How Grand Central Station Became an Underground Labyrinth

Over a century ago, Cornelius Vanderbilt was caught between a rock and a hard place, literally. Here is how the Commodore solved Manhattan’s transportation problems by creating the world’s most beautiful train station.
Grand Central Lobby 6 photos
Photo: Chris Bojanovich via Wikimedia Commons
1870 Map of Grand Central DepotTrains go underground in Harlem heading south to GCOriginal map of lower level tracks looking WestGrand Central DepotBuilding Grand Central
Just after the Civil War, the city of New York was expanding northward into the farmlands that now comprise Central Park. Trains ran down the middle of Park Avenue, spewing burning coal cinders and belching smoke from the Harlem River to downtown. In the old days, the first Grand Central Station was somewhere around 14th street, close to City Hall.

The first step to cleaning up the city was to put the last mile of tracks in a ditch, so the famous Sandhogs cut a valley down the middle of Park Avenue. Long distance trains could make it downtown without disturbing the intersections, but this solution only lasted a few decades. With the growth of New York and its surrounding counties, there were simply too many trains choking the Lower East Side.

1870 Map of Grand Central Depot
Photo: KPF Urban
Closing the downtown station, Vanderbilt built a massive trainyard on 42nd street. With over 70 tracks, Grand Central Depot stopped the trains uptown in 1871, where freight and passengers could catch a local Omnibus or catch a cab powered by tired horses. The tunnel between this Grand Central Depot and downtown is still open to uptown cars, known as the Murray Hill Tunnel. Hidden along the brick walls are remnants of lost stations from 33rd street north.

What we see today is the Grand Central Terminal. The name was changed when trains no longer went downtown, therefore terminating at 42nd street. Nevertheless, after 125 years we still love it as a station. When Edison and Tesla had perfected electric power, the city jumped at the idea of electric trains cleaning up the city. What’s more, they don’t need air to breathe, so an area the size of Walt Disney World could be carved out underground, making room for the most expensive real estate in the world.

A master electrical engineer named William Wilgus was hired to figure it all out. Trains had to run 24/7, so he cut up the job of building a new station into three massive chunks. Block by block, Irishmen and Sandhogs blasted and dug seven stories down, well below sea level. There would be a basement level for baggage, freight, and cargo. The first level of tracks would stretch uptown almost to Harlem and span the entire width between Madison (5th Avenue) and Lexington (3rd Avenue).

Building Grand Central
Photo: Library of Congress
The lower level was for local trains, like Brooklyn or the Bronx, while long distance trains from DC or Boston would arrive upstairs. Notice here that both levels were already opened on the west side, as digging nears completion. This was done to connect local commuters with the new subway station. This was somehow squeezed inside Grand Central, officially known as the 42nd street subway station (A short shuttle train will take you to Time's

This massive marble and granite building brought together all forms of transportation, and it opened on February 2nd, 1913. Obviously, you need to take the tour, but after years of trying to escape Florida, I have compiled the best way to experience this American icon. A planned itinerary will be the focus of part two, but don’t go just yet. The biggest construction project in the City’s history is about to open, and it lies deep under the lower-level tracks. Planned nearly 200 years ago, a new 4-track station is testing high-speed trains to Long Island, hoping to cut hours from the daily commute between the city and the suburbs.

In a few weeks, 8 new platforms will open 14 stories below Park Avenue. That will mean Grand Central’s next hundred years will host more passengers and tourists than any other other American institution. Next time you walk through Midtown, stop and ponder the maze of trains and humans below your feet and stay tuned for Part 2: Electric Boogaloo next week!

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