We were recently lucky enough to speak with a former New York Central Railroad employee named Ed Devlin. Sixty years ago, Ed worked at the rail yards that fed onto the High Line when it was part of a working railroad. He was kind enough to share his memories from long before the park in the sky was ever known as the High Line.
ED: It was 1949, and I had just come out of the Marine Corps. I worked at New York Central from 1949 to 1953. My hours were 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM – devastating hours for a newlywed. Approximately once a week, I'd be sent over to the rail yards at 10th to 12th Avenue in the west 70's. My job was just to look at the freight train as it went by.
I would stand there near a spotlight and do two things. I had to write down the name of each freight car – New York Central, Bangor & Maine, Pennsylvania Railroad, Santa Fe, etc. – and the number on the car, which had something like nine or ten digits. And even though the train was moving at maybe eight or nine miles an hour, it went by fast. It was tricky. I had to remember the names and numbers and write quickly.
At first I wondered why I was doing this. And then I found out that each railroad would charge the other railroads a passage fee for using their tracks. Additionally, it was important to make sure the cars were in the right order for every building scheduled for the drop. The cars' numbers related to their proper order.
JB: Where did the trains come from?
ED: The freight trains ran on an incredible on-time system much, much better than the passenger trains, because they had the right-of-way on the tracks. The meat train would come out of Chicago and reach Selkirk, New York. At that point they would break the train up and make smaller trains going to Montreal, Boston, and New York City. That section of the train would pull into the yard, and that's when I would count and record.
At the time, I didn't realize how complicated it was how the system was perfectly designed to feed the city. It was perpetually on-time, right from Chicago into the bowels of the city.
What was fascinating about it, as the tracks went downtown they would go through buildings, under buildings, become elevated at a certain point. In my day, I don't ever remember it being called the "High Line". We didn't use that term "High Line." It was just the railroad New York Central.
JB: Can you remember any specific stories from your night shift at the rail yards?
ED: I was over there in the yards one winter night, and I was freezing to death. This man came alongside of me and we said hello to each other. And it turned out that he was a rabbi. He was looking for a specific car, name and number, to make the beef kosher. We waited together in the cold for his car. And when the car finally came by, he made a symbolic gesture - it was instantaneous. He did what he had to do and got out of there. He was freezing too, the poor guy.
Another little story, each train had brakemen at the back of the last car, two guys, there was no caboose. It was their job to cut off the car while it was moving, exactly at the proper building location where the goods were due. After a few years, the brakemen got to know me and invited me for a ride. Of course! I jumped right onto the engine and rode the train all the way downtown and back. I thought it was great!