The oldest piece of the network of railroads that through merger and acquisition eventually became the New York Central Railroad was a section between Albany and Schenectady. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, named for the two rivers in connected, was chartered in 1826 and began service in 1831. Railroads were built piecemeal in upstate New York, but with the leadership of Erastus Corning, ten railroads merged on May 17, 1853, to form the New York Central Railroad.
The line remained under the control of Corning until 1865, when he resigned his position. Two years later, it was taken over by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who merged it with his Hudson River Railroad to form the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, under which name it operated until 1914 when it reverted to its shorter and earlier form.
A succession of Vanderbilts remained in control of the NYC until 1954. It continued to grow for decades, utilizing primarily routes that followed fairly level courses, in contrast with the more mountainous terrain that its rival the Pennsylvania Railroad followed. Its passenger trains included some of the most famous in America, including its flagship "20th Century Limited" between New York City and Chicago.
In 1954, the Vanderbilt interests lost a proxy fight with the Alleghany Corporation. Under its leader Robert Ralph Young, the railroad attempted many innovations but remained burdened by inefficiencies, regulations, taxes, and the growth of competition. Young was forced to suspend dividends in January, 1958, and committed suicide later that month.
On February 1, 1968, the New York Central was merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Pennsylvania New York Central Transportation Company, which later became the Penn Central Transportation Company. It continued to pay dividends almost until its bankruptcy, less than two years after formation.