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Designing New York City's
Metropolitan Union Terminal

This section of the website contains the details behind my design for New York City's Metropolitan Union Terminal. MUTT is a fictional passenger terminal located in Manhattan between 14th and 40th streets, Broadway and the Hudson River.

Metropolitan Union Terminal Logo

   It has been said that Europe has its cathedrals, but America has its train terminals. When a railroad built, or rebuilt, one of its big city passenger stations, around the turn of the last century, they tended to open their checkbooks and build very large, elegant structures. Sadly, many of these 'cathedrals' of railroading didn't survive the century, and now passengers must navigate maze-like passages through glorified subway stations to reach their trains.

This document will attempt to shed some light on the process and history behind the design of my 'cathedral' for New York City - Metropolitan Union Terminal. MUTT's interior design draws from several different real stations, while still being very unique. I've also pulled ideas from a real architect - Daniel Hudson Burnham, he designed Washington (DC) Union Station - in designing the exterior of the structure.

Early History

   The HLS's early history in New York City is still unclear. However, on July 4, 1876 four railroads - the New York, Putnam & Northern, the Hudson River Rail Road, the New York, New Haven & Hartford, and the New York & Canarsie Beach - were celebrating the grand opening of their joint passenger station, on 14th street at the foot of Manhattan Avenue - Centennial Square Station. A blueprint of the south facade of Centennial Square Station can be found here. The station consisted of two sections - a 14-track, stub ended terminal above street level for the NYP&N and NYNH&H (as seen in the blueprint above), and a 4-track, through station below street level, to the west of the main station, for the NY&CB and HRRR.

   The NY&CB exited the station, heading south, through an open cut. The tracks, after ducking under 14th and 13th streets, curved sharply to the east to run between 12th and 13th streets to the East River. After passing under 2nd ave. the NY&CB climbed out of the cut and up the western approach to its East River bridge.

The two tracked bridge, believed to have been painted a bright iron oxide color for improved visibility, was of a very rare design. It featured twin end-to-end swing bridges in the middle of the river, so that when the bridge was opened there would be two channels of standard width, and one channel of double width, available for vessels to use. A very complex, for the time, locking system eliminated the need for a support pier in the middle of the double-wide channel. In 1904 the twin spans were replaced with a single vertical lift bridge, and then the entire bridge was replaced, by a 4 track high clearance span, in the late 1930s (it was a WPA project).

   The NYP&N and New Haven exited Centennial Square Station heading north. After passing the coach & freight yards, and a connection to the Hudson River Rail Road, the tracks climbed onto a 4 track wide steel viaduct - the Manhattan Avenue Viaduct.

The viaduct was of a light and lacy design - so light in fact that a writer for the New York Post wondered how it could support the weight of four trains at once, when it looked like it couldn't even support its own weight. Unfortunately the writer was right, by 1878 the viaduct was showing signs of stress caused by the weight of all the passing trains. That summer the railroad started the first, of fifteen years worth of, reinforcing projects to the viaduct.

During the blizzard of 1888 the section spanning the Manhattan Valley (today's 125th street) collapsed under the weight of two passing work trains that were trying to clear the tracks (ed. Hey, it worked!, but I guess that's not what they had in mind ;o) This section was replaced by a temporary wooden bridge and trestle until the entire steel viaduct was replaced by the current concrete structure, between 1897 and 1899.

Just north of the Manhattan Valley (today's 125th Street) station, the viaduct divided into two parallel double track viaducts. The New Haven's tracks, on the eastern most structure, followed a broad sweeping curve as they turned east to run between 131st and 132nd streets. After crossing the bridge over the New York Central's tracks, into the then new Grand Central Depot (1871-1890), the New Haven's tracks angled slightly to the northeast and crossed the Harlem River over a swing bridge. Once in the Bronx, the tracks passed along the north side of their Mott Haven yards.

After the split, the NYP&N's tracks, on the western most structure, continued north to the 155th street station. North of the station the tracks split in two directions. The original, by then freight only, route crossed the Harlem River on a swing bridge, turned north, and followed the east bank of the river north and inland.

A new route, then used only by passenger trains, turned north past the station and followed the west bank north. The two routes rejoined at 225th street in the Bronx. This was also the location of connections with the New York Central, and the Hudson River Rail Road. It should be noted that the HRRR north of Spuyten Duyvil was owned by the NYC, while the section south of there (today's west side freight line) was part of the NYP&N / NY&CB family.

   The Hudson River Rail Road was the smallest, in size and passenger traffic, of the roads using Centennial Square Station, which it exited heading north. After passing the passenger & freight yards, it turned northwest, then west into 30th street. At 11th ave. a wye connected the tracks from the station with the HRRR's original line. The tracks on 30th street, and the ones on 11th ave., ran down the middle of those streets from the time that they were first built, until the late 1890s.

At the 11th avenue wye most passenger trains turned north, however, until 1914 it was possible for a train to travel all the way south to Battery Park, mostly over ratty industrial trackage.

Turning north at the wye, trains would follow 11th avenue north to the 60th street yards. After snaking northwest through the yards, the tracks turned north to follow the Hudson River north to Spuyten Duyvil. Along the way it serves several small team track yards, the largest of which was Manhattanville (around 140th street). At Spuyten Duyvil a wye connects the HRRR with the NYC, and the HRRR crosses the Central at grade. Turning east, the tracks run parallel to, and to the north of, the NYC's tracks. At 225th street the HRRR ends in a wye that connects it to the NYP&N.

   In addition to railroads above, the Breckenridge family also operated or was involved with several railroads in New Jersey. In the late 1860s, about the time the NYP&N's new passenger route north of 155th street was built, the first, of four, passenger ferry terminals was built on Pier 57, at the foot of 14th street. In 1884 this terminal was replaced by a much larger facility on Pier 63, at the foot of 23rd street. The Pier 63 terminal was rebuilt in 1901 as part of the new station complex. It was rebuilt again in 1964 following a major fire there.

Birth Of A MUTT

   When Centennial Square Station was built, it was designed to handle double the number of trains its owners were then operating. Ten years later it was taxed to the limit! Unforeseen in the early 1870s, the NYP&N was now handling the New York City to Albany section of the New York, West Shore & Buffalo's long distance passenger trains; the New Haven's traffic was growing in leaps and bounds; the sleepy NY&CB had become a well traveled commuter line; and the Hudson River RR's freight traffic on 11th ave. had nearly tripled!

   Something had to give, and on the morning of March 18, 1888 it did. Six days earlier, the 12th, the region was buried by a massive blizzard - 16.5 inches in Manhattan, 26 inches in White Plains, and over 50 inches in parts of Connecticut - that left it paralyzed for days. On the morning of the 18th two plow trains (each wedge plow was being pushed by 3 2-6-0s) were trying to clear the snow off the Manhattan Ave. viaduct, one working north from the 23rd street yards, the other worked south from 225th street. The trains made good time, and they both arrived at the Manhattan Valley bridge (125th street) at 11:17am.

This bridge was a cantilevered type with a pin connected, deck truss bridge making up the center section. Like the rest of the viaduct, the bridge had been showing signs of stress and had been reinforced over the years. It is unclear if the bridge was inspected prior to the plow trains getting authorization to operate over it.

At 11:17am, as the weight of both trains was on the four tracked, cantilevered section of the bridge, a series of loud reports echoed through the valley. The pins holding the north end in place sheared off, causing the bridge to pivot downward like a hinge. Nine people were killed that day (6 railroad men, 3 children playing under the bridge), and 37 were injured (23 railroad, 5 children, 9 rescuers). All trains were rerouted via the HRRR until a wooden bridge and trestle was erected in late May.

What followed was four years of legal battles as the newly elected Mayor, Hugh J. Grant, tried unsuccessfully to get the viaduct torn down, and have all the passenger trains run into Grand Central Depot. It seems that Mayor Grant was a very dear friend of J.C. Breckenridge's business rival, Commodore Vanderbilt.

   In 1893, a few months after Mayor Grant was voted out of office, the noted Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham was hired to design a new passenger terminal, and to redevelop the all of land surrounding it - today's Terminal City.

Forging ahead on the assurances from General Electric that their new type of railroad locomotive, powered by electricity, would be up to the job, the new station - Metropolitan Union Terminal - was designed to use this form of motive power to full advantage.

Except for a dozen stub ended tracks, in a train shed behind the tower, all the tracks are below ground in two stations flanking the train shed and tower. As originally planned, a train would enter the terminal either by passing through a tunnel, under the Hudson River and East Rivers, or from a new, concrete, Manhattan Avenue viaduct. Once they have entered the underground tracks, they would enter the western most station to discharge their passengers. Then they would move through the loop tracks, being held or serviced as needed. Then they would enter the eastern most station to board new passengers, and then leave the terminal.

   Metropolitan Union Terminal is the largest passenger and freight terminal in the world. It was designed to handle around 9600 train movements a day, one every 9 seconds, through the terminal complex - the passenger and freight facilities connecting Manhattan with Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and New Jersey. Its heaviest traffic day was October 7, 1942 when 7852 train movements were logged, about one every 11 seconds. However, there have been several times when hourly train movements have exceeded the theoretical 1 every 9 second capacity, without a problem.

The Building's Design

   While designing the terminal's track plan has been (relatively) easy, designing the building's exterior hasn't been. When you think of major stations, you tend to think of arches, large curved top windows, colonnades, etc. While it would be easy to ripoff the design of Penn Station, it's a bit bland for my tastes... not to mention its design is a few years to modern for MUTT. It should be noted that the Pennsy used MUTT instead of building its own station in New York City.

Enter Daniel H. Burnham, the architect of Washington Union Station. While surfing the web to find the full text of a quote from him - "Make no small plans ... " (see the Midway for the quote) - I came across a drawing of his design for the Chicago civic center (see below). As you can see, by comparing his drawing with the stylized station in the logo below it, MUTT's exterior is simply an extrapolation of Mr. Burnham's original design.

Chicago Civic Center

Metropolitan Union Terminal Logo
Looking at the logo above, let me give you an idea of the size of the building. You are facing north, the Hudson River is to your left, the East River to your right. Manhattan Ave. is located where the U in Union is; 8th ave. tunnels under the building where the TER in Terminal is, while 9th ave. does the same where the POL is in Metropolitan. Just off the edges of the red box would be 7th ave. (to your right) and 10th ave. (to your left).

   This concludes our first look at Metropolitan Union Terminal. I hope you enjoyed your visit. More information on MUTT's history, its floor plans, and the railroads it has served over the years, will follow ... just as soon as I can invent them! ;o)

MUTT Diamond-back Signal

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