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Grand Central's Engineer

William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan

Kurt C. Schlichting

Publication Year: 2012

Few people have had as profound an impact on the history of New York City as William J. Wilgus. As chief engineer of the New York Central Railroad, Wilgus conceived the Grand Central Terminal, the city’s magnificent monument to America’s Railway Age. Kurt C. Schlichting here examines the remarkable career of this innovator, revealing how his tireless work moving people and goods over and under Manhattan Island’s surrounding waterways forever changed New York’s bustling transportation system. After his herculean efforts on behalf of Grand Central, the most complicated construction project in New York’s history, Wilgus turned to solving the city’s transportation quandary: Manhattan—the financial, commercial, and cultural hub of the United States in the twentieth century—was separated from the mainland by two major rivers to the west and east, a deep-water estuary to the south, and the Harlem River to the north. Wilgus believed that railroads and mass transportation provided the answer to New York City’s complicated geography. His ingenious ideas included a freight subway linking rail facilities in New Jersey with manufacturers and shippers in Manhattan, a freight and passenger tunnel connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn, and a belt railway interconnecting sixteen private railroads serving the metropolitan area. Schlichting’s deep passion for Wilgus and his engineering achievements are evident in the pages of this fascinating work. Wilgus was a true pioneer, and Schlichting ensures that his brilliant contributions to New York City’s transportation system will not be forgotten.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science

Front Matter

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pp. xi-xii

William J. Wilgus left a mark on the City of New York. His masterpiece, Grand Central Terminal and the underground train yard, forever changed midtown Manhattan and created a “Terminal City” surrounding the new facility opened in February 1913. Soon all of New York and the country will celebrate Grand Central’s 100th anniversary. When Wilgus...

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pp. 1-10

On Sunday, February 2, 1913, the New York Times devoted an entire special section of the newspaper to the opening of the new Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street. A lead on the second page hailed the New York Central Railroad for “Solving Greatest Terminal Problem of the Age.”1 The paper...

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CHAPTER ONE. New York City’s Geography and Transportation Challenges

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pp. 11-41

When William Wilgus arrived in New York City in 1897 to work in the corporate headquarters of the New York Central Railroad, the transportation system of the city and the harbor had grown into a complex, intertwined, and unruly monster. A thriving city and metropolitan region of over twelve million people surrounded...

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CHAPTER TWO. The Brilliance of Grand Central

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pp. 42-73

William Wilgus achieved meteoric success with the New York Central Railroad. In June of 1893 he joined the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad in upstate New York, a subsidiary of the Central. Wilgus reorganized the company’s engineering records and undertook a careful examination...

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CHAPTER THREE. New York’s Freight Problem

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pp. 74-105

After dramatically resigning from the New York Central Railroad in September of 1907, Wilgus began a second career as engineering consultant. With an old friend, Henry J. Pierce, also a railroad engineer and executive with whom Wilgus had worked...

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CHAPTER FOUR. Expanding the Subway in Manhattan

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pp. 106-140

New York’s transportation challenges extended beyond the need for roads and rail lines tying the city with the rest of the country and with the city’s growing suburban areas on Long Island, in Westchester County, and across the Hudson in northern New Jersey. Over...

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CHAPTER FIVE. World War and Ideas for a New York–New Jersey “Port Authority”

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pp. 141-185

Despite his disappointing failure to obtain a franchise for either the small-car freight subway or the Inter-Terminal Belt Line, Wilgus found success consulting for the railroads in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toledo, Georgia, Chicago, and elsewhere throughout the country. He found that the work...

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CHAPTER SIX. Making Room for the Automobile: The Holland Tunnel

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pp. 186-218

Tunneling under rivers began in England in 1842, when Marc Isambard Brunel, after over nine years of effort, completed a tunnel under the Thames River in London. Brunel patented his “shield” method for constructing a tunnel under a riverbed through mud and...

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CHAPTER SEVEN. Joining Staten Island to New York City: The Narrows Tunnel

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pp. 219-244

While serving as chairman of the Board of Consulting Engineers for the Holland Tunnel, Wilgus continued his consulting practice. Among his most lucrative assignments were valuations of railroads to support applications to the Interstate Commerce Commission for rate increases. Among these was a valuation...

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pp. 245-256

William Wilgus left a detailed chronicle of his professional life for posterity. His voluminous papers fill over one hundred boxes in the manuscripts collection of the New York Public Library. He overlooked no memo, telegram, or newspaper clipping; his papers include...


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pp. 257-266


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pp. 267-276

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406954
E-ISBN-10: 1421406950
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421403021
Print-ISBN-10: 1421403021

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 31 b&w illus., 21 maps
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science
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OCLC Number: 794700801
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Grand Central's Engineer

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Subject Headings

  • Civil engineers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Grand Central Terminal (New York, N.Y.).
  • Manhattan (New York, N.Y.) -- Buildings, structures, etc. -- History -- 20th century.
  • Transportation engineering -- New York Metropolitan Area -- History -- 20th century.
  • Wilgus, William J. (William John), 1865-1949.
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