Grand Central's secret stairways
Grand Central's secret stairways
Many commuters may miss the staircase hidden within the information booth...

By Mark Ginocchio - Stamford Advocate, 1/9/2007
NEW YORK -- Each day at Grand Central Terminal, commuters scale dozens of steps as they head to train and subway platforms, and the dining concourse on the lower level.

But the view of most visitors are a number of staircases that lead to expensive artifacts, secret train platforms and what is presumed to be the biggest basement in New York City.

They are as much a part of the history of Grand Central as the celestial ceiling, the gold clock atop the information booth in the main concourse and the statues of Hercules, Mercury and Minerva at the entrance.

One of the staircases cuts through the bedrock of New York City, 109 feet, or 10 stories, below the lower level of the terminal.

The gray rusted steel steps and the jagged granite walls that have been blotched yellow and red with age lead to M-42, a secret basement that occupies 88,000 square feet underneath New York - the entire width and length of Grand Central.

Today, M-42 contains generators that produce traction power for Metro-North Railroad trains.

During World War II, M-42 may have been one of the most well-guarded basements in the United States. The room contained generators that powered the entire terminal and all of the city's trains, said Dan Brucker, a Metro-North spokesman and Grand Central historian.

M-42 was a well-known target of Adolf Hitler, so armed sentries patrolled the basement around the clock.

During the war, it was rumored that German intruders would try to destroy the generators by pouring buckets of sand into the turbines, Brucker said. If power were lost, it would have been a catastrophe.

"Anyone who came down that staircase would be arrested on site," Brucker said. "If anyone ever saw you with a bucket of sand, you would be shot on sight."

It is no longer the impenetrable fortress of the World War II era, but M-42 is still closed to the public. However, employees use the staircase to get to the basement, because the 100-year-old elevator is often out of service, Brucker said.

One staircase employees rarely use leads to the peak of Grand Central - the clock tower that houses the world's largest sample of Tiffany glass.

In the terminal's Operations Control Center, also closed to the public, a blue metal door is blocked by a copy machine. The copy machine can be moved and the door opened to reveal a small entry blocked in part by a concrete X. Duck beneath the X and there is the first of a series of thin ladders that lead to the stained-glass Tiffany clock.

Each ladder leads to a small rectangular opening and a concrete landing, though one has to duck beneath hot pipes to get from one to the next.

At the top, you can see the inner workings of the clock - gears covered with thick black grease. The gears are treated every day and the time is set by satellite to an atomic clock in Bethesda, Md., Brucker said.

Dust bunnies are scattered on the floor next to the gears, along with a few oil cans used for greasing. The clock has a heavy, stained-glass plate with Roman numeral VI that can be opened, revealing 42nd Street below.

It is the highest point a person can reach inside Grand Central.

Not every hidden staircase is so dramatic. One gets little notice from hundreds of thousands of commuters who pass by.

Inside the glass-encased information booth in the main concourse, customer service employees use a secret exit to get to Grand Central's lower level.

At the center of the information booth is a thick gold pillar with a sliding door. Opening the door reveals piles of boxes with old schedules, brochures and other papers, making the pillar appear like a storage room.

But inside, a narrow spiral staircase leads three stories below the main concourse. Halfway down is a landing that information booth employees use for lunch breaks.

At the bottom is a small window where Kye Martin, a customer service representative, answers questions for commuters in the lower level.

The only way for Martin to get to her post is to enter the information booth in the main concourse, open the sliding door and circle down.

"I'm up and down quite a bit," Martin said. "It's good exercise."

The lower-level booth isn't as busy as the one on the main concourse, which usually has at least three customer service representatives.

"The main concourse carries the big business," Martin said. "It really only picks up down here during the business rush hour."