The old New York Central station at Millwood, New York, stood at this location for 54 years after the last passenger train departed on May 29, 1958. Suffering through years of benign neglect by its owner, the building finally succumbed to a demolition order on May 9, 2012. Not a trace remains in this view looking north the day after. The former right of way now carries the North County Rail Trail. Photo by Otto M. Vondrak
Erased... From existence!*
By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos as noted
Here today, gone tomorrow.
No truer words have been spoken, especially in the world of railroading. Over the last 75 years or so, the railroad industry has merged and contracted, abandoning redundant lines and shedding excess infrastructure. No longer does every town in America have a depot, those days are long behind us. More often than not, the local train station has been sold off and repurposed for some other use. Some live on as ice cream stands and coffee shops, or depending on the size, libraries and community centers. Some continue to make their living as office space, while still others service as unique residences.
Millwood station in better days (possibly the late 1940s), along the Putnam Division of the New York Central in rural Westchester County. This view is looking south. Photo by Frank Schlegel
Then there are the unlucky ones. You know which ones I'm talking about. Forlorn and forgotten, they fade away at the edge of town. They have been there so long, most people don't even notice the dilapidated structure quietly waiting out eternity. Too far gone to save, yet too expensive to worry about tearing down, they sit. And wait.
New York Central's Putnam Division started out life as a part of a competing inland route to Boston in the 1880's, more than 40 years after other railroad routes had been established through suburban Westchester and the Hudson Valley. After successive boom and bust, this 50 mile Bronx-to-Brewster branchline was acquired by the New York Central in 1894. With its single-track main snaking its way through the small towns in the Saw Mill River Valley controlled by telegraph and train order and lit with kerosene, the Putnam Division was considered an antique even by the standards of the early 20th century, an antithesis of everything the modern New York Central tried to project.
Millwood station was originally constructed for Briarcliff Manor, the next station south. It was constructed in 1880 and followed a standard design. A wealthy local businessman donated an elaborate English Tudor-styled station to serve Briarcliff Manor in 1909, so the railroad moved the old wooden structure north to Millwood, to serve as a replacement for the depot that burned down a few years prior. Up until that point, the replacement station at Millwood consisted of an old baggage car that was later used as the freight house.
In his 2010 essay "Temples to a Forgotten Religion: The American Railway Depot," author Alexander Craghead related how depots are not often situated in a way that makes them likely candidates for redevelopment. Depots are part of the railroad landscape, so they face the tracks (that often times are no longer there), and usually offer little in the way of parking space. What's more, the symbolism of the depot is often lost on the current generation trying to save it. When they were originally built, the train station served as the outpost of a large corporation that promised prosperity to all who drew near. Now those looking to save the old depot only look upon it as a symbol of days gone past, or as Craghead put it, "a visual reminder of America before modernity."
An impassioned plea scrawled on the side of Millwood station said, "The trains don't stop here any more. Save me, I'm your history." While the structure could not be saved, there has been some talk of building a replica nearby to serve those using the bike trail. Photo by Emily Moser
Growing up in Westchester, I drove by this depot countless times over the years. My first encounter was probably when I was 12 years old, and I had just learned that this railroad had once existed. However, when you're 12, history books are often difficult to absorb and comprehend. I demanded proof that this railroad actually existed beyond the photos I saw in this book. My dad thought he rememebred this old depot still standing, so we piled into the car to find out. Twenty minutes down the road, I was face to face with this survivor from the distant past. By the time of my visit in 1990, the old Millwood station was wearing a coat of red paint with white trim, and the tracks were long gone, only marked by a streak of cinders running across the lot. I inspected every inch of this structure, and touched it with my own hands. Even in its abandoned condition, it was a real, tangible connection to the past. It left an impression on me.
In the densely settled suburbia that is Westchester County, open land is at a premium. Other examples of stations from the Putnam Division succumbed years ago, with the exception of Elmsford (a restaurant), Briarcliff Manor (a library), and Yorktown Heights (a shuttered restoration). As the town continued to grow up around it, Millwood station stood as a reminder of an earlier time. Each year the paint would fade a little more, but essentially it stood unchanged year after year, waiting for a savior. Some attempts were made over the years, but nothing coordinated came to fruition. It seemed that Millwood station would be forever trapped in a sort of purgatory, neither living nor truly dead.
With the recent death of the property owner, the town began to voice its concern over the property and talk of demolition began. At first they were whispers, so it was hard to follow. A year of off-and-on debate took place in the local papers, with the town pushing for the structure's removal. By May of 2012, a demolition permit had been applied for, and before we could fully comprehend what was happening, news of the station's demise was published on May 10. I was in disbelief as the station had been a fixture in that location for as long as I knew. That weekend I headed up to Millwood, to view the remains, to get closure. My heart sank when I turned the corner and found no trace of my old friend. The site had been carefully cleaned up, the contents hauled away in a dumpster. If not for the nearby historical plaque along the rail trail, you'd never know there had been a depot there.
I tried to hold a wake, but with little more than memories and no one with whom to share them, I said my peace and moved on, reminded of the temporary nature of life and the ever-changing landscape of American railroading.
*Apologies to Doc Brown from the 1985 movie "Back to the Future."