Historic Structures

History of the Central Railroad of New Jersey Central Railroad Engine Terminal Complex, Jersey City New Jersey

Chartered in 1831, the Elisabeth and Somerville Railroad Companywas the progenitor of the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey, which resulted from a consolidation of the former with the Somerville and Easton Railroad in l847. This merger was completed in 1848, and the name formally changed in 1849. Its main line from Phillipsburg to Elizabeth was completed in 1852. Extension eastward from Elizabeth to tidewater at Jersey City was via the New-Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company's track as per an 1848 agreement.

However, the main terminal at Elizabethport on Newark Bay was too distant from the activity developing around New York Bay. The Jersey Central required a better location for delivering Pennsylvania anthracite and for servicing the predominantly New Jersey commuting clientele that was developing along the company's main line. The Jersey City/Hoboken waterfront was already monopolized by the New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company (1838) at Exchange Place, the Erie (1861) at Pavonia, and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (1862) at Hoboken. All these companies had reached tidewater by extensive and expensive cutting and tunneling through Bergen Hill.

Facing such problems, the Jersey Central secured a charter in i860 to build a waterfront terminal on New York Harbor. The low mud flats of South (Communipaw) Cove, south of Paulus Hook at the foot of Communipaw Avenue, were chosen as the new site. Instead of bridging the Hackensack and Passaic rivers and then tunneling under Bergen Hill, the Jersey Central chose to bridge Newark Bay to Bayonne, crossing south of Bergen Hill and then following the shoreline of the New York Bay northward to the South Cove. The bridge was a tremendous undertaking, spanning 9,714 feet overall. It consisted of double-tracked timber trestles leaving both shores on either side of a cast- and wrought-iron-trussed swing bridge.

By contrast, the terminal was a far more modest effort. Placed upon extensive timber pilings that were driven into fill brought in primarily from Manhattan building excavations, the terminal consisted of two structures, both of wooden construction. A train shed received approximately nine tracks west of a head house that appears to have functioned as both concourse and ferry shed. From this point the company operated ferries to Libery Street in Manhattan. At the time of the erection of the 1889 terminal, this older complex was described as "... some very shabby wooden structures which have been in use ever since the opening of the road to Jersey City in 1864." Correspondingly, as Jersey City expanded along with the railroads, its population grew from 6,856 in 1850 to 82,546 in 1870. By the turn of the century this figure stood at 206,433.

The last decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the rapid rise of Mew Jersey's suburban towns, a growth spawned by railroad linkage to New York City. A typical example of this phenomenon was the main line of the Jersey Central's service to Elizabeth, Cranford, Plainfield, Bound Brook, Somerville, Whitehouse, Lebanon, Asbury, Bloomsbury,. and Phillipsburg. Longer distance service was also available to Easton, Bethlehem, and Allentown in Pennsylvania.

The 1864 facilities quickly became inadequate, and in 1886 planning began for a new terminal. The company chose the prestigious architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns of Boston to design the buildings and give visual clarity to the entire terminal. Peabody and Stearns had already designed Boston's very successful Park Square Station of 1872-74. The architects worked within various eclectic modes but were strongly influenced by Henry Hobson Richardson's work. French Renaissance in its exterior massing and details, internally the Jersey City terminal exhibited the strength of the Romanesque, given a contemporary interpretation with tremendous iron trusses.

Structural design, track planning, and construction were supervised by William H. Peddle, chief engineer for the Jersey Central. The general contractor was V.J. Redder and Sons of New York, and the fabricator of the ironwork was the Phoenix Iron Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. The largest station project of its time, it consisted of a ferry shed of four slips, a ferry concourse all on one level, a head house, a train concourse, a train shed, a regraded yard, a new interlocking system and signal tower, and a powerhouse' that provided steam and electricity. The total expenditure for this massive project was $500,000 (The Railroad Gazette 1889: 422). Work was begun in 1887 and completed in 1889. A new Newark Bay bridge was also part of this scheme, similar to the earlier span except that one center moveable portion was a wrought-iron swing bridge. Carl Condit, in The Port of New York, states that "There was abundant evidence that the Central Railroad of New Jersey stood in the front rank of technical innovation in the last decade of the century."

In 1891 the Jersey Central ran 266 trains per weekday in and out of its new terminal. Along with its busy passenger service, it operated extensive freight and especially coal float operations south of the Communipaw terminal. Pennsylvania anthracite transversed the bay alongside the passenger ferries. The marine terminal complex represented the greatest concentration of rail faciltiies in the New York Harbor area at the turn of the century.

In 1900 the Jersey Central began to expand its South Cove operations by dredging and filling the flats south of its terminal. A bulkhead was established by sinking old canal barges filled with stones. Behind the canal boats an earthen dike was made using fill from cellar excavations. Test excavations in the 1980 HCI survey revealed that a significant amount of domestic garbage and coal cinders were also used as fill. Eventually, covered freight piers were built out from this new bulkhead.

In New York, the ferry docks of the railroad companies that operated passenger service across the harbor were located south of Christopher Street (except the West Shore Railroad, which ran to 42nd Street). With Manhattan's continued development northward, and in an unusual cooperative venture, the Jersey Central, Erie, and Lackawanna collaborated to build a new ferry terminal at West 23rd Street between 1904 and 1907. Of the essentially six slips that made up adjacent but separate terminals, the Jersey Central operated one, the Erie two, and the Lackawanna three.

At the same time as the 23rd Street terminal construction, the Jersey Central also extensively altered its Liberty Street passenger and freight terminals. This work was completed between 1905 and 1907. Having established two modernized New York ferry docking facilities at Liberty and 23rd streets by 1907, the Jersey Central's engineering staff turned to the Jersey City terminal site.

By the turn of the century, the company provided 129 ferry boat movements per day each way between Jersey City and Liberty Street and 57 movements per day each way between Jersey City and 23rd Street. Two hundred trains daily entered and left the Jersey City terminal. The total number of passengers using the terminal daily was found by one day's count to be between 27,000 and 28,000 in each direction. In addition to the Jersey Central trains, which were mostly commuter runs, the Philadelphia and Reading, the Baltimore and Ohio, and, eventually, the Lehigh Valley railroads used these passenger facilities. The Jersey Central decided to enlarge the terminal substantially, reusing the headhouse but erecting new ferry and train sheds and concourses.

In its new plans, the Jersey Central was once again technologically progressive. In 1911 it built a new three-story railway express building along .the south side of Johnston Avenue. The building was constructed of trabeated reinforced concrete sheathed with brick. Details of sills, lintels, and copings were also of concrete. The loading bays on the, first floor along the street were raised to truck height and led through the building to a railroad siding north of the train shed. The upper two floors were occupied by the railway express offices.

To upgrade its ferry service, the Jersey Central converted its ferries from one to two levels, which required the demolition of the 1889 ferry sheds and concourse and the erection of a new two-story complex. Passenger traffic was thus segregated from vehicular movement. The four slips and the old bridges were retained, but a new concrete and steel structure was built overhead.

The renovation and enlargement of the passenger terminal proper, completed in 1914, greatly eased the handling of people, ferries, and trains. The transition from a gable to a Bush train shed increased the number of passenger trains that could be accommodated and reduced maintenance. The head house was altered to create larger public spaces on either side of a central lobby. Double-story ferry concourses and sheds allowed for segregation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

However, these functional advantages came somewhat at the expense of aesthetic considerations. The Peabody and Stearns head house was dominated on the water side by the new two-story, ferry house. Although handsomely clad on its New York side, its other, less obvious parts were simply covered by corrugated metal siding. The new ramps, constructed of reinforced concrete alongside the head house, contrasted harshly with the brick and stone of the nineteenth-century structure. The integrated 1889 terminal had given way to a jumbled assemblage of disparate forms and materials.

Therefore, although the marine terminal complex was improved as a working place by the 1912-14 remodeling, it was somewhat compromised architecturally on the ferry side by those same renovations. The Beaux Arts trend in the City Beautiful movement during the early twentieth century produced great terminals at Hoboken and in New York City e.g., the Pennsylvania and New York Central terminals.

Over the next 15 to 20 years, the Jersey Central transformed the South Cove into a completely modern railroad complex. The freight yards expanded to the south and contained a coal handling facility at Pier 18 (1919; largest in existence at the time) and a dry dock operation for its extensive railroad navy at Pier 19. The passenger terminal yards were enlarged and rearranged. A new signal tower was constructed to house the interlocking machinery in the yards. A yard office tower was erected just west of the signal tower. A power plant, located north of the terminal on Johnston Avenue, was part of the 1914 improvements. On the south side of Johnston Avenue just west of the terminal, were located various storage and repair shops, including a Pullman servicing station.

Also in this post-1914- period was built a modern mail building, just south of the head house. A simple rectangle framed in steel, this building was clad in brick.

In 1914 i the Jersey Central constructed a new engine terminal at Communipaw, one mile west of the passenger terminal. The new facilities could handle as many as 300 engines per day and replaced two older such roundhouse facilities at Fiddler's Elbow and Communipaw (Railway Age Gazette 19HA: 1585). The 1914- complex at Communipaw- consisted of two roundhouses—one with 34 and one with 32 stalls, a powerhouse, a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, a storehouse and office, a material storage building, an oil house, cinder pits, a coaling station, a sand storage facility, a roundhouse office and toilet facilities, engineers' lockers, and a telephone tower. Once again the railroad company utilized the most current construction materials and methods of reinforced concrete. Here, the straightforward new design was aesthetically resolved with brick and glass infill between the concrete structures.

Railroad records for the 1910-20 period clearly show that the era of the American railroad was heading into a long decline. By 190& the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad had completed the first railroad tunnel under the Hudson River. The Pennsylvania was not far behind with its monumental undertaking of Pennsylvania Station in New York and its extensive tunnels at Weehawken. By 1920 passenger service was in a decline. After the timely stimulus of World War I and the increased use of automobiles and trucks, personal transit was preferred over mass transit. Serious blows were given to rail/ferry operations by the opening of the great Hudson River vehicular crossings: the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the George Washington Bridge.

By the late 1960s, the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads had merged into the Penn Central, and the Erie and Lac&awanna had joined forces. The Jersey Central was controlled "by the Baltimore and Ohio. Exchange Place, Harsimus Cove, and Pavonia were abandoned and/or demolished. The Aldene Plan of 1967 proposed a major consolidation of passenger railroad facilities in New Jersey. Jersey Central's trains were rerouted to Newark and the Jersey City terminal was abandoned; freight operations continued at Communipaw. The engine terminal was abandoned in 1973.