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A Tour of 1940s New York City

A lot has changed in "The City that Never Sleeps" since the 1940s, but a lot has stayed the same.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

American soldiers may have been fighting for their lives on the battlefields of Europe in 1942, but back home in the U.S., life was chugging along with some semblance of normality. In New York City, that meant tourists continued to travel to “The Wonder City,” as one of the city’s many slogans proclaimed, to see the marvels they had surely heard so much about.

In the first half of the 20th century, one of the biggest players in the city was the New York Central Railroad Company. The train was the heartbeat of the northeast, moving passengers—and their precious pennies—along an extensive network of rails. In an effort to entice more visitors to travel to one of their crowning destinations, New York City, the train company produced a twenty-minute travelogue in 1942 to show off all the sites that could be seen if only customers would purchase a ticket to visit the city of dreams.

Destination: New York City

Trains have always played a vital role in the life of the Big Apple. On October 27, 1904, Mayor George McClellan christened the famous (and currently infamous) subway system. But well before that day, an extensive network of trains had carried visitors in and around the city.

In the early 20th century, the New York Central Railroad Company was responsible for carrying the majority of the travelers throughout the region. The business was formed in 1853, when 10 separate railroad companies consolidated into one system. In 1867, multi-millionaire American business titan Cornelius Vanderbilt snapped up a controlling stake in the venture and began to gobble up other systems, a move repeated by his son.

At the height of its success, the New York Central Railroad was running along 10,000 miles of track that connected an area as far-flung as Boston to Chicago, Montreal to St. Louis. The fortunes of the railroad peaked around World War II. In the decade that would follow, business began to decline, scheduled trips were pared back, and, after a few additional mergers, the company was eventually taken over by Amtrak in 1971.

The Gateway to the Big Apple

The New York Central, as it was known, had a strong business incentive for creating a travel ad to convince potential tourists to visit New York City. But the only sales tool the railroad really needed was the awe-inspiring sight travelers received when they exited the train into Grand Central Terminal.

The beautiful building is actually the third iteration of one of Manhattan’s two main train depots. The first, built by the railroad’s old friend Mr. Vanderbilt, was quickly outgrown at the turn of the century. Its replacement was relatively short-lived; after a tragic accident caused by the insidious smog from the steam engines, the final plan was conceived to build a completely new station that moved new electric trains underground and placed a showstopper of a terminal on top.

This New York landmark has faced more than its share of threats over the years. Hitler set his sights on the building after learning it was a key transit point for American soldiers during WWII. Luckily the Nazi saboteurs sent to wreak havoc were thwarted and the station remained out of danger until the 1970s, when plans were drawn up to build a skyscraper on top of the terminal. But a merry band of big-name protestors helmed by Jackie Kennedy successfully led a movement to preserve and protect the building. It’s sister site—the original Beaux-Arts beauty of Penn Station—wasn’t so lucky.

About that Bronx Zoo…

While the train was bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors into the city at the turn of the century, the Bronx Zoo was getting ready to dazzle them. On the zoo’s opening day in November of 1899, it housed 843 animals. The proceeding decades were ones of enormous growth for the zoo, both of the physical and four-legged varieties. By 2009, the Bronx Zoo was welcoming around 2.15 million guests a year to observe more than 4,000 animals across 265 acres of space.

Along with opening the first ever animal hospital in a zoo in 1916, the Bronx Zoo has been a pioneer in many other areas. It was the first zoo to ever stage an exhibit where natural predators and prey lived—or stalked—side-by-side. It featured the first major exhibit that allowed animals to wander freely in an enclosure without a cage. And it staged the first significant exhibition of nocturnal animals. For a time, thanks to the Bronx Zoo, New York was the “City That Never Sleeps” in more than one sense of the popular nickname.

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