Kurt Schlichting tells the tale of William J. Wilgus and the birth of modern Manhattan

Kurt Schlichting tells the tale of William J. Wilgus and the birth of modern Manhattan

by Alan Bisbort

Rhapsodies of praise will be heaped on New York’s Grand Central Terminal throughout 2013, the centennial of its opening. We will hear about architects, politicians, and business moguls who contributed to its splendor. We will hear about celebrities who arrived and departed through its gates, as well as movies, music, art, and literature inspired by the setting.

And, thanks largely to Dr. Kurt Schlicting, the E. Gerald Corrigan ’63 Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of sociology and anthropology at Fairfield, we will also hear one name among the litany perhaps for the first time — William J. Wilgus (1865-1949), chief engineer for the New York Central Railroad who proposed, planned, and initiated the 14-year undertaking that culminated with Grand Central Terminal.

It is Dr. Schlichting’s contention — persuasively argued in two books, including the new Grand Central’s Engineer ( Johns Hopkins Press) — that no person, with the possible exception of the mid-century public works mastermind Robert Moses, did more to reshape modern Manhattan than Wilgus. And no person of such stature has been more neglected in the telling of the city’s tale. In its coverage of the terminal’s grand opening of Feb. 2, 1913, the New York Times didn’t even mention his name.

“He transformed New York City as much as any person in its history,” said Dr. Schlichting. “My challenge was this: I’m not a historian or biographer, but I had to delve into his life. And his life was one big mystery.”

Dr. Schlichting’s fair-minded approach offers an off-peak excursion through the life of Wilgus and the history of Manhattan, the island that was — until 1898 when the five boroughs consolidated — New York City. When Wilgus moved to New York in 1892 after a decade of designing rail-lines and terminals in the Midwest to take an executive job with New York Central, the city was the busiest port in the world, responsible one-half of all U.S. imports and exports. Nearly all of that booty had to be moved onto and off the island by rail. Consequently, the streets of lower Manhattan and docks on the East and Hudson rivers were choked with traffic.

Wilgus was Promethean in his efforts to alleviate that congestion. Largely self-taught and extraordinarily disciplined and focused, he came of age when railroad fever gripped the nation. He earned his engineering chops not from college but as an apprentice to Marsden Davey in Buffalo, where he was born and raised. His early itinerant career — jobs across the Midwest and then back to his upstate roots in Watertown and Rome, N.Y. — caught the eye of officials of New York Central, one of the busiest and most profitable railroads in the world. Marriage to MayReed of Minneapolis, and birth of a son and daughter came along, but Wilgus was largely consumed by his railroad work and his family lived at arm’s length in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Just a partial list of the projects for which he shares responsibility makes Dr. Schlichting’s case eloquently. Besides Grand Central, Wilgus was a lead engineer for the Holland Tunnel; proposed the idea of a New York- New Jersey “Port Authority;” proposed and drew up plans for a Staten Island-Brooklyn “Narrows” Tunnel and connecting railroad (never built but still needed); proposed and drew up plans for an underground, electrified freight railroad linking lower Manhattan to rail lines in New Jersey and for an elevated railroad connecting the terminals in lower Manhattan; and proposed and drew up plans for a lower deck on the George Washington Bridge for railroads.

Before the present-day Grand Central existed, unsightly train yards stretched from 42nd to 56th streets, and Madison to Lexington avenues, and the train station itself was a dingy building considered “wretchedly cramped” and “a cruel disgrace.” The entire mid-Manhattan area was a cacophony of noise, smoke, and soot; and when steam from the engines was trapped in tunnels it created “hellish conditions” for workers and passengers, sometimes leading to fatalities.

Indeed, the crisis that made the need for a new Grand Central Terminal all the more urgent was a deadly crash and fire in 1902 that led to manslaughter charges being filed against railroad officials and the banning of steampowered trains south of the Harlem River.

Given these parameters, Wilgus decided to bury the train yard, excavating to 90 feet below street level through Manhattan’s hard rock core for a two-story underground yard. Though he really had no choice but to go electric, it had never been used on such a huge project. His decision to experiment on such a grand scale by electrifying the rails — and pitting two corporate giants, GE and Westinghouse, against each other — may have been his most far-reaching achievement. Once Wilgus showed it could be done, others followed his lead. The entire Grand Central project took 14 years to complete, at a cost of nearly $72 million.

Not only did Wilgus’s plan remove eyesores from the heart of Manhattan, it cleaned the city’s air, made travel quieter, more efficient and, ultimately, safer. Before his project, New York was a smoky mess, reminiscent of London’s “satanic mills.” With a population of 1.2 million in 1880, Manhattan was the most populous city in the U.S. (Brooklyn was the third-most populous, with 586,000.) Also, in the decade Wilgus worked on Grand Central, the city gained half a million people; parts of lower Manhattan were the most densely populated on earth.

As Schlichting writes in Grand Central’s Engineer, “Grand Central came to represent more than just a railroad facility; the new terminal stood among the great building projects that transformed New York City into the greatest city in the world.”

Left: Dr. Kurt Schlicting

Left: Dr. Kurt Schlicting

Eventually the terminal covered 6.55 acres and, with two concourses, comprised the largest interior space in New York. The entire Grand Central complex covered 70 acres and contained 33 miles of track just in its yard. The system Wilgus designed to alleviate Manhattan’s congestion is still in place and in use.

“We’ve all walked through the tunnels when we’ve gotten off trains at Grand Central,” said Dr. Schlichting, who gives occasional walking tours of the terminal and surrounding blocks, paying particular attention to what Wilgus most effectively exploited — Grand Central’s air rights. “Air rights” comprise the real estate directly above the 14 blocks of the rail yards, all of it leased by Grand Central.

“As you walk through the tunnel under Park Avenue, through the Helmsley Building, all the way to the Waldorf Astoria, literally everything below your feet is the former train yard and everything above your head is part of the Grand Central complex,” marveled Dr. Schlichting.

Dr. Schlichting did not set out to find Wilgus, but his research beat a path to the engineer’s door.

“One of my specialty areas is urban sociology,” he said. “I was working on an academic paper that no one other than maybe my mother would read when I found a reference to the William J. Wilgus Papers at New York Public Library. I made an appointment to look through the two boxes that held what I needed, but I noticed the papers contained 77 boxes. I thought, ‘There’s a story here’. I then discovered that nothing substantive had been done on Wilgus.”

“I didn’t know what was in each box as I worked on the books,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “I pulled out of one box some letters from Frank Sprague [the inventor known as the “Father of Electric Traction”] to Thomas Edison. They were just sitting there. Wilgus even wrote a 400-page autobiography that was never published and I was able to get a pdf of it.”

Dr. Schlichting was impressed with the wealth of knowledge of the library’s staff. A curator who knew he was working on the project told him about some letters from Wilgus’s son.

Here was a “Rosebud” moment, a rare intimate glimpse into the mysterious man’s life, even if Wilgus’s son’s descriptions were unflattering (he characterized his father as a bully to his family and “the saddest man in the world”). These revelations did not diminish Wilgus in Dr. Schlichting’s eyes.

“I knew there was trouble,” he said. “You could see it in the silence about his family among his papers. He didn’t even return from France for his wife’s funeral.”

In part because of Dr. Schlichting’s influence, Wilgus’s contributions were not overlooked. Wilgus is referred to on a plaque installed for the anniversary of Grand Central.

Dr. Schlichting teaches three classes per semester, focusing on statistical analysis in the fall and research methods in the spring. He believes passionately in “applied social research,” because “you can’t learn by reading about something in a book.”

Dr. Schlichting now uses the New York Public Library as a destination for his classes. Two of his students, senior sociology majors Julianna Merrill ’13 and Patrick Cooney ’13, are doing independent study there, examining the records of the Committee of Fourteen, which was formed to fight vice in New York around the time Wilgus was working on Grand Central.

“The committee sent investigators to illegal speakeasies, brothels, and other dens of iniquity,” said Dr. Schlichting. “It’s not just the vice we’re studying but the particularview of vice that’s of interest. There was a sense that these people were not and never would be ‘real Americans.’ The disorder and dissolution were seen as their personal failings. It’s the same negative stereotypes the Irish faced 150 years ago, as has every subsequent wave of immigrants.”

Another of Dr. Schlichting’s specialties is historical digital mapping. “Using maps, we’ll re-create the neighborhoods where the Committee of Fourteen said the vice took place. We’ll look at census records to determine how crowded the neighborhoods were and what immigrant populations lived there. This is primary research that is normally done by graduate students but my undergraduates are doing it.”

His classes are also working on a project for the mayor’s office in Bridgeport, creating digital maps of the city. “This work serves two purposes. The students learn about applying research and they are helping others, which is something that’s expected at Fairfield.”

Dr. Schlichting grew up in Fairfield, and earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology at Fairfield, where he was mentored by the legendary Arthur Anderson. Just as his Wilgus research relied on firsthand sources, Dr. Schlichting’s interest in New York City came through firsthand experience.

“It was a big deal to go with friends into ‘the City’,” said Dr. Schlichting who, after leaving Fairfield, moved to Manhattan to earn his master’s and Ph.D. at New York University. It proved to be an entirely different experience to live there, on East 12th Street, at a time of economic decline.

“The East Village was dangerous, dirty, and decrepit then,” he said. Now he goes into the city to visit his daughter and niece, both of whom happily live in Manhattan, and is amazed.

“This same area is crowded with pedestrians, like a block party all the time,” he said. “It was a miracle that no one predicted.”

During his 30-plus years at Fairfield University, Dr. Schlichting has been an associate dean and an acting dean and, for the past five years, he has been the E. Gerald Corrigan ’63 Chair in Humanities and Social Studies and director of the Corrigan Scholars Program.

“It’s an honor,” he said. “The endowment established by Jerry Corrigan allows four or five students each year to be designated Corrigan Scholars. They must be first-generation college attendees who need financial aid. I find colleagues to serve as their mentors and it has really worked out well for our professors as well as our students.”