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History Of Grand Central Station



Grand Central Station is one of the busiest train stations within America. It is mostly known as Grand Central Terminal as, in the past, it used to be the final stop where all railroad lines terminated (Maranzani). It is also an iconic tourist attraction of the country for many reasons. Located in Midtown Manhattan, Grand Central is the biggest train station in the world, spanning over 49 acres of land. The station works efficiently by operating over 44 platforms and 67 tracks and commuting nearly 125,000 citizens to work daily (PBS). The history of one of the most influential train stations dates back to the 1800s in which construction began.

The project started when William J. Wilgus came up with the idea “in a flash of light.” He recalled, “It was the most daring idea that ever occurred to me.” Wilgus became the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer in 1899 (Roberts). Formerly, he supervised the renovation of the Grand Central Depot. He had experience studying under a local civil engineer for two years and took a course at Cornell for drafting. He continued to participate in the creation of other railroads before working on the New York Central. The Grand Central Station officially opened to the public around 100 years ago. The project’s construction took a total of 10 years and cost more than $2 billion (Roberts).

The creation of the Grand Central would not have happened without the fatal train accident in 1902. “On January 8, 1902, a commuter train traveling from suburban Westchester County crashed into another train waiting in the station’s entrance tunnel, killing 15 passengers” (Maranzani). This inspired Wilgus to expand upon railroad yards that were only two avenue blocks wide since it was proven to show catastrophic outcomes. This horrific accident was the turning point of railroads as politicians made plans to prohibit steam engines from operating in the city. The steam-powered locomotives would be replaced by electric motors. As the new Grand Central Station was built to run on electricity, the train stations were built completely underground which allowed for businesses to build upon the streets above the stations. This business boom is the turning point for the modern-midtown Manhattan that we know today.

In the beginning, “Wilgus envisioned a 12-story, 2.3 million-square-foot building above the terminal that could generate rents totaling $2.3 million annually” (Roberts). However, he would face many challenges to create the masterpiece known as the Grand Central Terminal. Firstly, Wilgus required a great sum of money to build the railroad. People were skeptical to invest in the project since it wouldn’t earn nearly as much as how much it would cost. The chief engineer was able to persuade the board of directors and gain their support. Wilgus was then challenged trying to build a terminal without inconveniencing the passengers on the railroads. To tackle this problem, he strategized to demolish existing structures and excavate rocks and dirt to make room for bi-level platforms.

There is so much history within the station which is apparent when you take a look around the inside of the station. Its ceiling was decorated by artist Paul Helleu in 1912 (PBS). It features a motif of the zodiac which may have been inspired by a medieval manuscript of the heavens as if seen from outside the celestial sphere. The same ceiling also shows evidence of historical events, a small darkened circle at one of the zodiac symbols. This is a result of when the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957. Americans were concerned over the communists taking a technological lead and decided to install a Redstone rocket in the main concourse. In order to stabilize the rocket in the grand hall, a hole was pierced within the ceiling to secure the wiring of the rocket (Maranzani). Starting in the 1980s, there was a 12-year restoration project of the Grand Central Station. What was believed to be coal and diesel smoke residue left on the ceiling was discovered to be nicotine and tar. The Historical Preservation decided to maintain the missile hole and the patch of residue on the ceiling as reminders of the past (PBS). It also serves as a reminder of how dirty the passengers have made the ceiling.

At the time of its construction, the Grand Central Terminal was the largest construction project in New York. It made history as one of the world’s first all-electric buildings. Its interior design was also one to behold. At its opening, the station was lit by more than 4,000 lights and each and “every one of the stations’ chandeliers and lighting fixtures featured bare, exposed light bulbs” (Maranzani). These bulbs remained a trademark of the station until they were replaced by energy and cost efficient fluorescent bulbs in 2008. The station also features the use of innovative ramps, instead of stairs, as it would help commuters travel long distances and reach track level more efficiently. It also prevents people from having to laboriously lug their luggage up and down crowded stairs. Over the years, there have been many renovations of the station, however its reputation stands as one of the most iconic locations in New York.

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