The first rail service into New York City was built in 1831 and ran to a station at Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street. In 1864, Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased the Hudson River Railroad and then acquired the New York Central Railroad and built a connecting line between Sputyen Duyvil and Mott Haven. Five years later in 1869, Vanderbilt bought a tract of property stretching between 42nd and 48th Streets, Madison and Lexington Avenues. The first version of Grand Central Station was built upon this land.
An architect by the name of John B. Snook designed the station which opened its doors in October of 1871. It was twice expanded and renovated by the turn of the twentieth century. During this period, the train industry was converting from steam trains to electric trains. By the end of 1902, plans were drawn up to build a new station that would accommodate electric trains. The construction of this new terminal took a full decade, with the doors of the new station opening in 1913. This ushered in an era of great growth and development. The train station itself became known for its diverse offerings. Over the years, it included a movie theater, an art gallery and a rail history museum.
Yet in the post war years, the decline of train travel severely impacted Grand Central Station. As growing number of people traveled by car, the demand for train travel waned. The once grand facility began to deteriorate. By the time it was officially named a National Historic Landmark in 1976, it was in great need of repair and renovation. In 1990, a renovation plan was approved, at the projected cost of $425 million, and in 1994 the station was purchased by Metro North. This project was completed in 1998, when the station re-opened its doors to the public. Once again, the station is home to restaurants, art events and other features which draw crowds to the facility.
Individuals who worked on the station and underground on the rail lines were exposed to asbestos at various times. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is dangerous when its particles or fibers or inhaled or ingested. It was used commonly in industrial processes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until its use was largely banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Asbestos exposure can lead to chronic and terminal respiratory conditions including asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural effusions and mesothelioma, a rare form of asbestos cancer that can affect the lungs, heart, and / or stomach. Exposure to asbestos is regarded as the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma.
Underground pipes under and near Grand Central Station are insulated with asbestos (one of its common uses). Fans that were placed underground to provide workers with relief from the intense heat resulted in the asbestos being spread freely, increasing the risk to workers. Pipefitters who worked in these tunnels became known as the “Snowmen of Grand Central,” because they would emerge from the tunnels covered in the white, powdery asbestos.
In 1997, Metro North was sued by a group of 140 pipe fitters and employees who had worked underground for distress caused by asbestos exposure. This case made its way to the US Supreme Court, which sided with the railroad. In the case, the railroad acknowledged that it had “negligently and knowingly exposed the workmen to asbestos without warning them, without training them to handle the cancer-causing substance and without equipping them with protective gear” as reported by The New York Times.
As recently as July 18, 2007, the explosion of an underground steam pipe near Grand Central Station left a crater in the street and released dust and dirt contaminated with asbestos.