Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 1917

Syracuse Herald, March 21, 1917
As Syracuse approaches the 75th anniversary of the elevation of the railroad tracks, this blog will revisit the history leading up to this most divisive decision. Call it (Dis)Union Station, if you will.
After taking a break from this series for over a month, I had to refresh my memory on where we were in the timeline of grade crossing elimination in Syracuse. This was not a problem for Syracuse residents in April 1917, as they were where they had been for close to two decades: trains running through the center of the city, gruesome accidents, and every mayoral candidate promising to be the one to solve the issue. In a 1915 campaign speech, eventual winner Walter Stone stated that he “expected to see the abolishment of grade crossings during the coming two years.” (Syracuse Herald, October 7, 1915).

Stone’s first action to make this revolutionary change finally happen? Hire the person most closely associated with the grade crossing project for the previous thirty years: Henry C. Allen.

Henry Clayton Allen first worked as an assistant to the City Engineer in 1886, and took over the post four years later at the age of 26 under Mayor William Cowie. Cowie had been one of the early mayors to express his concerns about the grade crossing problem:

Mayor Cowie said that the question under consideration was one of great interest to the city. The most important thing was “to get the New York Central out of the heart of the town,” and a committee of influential citizens should be appointed to wait upon the railroad authorities and see if they couldn’t learn what they proposed doing in the matter. (The Evening Herald, May 1, 1891)

Six months later, these “influential citizens” apparently consisted of Mayor Cowie alone entering into an agreement with the New York Central Railroad to “make improvements on Washington Street in return for releasing the Central company forever after from its present obligations”:

Mayor Cowie returned yesterday and was called upon this morning by a Herald reporter. He said that he went to New York on private business, but incidentally he called at the general offices of the New York Central railroad company, where he had a conference with President Chauncey M. Depew, H. Walter Webb and others of the road relative to their intentions in regards to the improvements asked for by the people of Syracuse. Regarding the result of the conference, the Mayor said:

“They are ready to go ahead and pave Washington Street as proposed by the city. This means a sandstone pavement on a concrete foundation from Franklin Street to Crouse Avenue, to be laid under the supervision of the City Engineer...I say they are ready to go on with this work at once. I came away thoroughly convinced of one thing, and that is that the company has no idea of abandoning Washington Street. 

“It can readily be seen from this expression,” continued the Mayor, “that the company have no idea of moving their tracks, and, as we cannot drive them out of the street, the next best thing, in my judgment, is to get all we can out of them. I have been hammering at them all summer with the hopes of getting some sort of a settlement, and when I found that they would accept my proposition, I thought it was a good bargain, and so did some of the leading property owners.” (Evening Herald, November 20, 1891)

Though he had been city engineer under Mayor Cowie, and later Mayor Amos, who finalized the paving agreement (which absolved the railroad from any further responsibilities until 1917), Allen soon became the leading figure associated with plans to eliminate the tracks from Washington Street.  By 1915, he had served as City Engineer under Mayors Fobes and Schoeneck, and as Grade Crossing Commission Engineer during the Will administration. Under Mayor Stone, Allen would hold both titles simultaneously. Hoping to break the stronghold that Allen held over the grade crossing planning for the previous thirty years, Mayor Will, in his final days in office, set aside funds for the hiring of an expert to study the problem.

Bion J. Arnold certainly had the credentials to serve as an outside consultant; he had devised plans for Chicago and New York regarding the electrification of their rail systems. Of course, such expert advice came at a price: not only Arnold’s $250/day fees, but a long delay in the review process:

Over thirty different possible solutions of the grade crossing problem in this city are being considered by B.J. Arnold and his assistants.  It is expected that he will be able to report upon what he considers the best within the next few weeks.

The many different solutions which Mr. Arnold is considering do not necessarily mean that he will recommend any solution different from the one adopted by the Grade Crossing Commission which contemplates the use of the Erie and Oswego canal beds. It does mean, however, that Mr. Arnold is conducting thorough investigation into the situation here.

Mr. Bibbins [Arnold's assistant] said that he could not explain which solution Mr. Arnold favors, but that it would only be a matter of a short time before the decision is made. The report will be sent directly to Mayor Stone and Mr. Allen. (Syracuse Herald, July 2, 1916)

In fact, Arnold did not submit his findings until January 1917, a full year after his hiring. As mayors only held office for two-year terms, such a delay cost valuable time when grade crossing elimination formed a central component of candidates’ platforms. Luckily for Mayor Stone, Arnold’s report agreed with Allen’s earlier opinions regarding both the New York Central and Lackawanna tracks:

The so-called dual plan A-X is recommended by Bion J. Arnold, of Chicago, expert engineer, in his report on grade crossing elimination in Syracuse, submitted to the Grade Crossing Commission. This plan provides for:

Elevating Lackawanna tracks along or near present right of way under certain stipulations.

Depressing New York Central tracks in the Erie Canal from the eastern city line to the junction with the Erie Canal, then northwesterly on the line of the West Shore, with certain modifications.

A depressed passenger station for all New York Central traffic located along Belden Avenue west of the Oswego Canal with station headhouse near the junction of West Genesee and North West Streets.

Mr. Arnold practically accepts the plan prepared by city engineer H.C. Allen. (Syracuse Herald, January 26, 1917)1

With this plan confirmed as the best option, Mayor Stone worked to have a new Syracuse Grade Crossing Bill passed by the state:

The Syracuse grade crossing bill is expected to become a law within a week. Advanced to a third reading yesterday in the Assembly, it will be finally passed on Monday next. Governor Whitman will sign it soon after and before many weeks the people of Syracuse will actually see work started on the grade crossing elimination. 

Under the bill the city is permitted to start the work. At the end of the year the grade crossing commission will submit a list of the expenditures involved to the public service commission, which, as a board of audit, will scrutinize the figures and determine how much of the money has been spent in actual grade crossing elimination. It will then pro rata the cost, reimbursing the city for money spent in the work assessing the State one-fourth, the city one-fourth and the railroad one-half. (Syracuse Herald, April 4, 1917)

There was also a late amendment added that required a public hearing and Common Council approval of any plans that involved track elevation. The amendment had been added under the pressure of the Syracuse Real Estate Association and various neighborhood improvement groups who were against the planned elevation of the Lackawanna tracks through the southern section of the city:

With the plan of eliminating the Central tracks at grade by the partial utilization of the Erie Canal channel our Syracuse readers are now familiar. No objection to it that is worthy of serious consideration has been heard. It is generally regarded, we believe, as the best solution, from the engineering point of view, of the Central problem, as well as the least expensive. 

The same cannot be said of the proposal to remove the Lackawanna tracks from grade by the expedient of an elevated structure. This has encountered resolute opposition among the people most directly concerned. The Herald has contended that this feature of the plan should not be pressed in the face of a determined, and as we believe, formidable antagonism. It may be questioned whether any proposed measure of relief of the grade crossing nuisance which involves a bitter grievance to the residents of a populous section of the city would be preferable to existing conditions. (Syracuse Herald editorial, April 18, 1917).

When the bill was finally signed by Governor Charles Whitman on May 16, 1917, the Herald announced that “plans for the elimination of crossings at grade have been started and the work will now be rushed in every way possible.” Except, as they noted a month earlier in their editorial, without ownership of the Erie Canal lands, there was no way possible:

We must, however, possess our souls in patience a while longer. The actual launching of our great enterprise of grade crossing elimination must await the abandonment and alienation of the canal bed by the State. That may come a twelvemonth hence, or perhaps a little more than a twelvemonth; but the time is so relatively short that it will seem like a single circuit of the clock compared with our long years of tribulation and patient endurance. (April 18, 1917)

Their patient endurance would continue to be tested, as "a little more than a twelvemonth" stretched into nineteen years.

1. The Arnold report also discussed improvements for the city as a whole, such as connecting Lodi Street to Walnut Street. Arnold also suggested that "every artificial barrier to the expansion of the present business should be discouraged." Read the report here.