The Railway Power Stations of New York City


For more information on the history of the electrification of New York City, see Joseph Cunningham’s book, New York Power (2013).


This work consists of brief histories and technical descriptions of the major steam generating stations built in the New York City area during the early twentieth century in order to provide the electric traction power to nine different surface, subway, elevated, interurban, and long distance railroads. The text contains additional information conveyed to the author by Joseph Cunningham, noted expert on the history of railways in the New York City area, during the Fall of 2008 and Spring of 2009.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, each major electrified railroad operating in and around New York City maintained its own facility for the generation of electric power. These included streetcar, elevated, subway, and interurban and long distance railroads.

Samuel Insull, electric power entrepreneur of the Chicago area, authored a paper in the April 5, 1912 Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (A.I.E.E.) in which he severely criticized the fact that New York City had allowed the construction of so many power houses for this purpose rather than providing guidance towards the use of a single facility for the generation of railway power in order to achieve greater efficiency.

The major railway power houses in the New York City area included:

“Kingsbridge” (upper Manhattan) Third Avenue Railroad
“Ninety-sixth Street” (Manhattan) Metropolitan Street Railway
“Seventy-fourth Street” (Manhattan) Manhattan Elevated Railroad Co.
“Fifty-ninth Street” (Manhattan) Interborough Rapid Transit Co.
“Long Island City” (Queens) Pennsylvania Railroad
“Port Morris” (The Bronx) New York Central Railroad
“Glenwood” (Yonkers, NY) New York Central Railroad
“Cos Cob” (Connecticut) NY, New Haven & Hartford RR
“Jersey City” (New Jersey) Hudson & Manhattan Railroad
“Kent Avenue” (Brooklyn) Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company
“Central Station” (Brooklyn) Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company

The most common system of electric traction power supply during the early twentieth century was based on the use of direct current that Edison pioneered. This was primarily a result of the fact that the D.C. series-type motor had proven very successful as a traction motor for streetcars during the late nineteenth century. For that purpose, 500-volts D.C. was applied between the overhead trolley wire and the grounded running rails of the track. Sometimes, however, an insulated underground conduit, located between the running rails, was used in place of an overhead wire. A device called a plough extended beneath the streetcar through an open slot in order to make contact with the power conductor in the conduit.

Eventually, however, an insulated “third rail” running along one side of the track came to be used to supply D.C. power for elevated and subway type railroads. The standard third rail voltage was 600 to 650 volts. This same system is still in use today, but the operating voltage is now sometimes as high as 700 volts.

By 1900, electric power generation technology had progressed to the point where large central generating stations were used to produce high voltage alternating current power. For traction purposes, this type of power could be distributed very efficiently to substations where highly efficient transformers reduced the voltage and relatively efficient rotating machines, called rotary converters, were used to convert it to D.C.

Such A.C. railroad power houses usually generated “three-phase” power, which is the most efficient form of distributing alternating current, at a level of about 11,000 volts. The frequency of the A.C. power was usually 25 "cycles,” which today would be called 25 Hertz. This low frequency (as compared to the standard 60-Hertz power) was necessary because the early rotary converters could not be designed to operate satisfactorily on higher frequencies. Early 60-cycle rotaries tended to flash over when subjected to sudden severe load changes.

Another traction power distribution system that came into use during the early twentieth century utilized overhead A.C. distribution at 11,000 volts. By the time this system was developed, the series type of traction motor had been modified to operate successfully on 25-cycle alternating current. Thus, step-down transformers on the cars themselves provided low-voltage A.C. power for the motors. The high-voltage A.C. power was distributed by an overhead catenary wire (so called because it actually consisted of a heavy wire hanging in a natural catenary curve which, in turn, supported a level contact wire). The A.C. power was conveyed to the rail cars by means of a pantograph, which was a heavy-duty version of the old trolley pole.


The Kingsbridge power house provided traction power for the Third Avenue Railroad, and it was located between 216th and 218th Streets on Ninth Avenue in upper Manhattan. This section of Manhattan received its name from a colonial-era foot bridge, called “King’s Bridge,” which connected Manhattan to The Bronx.

The planning for this power house began in 1898, and it was completed in 1904. According to a note in the December 24, 1898 issue of Electrical World (p. 675), this structure replaced an earlier “Kingsbridge Road” power house that was built on the same site but never placed into operation. The tracks which it was supposed to serve were never laid and the note referred to said that the existing power house was “to be removed.”

The Third Avenue Railroad was a surface line which originally used horses for motive power. Later, it was equipped with mechanical cables running in underground conduits, just as for the San Francisco cable cars. When the line was electrified, some of these existing conduits were used for the electrical conductors.

While the Kingsbridge power house was being planned, a temporary power station was placed into operation at 129th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It contained a total of 3000 kilowatts of D.C. generation and it supplemented two of the earlier cable drive stations which were then also being used as temporary sources of D.C. traction power. One of these was located at 65th Street and Third Avenue (4000 kw) and the other was on Bayard Street in downtown Manhattan (2000 kw).

The exterior of the Kingsbridge power house featured an impressive Romanesque design, with large arched windows and decorative towers at the corners. The station generated three-phase, 25-cycle alternating current at 6600 volts, an early standard voltage for this purpose. Substations located along the line then converted this power into lower voltage D.C. power. The generators, or “alternators,” were each rated for 3500 kilowatts and driven by Westinghouse-Corliss reciprocating steam engines. The station was designed to house a total of sixteen of these units which would have a total maximum capacity in excess of 100,000 horsepower. In 1912, the Kingsbridge power house was leased from the Third Avenue Railroad Company by the New York Edison Company. In the following year, NY Edison installed four high voltage A.C. tie feeders to connect the station with the former Waterside Generating Station at 38th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. At least some of these feeders remained in use until the 1950’s.

An article, “Operating Pilot Board and Load Dispatching System of the New York Edison Company,” in the March, 1923 General Electric Review (Vol. XXVI, No. 3) includes a close-up photo of a portion of the System Operator’s Board at Waterside Station. "Kingsbridge” is prominent at the top of the board. The four tie feeders from Kingsbridge to Waterside are indicated, but only eight generators at Kingsbridge, which indicates that only eight of the originally planned sixteen engines were ever installed.

It is somewhat uncertain just when Kingsbridge ceased generating power, but it would have remained in use as a power system “tie” station. Some references indicate that it continued generating until at least 1940, but others indicate that all generation ceased in 1928. The station was at least partly derelict by the early 1940s, but was still standing in 1964. Eventually, however, it was demolished and the site is now occupied by a New York City bus garage.

Ninety-Sixth Street

As with the Third Avenue Railroad, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company was operating, in the 1890s, a combination of horse-drawn cars, cable-drawn cars, and cars operated by means of underground electrical conduits. By 1900, the Metropolitan company had, in fact, obtained a controlling interest in the Third Avenue Railroad.

In 1899, a new power house was placed into operation to supply the Metropolitan lines. It was located at 96th Street in Manhattan, on the East River, and was equipped with a total of eleven steam engines, each driving a General Electric three-phase, 25-cycle, 6600 volt alternator.

These engines were rated at 4500 horsepower each when operating for maximum steam economy. They could, however, be pushed to 7500 horsepower if necessary. Each alternator was rated at 3500 kilowatts, and all of this original equipment was still in operation in 1911.

The high voltage A.C. from this station was distributed, via underground cables, to substations located on Front Street, Houston Street, 25th Street, 50th Street, 96th Street (at the power house), and 146th Street, all in Manhattan. At the substations, step-down transformers and rotary converters provided 600 volts D.C.

In 1898, prior to the construction of this power house at 96th Street, the Metropolitan Street Railway had two sources of electric power for the underground conduits which were just then being installed.

One of these sources was located in the Lexington Building on 25th Street. This facility had originally been designed for the installation of eight mechanical cable machines, but only four of these were ever actually installed. With the introduction of electric operation, the remaining space was used for the installation of four steam engine driven D.C. generators.

The second early power facility was located at 146th Street near Lenox Avenue and consisted of a “temporary” steam generating station. Both of these locations eventually became rotary converter substations, as listed above, when the power house at 96th Street was placed into operation.

As with the Kingsbridge power house, this generating station at 96th Street was eventually interconnected with the system of the New York Edison Company (but not, however, actually taken over by the latter). An article in the Electrical World of April 8, 1909 (p. 860) mentions “emergency excitation connections” between Waterside Station and the 96th Street station.

A 1902 photograph of an earlier version of a “System Operator’s Board” located at Waterside Station shows the nomenclature “96th St.” at the upper left-hand corner. Also indicated are at least three tie feeders between 96th Street and Waterside. [Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1983), p. 373]

Generation at the 96th Street power house ceased in 1915 because, by that time, the Metropolitan company had become “New York Railways” and this new entity was purchasing electric power from the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). The 96th Street station was completely closed in the 1930s and was demolished in the 1950s. The station site is now an exit ramp from the FDR Drive which runs along the east side of Manhattan.

Seventy-Fourth Street

In 1899, the Manhattan Elevated Railway Company began construction of a large power house on the East River between 74th and 75th Streets, in Manhattan. This was for the purpose of supplying electric power to the various elevated railroads operating in Manhattan (along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues) which were then being converted from steam locomotive operation.

Originally, the power house was equipped with eight huge Allis-Corliss reciprocating steam engines, each rated at 10,000 horsepower maximum. Each engine drove directly a Westinghouse three-phase, 11,000 volt, 25-cycle alternator rated for 7500 kilowatts.

By 1911, however, a 7500 kilowatt Westinghouse steam turbine-alternator unit had been added for a total capacity of 67,500 kilowatts. Steam turbine development began around the turn of the century and progressed rapidly. Turbine units were very much smaller, and very much more efficient, than reciprocating engines.

Accordingly, by 1915, plans were underway to remove four of the original engines and replace them with turbine units rated at 30,000 kilowatts each. This would increase the total capacity of the station to 127,500 kilowatts using the same amount of space. These turbines were “cross-compound” units which consisted of a 1500 r.p.m. high pressure turbine and a 750 r.p.m. low pressure turbine, each driving a 15,000 kilowatt alternator, for a total of 30,000 kilowatts per unit.

In 1917, high voltage A.C. tie feeders were installed between the 74th Street Station and the 59th Street Station of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT subway) which, by then, operated the elevated lines as well.

Then, in 1918, a somewhat unusual 60,000 kilowatt turbine unit was installed. This was a cross-compound unit as well, but was composed of two low pressure turbines along with the high pressure turbine. The steam which exhausted from the high pressure turbine divided and fed the two low pressure turbines in parallel. Each of the three turbines drove a 20,000 kilowatt alternator.

A photograph in the book New York’s Forgotten Substations by Christopher Payne [Princeton Architectural Press, 2002 (page 16)] is a view of the generator floor of the 74th Street Station taken from the east end. In the foreground are the three 30,000 kilowatt turbine units. Behind them can be seen the 60,000 kilowatt unit. Then, in the background (west end), are three remaining original steam engine units. In 1940, these three engines were still operable, but were probably held in reserve for emergency use only. In 1954-55, the station was rebuilt by the New York City Transit Authority.

Then, in 1959, the operation of the 74th Street Station was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company. The station continued to supply, for some time, 25-cycle power to IRT Substations No. 21 (in Brooklyn), No. 26 (in Queens), and No. 42 (in Manhattan). By 1995, the station was still generating a total of 104 megawatts of power, but not for traction purposes, however.

During the intervening years, the western end of the original structure had been demolished and replaced by a modern building. It would seem likely that this was when the remaining three original steam engine units were removed. In this new section, two new Westinghouse turbine units were installed to generate 60-cycle power for Con Edison’s distribution system. These were called “T9” and “T10” (“T” for turbine). The numbers “1” through “8” probably had been associated with the five earlier turbines and the three remaining engines.

These two units were shut down in 1987. Following that, the only turbine unit remaining in operation was a General Electric 25-cycle unit located at the east end of the building. This was called “T11”, so would seem to have been installed after the two Westinghouse units.

This turbine unit was not shut down until 1999. Prior to that, it was supplying 25-cycle power, not for traction purposes, but to operate the old 25-cycle signals still in use on the IRT and BMT subway systems. Following its shutdown, the New York City Transit Authority began the installation of solid-state devices known as “cyclo-converters” in various substations to continue the supply of 25-cycle power to these signals. Such devices were not yet in use, however, in December of 1992 when unusual looding conditions shut down both “T11” and a similar 25-cycle unit at the 59th Street Power House. The resulting loss of signals on the IRT and the BMT lines created havoc !

Interestingly, the supply of signal power was not actually the primary reason for keeping “T11” in operation for so long. This unit was a “topping turbine” which operated on high pressure steam (probably about 1200 p.s.i.) and exhausted steam at a lower pressure (150 to 200 p.s.i.) which then could be used for other purposes. The term “topping” referred to the fact that the turbine used the “top” of the available energy from the steam.

The 74th Street station was obligated to supply steam for Con Edison’s steam distribution system in Manhattan used for heating buildings. Thus, “T11” came to be the only means available for reducing the high pressure steam from the boilers to the lower pressure needed for heating. It was, therefore, functioning mainly as a very expensive “pressure reducer” !

Since the subway signal systems comprised only a small load for this large unit, two synchronous frequency changers (25-cycle motors driving 60-cycle generators) were installed in order to utilize the output from “T11” for the Con Edison 60-cycle distribution system.

The 25-cycle power from Seventy-Fourth Street was actually being used to supply old signal systems on the Long Island Railroad and the Metro-North Railroad in addition to those associated with the subway system. Thus, this supply was of great importance.

According to Robert Lobenstein of the Transit Authority Power Department, these frequency changers were capable of being started up only from the 25-cycle system. Thus, if all 25-cycle generation was lost, it would not be possible to start these units from the 60-cycle system in order to provide an emergency supply of 25-cycle power.

Therefore, an “experiment” was conducted in which 25-cycle power was obtained from substation rotary converters operating in the “inverted” mode; that is, taking D.C. from rectifiers in the substations and producing 25-cycle power at their “A.C.” ends. This, then, could be used to start the frequency changers in an emergency situation.

The use of steam to generate electric power at the 74th Street Station ended in 1999 with the shutdown of “T11” and the associated frequency changers. New boilers were installed in order to supply directly the steam distribution system in Manhattan. Also, gas turbine generators were installed in order to supply a contribution to Con Edison’s electric power “grid” without the need for steam turbine generators.

Fifty-Ninth Street

The construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT subway) system, which opened in 1904, included a massively impressive power house located on the south side of 59th Street, between Eleventh Avenue and the Hudson River. At least part of the exterior of this structure was designed by famed architect, Stanford White. The façade was said to be in the “French Renaissance” style.

The power house was designed to supply three-phase, 25-cycle alternating current at 11,000 volts to several rotary converter substations along the line which provided 600 volts D.C. for the third rails.

The original generating equipment was to include a total of ten huge Allis-Chalmers reciprocating steam engines (the largest such stationary engines ever built) directly coupled to 7500 kilowatt alternators, plus additional space at the west end for two more such engines in the future. The total building length was approximately 700 feet.

However, only nine of these engines were actually installed (numbered from the east end of the building). The space reserved for Engine No. 7 was, instead, used for small turbine-generator units. Three turbines (with space for a fourth) each drove 1250 kilowatt, 60-cycle alternators that were used for the lighting of subway stations. The use of 25-cycle power for this purpose would have created annoying flickering of the incandescent lamps. In the stations, provision was made for the emergency use of third rail D.C. power for lighting in the event of disruption to the normal system.

In addition, two small turbines drove D.C. exciter generators to supply the necessary magnetization for the main alternators. There were also three more such exciters that were driven by A.C. motors operating from the main 25-cycle power system.

Unfortunately, the rapid development of steam turbine technology around the turn of the century meant that the 59th Street Power House was technologically “obsolete” even before it was completed. Thus, almost immediately, turbine units were installed to augment to electrical output of the engines with far greater efficiency.

By 1911, the five engine units at the east end of the power house had been equipped with General Electric vertical turbines that operated using the exhaust steam from the engines. Each of these turbines drove a 7500 kilowatt alternator and, so , doubled the electrical output from each original engine unit !

A note in the October 17, 1908 issue of Electrical World (p. 840) indicated that the generators driven by these turbines were to be of the “induction” type, requiring no excitation. Each generator would be operated in parallel with its associated engine-driven alternator and would, effectively, receive excitation from it.

The installation of these turbines actually created a surplus of 25-cycle power for some time. Accordingly, in 1917, the sale of excess power to the Brooklyn Rapid Transit system (the BRT) was begun. The BRT had recently been extended into Manhattan and, in 1923, was reorganized to become the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit system (the BMT subway).

In 1922, three 30,000 kilowatt turbine units were installed, but the nine original engine units were still operable (on a stand-by basis only) as late as 1940. By that time, two 25-cycle tie lines had been installed between the 59th Street Station and Consolidated Edison’s Waterside Generating Station on the east side of Manhattan in order to increase the reliability of the 25-cycle supply system.

By 1950, the four engines not equipped with exhaust turbines had been scrapped, but the five remaining engines were still operational. Then, during the 1950’s, a General Electric 60,000 kilowatt, 25-cycle turbine unit was installed at the west end of the building along with a 25-cycle to 60-cycle frequency changer to supply the station with lighting and auxiliary power for various 60-cycle motors.

Also, during this decade, the remaining five engines were removed. One of them was offered to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, but it proved to be just too massive for display. The Smithsonian did accept a piston connecting rod from one of the engines, however, and created a three-dimensional model of the 59th Street station.

Jim Lostrangio (now living in the town of Lee, Massachusetts) worked at the 59th Street Station from 1950 to 1960. He started as a “Helper” and eventually was promoted to “Second Board Man” (operating the main control board in the station). In this position, he was responsible for taking and recording various meter readings, keeping station logs, and preparing graphs to show the performance of the station on a daily basis.

Jim has said that, when he first walked into the station in August of 1950, the extreme heat inside and noise from the engines was so intimidating that he almost turned around and walked back out !

He stayed, however, and his recollections include the fact that the men working on the floor were called “Maintainers”. In the event of trouble, the control board operator (“Foreman”) would pull a chain to produce a loud signal from the station’s steam whistle. This consisted of three “longs” and a “short” (which happens to correspond to an exclamation mark in Morse Code !). A Maintainer would then use the house telephone to call and find out what the problem was.

Jim also recalled that the 59th Street Station included both a Machine Shop and a Carpentry Shop and that wooden patterns for various cast iron engine parts were still stored in the basement while he was working there.

A “Streetscapes” feature in the Real Estate section of the November 17, 1991 issue of The New York Times describes attempts to obtain landmark designation for the 59th Street Power house. Consolidated Edison has objected to this out of fear that it would interfere with normal station operations and modifications.

Today, a single tall concrete smokestack replaces the original six smokestacks for the many boilers providing steam to the engines. The present boilers produce steam only for distribution and not for power generation. As at the 74th Street Station, gas turbine units have been installed to contribute to Con Edison’s “grid”.

Long Island City

The “late, great” Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan was completed in 1910 as part of a massive project undertaken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1902. Besides that monumental station, it included tunneling under both the Hudson and East Rivers so as to allow the railroad direct access into Manhattan as well as to connect it with the Long Island Railroad, which it owned at the time.

This project involved electrification from a location known as “Manhattan Transfer” in New Jersey to the “Sunnyside” rail yard in Queens. In 1905, a power house was constructed on the East River in the Hunter’s Point area of Long Island City, Queens. Both the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White and the engineering firm of Westinghouse, Church, Kerr and Company were involved with its design.

Originally, the power house was equipped with three 5500 kilowatt, 11,000 volt, three-phase, 25-cycle steam turbine driven generators. By 1910, two additional 8000 kilowatt turbine generators of the same type had been added for a total capacity of 32,500 kilowatts.

Conventional 600 volt, D.C. third rail operation was used both in the new tunnels and on the recently electrified Long Island Railroad. The high voltage A.C. power from the station was distributed to rotary converter substations which produced the third rail power. Three 2000 kilowatt “rotaries” were installed in the station itself to provide third rail power in the adjacent Sunnyside Yard as well as in the tunnels into Manhattan, which ran under the East River and on to Pennsylvania Station.

Third rail operation was also used originally in the tunnels beneath the Hudson River. However, these tunnels had been designed with sufficient overhead clearance to allow for the possible future use of a high voltage A.C. catenary distribution system instead of the third rail. Such a system was, in fact, installed during the 1930’s. The third rail was retained in the tunnels, however, for use by work trains performing maintenance on the overhead catenary wires when their power was shut off.

The catenary was energized using 11,000 volt, 25-cycle, single-phase A.C. power. In 1938, the operation of the Long Island City power house was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company. Accordingly, catenary power was provided from special single-phase generators at Con Edison’s Waterside Generating Station at 38th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. Before its recent demolition, there were still indications of this on old control panels at Waterside which bore the nomenclature of “N.R.P.C.” This stood for National Railroad Passenger Corporation, an entity which later came to be known as “Amtrak”.

In New Jersey, 25-cycle catenary power was provided by means of a General Electric frequency changer at Metuchen, NJ. This 1930’s machine is still in operation today !

During the late 1970’s, the single-phase generators at Waterside were retired. This was partially the result of a catastrophic turbine failure on a similar machine at the 59th Street (IRT) Power House. Con Edison then installed two transformers, energized from their three-phase, 25-cycle power system, to continue the supply of single-phase catenary power. However, problems developed with the control of the power flow through these transformers and it was decided to use them only as an emergency source of power.

The catenary system was eventually extended to Sunnyside Yard and sources have indicated that the only normal supply of single-phase power during this time was via four old high voltage cables running through the tunnels from New Jersey.

By the year 2000, however, two solid-state “cyclo-converter” units had been installed at Sunnyside Yard to provide 25-cycle catenary power and the present high-speed “Acela” trains still operate on this power from Sunnyside Yard to Manhattan and on through New Jersey !

The original 25-cycle catenary in Sunnyside Yard extended to what was known as “the gap” at the “Harold” interlocking (junction). The other side of this “gap” was the termination of 25-cycle catenary for New Haven trains operating over the Hell Gate Bridge. Today, the catenary gap still exists, but now isolates the 60-cycle catenary over Hell Gate Bridge from the 25-cycle catenary still used in the tunnels leading to “Penn” Station in Manhattan.

The Long Island City power house was retired in 1952. At least part of the station remains today, but is virtually unrecognizable due to its conversion for other uses. Its four original 275 foot high smokestacks, arranged in a unique square configuration which formed something of a “landmark”, sadly had been demolished by the year 2008.

Port Morris and Glenwood

The New York Central Railroad was forced to electrify its lines into Manhattan as a result of a horrific wreck in the Park Avenue Tunnel in 1902 caused by smoke from steam locomotives. The present Grand Central Terminal, along with its very extensive electrified underground rail yards, formally opened in 1913.

This electrification used conventional 600 volt D.C. third rail technology and the equipment was supplied primarily by the General Electric Company. The power supply to several rotary converter substations located along the line was 11,000 volt, three-phase, 25-cycle alternating current that was generated at two power houses.

The first was “Port Morris”, named for the section of The Bronx in which it was located, and the second was “Glenwood”, again named for the section of the City of Yonkers (north of New York City) in which it was located. The Port Morris station was on the East River, between Hell Gate and Rikers Island. The Glenwood station still stands on the east bank of the Hudson River. Port Morris station was completed in 1906 and Glenwood in 1907. The designs of the two steam generating stations were virtually identical.

Rotary substation No. 1 supplied the third rail in the Park Avenue Tunnel into Grand Central Terminal, as well as the Grand Central yards. Originally, it was located at Park Avenue and 50th Street along with a steam plant that supplied steam for heating Grand Central. During the 1930’s, however, this facility was demolished for the construction of the present Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The rotary substation was moved to a location beneath Grand Central Terminal itself, where it remains today (now using solid-state rectifiers instead of rotary converters).

Substation No. 2 was located at Mott Haven in The Bronx which was the junction point for the “Hudson” and “Harlem” divisions of the railroad. Substations No. 3 through No. 6 were along the Hudson Division, with No.4 being at Glenwood Station. Substations No. 7 through No. 9 were along the Harlem Division.

Initially, the Port Morris and Glenwood stations each contained four General Electric 5000 kilowatt steam turbine driven generators. By 1929, an additional 20,000 kilowatt turbine unit had been installed at Port Morris and two of the original 5000 kilowatt units at Glenwood had been replaced by three 20,000 kilowatt turbine units.

In 1927, the operation of both stations had been taken over by the New York Edison Company (the predecessor of Consolidated Edison).

The stations continued to be operated by Consolidated Edison, but Port Morris was retired in 1952 and had been demolished by the late 1980’s. A power system switching house still stands at that location, however.

The Glenwood Station was retired in the early 1960’s. The derelict structure still stands today and plans have been proposed for decades for its adaptive re-use. As late as the year 2005, its original two smokestacks were still standing !

The rotary converter substations along the Hudson and Harlem lines (now part of the Metro-North Railroad) have all been replaced in function by new solid-state rectifier substations. Some of the old substation buildings still stand, now derelict. The last functioning rotary converter substation (using 25-cycle power) was the Marble Hill Substation in The Bronx which was retired in May of 1989.

Cos Cob

When the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad was electrified during the first decade of the twentieth century, the conventional third rail type of power distribution was not used. Instead, due to the long distances involved, a pioneering high voltage overhead catenary was installed which operated with 11,000 volt, 25-cycle, single-phase alternating current.

This power system was installed by the Westinghouse Company and another pioneering aspect of it was that the motor cars had to be designed to operate both from the catenary and from a conventional third rail when running on the tracks of the New York Central Railroad into Grand Central Terminal. The transition from one form of power to the other occurred at Woodlawn Junction in The Bronx.

On the cars, step-down transformers were used to reduce the catenary voltage for the traction motors. Taps on the transformer windings provided speed control by adjusting the motor voltage. When operating on the 600 volt D.C. third rail, the motors were transferred to third rail shoes and conventional series resistance was used for speed control (series-type traction motors designed to operate on 25-cycle A.C. would operate at least as well on direct current).

A power house to supply the catenary was built at Cos Cob, Connecticut, near the town of Greenwich. It was placed into operation in 1907 with four Westinghouse 3000 kilowatt steam turbine driven generators. These were conventional three-phase alternators, but were required to provide single-phase current to the catenary. It was soon learned that the magnetic unbalance in the generators caused by the single-phase loading created severe overheating in the machines. Thus, in 1908, the generators were modified, one by one, to include damper windings known as “amortisseurs”. These additional windings served to reduce the unbalancing and, so, the overheating caused by the single-phase load.

In order to increase the efficiency of the power distribution, auto-transformers (transformers using a single, tapped winding) were used to raise the generator voltage to 22,000 volts. Along the line, then, this voltage was reduced to 11,000 volts using similar auto-transformers in “step-down” mode.

In 1915, increased power demand on the line led to the supply of additional power from the West Farms Substation located at 174th Street and Bronx River Avenue in The Bronx. 25-cycle power was supplied to this substation from the Sherman Creek power house (at 201st Street and the Harlem River in Manhattan) which was owned and operated by the United Electric Light and Power Company.

At Sherman Creek, two three-phase turbine-generators had been equipped with amortisseur windings to allow each to supply 14,300 kilowatts of single-phase power. The 6600 volts from the generators was stepped up to 24,000 volts for transmission to the West Farms Substation via three feeders. At West Farms, then, step-down transformers reduced this voltage to 11,000 volts to supply the single-phase catenary.

In later years, 25-cycle power for the catenary was also obtained from the massive Hell Gate Generating Station in The Bronx (built by U.E.L.& P. and later operated by Consolidated Edison). By 1973, when both the Sherman Creek and Hell Gate stations had been shut down, 25-cycle power was obtained from Con Edison’s Waterside Station on the east side of Manhattan.

At this time, financial problems (common with all railroads !) led to a situation where power to the catenary was actually shut off for five minutes every half hour in order to avoid high penalty charges from Con Edison that occurred if the railroad’s power demand exceeded a certain limit. Passengers never knew the reason for the train stoppages.

The Cos Cob Power House remained in operation but, unfortunately, it had gained an unsavory reputation over the years due to the dirty emissions from its smokestacks. Its boilers were converted from coal to oil in the 1980’s, but this did not solve the problem.

In 1986, the catenary power supply was changed from 11,000 volts, 25-cycles to 25,000 volts, 60-cycles (“60-Hertz”). This had been made possible by the development of solid-state rectifying equipment on the cars which enabled the motors to operate on direct current instead of the alternating current from the catenary, which then allowed for the use of a higher (and standard) A.C. frequency on the latter.

Since 60-Hertz power could then be obtained from local utilities along the line, the Cos Cob Power House was shut down in 1987. The Mission-style building was not demolished, however, until the year 2000.

Today, this line continues to operate as the New Haven Division of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad. The changeover from pantograph operation (using the catenary) to third-rail operation now occurs at Mount Vernon, NY. This change was made in the early 1990’s to eliminate a “clumsy” arangement at Woodlawn Junction.

Jersey City

Trains in Central Railroad Station, New Jersey

In 1908, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad began operations between New Jersey and Manhattan via tunnels beneath the Hudson River. For decades, this line was known simply as the “Hudson Tubes”. Today, the tunnels are still in use as part of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (“PATH”) commuter railroad.

A conventional third rail electrification was used for motive power on the line and a power house was built on Washington Street in Jersey City. The building style has been described as “Romanesque Revival”. Originally, it was equipped with four vertical General Electric steam turbine driven generators. Three-phase, 11,000 volt, 25-cycle alternating current was generated and the total capacity was 18,000 kilowatts.

This high voltage power was distributed to three substations where rotary converters were used to provide 600 volt D.C. third rail power.

Substation No. 1 was located in Manhattan, at Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue, and it served a branch of the railroad which extended uptown to Sixth Avenue and Thirty-third Street. It contained five 1500 kilowatt rotary converters.

Substation No. 2 was located at the Jersey City power house and contained four 1500 kilowatt rotary converters. The rail line extended westward to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station at Newark, New Jersey.

Substation No. 3 was located in a sub-basement of the Hudson Terminal Building on the west side of Church Street in lower Manhattan. This huge structure was built in conjunction with the construction of the Hudson Tubes and actually consisted of two buildings: one between Cortlandt and Dey Streets, and the other between Dey and Fulton Streets.

The downtown Hudson Tubes rail terminal was also located beneath these buildings. The substation was ninety feet below the street level and it contained two 1500 kilowatt rotary converters for third rail power. In addition, this substation contained three 750 kilowatt, 250 volt rotaries which served to provide D.C. power for lighting in the Hudson Terminal during the summer months. In the wintertime, when the boilers for heating the building were in use, steam engines were used to drive D.C. generators which provided this power. The heat for the buildings was then obtained via the exhaust steam from the engines.

In 1921, the operation of the Jersey City power house had been taken over by the New York Edison Company (predecessor of Consolidated Edison). A 1923 photograph of the System Operator’s Board, located at New York Edison’s Waterside Generating Station in mid-town Manhattan, includes nomenclature indicating that high voltage tie feeders were in use between Waterside and the Jersey City power house.

The Jersey City power house was placed in “stand-by” mode in 1928, and was shut down in 1929. Following that, New York Edison (and, eventually, Con Edison) became responsible for providing 25-cycle power to Substation Nos. 1 and 3, while the Public Service Electric and Gas Company provided power for Substation No. 2.

Following a 1962 takeover of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad operations by the New York Port Authority, all electrical equipment in the Jersey City power house was scrapped. The building still stands today, but has long been derelict. It has been said to resemble “some ancient, partly ruined cathedral”. Efforts have been underway for decades to save the structure for adaptive reuse (possibly a “Trump Mall” !).

Kent Avenue

The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (which later became the “BMT” subway) received the power necessary for its 600 volt D.C. third rail operation from an entity known as the “Transit Development Company”.

In 1909, the latter company completed a new power house in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, on Wallabout Channel. This new “Williamsburg” power house was built immediately to the south of the existing 1893 “Eastern District” power house, which was bounded by Division Avenue on the north and Kent Avenue on the east.

The Eastern District power house contained six 575-volt D.C. generators, each driven by a “twin” steam engine, with a total capacity of about 12,000 kilowatts.

The Williamsburg power house eventually came to be known simply as the “Kent Avenue” power station, especially after 1918 when the adjacent Eastern District station was abandoned.

In 1909, the Kent Avenue power house contained nine Westinghouse steam turbine driven 6600 volt, three-phase, 25-cycle generators with a total capacity of 80,000 kilowatts. Soon after this, however, a 20,000 kilowatt turbine unit was added and, in 1915, one of the original 7500 kilowatt turbine units was replaced with a 30,000 kilowatt unit (there had been five 10-kw and four 7.5-kw units).

Interestingly, the 575-volt D.C. railway bus in the old (“Eastern District”) station was used for light and power in the new (“Williamsburg”) station adjacent to it.

Then, in 1920, an “Annex” station was built (apparently on the site of the earlier Eastern District station). This addition contained two 35,000 kilowatt turbine units. A second enlargement of the station, in 1936, added two 18,750 kilowatt units. The latter were “topping” turbines operating on high pressure steam and exhausting low pressure steam for use with the earlier turbines (per “Lurkis”).

In 1959, the Kent Avenue power house was purchased by Consolidated Edison. By that time, two high voltage, 25-cycle tie feeders had been installed between Kent Avenue and Con Edison’s East River Station on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. This had been done in order to improve the reliability of the BMT power system in recognition of the fact that the equipment at Kent Avenue was aging.

The Kent Avenue station ceased generation during the 1960’s, but continued to serve as a 25-cycle power distribution point until 1999 when it was closed completely. The building was not demolished until the year 2008, however.

Prior to its demolition, historic D.C. generators which had been stored there by the Consolidated Edison Company were saved by Robert Lobenstein of the New York City Transit Authority Power Department and moved elsewhere for storage.

One of these machines was a “Jumbo” dynamo from Edison’s famed 1882 Pearl Street Generating Station in lower Manhattan. It is believed that this is a “140-horsepower” machine that was installed at Pearl Street following a disastrous fire in January of 1890.

Central Station

The power houses at Kent Avenue supplied the “Eastern District” of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit system. Another power house, known as the “Central Station”, was used to supply the “Central District” of the system and, originally, was a D.C. station.

That station contained two 800-kw generators direct-driven from two 1000-hp cross-compound steam engines, plus seven 400-kw generators belt-driven from seven tandem-compound steam engines. Four of these latter engines were 750-hp engines and three were 550-hp Corliss engines. Thus, the total D.C. generating capacity of the old Central Station was 4400 kilowatts. The steam was supplied by a total of twenty Babcock & Wilcox 250-horsepower water-tube boilers.

A new Central Station was built in 1901 and it was the first major Brooklyn Rapid Transit power station equipped with alternating current generators. It was built west of the old Central Station, on the Gowanus Canal at Third Avenue and Second Street.

This station contained a total of thirty-two Babcock & Wilcox 650-horsepower water tube boilers, operating at a steam pressure of 175 p.s.i., which supplied eight 4000-hp cross-compound steam engine driven generators. The boilers were fired by a combination of bituminous and “No. 3 buckwheat” (anthracite) coal.

Two of the engines drove two 575-volt D.C. generators with a total capacity of 5400 kilowatts, but the remaining six engines drove six 6600/11,000-volt, 25-cycle, three-phase A.C. generators having a total capacity of 16,200 kilowatts. Thus, the total rated capacity of the station was 21,600 kilowatts, but was considered to have a maximum (overload) capacity of 25,000 kilowatts.

Apparently, these A.C. generators were connected so as to supply 6600-volts to rotary converter substations. According to Robert Lobenstein, some substations were equipped with “delta-wye” switches to allow them to use either 6600-volts from the Central Station or 11,000-volts from the Kent Avenue Station.

The new Central Station was built to replace earlier D.C. generating stations. In 1908, a nearby D.C. station at Ninth Street was rebuilt to contain two 3500 kilowatt, 25-cycle, 11,000-volt General Electric three-phase turbo-alternators to operate in conjunction with the Central Station. Originally, this Ninth Street power house had supplied the “Coney Island & Brooklyn Railroad Company”.

After the Central Station was retired, it was used for decades as a paper recycling center. It still stands today and may be converted into luxury condominiums.


The Kingsbridge, Ninety-sixth Street, Port Morris, Cos Cob, and Kent Avenue power houses are gone.

The Glenwood and Jersey City power houses are derelict, awaiting possible adaptive re-use. The remains of the Long Island City power house have been converted to other uses. The derelict Central Station also awaits adaptive re-use.

The Seventy-fourth Street and Fifty-ninth Street power houses are still standing, but serve mainly to supply steam for heating purposes in Manhattan.

Thus, the era of the railway power houses in New York City has ended.

The design and construction of these stations spanned a pivotal era in electric power technology: namely, the shift from reciprocating steam engines to steam turbines as prime movers for the generators.

The Kingsbridge, 96th Street, 74th Street, 59th Street and the Brooklyn “Central” power houses were all originally designed for the use of steam engines, while the later Long Island City, Port Morris, Glenwood, Cos Cob, Jersey City, and Kent Avenue stations were designed for turbines instead.

An article in the Street Railway Journal of October, 1901 is a detailed comparison of the engine installations at the Kingsbridge, 96th Street, and 74th Street stations and which describes the many small differences, but also emphasizes how similar these three engine designs were and how they represented the most advanced American practice for large steam engine central stations.

One item mentioned in this regard is the fact that the main shafts, which connected the piston cranks and the alternators, for the engines in the three power houses were all nearly identical in size. All were roughly twenty-seven feet in length and about thirty-eight inches in diameter. Furthermore, all were “hollow-forged shafts of fluid-compressed steel, made by the Bethlehem Steel Company”.

Fluid compression was a technique used at that time by Bethlehem Steel, at their heavy forging plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to produce more solid castings for forging. Molten steel from open hearth furnaces was squeezed in an ingot mould by a 7000-ton hydraulic press to eliminate internal voids in the cooling metal. Then, hollow-forging (all of the shafts had sixteen inch diameter holes through their centers) in a 14,000-ton hydraulic forging press assured that the grain structure would be properly oriented throughout the remaining thickness of metal to achieve maximum strength. Bethlehem Steel was a leader in such heavy-duty forging technology at that time.

All of these engines operated at a speed of 75 r.p.m. and used steam at pressures of 150 to 200 p.s.i. The engines subsequently installed at the 59th Street power house were virtually identical to those at 74th Street and were the last such reciprocating steam engines built for this purpose.

Another such engine comparison appeared in American Machinist magazine in 1902. This, however, also included the engines that had just been installed in the Waterside Generating Station of New York Edison. Once again, these engines were of similar horsepower and operated at 75 r.p.m. using similar steam pressures.

The similarities among all of these engines would seem to indicate that some sort of limit may have been reached in their size. Whether this is true or not can never be known because the rapid development of steam turbine technology relegated such huge engines to obsolescence in just a few years. A good indication of this trend is probably the fact that simple exhaust steam turbines were installed on five of the engines in the 59th Street power house very soon after its completion, and these turbines doubled the electrical generating capacity of each of the engines !



“Electricity in New York City”, Electrical World, Vol. 57, No. 21, May 25, 1911 (pp. 1371-1380)

Jones, Payson: A Power History of the Consolidated Edison System, 1878-1900 Consolidated Edison Company, 1940

Lurkis, Alexander: The Power Brink, Icare Press, 1982

Cunningham & DeHart: A History of the New York City Subway System revised edition, 1993


“Kingsbridge Power Station of New York City Railway Company” Electrical World and Engineer, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, July 9, 1904 (pp. 61-64)

Third Avenue Railway System in Manhattan, N.J. International, Inc.; Hicksville, NY, 1996

Ninety-sixth Street

(note) Electrical World and Engineer, September 10, 1898 (page 258)

“The Polyphase Distributing System of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company of New York City”: Electrical World and Engineer, March 31, 1900 (pp. 463-464) [and subsequent parts in following issues ]

Seventy-fourth Street

“Electric Plant of the Manhattan Elevated Railway” Electrical World: January 5, 1901 (pp. 10-14), January 12, 1901 (pp. 89-93)

“Electrical Equipment of the Manhattan Elevated Railway”, Electrical World: January 11, 1902 (pp. 76-78), January 18, 1902 (pp. 117-119)

“Changes in the Seventy-fourth Street Power Station in New York”, Electric Railway Journal: April 18, 1914 (page 872)

“Interborough Power Plant Enlargement”, Electric Railway Journal: April 17, 1915 (pp. 744-749)

“Interborough Commissions 60,000-kw Turbo-generator Unit”, Electric Railway Journal: May 10, 1919 (pp. 906-908)

Lavis, Fred: Building the new Rapid Transit System of New York City, Hill Publishing Company, 1915 [reprints of articles from Engineering News of 1915 ]

Dao, James: “Failure of Two Outdated Generators Cited in Disruption of Subway’s Safety Signals” The New York Times: December 13, 1992 (page 55)

[visit to 74th Street Station by author on May 22, 2002 ]

Fifty-ninth Street

Interborough Rapid Transit Interborough Rapid Transit Company, 1904 [reprint by Arno Press ]

“Metropolitan Subway and Elevated Systems” [General Electric product bulletin: October, 1922 ]

(note) Electrical World: November 5, 1904 (page 764)

“Lighting in the IRT Subway” The Electrical Age: May, 1905 (pp. 329-333)

“Novel Turbine Installation for New York Subway”, Electrical World: October 17, 1908 (page 840)

Gray, Christopher: “Streetscapes: The IRT Generating Plant on 59th Street”, The New York Times: November 17, 1991

Lavis, Fred [see “Seventy-fourth Street ]

[ visit to 59th Street Station by author on March 18, 1976 ]

[ conversation with Jim Lostrangio of Lee, Massachusetts on November 26, 2002 ]

Long Island City

Condit, Carl W.: The Port of New York ; University of Chicago Press, 1980

Habstritt, Mary: “Advocacy – A Loss” Roebling Chapter Newsletter, July, 2006, Society for Industrial Archeology

Gray, Christopher: “Streetscapes: Long Island City Power Station”, The New York Times: May 22, 1988

[ correspondence to author from Jack Feinstein, retired vice-president of System and Transmission Operations, Consolidated Edison Company, April 9, 2002 ]

Port Morris and Glenwood

“Port Morris Power Station of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad”, Electrical World: September 29, 1906 (pp. 599-602)

Schlichting, Kurt C.: Grand Central Terminal; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001

Cos Cob

“The Log of the New Haven Electrification”, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers: December, 1908

“Supply of Single-phase Loads from Central Stations”, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers: October, 1916

Stewart, Robert C.: “Cos Cob powers the New Haven Railroad”, Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology: Vol. 23, No. 1; 1997

Stangl, Peter E.: “The Cos Cob Family”, On-Track: Metro-North Commuter Railroad (newsletter); Sept./Oct., 1986

Walker, Robert: “Farewell to Cos Cob”, On-Track: Metro-North Commuter Railroad (newsletter); November, 2000

Gray, Christopher: “Streetscapes: The Cos Cob Power Plant”, The New York Times: March 5, 1989

Jersey City

“Power Station of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad”, Electric Railway Journal: March 5, 1910 (pp. 384-392)

Cudahy, Brian J.: Rails Under the Mighty Hudson, Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, VT, 1975

“Metropolitan Subway and Elevated Systems”, [ General Electric product bulletin: October, 1922 ]

“The Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse”, Society for Industrial Archeology (newsletter): Fall, 2000

Gray, Christopher: “Streetscapes: The Hudson Tubes Powerhouse”, The New York Times: November 18, 1990

Kent Avenue

Murray, Thomas E.: Specifications for the Williamsburg Power House of the Transit Development Company (published by author), June, 1905

“Metropolitan Subway and Elevated Systems” [ General Electric product bulletin: October, 1922 ]

Murray, Thomas Edward: Electric Power Plants (published by author) New York, 1910

Murray, Thomas Edward: Power Stations (published by author) New York, 1922

Central Station

{ comments from Joe Cunningham and “Electricity in New York City” (see “General” sources) }

Murray, Thomas Edward: Electric Power Plants (published by author), New York, 1910


Kent, William: “Comparative Review of the Steam Plants of Three Large Electric Traction Main Stations in New York City”, Street Railway Journal: Vol. XVIII, No. 14, October 5, 1901 (pp. 441-457)

Low, Fred R.: “The Development of Power Plants”, American Machinist: November 6, 1902 [reprint] Engines: 1900-02 by Lindsay Publications, Bradley, IL; 2002