by Evan Bindelglass, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – As we continue our tour of spots in New York that are off limits to the general public, what better place to profile than the Grand Central Terminal, which just celebrated its centennial.
Grand Central Terminal is the world’s largest rail terminal. It covers 49 acres, going from 42nd Street all the way up to 97th Street, with Park Avenue essentially built on much of its roof.
It’s among the six most visited sites in New York City. Every day, 750,000 people go through Grand Central, but about 200,000 of them don’t ever board a train. Many people just go there for lunch or a tour – but not like this one.
Metro-North Railroad’s Dan Brucker served as tour guide.
People will immediately recognize the massive arched windows on the east and west sides of the main concourse. Running behind those huge windows are a series of catwalks at various levels, mostly for maintenance (and the odd lucky journalist).
The view from the fifth floor catwalk on the east side is impressive.
SKYLIGHTS FROM ABOVE
Among the beauties of Grand Central are the various bare-bulb chandeliers. Here are the chandeliers along the south side of the main concourse, hanging below skylights.
Here is what the skylights look like from above.
METRO-NORTH MASTER CONTROL ROOM
It is from this room that the entire railroad is kept on track. Brucker said the people in this room know where every single piece of equipment is. If a train has a maintenance issue is, they know exactly where to find its replacement.
Behind master control is a series of ladders and narrow passages that lead to a one-of-a-kind work of art and time-keeping.
Eight stories over 42nd Street is the iconic clock. It is the largest example of Tiffany glass at 13 feet in diameter.
Around the clock are the gods and goddesses that represent a railroad and how to run a railroad correctly. As Brucker said, there is Mercury for “swiftness of speed” and “for industry.” Hercules, known for his strength, is also there, as is Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.
It looks great from the outside, but stepping inside it was like something out of the movie “Hugo.”
The “VI” is actually a window that opens out on to Park Avenue South and, if you’re not too big, you can stick your head out!
Our visit was timed so we could see the hand swing past the open window.
This is a perspective you can only get from up there.
190 feet below the lower level, which is itself three stories below street level, is a space that you won’t see on any map. It’s called the M42 sub-basement.
During World War II, from end to end of a space the size of the main concourse, were massive AC to DC rotary converters which provided power to the terminal.
This power station was vital to the war effort and were it taken out, it would have crippled 80 percent of troop and materiel movements in the northeast.
Adolf Hitler even sent four Nazi spies to infiltrate the rail system, but authorities found their luggage and tracked them down. Two were executed and two were spared. They were released from prison in 1956.
These are the circuit breakers.
Take a look at the size of some of the tools used down there. The big ones are roughly two feet long.
In 1913, there was a nascent “computer” system built to keep track of the location of trains in the tunnels going in and out of the terminal.
In 1922, the system was made obsolete by voice-radio communications, but it was decided then to leave it as it was for generations to come to see.
The ticker tape is still loaded.
LOST AND FOUND
According to Metro-North Railroad, their lost and found is the most successful lost and found in the world. They have an 80 percent return rate.
Every item is bagged and tagged, with all of the details.
They get everything there, including model train sets.
Brucker said that if there is no name on an item, such as a backpack, they will search through it. If, for example, they find a stack of business cards, they will call the numbers on those business cards asking if the people know someone with a backpack like that.
Brucker said that they get over 300 cell phones a month, for which they claim a 100 percent return rate. They will charge up the phones and, if they can’t find information on the owner, they will call numbers in the contact list.
He also said they often find artificial legs. The railroad serves a number of veterans hospitals and some of the veterans aren’t used to the new limbs. So, they use their cane or crutches to get off the train and forget their new legs, Brucker said.
Sometimes people even leave their dogs on the train.
They keep items for 90 days. What isn’t reclaimed is sold to a salvation-type luggage store, for which they usually get about $40,000 a year.
Brucker said that once a little old lady who had lost a hand-engraved sterling silver urn came to the lost and found. She gave the number of the individual train car and claimed her item, but returned five minutes later.
The woman explained she’d had a less-than-successful 50-year marriage, and her husband would disappear at night, Brucker said. In the morning, the husband would call from the office and claim he had fallen asleep on the train, which was locked in the yard. So, he said he had to stay there for the night. As Brucker told it, the woman said she knew her husband hadn’t spent his nights in the train yard.
So, when he died, she had him cremated, left his ashes in that sterling silver urn and put them aboard his regular train. She then wrote down the car number and let them sit in the lost and found for three weeks before reclaiming them, Brucker said.
Next to the Oyster Bar is the Whispering Gallery, one of Grand Central’s many secrets that are actually out in the open. By looking at it, you might now know that it’s anything special. But it is.
If you stand in the corner and someone stands in the opposite corner, despite the ambient noise, you can hear each other simply by whispering.
THE ROCKET HOLE
If you look up at the October Zodiac ceiling of the main concourse, by Pisces the fish, you’ll see what looks like a badly patched hole. But that hole has a story.
In an effort to convince the public that it was necessary to spend billions of dollars exploring outer space, in 1957, a Redstone rocket was put on display in the main concourse.
It was six inches too tall for the ceiling. So, they had to punch a hole in the ceiling to allow the rocket to stand. Now that hole serves as a piece of history and is used for rigging equipment during film shoots.
Speaking of the zodiac, did you know that the entire star field is backwards? That’s because of an error by the muralist, Brucker said.
When the Vanderbilts, who ran the New York Central and Hudson River Railroads and built the terminal, learned of the mistake, what did they do? They didn’t have it fixed, for it would have been costly and embarrassing, Brucker explained. When asked they said it was done on purpose to show the stars from God’s vantage point, Brucker said.
NEWSPAPER RECYCLING BINS
You’ll find many newspaper recycling bins around the terminal.
Paper recycling bins were first installed with no fanfare about two decades ago. The first day, they had five tons of paper. Six months later, they expected to have more, but, in fact, they had less – only four tons.
What happened? It turned out that people were reaching into the bins and taking the discarded newspapers and rereading them, Brucker said.
Well, a certain newspaper got wind of this and was none too happy and demanded lids be installed to prevent what the railroad called “secondary recycling.” The railroad refused to spend the money. So, that newspaper now maintains the bins, with lids (but without a logo), and has a contract to do so in perpetuity just to prevent people from getting free newspapers, Brucker said.
THE OPAL CLOCK
The opal-sided clock atop the information booth has been valued at between $10 and $20 million, Brucker said.