The Putnam Railroad’s Journey From Train Line to Rail Trail

Photo by Adobe Stock | nadianb

Once New York Central’s stepchild, the erstwhile Putnam Railroad is now a popular rail trail for bikers and walkers in the Hudson Valley.

Victims of the automobile, “ghost railroads” are common throughout the U.S. One of them, the Putnam Branch of the New York Central Railroad, was a familiar part of the scene in Westchester County, Putnam County, and the Northwest Bronx for more than 100 years.

The “Old Put” was antiquated even for its era. Most of its route had only one track; it ran steam engines until 1951, and some stations were lit by kerosene lanterns as late as 1952.

The line, originally the New York City and Northern, was built in 1879–80, in an era of intense railroad speculation. It went bust, reorganized as the New York and Northern, went belly-up again and was bought by the New York Central in 1894.

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The Old Put’s first terminal was 155th Street in Manhattan, but that was changed in 1918 to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx for a new connection with the since-demolished Ninth Avenue elevated line. The Put ran alongside the New York Central’s (now Metro-North’s) Hudson Division for a stretch in the Bronx, then proceeded north through Van Cortlandt Park and into Tibbets Brook Park. It paralleled today’s Saw Mill River Parkway in Southern Westchester and ran north to Elmsford, Yorktown Heights, Lake Mahopac, and finally Brewster.

putnam railroad
North County Trail’s bridge over New Croton Reservoir. | Photo by Sherman Cahal/Adobe Stock

A Getty Square Branch, which diverged from the Put’s mainline in Van Cortlandt Park and headed to downtown Yonkers, was the Put’s only service to be converted to electric operation. It was an early casualty, ending service in 1943. The City of Yonkers tried to stop the abandonment, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Originally, the Put traversed the Rockefellers’ Pocantico Hills estate. But, in 1930, John D. Rockefeller Jr., fed up with its smoke-belching steam trains, paid New York Central to reroute the Put around his land. To make room for the bypass, the multimillionaire purchased the entire hamlet of Eastview and paid about 150 residents and a Christian Brothers winery to relocate.

In the 1950s, ridership declined. Most of the Put’s stations lacked adequate parking, so some riders switched to the faster, more modern Harlem and Hudson lines. Above all, because the Put wasn’t electrified (diesel had replaced steam), Grand Central-bound commuters had to endure an inconvenient transfer to Hudson Division trains at Highbridge in the Bronx. After back-and-forth with state regulators, the New York Central ended passenger service on the Put in May 1958.

Freight service continued, however. There were lots of busy customers, including an Elmsford A&P warehouse, Stauffer Chemical in Ardsley, and many in Yonkers’ industrial area. Eventually, trucking made inroads, and service was gradually cut back, beginning with the northernmost sections. Conrail, which inherited the line from the Penn Central in 1976, allowed the roadbed to deteriorate. The last customer, in the early ’80s, was famed cookie baker Stella D’oro.

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