection Robert A. Bang.

The New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company 1906-1946, is a good introduction to the railroad’s abbreviated saga. It takes basically a scrapbook approach to its subject. At times, I’d have appreciated a little more text and recounting of the railroad’s daily operations, but that’s a small quibble. Aside from visually documenting the life and death of the NYW&B, the books also provides photos of most of the lines stations and well as track diagrams of the major interlockings, an advantage that comes with focusing on such a compact operation. There are also shots of the railroad at work, both of its MU cars and its freight operations. Among the final chapters is one which compares photos the NYW&B’s right of way during the railroad’s heyday with contemporary views, mostly of suburban roads and commercial sprawl. It’s interesting to contemplate what might have been had the NYW&B managed to eke out a few additional years of life and lived into the post-war years, though in retrospect it’s unlikely fate would have been any kinder. All together, the book is presented in an attractive hardcover format with crisp photo and illustration reproduction. This volume is not only of interest for Westchester or New Haven fans, but any traction buff or historian.

Mark Frankel has watched trains since getting his first Lionel set more than 40 years ago. He grew up in northern New Jersey between the Erie Railroad and the New York Central’s West Shore, and currently makes his home near milepost 19 on the Metro-North's Hudson Line. This is his first RAILROAD.NET byline.

New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company 1906-1946 Cover New York , Westchester & Boston
By Robert A. Bang
$35.00 list price
Hardbound, 177 pages. 8.5x11

Robert A. Bang
P.O. Box 164
Port Chester , N.Y. 10573