Today’s North County Trailway uses a fabled corridor that was once part of the massive New York Central System (NYC). The right-of-way’s roots trace back to the New York & Putnam Railroad, which itself was formed through a number of properties that had gone bankrupt over the years. Under the NYC’s control, the line saw significant commuter service because it reached the Bronx in New York City. Cutbacks on the route began as early as World War II and continued through the 1960s. By the time Conrail took over the property in the mid-1970s, only a few sections of the “Old Put” were still in use; they were scrapped in the coming years when remaining customers closed their doors. Today, there are only a few short sections of the line still in place, while much of the rest has been converted into a series of rail trails.
The history of the New York & Putnam Railroad’s predecessor systems is long and confusing. It all began with the chartering of the New York & Boston Railroad on May 21, 1869, to build a route on the east side of the Hudson River from High Bridge, located along the Harlem River in the Bronx, to Brewster. Following a series of mergers, what was then the New York City & Northern Railroad (NYC&N) completed the original line during late 1880. The NYC&N entered receivership in July 1887 and emerged in October as the New York & Northern (NY&N). Within seven years, the NY&N also fell into bankruptcy and was purchased by J.P. Morgan, who reorganized the property as the New York & Putnam Railroad on January 12, 1894. By that date, the system had been extend a little farther south to Sedgwick Avenue and 155th Street, where a connection was made to the Ninth Avenue Elevated rapid transit line (this part of the railroad was later sold in 1916, and Sedgwick Avenue became the permanent southern terminus). It also featured three notable branches: one to Yonkers via Van Cortlandt (built by the Yonkers Rapid Transit Railway and opened in March 1888), another to Mahopac Falls via Baldwin Place (this latter spur was built by the Mahopac Iron Ore Company in 1884 to serve the Mahopac Mines), and a third was a small consortium of lines that connected Tarrytown Heights, Tower Hill, Pocantico Hills, and Whiteons.
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Less than a month after the NY&P was formed, it was leased by the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (predecessor to the New York Central) on February 1. On March 7, 1913, the NY&P was formally merged into the NYC&HR, becoming its Putnam Division after 1914, when the New York Central System was formally created through the consolidation of several subsidiaries. At its southern end, the 54-mile line interchanged with the NYC’s Hudson Division, while to the north at Brewster it met up with the Harlem Division and an interchanged with the New York, New Haven & Hartford (the classic New Haven Railroad).
While the Putnam Division did offer the NYC a share of freight traffic, it is perhaps best remembered for its extensive commuter operations given that it served New York City and its northern suburbs. By 1926, the southern end of the Old Put was electrified from Sedgwick Avenue to Van Cortlandt along with the branch to Yonkers. However, the entire route had a few flaws that ultimately led to its demise: to reach Grand Central Terminal, commuters were forced to transfer trains at High Bridge (where they would then take the Hudson Division into GCT). A lack of adequate automobile parking here led many to use the NYC’s nearby Hudson and Harlem divisions. The first cutbacks on the line began in 1931 when the branch to Tarrytown Heights, Tower Hill, Whiteons, and Pocantico Hills was abandoned that March. Interestingly, less than 20 years since it had been electrified, the branch to Yonkers was also abandoned in May 1943.
Facing decreasing ridership and increasing deficits, the New York Central wanted to abandon passenger operations on the line as early as 1956; the railroad was trying to overcome financial difficulties across its entire system. After initially declining the plan, the Public Service Commission finally approved the cessation of passenger trains during early 1958, and the last run occurred that August. Diesels had fully replaced steam locomotives on non-electrified portions of the Putnam Division by 1951, using what are now considered classic models, such as Lima-Hamilton road-switchers, American Locomotive Company (Alco) RS2s and RS3s, and Electro-Motive GP7s and GP9s.
As a freight line, the Putnam Division was useful as a through-route for the NYC to move high and wide loads to and from New York City because it was single-tracked with a wide right-of-way that offered few obstructions. However, when the nearby River Division (the former West Shore Railroad) was single-tracked in 1959, the railroad could now use this line for such tasks. The first segment of the Old Put was severed in 1962 when the middle section from Carmel to East View was taken up (this is now today’s North County Trailway). Now no longer a through-route, the Putnam Division was slowly cut back over the following years.
The failed Penn Central merger of 1968 (between New York Central and the Pennsylvania along with the New Haven) created the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) on April 1, 1976. By that time, only the northern and southern stubs of the route were still in service; the last freight customer to be served on the northern segment was on March 14, 1970: Creed Brothers Lumber. Under Conrail, the remaining southern leg was known as the Putnam Industrial Track and switched a few freight customers in the Bronx until 1982. Today, all that remains of the New York Central’s old Putnam Division is a short segment used by the Metro-North Railroad in the Bronx and the old Brewster Yard; both sections serve little other purpose than to store cars.
Railroad attractions include the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in Utica; Catskill Mountain Railroad in Mt. Tremper; Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad in Milford; Delaware & Ulster Railroad in Arkville; Empire State Railway Museum in Phoenicia; Hyde Park Railroad Station in Hyde Park (a museum housed in the former New York Central depot); Maybrook Railroad Historical Society Museum in Maybrook; New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn; Oyster Bay Railroad Museum in Oyster Bay; Railroad Museum of Long Island in Greenport and Riverhead; and the Roscoe O&W Railway Museum in Roscoe.