The High Line recreational corridor has a fascinating history of the days when it once ran freight trains. The route was built by the New York Central System in conjunction with New York City to alleviate accidents along Manhattan’s West Side. It was an incredibly expensive project but achieved its goals and greatly improved NYC’s operations in the city’s downtown area. Rail service on the island dated to the 19th century, and until the “High Line” project was completed nearly a century later, the line was plagued with more than 100 grade crossings. As highways improved and trucks took away short-haul freight from railroads, the short corridor saw increasingly less use. In the early 1980s, then-owner Conrail abandoned service altogether. After a protracted battle to save the elevated structure, sections began opening to the public in 2009.

Rail service on Manhattan Island can be traced back to the Hudson River Railroad (HRRR), an early predecessor of the New York Central. The system was chartered in 1846 to build a line from 32nd Street in Manhattan to Albany, which opened in 1851. By 1863, the famed railroad tycoon Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt had acquired control of the Hudson River Railroad and would merge it with his New York Central Railroad, forming the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad in 1869. The latter grew into the massive New York Central System by the early 20th century, stretching from New York City across the Midwest to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and numerous other locations.

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During 1868, expansion continued south of 32nd Street along 10th Avenue when a line was opened to St. John’s Park, once owned by the St. John’s Episcopal Church. Here, the original St. John’s Park Freight Terminal was constructed on Hudson Street, a massive facility meant to house and organize inbound and outbound freight movements. Unfortunately, the entire route was riddled with 105 grade crossings. After numerous accidents at 10th Avenue, the street was dubbed “Death Avenue.” To help cut down on these mishaps, the railroad and city began using what became known as “West Side Cowboys.” Essentially crossing guards, the men rode horseback in front of every train—red flag in hand—as the train crept down the avenue. On July 2, 1929, the NYC and city reached an agreement that would alleviate the street-running issue altogether: the West Side Improvement Project. This massive public works initiative elevated the tracks south of 30th Street Yard via a 14-foot-high viaduct of steel and concrete.

During the planning, engineers made sure the tracks could directly serve buildings and warehouses, which increased the line’s efficiency. On June 28, 1934, the city and railroad dedicated a new St. John’s Park Freight Terminal after demolishing the original structure. Among its many features, the terminal covered three city blocks, could handle 14 freight elevators, and serviced 150 trucks. The entire route, all double-tracked from 30th Street to St. John’s Park, was 13 miles long and cost more than $150 million. The New York Central also electrified the corridor, which was part of the railroad’s much larger West Side Line (or West Side Freight Line, the only railroad to directly serve Manhattan Island), with a third-rail running. The electric was later abandoned in favor of diesel-electric locomotives.

The West Side Improvement Project may not have lived up to expectations, given that it was completed during the Great Depression, and highways and trucks were already beginning to eat into the railroad industry’s freight traffic. This was particularly true of short-haul and less-than-carload (LCL) movements, which made up much of the West Side Line’s traffic. Regardless, for many years the NYC saw considerable freight over the line, including the movement of dairy products, meat, poultry and eggs, produce, mail, and several various types of manufactured goods. Not surprisingly, as the years passed, trucks began to take away more of the line’s freight, particularly during the 1950s.

In 1963, the New York Central abandoned and demolished roughly half of the line south of Bank Street. The remaining northern section continued to serve whatever customers were still in place through the days of the ill-fated Penn Central (a merger of the NYC, Pennsylvania, and New Haven) and when Conrail began during spring 1976. By that time, there was little freight still available, and the last movement occurred in 1980. In 1983, Chelsea resident Peter Obletz made efforts to save the property for light-rail or commuter service, but ultimately he was unsuccessful. For the next two decades, battles ensued over preserving or demolishing the elevated track. During 1999, the Friends of the High Line was established to preserve the structure as a recreational trail. While the effort took several years, it eventually gained enough public support, including from the city. In 2005, the city received the property from then-owner CSX Transportation, and the first section of the High Line trail opened to the public on June 9, 2009. By 2011, the entire elevated line south of 30th Street was in service as a recreational trail.

For railroad attractions near downtown New York City, visit the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum in Oyster Bay; Catskill Mountain Railroad in Mt. Tremper; Chester Historical Society in Chester (inside the town’s restored Erie Railroad depot); Maybrook Railroad Historical Society Museum in Maybrook; New York Transit Museum in nearby Brooklyn; the Railroad Museum of Long Island (two locations: one at Greenport and the other at Riverhead); and the Trolley Museum of New York in Kingston.  

In nearby New Jersey find the Black River & Western Railroad in Flemington; Delaware River Railroad in Phillipsburg; Mahwah Railroad Museum in Mahwah; Maywood Station Museum in Maywood; New Jersey Museum of Transportation in Farmingdale; Whippany Railway Museum in Whippany; and Liberty State Park in Jersey City, home to the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s preserved Jersey City Terminal.