The New York Central Railroad was formed of a merger of ten railroads in 1853. The ten predecessor roads were:

In 1867 Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired control of the New York Central, in 1869 the New York State Legislature authorised the merger of roads he already owned into the New York Central, including the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, the Canada Southern Railroad and the Michigan Central Railroad, forming the modern New York Central.

In 1900, the Boston & Albany Railroad was consolidated with the New York Central, although it retained a seperate identity.

The New York Central had a distinctive character; unlike its arch rival the Pennsylvania Railroad's mountainous terrain, the NYC was best known as the Water Level Route; most of its major routes followed rivers and had no significant grades. This influenced many things, including advertising and most notably locomotive design.

Steam locomotives of the New York Central were optimized for speed on that flat raceway of a main line, rather than slow mountain lugging. Famous locomotives of the System included the well-known 4-6-4 Hudsons, and the postwar Niagaras, fast 4-8-4 locomotives considered the epitome of their breed by steam locomotive aficionados.

Despite having some of the most modern steam locomotives anywhere, the NYC dieselized rapidly, conscious of its difficult financial position and the potential relief that more economical diesel power could bring. Very few New York Central steam locomotives still exist. All Hudsons and Niagaras were sent to the scrapper's torch; the only surviving big modern steam are two 4-8-2 Mohawk dual-purpose locomotives.

The financial situation of northeastern railroading soon became so dire that not even the economies of the new diesel locomotives could change things. The New York Central became a fallen flag in 1968 when it joined with its old enemy the Pennsylvania Railroad in the ill-fated merger that produced Penn Central.

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