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

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.

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