Finally got around to checking out the Grand Central documentary on PBS from the other night. It’s terrific, offering a painstakingly detailed look at the railroad’s transformation from steam to electric, Grand Central’s rivalry with that Joisey-accented west side upstart, Penn Station, and the sad tale of William Wilgus, the civil engineer who designed the transit system we know and love today.
There’s no shortage of tragedy in the tale, including the horrific crash of 1902, as the White Plains express blew through red lights and horns and hammered an idling train from New Rochelle in the Grand Central tunnel, killing 15. Photos of the old New Rochelle train station, looking something like a country farmhouse, are pretty cool.
Not long after the system was switched to electric–1907 or so–a train headed for White Plains jumped the track at Woodlawn, killing 20.
The doc also explains Wilgus’s concept of “taking wealth from the air” and selling the air rights above Grand Central to finance the project, the first documented case of selling air rights.
Sadly, Wilgus gets thrown under the bus by railroad brass after the Woodlawn incident. He was deemed “culpably negligent” because the crippling weight of the train’s engines caused the rails to widen; later designs better distributed the weight.
A variety of talking heads, from architects to historians to the esteemed writer Susan Eddy, who happens to be the Missus’s old boss, offer intriguing perspective. But I couldn’t help but wonder–how did they not have our own Engine Bob sharing Grand Central stuff that no one else knows?