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.

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