Before the Metro-North, There Was The New York, Westchester & Boston Railway

The New York, Westchester & Boston Railway preceded Westchester’s great postwar building boom.



Above: The exquisite White Plains Terminal (shown in 1912) at the intersection of Westchester Avenue and Bloomingdale Road (current site of The Westchester Mall) was the largest station on the NYW&B line.

Photo courtesy of GEORGE E. VOTAVA PHOTO, ROBERT A. BANG COLLECTION

For 25 years, the fast and swank green cars of the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company spirited Westchester commuters into and out of New York City on smooth, state-of-the-art railbeds.

Starting in 1912 and running until 1937, when debt and bankruptcy dragged it under the wheels, the pioneering suburban railroad transported an average of 26,000 passengers a day from Southern and Central Westchester into New York.

It ran from the southernmost part of the South Bronx, near the Harlem River, up to Mount Vernon, with branches north to White Plains and east to Port Chester. When conceived, the railroad was eventually headed to Boston, but it never got farther north than Westchester County.

The New York, Westchester & Boston Railway Company (NYW&B) dates back to 1872, when it was incorporated to serve areas north of New York City and connect the Bronx with Westchester County, where real estate deals were beginning to flourish. But the Panic of 1873 sank it financially, and the company remained dormant until 1904, when it began acquiring real estate rights for its route and preliminary construction.

 


The railroad issued weekly tickets for travel from various zones to the Bronx.

Photo courtesy of OTTO M. VONDRAK

 

Its investors, who included J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller, wanted to take advantage of the expected suburban population boom of people who would be moving north out of New York City. It was a golden age of railroad travel, and the NYW&B wanted to be ready for a dramatic surge in passenger traffic.

Right from the start, operational expenses for the railroad were quite high, costing more than $1.2 million a mile to build — an extraordinary amount in 1910. No public roads were crossed at grade, requiring the construction of costly bridges, tunnels, and viaducts and carefully cut and filled railbeds for the smoothest possible ride. The railroad also built high platforms to allow for comfortable passenger boarding.

The stations and ticket offices were architecturally exquisite, made of cast concrete and terra-cotta tiles, with marble interiors and vaulted ceilings. Some were built exclusively for the NYW&B line, and some were shared with the New Haven Railroad. Even though many facilities were still under construction, the new railroad opened for service on May 29, 1912, in the sparsely populated area from West Farms Square in the Bronx up to North Avenue in New Rochelle. On July 5, the western line of tracks opened to White Plains.

The self-propelled fast trains featured powerful and quiet Motorola motors and sleek green cars with plush interiors and comfortable seating for 78 passengers — all for 40 cents for a trip from the White Plains or Port Chester stations to the Harlem River station, according to New Rochelle city historian Barbara Davis.

The all-electric line gradually made its way north, with tracks completed from North Avenue in New Rochelle to Larchmont in 1921 and Mamaroneck in 1926, followed by Harrison in 1927, Rye in 1928, and Port Chester in 1929. In the early years, the line, known to its riders as the “Boston Westchester” or just “the Westchester,” gradually increased its passenger load, going from 2.9 million in 1913 to 6.3 million in 1920 to more than 14 million riders in 1928, its most successful year. But in all its years, the railroad never managed to turn a profit or attract additional investments.

 


A rapid transit car headed to the Gedney Way Station in White Plains.

Photo courtesy of GEORGE E. VOTAVA PHOTO, ROBERT A. BANG COLLECTION

 

It was thought that commuters would trade the direct ride to Grand Central Terminal that other commuter rail lines offered for a lower fare into the Bronx, where they would pay five cents to transfer to the elevated IRT Third Avenue Line into Manhattan. But the numbers never added up, and the NYW&B headed toward bankruptcy in the mid-1930s, felled by the rise of the automobile and the Great Depression that put a damper on the expected rapid development of the wealthy suburbs north of the city. That anticipated construction boom and explosive growth of the suburbs didn’t materialize until after World War II, too late for the NYW&B.

The last trains of the bankrupt railroad company left the station just before midnight on December 31, 1937.

Three years later, despite legislative and legal efforts to restore service, wrecking crews began dismantling the system in 1940. Most of the concrete bridges were torn down, and the rails, steel bridges, and electrical distribution system were dismantled to provide steel and copper for the war effort.

Some municipalities took over the NYW&B’s well-graded and smooth railway beds as compensation for back taxes and paved them into roads, including Scarsdale's Heathcote bypass. A few stations were repurposed by the municipalities or sold as private residences, but most were left to rot and ruin.

One important stretch of the old NYW&B railroad remains. In 1940, New York City bought the four-mile segment from East 180th Street to Dyre Avenue and incorporated it into the new subway system, adding much-needed rail service to the East Bronx as part of the IRT No. 5 line.

For more information on the NYW&B, visit www.nywbry.com


Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.

 

 

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