Opening of Grand Central Terminal 

U.S. #4739 was issued for Grand Central Terminal’s 100th anniversary.

At 12:01 a.m. on February 2, 1913, Grand Central Terminal officially opened in New York City.

Cornelius Vanderbilt funded the first Grand Central, known as Grand Central Depot. He bought the New York Central Railroad in 1867 and opened the new depot there in 1871. Grand Central then became a major hub for the railroad lines coming into Manhattan.

U.S. #3335 – The 20th Century Limited ran between Grand Central Terminal and Chicago, Illinois.

Eventually the railroads outgrew the depot so it was demolished in 1899 to make way for the six-story Grand Central Station. Meanwhile, in 1902, there was a terrible crash that killed 15 people. It turned out steam-produced clouds had blinded one of the drivers, causing the crash. New Yorkers were already complaining about the soot and smog caused by the steam engines, so Vanderbilt announced that the station would run on electricity instead of steam. The station and tracks were also built underground, opening up valuable real estate for businesses on the streets above.

U.S. #4739 FDC – Grand Central First Day Cover with Digital Color Postmark.

The construction of the new Grand Central was the largest such project in New York City up to that time. The new station comprised 70 acres with 32 miles of track that connected to another 46 tracks and 30 passenger platforms. Grand Central would be almost twice as large as its rival, the recently opened Pennsylvania Station.

More than a train station, Grand Central was a monument to the power of the railroad and a reflection of the classical Beaux-Arts style of the time. French artist Paul César Helleu created an astronomical Grand Central mural above the Main Concourse. The constellations were painted in gold leaf on the rich blue-green sky. Electricity, still a novelty, powered 2,500 light bulb “stars.” There were also hundreds of chandeliers with over 4,000 light bulbs. And Grand Central was innovative in its use of ramps instead of stairs, making it easier for long distance travelers with luggage. The new station also had a feature called a “kissing gallery.” These were separated areas where commuters and their visitors could meet up without blocking the flow of foot traffic.

Item #M11253 – Palau sheet honoring 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal.

After about 10 years of construction, Grand Central Terminal was finally ready to open. On the evening of February 1, 1913, New York officials and anxious visitors attended a special ceremony to mark the opening of Grand Central Terminal. Then, 12:01 a.m. on February 2, the terminal officially began operations with the departure of the first train, the Boston Express No. 2. It was estimated that by the end of that first day over 150,000 people visited the terminal. The New York Times had called the previous Grand Central “a cruel disgrace.” But upon the opening of the new terminal claimed, “The Grand Central Terminal is not only a station, it is a monument, a civic center, or, if one will, a city. Without exception, it is not only the greatest station in the United States, but the greatest station, of any type, in the world.”

U.S. #932 from a set of four memorial stamps issued just a few months after President Roosevelt’s unexpected death.

At the same time the main terminal was constructed, another section, known as Track 61, was built below. It was originally planned as a powerhouse and storage area for unused railroad cars. However, after he was elected president, Franklin Roosevelt used the secret tracks to travel privately to and from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

By the 1940s, nearly 40% of all people in the U.S. had traveled through Grand Central. The terminal had also seen millions of U.S. servicemen pass through as they went to and from the front. There was even a branch of the USO inside the station. The Nazis recognized the significance of the station and planned to attack it in 1942, but were caught before they could do any damage.   Reportedly, the Nazi mission was to find the secret subbasement M42 that housed the terminal’s electrical rotary converters and shut it down.   Even if they had reached M42, it was guarded by a platoon of armed soldiers.

U.S. #2812 – Murrow was the first broadcast journalist honored on a U.S. stamp

Grand Central has been the site of many other interesting events of the years. During World War II Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and other celebrities performed for the troops on the concourse while selling war bonds. In the 1950s Edward R. Murrow hosted See It Now in studios above the terminal. Also in the 1950s, the U.S. government placed a Redstone rocket in the terminal’s main concourse to show America’s military power after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite. Jackie Kennedy spoke out in the 1960s against a planned demolition of Grand Central. And Andy Warhol once reportedly held a party on Track 61.

Click here to see a special eight-page section about the terminal’s opening from the New York Times.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. I always enjoy your posts of stamp history. But I loved the 8-page article of grand central station in the New York Times. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I have passed through there on several occasions. I believe the first was as a nineteen year old on my way with other recruits to Great Lakes after enlisting in the Navy. Amazed to read that in the 1940’s nearly 40% of all Americans had traveled through Grand Central. Great history lesson!

  3. Nice piece on GCT, but the reason for the terminal concourse being below grade was not to maximize access to street level shopping, but because the Park Avenue tunnel meant trains would offload passengers underground.

  4. Took my first train ride there in 1955 to Missouri for Army Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood. I was a member of the National Guard seventh regiment located on 69st and Park ave and they started this program sending National Guard Enlistees for actual basic training which had not been the practice. Myself and two buddies went by roomettes, not coach, it was a great experience and even came back that way. I was so proud to be in uniform and being treated with much respect, my 4 uncles served in the war and I was so proud of them. “God Bless America”

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