Thursday, 11 February 2010
The Little Station that Could
It is a modest brick and stone building of gothic design, but the interior reminds one of nothing so much as a small cathedral. It boasts tall, leaded glass windows, a steeply pitched ceiling that rises fully 20 feet or more into the roofline, and heavy, dark hammer beams. Anyone familiar with the motion picture “The Long Gray Line” can recall the memorable scene filmed by John Ford at the West Point train station as graduates, in campaign hats and boots, departed during World War I. Deluxe passenger service to Chicago stopped at that station until World War I as well. There has not been passenger traffic on the west shore for decades now, but if that station could talk, it would tell many a tale.
In 1883, the West Shore Railroad built the first passenger and freight terminal at West Point, NY, and the first train made its way from Weehawken, NJ, to Newburgh, NY, with an intermittent stop at West Point on 4 June 1883. But before any of that could happen, a right of way across the federal lands had to be secured from Congress. This was accomplished on 14 December 1867, and in 1872 a tunnel under the Plain was begun. It would not be finished until a decade later. Once trains began running, the rumble disturbed the telescope in the observatory atop the castle-like library (demolished in 1962), but the railroad built a replacement in the Lusk Reservoir area (it also was demolished later). The reason for the construction of this “parallel line” to the New York Central tracks across the Hudson River was to serve the growing population on the west shore and also to facilitate a “price war’ by the rival Pennsylvania Railroad system. It was unsuccessful, and the New York Central System took over the right of way early on.
In 1926, about the time that the Hotel Thayer was replacing the original West Point Hotel near the Plain, the current station was completed. So the station used in “The Long Gray Line” was not the actual station used during World War I, but the newer (and current) station. It was also about this time that West Point (and all the boats passing on the Hudson River) lost a landmark. To widen the road to the station, it was necessary to remove some of the cliff near the station. Along with the rock outcroppings were lost the huge letters, “Bunker Hill, June 17th, 1775” that had been carved there in 1857 at the behest of Superintendent MAJ Richard Delafield. That date had been revered in early West Point history, and the earliest annual meetings of the Association of Graduates had been held on or near that date for many years.
And then there is the tunnel, 2,640 feet in length, passing under the Plain so as not to detract from Infantry and Cavalry drill but also to eliminate an unnecessary uphill climb for the rail bed. It was not, however, a tunnel without problems. The first train to Newburgh passed through on 4 June 1883, but the tunnel collapsed on about 13 October 1888, narrowly missing a southbound St. Louis Limited Express passenger train but catching the last two baggage and express cars. The collapse was blamed upon a vein of “quick sand” from what had been Execution Hollow during the Revolutionary War. Service did not resume until 13 January 1889, after tons of debris were removed and a new roof of steel arches was added to the affected area. Almost a century later, to accommodate the taller boxcars and auto carriers that Conrail wished to use after it took over the right of way on 1 April 1976, clearance had to be increased by two feet. Because of drainage, the tunnel only could be dug down one foot. The remaining foot laboriously was dug from the ceiling of the tunnel, and freight travels through West Point to this day. Passenger service, however, had long since ceased on 10 December 1959. In 1957, the New York Central System estimated that 85% of West Shore commuters had abandoned the system in favor of other means of transportation, causing an annual loss of two million dollars a year.
In 1944, the war-shortened Class of 1947 arrived at the West Point Station and was marched up the hill to the Plain by the U.S. Military Academy Band. Twenty-five years later, the Class purchased, renovated and upgraded the old railroad station and provided a maintenance endowment. Now a social events facility available through the club system, it seats 35 and boasts a modern kitchen. In 2012, the Class of 2007 is scheduled to assume responsibility to this reminder of an earlier day. The little station that could also is indirectly involved in the derivation of a long-standing term of cadet slang: calling the second class (juniors) “cow.” For many decades, cadets were only granted one period of leave during four years—summer leave between their third and second class years. Most classes assembled for a formal dinner in New York City on the night before they were due back at West Point. Then, most boarded a ferry boat to Weehawken, NJ, caught a West Shore train in Weehawken, and arrived en masse. As they noisily made their way up the hill from the train station, someone made the observation that “The cows were coming home,” and the name became widely accepted as cadet slang for the second class.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
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