In 1968 the NYC merged with its former rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, to form Penn Central (the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad joined in 1969). That company soon went bankrupt and was taken over by the federal government and merged into Conrail in 1976. Conrail was broken up in 1998, and much of its system was transferred to the newly-formed New York Central Lines LLC, a subsidiary of CSX. That company's lines include the original New York Central main line, but outside that area it includes lines that were never part of the NYC system. The famous Water Level Route of the NYC, from New York City to upstate New York, was the first four-track long-distance railroad in the world.
Pre-New York Central: 1826-1853
The oldest part of the NYC was the first permanent railroad in the state of New York and one of the first railroads in the United States. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad was chartered in 1826 to connect the Mohawk River at Schenectady to the Hudson River at Albany, providing a way for cargo on steamboats to avoid the Erie Canal. The Mohawk and Hudson opened on September 24, 1831, and changed its name to the Albany and Schenectady Railroad on April 19, 1847.
The Syracuse and Utica Railroad was chartered May 1, 1836 and similarly had to pay the state for any freight displaced from the canal. The full line opened July 3, 1839, extending the line further to Syracuse via Rome (and further to Auburn via the already-opened Auburn and Syracuse Railroad). This line was not direct, going out of its way to stay near the Erie Canal and serve Rome, and so the Syracuse and Utica Direct Railroad was chartered January 26, 1853. Nothing of that line was ever built, though the later West Shore Railroad, acquired by the NYC in 1885, served the same purpose.
The Auburn and Syracuse Railroad was chartered May 1, 1834 and opened mostly in 1838, the remaining 4 miles opening on June 4, 1839. A month later, with the opening of the Syracuse and Utica Railroad, this formed a complete line from Albany west via Syracuse to Auburn, about halfway to Geneva. The Auburn and Rochester Railroad was chartered May 13, 1836 as a further extension via Geneva and Canandaigua to Rochester, opening on November 4, 1841. The two lines later merged to form the rather indirect Rochester and Syracuse Railroad (known later as the Auburn Road). To fix this, the Rochester and Syracuse Direct Railroad was chartered and immediately merged into the Rochester and Syracuse. That line opened June 1, 1853, running much more directly between those two cities, roughly parallel to the Erie Canal.
To the west of Rochester, the Tonawanda Railroad was chartered April 24, 1832 to build from Rochester to Attica. The first section, from Rochester southwest to Batavia, opened May 5, 1837, and the rest of the line to Attica opened on January 8, 1843. The Attica and Buffalo Railroad was chartered in 1836 and opened on November 24, 1842, running from Buffalo east to Attica. When the Auburn and Rochester Railroad opened in 1841, there was no connection at Rochester to the Tonawanda Railroad, but with that exception there was now an all-rail line between Buffalo and Albany. On March 19, 1844 the Tonawanda Railroad was authorized to build the connection, and it opened later that year. The Albany and Schenectady Railroad bought all the baggage, mail and emigrant cars of the other railroads between Albany and Buffalo on February 17, 1848 and began operating through cars.
The Schenectady and Troy Railroad was chartered in 1836 and opened in 1842, providing another route between the Hudson River and Schenectady, with its Hudson River terminal at Troy.
The Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad was chartered in 1834 to build from Lockport on the Erie Canal west to Niagara Falls; it opened in 1838. Later, it was reorganized as the Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad, and an extension east to Rochester opened on July 1, 1852.
The Buffalo and Lockport Railroad was chartered April 27, 1852 to build a branch of the Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls from Lockport towards Buffalo. It opened in 1854, running from Lockport to Tonawanda, where it joined the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad, opened 1837, for the rest of the way to Buffalo.
In addition to the Syracuse and Utica Direct, another never-built company, the Mohawk Valley Railroad, was chartered January 21, 1851 and reorganized December 28, 1852, to build a railroad on the south side of the Mohawk River from Schenectady to Utica, next to the Erie Canal and opposite the Utica and Schenectady. The West Shore Railroad was later built on that location.
Albany industrialist and Mohawk Valley Railroad owner Erastus Corning got the above railroads together into one system, and on March 17, 1853 they agreed to merge. The merger was approved by the state legislature on April 2, and ten of the remaining companies merged to form the New York Central Railroad on May 17, 1853. The following companies were consolidated into this system, including the main line from Albany to Buffalo:
- Albany and Schenectady Railroad
- Utica and Schenectady Railroad
- Syracuse and Utica Railroad
- Rochester and Syracuse Railroad
- Buffalo and Rochester Railroad
The Rochester and Syracuse also owned the old alignment via Auburn, Geneva and Canandaigua, known as the "Auburn Road". The Buffalo and Rochester included a branch from Batavia to Attica, part of the main line until 1852. Also included in the merger were three other railroads:
- Schenectady and Troy Railroad, a branch from Schenectady east to Troy
- Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad, a major branch from Rochester west to Niagara Falls
- Buffalo and Lockport Railroad, a branch from the Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls at Lockport south to Buffalo via trackage rights on the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad from Tonawanda
As well as two that had not built any road, and never would:
- Mohawk Valley Railroad
- Syracuse and Utica Direct Railroad
Soon the Buffalo and State Line Railroad and Erie and North East Railroad converted to standard gauge from 6 foot broad gauge and connected directly with the NYC in Buffalo, providing a through route to Erie, Pennsylvania.
The Erastus Corning Years: 1853-1867
The Rochester and Lake Ontario Railroad was organized in 1852 and opened in Fall 1853; it was leased to the Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad, which became part of the NYC, before opening. In 1855 it was merged into the NYC, providing a branch from Rochester north to Charlotte on Lake Ontario.
The Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad was also merged into the NYC in 1855. It had been chartered in 1834 and opened in 1837, providing a line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. It was leased to the NYC in 1853.
Also in 1855 came the merger with the Lewiston Railroad, running from Niagara Falls north to Lewiston. It was chartered in 1836 and opened in 1837 without connections to other railroads. In 1854 a southern extension opened to the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad and the line was leased to the NYC.
The Canandaigua and Niagara Falls Railroad was chartered in 1851. The first stage opened in 1853 from Canandaigua on the Auburn Road west to Batavia on the main line. A continuation west to North Tonawanda opened later that year, and in 1854 a section opened in Niagara Falls connecting it to the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. The NYC bought the company at bankruptcy in 1858 and reorganized it as the Niagara Bridge and Canandaigua Railroad, merging it into itself towards the end of th 19th century.
The Troy and Greenbush Railroad was chartered in 1845 and opened later that year, connecting Troy south to East Albany on the east side of the Hudson River. The Hudson River Railroad was chartered May 12, 1846 to extend this line south to New York City; the full line opened October 3, 1851. Prior to completion, on June 1, the Hudson River leased the Troy and Greenbush.
Cornelius Vanderbilt obtained control of the Hudson River Railroad in 1864, soon after he bought the parallel New York and Harlem Railroad.
Along the line of the Hudson River Railroad, the High Line was built in New York City as an elevated bypass to the existing street-running trackage on Eleventh Avenue, at the time called "Death Avenue" due to the large number of accidents involving trains. The elevated section has since been abandoned, and the tunnel to the north, built at the same time, is used only by Amtrak trains to New York Penn Station (all other trains use the Spuyten Duyvil and Port Morris Railroad to access the New York and Harlem Railroad).
The Vanderbilt Years: 1867-1954
In 1867 Vanderbilt acquired control of the NYC, with the help of maneuverings related to the Hudson River Bridge in Albany. On November 1, 1869 he merged the NYC with his Hudson River Railroad into the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. This extended the system south from Albany along the east bank of the Hudson River to New York City, with the leased Troy and Greenbush Railroad running from Albany north to Troy.
Vanderbilt's other lines were operated as part of the NYC; these included the New York and Harlem Railroad, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, Canada Southern Railway and Michigan Central Railroad.
The Spuyten Duyvil and Port Morris Railroad was chartered in 1869 and opened in 1871, providing a route on the north side of the Harlem River for trains along the Hudson River to head southeast to the New York and Harlem Railroad towards Grand Central Terminal or the freight facilities at Port Morris. From opening it was leased by the NYC.
The Geneva and Lyons Railroad was organized in 1877 and opened in 1878, leased by the NYC from opening. This was a north-south connection between Syracuse and Rochester, running from the main line at Lyons south to the Auburn Road at Geneva. It was merged into the NYC some ten years later.
At the turn of the century, the Boston and Albany Railroad was leased by the NYC, although it retained a separate identity. In 1914 the name was changed again, forming the modern New York Central Railroad.
The NYC had a distinctive character; unlike its arch rival the Pennsylvania Railroad's mountainous terrain, the NYC was best known as the Water Level Route; most of its major routes, including New York to Chicago, followed rivers and had no significant grades. This influenced many things, including advertising and most notably locomotive design.
Steam locomotives of the NYC were optimized for speed on that flat raceway of a main line, rather than slow mountain lugging. Famous locomotives of the system included the well-known 4-6-4 Hudsons, and the postwar Niagaras, fast 4-8-4 locomotives often considered the epitome of their breed by steam locomotive aficionados.
Despite having some of the most modern steam locomotives anywhere, the NYC dieselized rapidly, conscious of its by then difficult financial position and the potential relief that more economical diesel-electric power could bring. Very few NYC steam locomotives still exist. All Hudsons and Niagaras were sent to the scrapper's torch. In 2004, the only surviving big modern steam locomotives are two 4-8-2 Mohawk dual-purpose locomotives.
The financial situation of northeastern railroading soon became so dire that not even the economies of the new diesel-electric locomotives could change things.
A number of bypasses and cutoffs were built around congested areas. The Junction Railroad's Buffalo Belt Line opened in 1871, providing a bypass of Buffalo, New York to the northeast, as well as a loop route for passenger trains via downtown. The West Shore Railroad, acquired in 1885, provided a bypass around Rochester, New York. The Terminal Railway's Gardenville Cutoff, allowing through traffic to bypass Buffalo to the southeast, opened in 1898.
The Schenectady Detour consisted of two connections to the West Shore Railroad, allowing through trains to bypass the steep grades at Schenectady, New York. The full project opened in 1902. The Cleveland Short Line Railway built a bypass of Cleveland, Ohio, completed in 1912. In 1924, the Alfred H. Smith Memorial Bridge was constructed as part of the Hudson River Connecting Railroad's Castleton Cut-Off, a 27.5-mile-long freight bypass of the congested Albany terminal area.
An unrelated realignment was also made at Rome, when the Erie Canal was realigned and widened onto a new alignment south of downtown Rome. The NYC main line was shifted south out of downtown to the south bank of the new canal. A bridge was built southeast of downtown, roughly where the old main line crossed the path of the canal, to keep access to Rome from the southeast. West of downtown, the old main line was abandoned, but a brand new railroad line was built, running north from the NYC main line to the NYC's former Watertown and Rome Railroad, allowing all NYC through traffic to bypass Rome.
Robert R. Young: 1954-1958
The Vanderbilt interests, having steadily reduced their shareholdings, lost a proxy fight in 1954 to Robert Ralph Young and his Alleghany Corporation. Unable to keep his promises, Young was forced to suspend dividend payments in January 1958 and committed suicide that month.
Alfred E. Perlman: 1958-1968
After his death, Young's role in NYC management was assumed by Alfred E. Perlman, who had been working with the NYC under Young since 1954. Although much had been accomplished to streamline NYC operations, in those tough economic times, mergers with other railroads were seen as the only possible road to financial stability. The most likely suitor became the NYC's former arch-rival Pennsylvania Railroad.
Penn Central, Conrail, CSX
The NYC became a fallen flag on February 1, 1968 when it joined with its old enemy, the Pennsylvania Railroad, in the ill-fated merger that produced Penn Central. Slightly over two years later, the Penn Central Transportation Company filed for bankruptcy. Conrail, officially the Consolidated Rail Corporation, was created by the U.S. Government to salvage Penn Central, and several other bankrupt railroads. On April 1, 1976, it began operations.
On June 6, 1998, most of Conrail was split between Norfolk Southern and CSX. New York Central Lines LLC was formed as a subsidiary of Conrail, containing the lines to be operated by CSX; this included the old Water Level Route and many other lines of the New York Central, as well as various lines from other companies.