The West Shore: A Brief History and My Experiences

[Note: This article originally appeared on the web site of the Mohawk and Hudson Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.  The web site is no longer available and this was found on the archive.org web site at http://web.archive.org/web/20011121183849/http://www.crisny.org/not-for-profit/railroad/nyc_hist.htm]

By Charles L. Ballard,
Past President,
Mohawk & Hudson Chapter, NRHS.

Edited by Steve Sconfienza, Ph.D.

Why was the West Shore built in the first place? To explain that I will have to delve into some of the practices of the Railroad industry prevalent in the period of great railroad growth from the end of the Civil War to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. Railroads had established supremacy over then existing transportation modes by the end of that war and a period of unparalleled growth lay ahead. However, this period of expansion was not without its corruption, discrimination and unbridled competition. All of this was dragging the industry downhill until partially controlled by the original Interstate Commerce Act (1887).

This period was also one of a great many mergers of smaller lines into what later became seven or eight large railroad empires covering the United States. Each of these was presided over by its respective railroad baron. (Some have called them "Robber Barons"). One of the corrupt competitive practices of the time, and this is the one that led to the construction of the original New York, West Shore & Buffalo, was as follows:

Once a railroad baron was established in a particular territory, another one who wanted to compete with the first one would build a purposely parallel railroad in the same territory even though such was not needed. Once the parallel line was built the competing baron would start a rate war with the first baron's railroad. A rate war meant the slashing of rates by whichever competitor started the war in order to capture traffic from the other railroad. The other line had to meet the lower rates or lose traffic. Once the lower rates were met the originator of the war would slash them further causing a downward spiral to the point where passenger and freight transportation was almost being given away and the railroads involved were seeing their losses mount.

The object of building the purposely parallel line was for the invading railroad baron to force his line on the baron whose territory he invaded at an inflated price to stop the nuisance of the cutthroat competition. This is exactly why the original West Shore was built. The Pennsylvania RR under successive presidents Tom Scott and George B. Roberts invaded the territory of the New York Central which was then headed by William H. Vanderbilt. The West Shore was chartered in 1881 to build a line on the west side of the Hudson paralleling Vanderbilt's property all the way to Buffalo.

The original West Shore started at Jersey City with stations at Hoboken and Weehawken before continuing north. It ran its first passenger train to Newburgh on June 4, 1883 and by the end of that year was running all the way through to Buffalo. Naturally, Vanderbilt retaliated. He started to build the South Pennsylvania RR purposely to parallel the Pennsylvania RR's main line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. To show how nasty the situation got, the West Shore received financial aid from George M. Pullman who hated Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, it seems, would not use Pullman sleeping cars on his line. He used Wagner Palace Cars instead.

Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was aided in his South Pennsylvania RR endeavor by Andrew Carnegie who did not like the Pennsylvania's RR's monopoly in Pittsburgh. The cutthroat competition between the West Shore and Vanderbilt's New York Central caused the West Shore to flounder first. It went bankrupt in June 1884. However the financial damage the West Shore was doing to the New York Central alarmed J.P. Morgan, a friend of Vanderbilt's, and he decided to intervene.

In July 1885 Morgan invited Roberts of the Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt of the Central to a meeting on his palatial yacht to try and arrange a truce while slowly cruising the East River and Long Island Sound. Morgan succeeded and in return for control of the bankrupt West Shore, Vanderbilt agreed to stop any further construction on the South Pennsylvania RR which had been graded and tunneled, but on which track had not been laid.

Much of this unused right of way later became the Pennsylvania Turnpike including the tunnels. The size of many of these required the highway be reduced to two lanes, about the width of a double track railroad. Some may still be two lane. J.P. Morgan, by the way, received fees estimated at between one and three million for arranging this "deal" between Roberts and Vanderbilt. New York Central kept the `West Shore' name on its rolling stock, tickets and timetables for years.

The growth of the suburbs on the west bank of the Hudson and the Catskill resorts caused the West Shore passenger traffic to flourish during the period prior to highway competition. There were also through sleeping and parlor cars to such places as Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis via connecting lines west of Buffalo.

A portion of the West Shore was even electrified (Utica to Syracuse) using the same type of under-running third rail that still exists today between Harmon and New York City. Utica-Syracuse electrics were operated by the Oneida Railway which was part of a larger system called New York State Railways controlled by the New York Central. Large wooden, arch-windowed interurban cars were used on about an hourly service. Trolley poles and overhead wire were used to get from the centers of Syracuse and Utica through city streets to the West Shore right of way where third rail took over.

The shift to autos and busses, the opening of the Hudson River bridge and tunnels, plus the inconvenience of getting to the Weekawken Terminal by ferry from Manhattan, reduced the passenger traffic and the service shrunk in frequency and distance. It became limited mostly to the stretch between Weehawken and Albany with the Albany end consisting of a branch running in from a little above Ravena.

There were also shorter runs out of Weehawken for commuters to such end points as West Englewood, Dumont, West Haverstraw and Newburgh. A couple of trains terminated at Kingston leaving Albany with the least service. The electrified Syracuse-Utica service quit in 1930. The last passenger service west of Ravena was a gas-electric car from Ravena to Utica which quit in the early 1930's. Passenger service from Weehawken to Albany ended in late June, 1958.

The Weehawken ferry made its last trip on March 20, 1959 and the remaining Weehawken-West Haverstraw short haul commuter service without the ferry ended in December 1959. Thus the old West Shore, or what was left of it, became freight only trackage. Much of it west of Ravena had been dismembered into chunks with jump overs to the paralleling NYC main line or had been abandoned.

Today the old NYC River Division from Selkirk Yard down is an important freight line for Conrail as is the trackage from Selkirk Yard west to Rotterdam Jct. and across the Mohawk River to the former NYC main line. Other than the Rochester by-pass and Rotterdam Jct south, just about all the rest of the old West Shore is gone. Its main shops when it was an independent railroad were at Frankfort.

My first trip on the West Shore was in 1937 from Weehawken to Albany on train #25, a local express that was due out of Weehawken at 1:55pm and into the lower level of Albany Union Station at 5:25pm. I was accompanied by my mother (now deceased). In those days we lived in Westchester County and came up frequently by train to visit relatives in Poestenkill. We rode the Hudson Division to Albany many times but at my urging we also looked for other routes to vary (my) train riding experience. The West Shore was one of them. We would take the New Haven RR from Mt. Vernon to Grand Central, the 42nd St. Cross-town to the 42nd Street ferry, thence to Weehawken and up the West Shore.

We learned on our first trip that there were railroad ticket offices at both the Manhattan and Weehawken ends of the ferry. On that first trip the ticket clerk at the Manhattan terminus wanted to know why we wanted to go to Albany, that way arguing that we should use the line from Grand Central as more direct. That certainly did nothing to promote the service. After that I found out the secret of purchasing a ticket to Albany without an argument was to pay a nickel and ride the ferry to Weehawken and buy the ticket there. Thus I rode the West Shore many times doing just that.

In those days Pacific's ruled the line on short haul commuter trains to Kingston and Albany. They were even used in freight service to some extent. As the New York Central received more Mohawks and Niagaras, some of the original 5200 series Hudsons were bumped over to the West Shore from the mid-1940's to the end of steam. Diesel passenger service on both the commuter and longer haul Kingston-Albany trains was with the familiar RS-3. They even tried RDC's from Albany to Kingston on a few runs for a time connecting with RS-3 hauled trains from there to Weehawken. This arrangement did not last very long however.

Towards the end of passenger service to Albany there was only the one daily round trip which made every stop and took over five hours each way. As had been true for years even when the service was better, it was more convenient for people living on the west shore to cross the river to a corresponding Hudson Division station and take the train to New York from there. To them the West Shore was the `Wrong Shore' and the last Weehawken-Albany schedule really clinched the matter.