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Drawing showing names of railroad stations and railroad curvature.
NYC & HRRR alignment diagram. Diagram showing the alignment of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad’s tracks in the Bronx, where a 1907 derailment resulted in the deaths of 25 passengers. Box 7, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

William Wilgus: Progress, Loss, and a Divided Manuscript Collection

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This post is coauthored by Tal Nadan, reference archivist at The New York Public Library, and Josh Levy, historian of science and technology at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

William J. Wilgus (1865-1949) was one of the most accomplished civil engineers of his time, and a man who believed deeply in the power of progress.

As chief engineer of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, Wilgus dreamed big. His biggest project was a redesign of Grand Central Terminal, one that shifted a 14-block railyard underground, electrified its tracks, sold the air rights above, and directed two levels of rail traffic into the terminal without interrupting service. But his biggest dream, of ascending to the presidency of New York Central, was derailed by a dramatic train wreck one winter’s day in 1907. That wreck, in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the Bronx’s northern edge, killed 25 passengers and injured around 100. It was a bloody example of the kind of loss that often accompanies progress.

Stung by the implication that he may have borne responsibility, Wilgus resigned from the railroad. He started an engineering consulting business, which allowed him to continue to work on large new projects while restoring his honor by preserving his papers. Today, those papers are split between two institutions, the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Library of Congress, reflecting a division created by Wilgus himself. That fatal train accident acted as a hinge between his life’s two parts. Together, the papers tell a story of progress and loss, and of memory and honor.

Color architecture drawing of Grand Central Station
Artist’s rendering of the redesign of Grand Central Terminal. Note Wilgus’s marginalia at top right, specifying the “revenue-producing buildings” that would help fund construction, a pioneering use of “air rights” in New York City. “Grand Central Terminal – The Terminal City,” c.1902-1913, Box 1, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

Wrecked railcars and flooded farms

The project to bring electric-powered trains into Grand Central was completed in fall 1906, when the first train rolled into the station “with Wilgus at the controls.” A few months later, on February 15, 1907, one of those newly electrified trains derailed on the Harlem line while rounding a curve at 205th Street in the Bronx. The New York Tribune described a “scene of death and chaos,” with bodies “strewn in heaps or singly.”

As the press grew agitated and the public became suspicious of electrified rail, Wilgus began his own investigation of the derailment. He and his team compiled evidence that the wreck had not been caused by the weight of the electric engines, but by a known track defect in that specific location in Woodlawn that had gone unaddressed by the New York Central.

Wilgus presented his findings to the railroad’s executives, who were concerned about embarrassment for the company, and potential liability. Wilgus then agreed to destroy the report, in exchange for permission to participate in the design of new electric engines. New York Central, however, continued to meet with designers without him. In response, Wilgus used his original records to recreate the destroyed report, and kept it in his files as insurance. The schism between Wilgus and New York Central proved permanent. Wilgus resigned in summer 1907 and left his Grand Central offices in September. As his biographer notes, Wilgus, “a proud man, perhaps somewhat arrogant,” suddenly faced a turning point.

Diagram in blue pencil of a train station.
Architect’s drawing for train stations to be built in the Catskills, following the flooding of the Esopus Valley, c. 1911. Box 5, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Immediately after leaving the New York Central, Wilgus established his own consulting firm. Two years later, he found himself in the Catskills, walking the route of a new railroad set to replace a line that was about to be at the bottom of a lake. Now he was a player in a government-backed eminent domain project to flood New York’s Esopus Valley, which would displace its residents in order to funnel the dammed-up waters to a thirsty metropolis. The result would be the Ashokan Reservoir, which still supplies New York City with about 40% of its drinking water. Wilgus was charged with relocating the rail line that had once linked the valley’s two thousand inhabitants. For five years he peered at the landscape with a technocratic eye that seemed not to note the loss of homes, farms, and livelihoods.

As historian David Stradling notes, by the 1890s the Esopus Valley not only nurtured eight transit-connected hamlets, but had become “part of the Catskills” prosperous tourist landscape,” dotted with “hotels, boardinghouses, trails, lookout towers, and carriage paths.” The process of submerging the valley would not only erase that landscape, but also permanently disrupt longtime residents’ sense of place once buildings had been burned and graves disinterred. But Wilgus’s meticulous records only note the minutiae of professional engineering: curvatures and station designs, rail monuments and rip raps. It was the completed line that seems to have interested Wilgus the most. In 1916 he sent repeated messages to a colleague to secure a photograph of the new rail line “suitable for hanging” in my office,” requesting an image with a “good general view” of the tracks and surrounding greenery but making no mention of the workers who built the line or the residents who would ride it.

Photograph showing train tracks alongside river, left, bending to the right.
Ashokan Reservoir, with newly relocated Ulster & Delaware Railroad tracks, 1916. Wilgus apparently hung this image in his New York office. Box 1, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Guarding a legacy

Wilgus made his first gift of papers to NYPL in December 1907, just nine months after the fatal railroad crash in the Bronx: specifications and plans for the Grand Central Yard and electrical zone improvements. In late 1935, NYPL director Harry M. Lydenberg reached out to Wilgus about placing the rest of his personal collection at NYPL for the benefit of students of engineering and industrial history. Wilgus was amenable, but was already in conversation with Dr. Harrison W. Craver of the Engineering Societies Library, a connection from his membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Ultimately Wilgus agreed to ship his entire collection to an NYPL warehouse, where Craver and NYPL representative K. D. Metcalfe routed items more technical in nature to the Engineering Societies Library, and those of a more general nature or specific to New York to NYPL. Since that time, NYPL researchers have had access not only to Wilgus’s professional papers, but also a number of pamphlets and volumes he owned that were added to the general collections. Wilgus donated additional materials to the collection over the years, including his reconstituted Woodlawn Wreck file, which remained closed to researchers until his death.

NYPL warehouse at 137-139 W. 25th Street, where William Wilgus shipped his manuscript collection. “Manhattan: 25th Street (West) – 6th Avenue,” 1936, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.

The Engineering Societies Library, which had absorbed the bulk of Wilgus’s files from his years as a consultant – including those documenting the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir – eventually fell into a state of financial crisis and “benign neglect.” Its holdings were dispersed in the 1990s, with much of the general collections routed to Kansas City’s Linda Hall Library and some special collections heading to the Library of Congress. Wilgus’s papers found their way to the Library’s Manuscript Division in 1995, where they have recently been reorganized and made available for researchers. Researchers at both the NYPL and Library of Congress can judge Wilgus’s legacy for themselves. They’ll not only find insight into Wilgus himself, but intricate documentation of the massive engineering projects he spearheaded, many of which continue to shape our lives today.

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“That wreck…” Kurt C. Schlichting, Grand Central’s Engineer: William J. Wilgus and the Planning of Modern Manhattan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 63.

“‘with Wilgus at the controls.’…” Schlichting, Grand Central’s Engineer, 59.

“kept it in his files…” Schlichting, Grand Central’s Engineer, 65.

“a proud man…” Schlichting, Grand Central’s Engineer, 63-64.

“at the bottom of a lake…” William J. Wilgus to T. A. Lang, June 23, 1909, Box 1, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“‘part of the Catskills’…” David Stradling, “Bishop Falls, New York City, and the Contested Value of Land,” New York History 87, no. 4 (Fall 2006), 406, 411.

“‘suitable for hanging’…” William J. Wilgus to T. A. Lang, April 3, 1916, Box 1, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“closed to researchers…” Woodlawn Wreck file, Box 7, William J. Wilgus Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

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