For some time now, empires have been on the outs. What with the untidy unraveling of the Trump administration, the specter of the “imperial presidency” as bequeathed to us by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in the eponymous book from 1973 is sure to be dusted off and righteously denounced. Some empires have less sinister connotations, however. I am a native of one.
New York State, as some of the license plates still tell us, is “The Empire State.” This could, I suppose, soon be canceled. Yet it is still hard not to be struck by such a wonderfully boastful moniker. “Empire State”: surely there is, or was, a claim at work here that bespoke ampleness, wealth, potential, and optimism for the future. As to who first applied it and when, historians are in some doubt. Some say it was the Virginian George Washington in 1776; others say it came later in connection with the Black Ball Packet Line or the Erie Canal. As to exactly why, there’s also some doubt, but it certainly had something to do with the state’s size and population.
Virginia and New York were the biggest colonies before Independence. In the days of the early Republic, Virginia spawned presidents, but it was New York that made things—commanded trade and made money. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York achieved water-level connection between the western hinterland and the world’s greatest ocean harbor, and its imperial status seemed fixed. Along this water corridor traveled the goods and people who built communities and created wealth.
New York’s “empire” was of considerable duration. George Washington may simply have been gazing into the future when he tossed off the phrase, but the future soon enough lined up with that imperial vision, one that reached, arguably, through to the first half of the twentieth century. Since we are speaking here of non-quantifiable matters of reputation however, I propose two bookends to tighten the focus on New York’s imperial run. Both bear “empire” proudly in their names.
The successor to the water route to the interior empire was the railroad, cobbled together first by Erastus Corning and then riveted to perfection by an old waterman himself, “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt. Though Vanderbilt got his start as the humble captain of a Staten Island ferry boat (thus the nickname), he finished off as the richest man in America and the baron of the New York Central Railroad. The New York Central reached from Boston and New York west to St. Louis and Chicago, south to Louisville, and north to the tip of Michigan, connecting everything in between, in the day when the freight of the nation and virtually all passengers went by train. The “Water Level Route,” as it was called, was almost grade-free and was built for speed.
Thus the first of our two imperial bookends: the Empire State Express. The Empire State debuted in 1892, at the height of the Gilded Age, on a daylight schedule between New York City and Buffalo, with extensions soon added west along Lake Erie to Cleveland and through southern Ontario to Detroit. On May 10, 1893, pulled by Atlantic locomotive 999, the Empire State set a world speed record of 112.5 miles per hour between Batavia and Buffalo. Even after the launch of the legendary Twentieth Century Limited on the overnight run between New York and Chicago in 1902, the Empire State remained the pride of the New York Central. It wasn’t just built for speed: in its heyday, the Empire State carried four first-class parlor cars, two diners, two lounges, and eight coaches. When America still rode the rails, nothing said “Empire State” quite like the Express—the fastest, the biggest, and the best.
Well, except for the second bookend: the Empire State Building, the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Its construction in just thirteen-and-a-half months (from March 1930 to May 1931) was an affirmation of that hell-for-leather spirit for getting things done that once set Americans apart. Filling the space at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue previously occupied by the first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Empire State Building rose from bedrock to the tip-top of 1,250 feet to win the “Race to the Sky” as the tallest building in the world, a title it held for forty years. Its restoration over the past decade-and-a-half assures its future, if no longer as the biggest, then still as the best skyscraper of them all, at least in my view.
Yet if New York, in the ninety years since 1931, has not managed to conjure and construct anything equal, let alone superior, to the Empire State Building, then what has it conjured that is worthy of its old pretensions to “empire?” The UN? Lincoln Center? Empire Plaza in Albany? The Thruway? Being generous, let us say that imperial New York did not quite top out in 1931 but loped on into the late Forties and early Fifties, the years when the great trains still ran and when E. B. White was writing his love letter “Here is New York.” More generously, we might even say that the Empire State mystique lasted until the mid Sixties, when the trains were sent to the scrapyards and the wrecking ball hit Pennsylvania Station. But that was the end. Claims became too clamorous, resources too stretched, divides of culture too wide, leadership too thin. The fair wind of empire was gone.
In the twentieth century’s second half, out west where George Washington’s vision of an Empire State once had pointed—past Albany and through the industrial Upstate of Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester—New York lost headway too. In 1958, the New York Central stooped to add day coaches to the Twentieth Century Limited and in 1967 axed it from the schedule entirely. A year later, the New York Central itself vanished in an ill-starred merger with its old arch-rival, the Pennsylvania. And out in Buffalo, a once-proud industrial city and the original terminus of the Empire State Express, the notion of empire peeled away too. It left behind—in the shape of towering abandoned grain elevators along the Lake Erie waterfront and the shell of the New York Central’s magnificent 1929 Terminal Station on Paderewski Avenue—ghostly reminders of times when Buffalo announced “The Empire State” as proudly and loudly as New York City did, 440 miles back down the line.
New York’s may be the saddest reversal of reputational fortune of any of the states, or at least it is in a tie with the competition. Think of the old Big Three: New York, Illinois, and California. All in their day were meccas for millions from the world over, who came to work and to build. All were proof that assimilation into an American way of living worked. And all, in 2021, are on their knees. Though after some hiatus New York revived the nickname on the license plates, “The Empire State” now belongs to history, which is a shame. Ask many a non–New Yorker American today what he thinks of the place, and you will likely get a string of none-too-flattering judgments. This too is a shame, if it only begets forgetfulness of the reasons for past greatness. Of these, the Empire State (the building at least) is still there to remind us: just look up. If you’re not in the neighborhood, take satisfaction in two less epic signifiers of the Empire State’s greatness, which are not nothing. It was Buffalo that gave us the wings, Manhattan the cocktail. Imperium requiescat in pacem.