Before Grand Central Terminal (now 100 years old), the train went “downtown” Later this site morphed into Madison Square Garden, which moved a couple of times over the years.
The castlelike structure stood at what is now Park Avenue South and 26th Street. It didn’t have a food court or a giant vaulted space or lines of shops, but it did come to house six-day marathons, elephant races and a tattooed nobleman.
New York’s first railroad, the New York and Harlem, operated not by steam but by horse; putting carriages onto rails and taking them off the irregular dirt streets quadrupled efficiency, according to “The Horse in the City,” by Clay McShane and Joel Tarr (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
The railroad opened in November 1832, with a route from Prince Street up the Bowery to Union Square. Service, according to The New York Courier and Enquirer, was offered only on “each fair day.” Ultimately the line ran up Fourth (later Park) Avenue to the village of Harlem, the original goal. In 1849 the railroad advertised that it stopped for passengers at 42nd, 51st, 61st, 79th, 86th, 109th, 115th, 125th and 132nd Streets.
Steam engines were introduced fairly early, but occasional boiler explosions provoked attempts to eliminate locomotives in built-up areas, which the railroad successfully resisted for years. A midline depot stood at Fourth Avenue and 26th Street as early as 1845, when it burned, and in 1847 The Evening Post reported a “spacious freight house” at that site. It is possible that was the picturesque castlelike building seen in the 1860s view above left, at the northwest corner of 26th and Fourth, stretching back to Madison Avenue.
If so, it might have been designed by Robert G. Hatfield, who did other work for the New York and Harlem around that time.
In 1857 a separate but related line, the New York and New Haven, erected an adjacent structure, at the southwest corner of 27th and Fourth, an awkward Italianate building, which like its neighbor stretched back to Madison Avenue. The rail lines turned into a yard shared by the two terminals, and this was the beginning of the Grand Central idea — different rail companies would use the same, centralized facility. Ultimately, Grand Central Terminal would serve the Hudson, Harlem and New Haven lines.
In 1858, a case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome erupted on Fourth when some rich residents of town houses in newly fashionable Murray Hill got the Common Council to consider banning steam south of 42nd Street. But a group of commuters met at the station to protest switching back to the much slower horse-drawn cars.
One protester was quoted by The New York Times as saying that “the squalor and misery of the poorer classes” would be prolonged by a change back to horsepower, that it would retard the growth of real estate farther north, and that it could lead to a total ban on steam in Manhattan. The railroad prevailed.
But after the Civil War, steam was indeed banned south of 42nd Street, leading to the construction in 1871 of what was the first of three Grand Central Terminals. Two years later, P. T. Barnum and a consortium of investors leased both the 26th and 27th Street stations. Joined and enlarged, they were converted to a grand exhibition space.
The consortium presented a certain amount of high culture, like the American debut of Jacques Offenbach, the composer and cellist, in 1876. But others, particularly Barnum, played to the cheap seats, advertising in various papers “a Greek nobleman, tattooed head to foot,” as well as monkey, elephant and ostrich races and “Laughable Sack-racing by Metropolitan Amateurs.”
In 1877 The Evening Express announced an Edison Telephone Concert in the space, with a singing program in Philadelphia broadcast in, and The Times reported a “colored baby contest” — white babies competed in a separate event.
Two years later, The Evening Telegram announced a masquerade ball with entertainments like a Roman Carnival, and an “Indian camp attacked by United States soldiers in which the soldiers are defeated and scalped.” That was the year the building began to be known as Madison Square Garden, Madison Square having an elite connotation far above that of dusty old Fourth Avenue.
It was here that in September 1879 a punishing marathon walk took place, in a competition for a trophy called the Astley Belt. Also called Six-Day Races, such events were a tremendous fad in the late 1870s; competitors walked as much as they could over six solid days, the goal being total mileage rather than speed.
What The Boston Globe described as “an immense crowd” packed the Garden to watch Charles Rowell, an Englishman, take the belt with 530 miles. Frank Hart, born in Haiti, came in fourth at 482 miles. The Globe estimated that Rowell took home $28,000 and Hart $5,000.
The old depot continued in its second career until 1889, when it was demolished for Stanford White’s sumptuous entertainment palace, a new Madison Square Garden, itself demolished in the 1920s and succeeded by two namesake versions. That has come to be a favorite object of mourning, whereas Grand Central Terminal is one of the triumphs of historic preservation. But the original structure is as unlamented as a horse-drawn railway car.