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The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment

The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment

State & National Registers of Historic Places Nomination

By Rick James, 1999

The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment carried freight across six blocks of downtown Jersey City to the Railroad’s Harsimus Yards, located on the Hudson River directly across from Manhattan Island. The embankment, which fronts and runs parallel to Sixth St., consists of six segments, each approximately 400 feet long and 100 feet wide (see Photos 18, 25). The segments were until very recently joined by plate girder bridges which spanned the intervening north-south cross-streets. The five western segments are constructed of massive masonry retaining walls and earthen fill. The easternmost segment, closest to the former Harsimus Yards, is of the same construction as the other sections at its western end, but was built largely as an earthen sloped embankment, permitting access to a coal yard railroad siding on Fifth Street. The eastern end of this segment is a stepped masonry bridge abutment (see Photos 30, 31). Because the swampy land at the foot of the Palisades is lower than that at the Hudson’s original edge, the embankment rises from a height of approximately twelve feet at its eastern end to approximately thirty-five feet at its western end.

The western three segments of the embankment abut narrow public alleys, which provide access to garages and outbuildings of row housing fronting on Fifth St. (see Photos 4, 5, 10, 12). The two alleys between Jersey Ave. and Monmouth Streets existed prior to the establishment of the rail right-of-way. The eastern three segments’ southern retaining walls form the rear or side property lines of abutting row housing (see Photos 20, 21, 27). Eastern and western exposures of all segments front on public sidewalks. Northern exposures front on a strip of packed earth and grass approximately ten feet wide (see Photos 1, 2, 3,18); the packed earth strip of the easternmost segment is only about five feet wide. A poured concrete sidewalk on the Sixth St. exposure, near Brunswick St., resembles many provided in Jersey City in the 1930s by the WPA. Near it are several mature trees.

Constructed in the period 1901-1905, the Harsimus Branch Embankment was a major component of the once predominant railroad landscape of Downtown Jersey City. It was connected to the Pennsylvania’s Main Stem by an elevated, two-track line from which it branched near the Waldo Ave. Yard. This freight line traversed the edge of the Jersey City Cemetery and an ash dump transformed into a park (Mary Benson Park), then crossed Newark Ave. and continued to Brunswick St., where it fed into the seven-track embankment. This freight line connected to a spur of the New Jersey Junction Railroad just before reaching the embankment, allowing Pennsylvania waterfront freight to be moved north at the base of the Palisades to other rail systems.

Approaching the easternmost bridge to the Harsimus Yards, embankment tracks funnelled into five that continued over the Henderson St. bridge. There is no evidence that the embankment was ever electrified. Night and day, steam powered locomotives chugged upon it above the streets of Jersey City. Heavy traffic continued into the early post World War II period (see Illustration 10). Much of the cargo was produce and cattle headed for slaughter at waterfront abattoirs. (Local lore abounds in tales of condemned animals leaping from the cars and charging through the streets.) Soon after World War II, competition from trucking and containerized shipping rendered much of Jersey City’s railroad infrastructure superfluous. Operated less intensely after the demise of the Penn-Central by Conrail, the embankment carried (if only to reverse direction) lengthy diesel powered “piggy back” container trains as recently as the early 1990s.

The embankment traversed a densely built, largely residential neighborhood with some commercial and industrial admixture. Row houses, most brick, some wood frame, predominated. Any vacant or redeveloped land was by 1900 covered with higher density “flats” or tenement housing. The adjacent residential neighborhood to the north and south of the embankment is today largely intact. Several major non-residential structures have recently been converted to residential use. The section north of the Embankment is today generally known as Hamilton Park, much of which is listed on the State and National Registers, as well as being locally designated as an historic district. The section south of the embankment is generally knows as Harsimus Cove, much of which is also listed on the State and National Registers, as well as being locally designated as an historic district. The westernmost segment of the embankment faces, across Sixth St., St Anthony’s Polish Roman Catholic Church and School Complex (Eligible for National Register, SHPO opinion, 4/13/94), as well as the circa 1900 Holy Rosary Church (see Photo 3).

To the east, the Harsimus Yards have been entirely replaced by a mixed commercial/residential redevelopment project. North of the Harsimus Yards, the Erie Railroad Yards have been entirely replaced by another residential/commercial redevelopment. The elevated line connecting the embankment to the P.R.R.’s Main Stem has been dismantled. The masonry and concrete stanchions that supported it remain, standing rather forlornly surrounded by junked vehicles and vacant land. The elevated New Jersey Junction Railroad line to the embankment has also been dismantled. In the 1970s, several blocks south of the easternmost segment of the embankment were levelled and replaced with non-profit housing. This project expanded recently into what had been the Fifth Street right-of-way, resulting in the construction of row housing extremely close to the berm of the embankment’s most eastern segment (see Photo 31).

The embankment replaced an earlier elevated iron freightway that was planned in the late 1860s and constructed in the mid-1870s. Contemporary accounts of the embankment’s construction (see Section 8) indicate that the iron freightway was used in the embankment’s construction, and that rail service to the Harsimus Yards continued throughout the period of construction. Quite possibly part or most of the freightway was left within the earthen fill. Given local soil conditions, and contemporary accounts of the construction of the slightly later Pennsylvania Railroad elevated passenger line at Railroad Avenue, Jersey City, extensive subsurface preparation, including pile driving, is assumed. At the time of the embankment’s construction, the civil engineering profession’s theoretical understanding of the lateral pressure of earthwork was quite limited (see Boardman, 1905), suggesting that the structure was designed empirically and probably “overbuilt.”

The five western segments of the embankment are similar in design, but differ in height. All have slightly battered masonry retaining walls (see Photo 6), protected by a course of slightly projecting coping blocks. The segments do, however, exhibit subtle variations in construction, especially in the choice of materials. All of the “long walls,” those running the full 400 ft.of each block east/west, are constructed of brown sandstone ashlar, laid with mortar in a random pattern (see Photos 4, 11, 12). The blocks are quarry faced; some retain quarry markings. The “short” retaining walls, running north-south approximately 100 ft. along cross-streets, are constructed of carefully coursed quarry faced ashlar, laid in mortar (see Photo 23). At the height appropriate to street clearance, these walls step back several feet, forming a masonry ledge upon which were set the seven-track plate girder bridges (see Photos 9, 13, 17). Rising above the masonry ledge is a second, recessed wall, originally largely concealed by the bridges. The masonry here has been more finely tooled to the tolerance required when setting the girder bridging. (see Photo 16).

Rust from the bridges has accumulated on the north-south coursed masonry walls, making identification of the masonry material difficult. Most, but not all of these walls are granitic in appearance below the bridge “shelf.” The walls facing Erie St., Grove St. (now Manila Ave.) and Monmouth St. are clearly granitic. Those facing Jersey Avenue, presumably the most “high style” street in terms of quality of housing, are a curious mix of sandstone and granite (see Photo 13). The single wall facing Brunswick St. is coursed brown sandstone. Above the “shelf,” tooled brown sandstone predominates. Oddly, an effort has been made at the Monmouth and Coles Street crossings, hardly “high style” streets, to continue the granitic ashlar above the shelf near the upper corners of the embankment where visible beyond the bridge (see Photo 6). The “shelf” that supported the Erie St. bridge is either composed of, or covered with concrete (see Photo 22). Some minor patching of masonry previously in touch with bridging is evident, especially on Coles St. As a rule, where the harder granitic ashlar is employed, it is continued around exterior corners (see Photo 7). The edges of the ashlars forming the corners are rebated, forming a sharp, classical “arris” (see Photo 8).

The Grove St. (today Manila Ave.) abutment of the easternmost segment is similar in design to the other five. Its southern sandstone retaining wall continues for approximately 80 feet, at which point it is intersected by a short, perpendicular sandstone wall that steps down, ziggurat style, to the ground (see Photo 28). This short wall is the retaining wall of the end of the earthen berm that continues to the Henderson St .(today Marin Blvd.) sandstone abutment. At the point where the retaining walls intersect the embankment bends slightly to the southeast. The grass and shrub covered berm appears stable on this flank. The embankment’s inflection repeats that of the earlier two-track freightway. This slight bend was probably introduced to avoid prior existing housing on the east side of Henderson St., as well as an “ink factory” on Sixth St. east of Henderson. The bend also delivered trains closer to the center of the Harsimus Yards.

The northern retaining wall of this eastern segment also continues for approximately 80 ft.; it then ceases to be covered by coping stone (see Photo 29). The sandstone wall gradually lowers as it runs parallel to Sixth St.; the sandstone appears to be displaced by lateral earth and water pressure. Finally, the sandstone is replaced by short segments of railroad ties, Belgian block, stucco covered Belgian block and concrete, all seemingly of recent construction.

At one point it appears that trucks have been driven up an eroded section of the berm.The 1908 Hopkins Atlas (see Illustration 7B) indicates that this section of the embankment was also berm, without retaining wall, and that it too bent towards the southeast. This is confirmed by the location and configuration of the Henderson St. abutment, which is clearly not constructed to interlock with a retaining wall. The narrow right triangle of land north of the berm running along Sixth St. was, according to the 1908 Atlas, covered with two sheds or outbuildings, suggesting that the confused pile of earth and masonry parallel to Sixth St. is the product of a later disturbance. Today, this narrow triangle is listed by the local Tax Assessor as “Class 2 Railroad Property,” distinguishing it from the “Class 1” property of the Harsimus Branch Main Stem. Conversely, the Sanborn Co. 1906 basemap indicates that a “three foot high stone retaining wall” continued parallel to Sixth St. all the way to Henderson St.. The Sanborn does not indicate any outbuildings at the corner of Sixth and Henderson, nor does the 1928 Hopkins Atlas show any such buildings. It might be supposed that, because the Pennsylvania owned sufficient land on this block, it did not need to go the great expense of the masonry retaining wall to construct its seven-track embankment. It had the land to allow the earth to assume the angle of repose, removing the need for the retaining wall. Had the same approach been taken in the other blocks, the bermed earth would have severely reduced the number of tracks fitting on the structure.

With the exception of the aforementioned section of non-original and disturbed material, the masonry of the entire embankment is in remarkably sound condition. None appears to have ever been parged. The sandstone exhibits some areas of spalling, but this certainly does not threaten structural integrity. Some cracks due to differential settlement are also detectable, especially near the Monmouth St. abutments. One large block of sandstone was apparently displaced during the recent bridge removal at Jersey Ave. and Sixth St. It sits on the ground.

All tracks and ties have been removed from all segments of the embankment, as have any vestiges of signaling, switching or watering systems. Regularly spaced metal flats remain attached to the upper surface of the coping along much of the northern retaining wall. Tall grasses and the quicker growing sorts of shrubs and trees have spread over much of the fill. All plate girder bridges have very recently been removed, chain link fencing has been attached to the coping at north-south cross-streets. There is some evidence that the bridges were strengthened or replaced soon after initial construction (Jersey Journal, Want the P.R.R. to Remove Shoring, Oct 15, 1913), so that the removed bridges, while, quite old, were not original. The problematic 1906 Sanborn indicates a square brick building for “yard men” set upon the embankment at the corner of Brunswick St. and Sixth St. Neither the 1908 nor the 1928 Hopkins Atlas shows any such building. The 1906 Sanborn also indicates a seven-track bridge at Henderson to the Harsimus Yards; the Hopkins Atlases depict five tracks.

With the exception of the aforementioned removals and disturbances, the Harsimus Branch Embankment is very much as built almost one hundred years ago. It appears to have satisfied the Pennsylvania Railroad’s stated program of enduring, low maintenance civil engineering. It clearly possesses integrity of location, design, materials and workmanship. The adjacent residential setting, broadly contemporary with its period of significance, is remarkably intact, providing a rare surviving feeling of the intimate association between the railroads and daily life in Railroad Age Jersey City. The precipitate elimination of much of the related railroad landscape and architecture does make the Embankment initially more difficult to interpret as a component of a rail system. Conversely, its rarity as survivor makes it especially deserving of protection.

The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment is significant in American transportation history; it enabled a major trunk rail line to establish a large freight yard on the Hudson River, contributing greatly to the growth of the Port of New York and New Jersey. The embankment, part of what would become “the largest transportation system in the country,” (Schotter, p.1) facilitated the dedication of most of the Jersey City Hudson waterfront to rail and rail-related uses, significantly inflecting the social and political history of the City, as well as its physical outline. The driving of a busy freight line through an already established, largely middle/artisanal class residential neighborhood, coupled with the concomitant physical separation of the neighborhood from its original Hudson shoreline, makes both the advent of the original elevated freightway (c. 1867) and its expansion into the-seven track embankment (c. 1901) key moments in the social, political and community planning history of Jersey City, New Jersey. Landscape historian John Stilgoe, in his influential Metropolitan Corridor (Stilgoe, 1983), depicts the extension of metropolitan space into the rural hinterland. The Harsimus Branch Embankment is a classic instance of the less studied converse: the accommodation of the “high iron” by the metropolis. Additionally, the embankment was constructed under the direction of James J. Ferris, A.S.C.E., a major figure in both the civil engineering and political history of Jersey City.

Originally, those sections of the Harsimus Branch Embankment falling within the study area of the Harsimus Cove Historic District were included within the proposed district. This proposal (Harsimus Cove Historic District [As Proposed], 1982), the product of research by a team of graduate students from Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, presented the “viaduct” [sic] as a “landmark in and gateway to the district (Ibid., p.1). The Harsimus Cove Historic District northern boundary was drawn down the midpoint of Sixth Street: “The Sixth Street Boundary, therefore, will insure the inclusion and full protection of this landmark and link Harsimus Cove with the Hamilton Park Historic District to the North” (Ibid. pp. 1-2). The 1982 study tersely states: “The Harsimus Cove Historic District provides an excellent example of the influence of Railroads” (Ibid., p.22).

The Harsimus Cove National Register Nomination Form (Sullebarger Associates, 1987) did not include the embankment within the proposed district because: (1) it would have been “arbitrary to consider part but not all of the viaduct” [sic]–two western segments and one eastern segment are not contiguous with the Harsimus District boundaries. (2) the railroad was a “distinct use.” The Nomination Form does, however, describe the “viaduct” as the “northern boundary of the district” (Ibid., Item 10, p.2). The earlier study’s determination of “landmark” status for the embankment, as well as its assessment of the historic import of the railroads in Harsimus Cove are not contested in the later document. Indeed, the Nomination points out that “the growth of Harsimus Cove was greatly influenced by the development of the railroads” (Ibid, Item 8, p. 9.).

Jersey City circa 1850 could scarcely be characterized as a railroad town. Since the late 1830s the tiny engines of the New Jersey Railroad had traversed the circuitous, 40 foot deep cut in the Palisades and crossed the lowlands via the unsurprisingly named Railroad Avenue on their way to the Hudson ferries, but an examination of the Douglass (1841) or Dripps (1850) maps reveals a very mixed economy in the nascent city. Maritime and proto-industrial land uses seem to have predominated at the Hudson’s edge, mercantile and residential inland. Local directories reveal both a New York oriented and local merchant communities, as well as a large population involved in the building trades and support establishments. Much of Jersey City’s economic energy seems to have been employed in the construction, furnishing, rental and sale of rows of attached houses. In the area immediately inland from Harsimus Cove (then literally a cove, or “mud flats”), property developers, such as D. S. Gregory, the Coles family or the Sisson family built rows of attached residences. Soon the two-story and basement vernacular Greek Revival home gave way to the rather more elaborate three-story and basement pressed brick Italianate model. By the mid 1860s, this area would be substantially “built out,” (Culver map, 1866/8), though the odd vacant lot would remain. Churches and schools, by-products of an established community, abounded.

At approximately the same time that this section west of Harsimus Cove was developing into a residential neighborhood, the emergent regional railroads, having grown powerful through a process of takeover, lease and aggregation, sought access to New York City. The region’s vast internal market, New England rail connections and port were the goals. In the way stood the basalt of the Palisades and the rapidly growing lowland City of Jersey City (see Condit, 1981, and Cunningham, 1997).

The Erie Railroad began four years of tunneling through Palisade basalt in 1857; the Long Dock Improvement Co. began filling in the northern reaches of Harsimus Cove for the Erie’s yards and passenger station. Emerging from the eastern mouth of its Bergen Hill tunnel, the Erie’s trains moved at grade through Jersey City north of 10th Street, a largely swampy section not yet densely populated. In the mid 1860s the Central Railroad of New Jersey drove almost two miles of pilings across Newark Bay, traversed the still largely rural Greenville and began to fill in shallow Communipaw Cove with New York garbage. In 1867 The Camden & Amboy and New Jersey Railroad joined forces as the United Railroad and Canal Company. It immediately began campaigning for the right to fill in Harsimus Cove, which lay north of their terminal at Exchange Place–itself created on fill. The former New Jersey Railroad double track running at grade down Railroad Avenue to Exchange Place was doubtless totally inadequate for the combined passenger and freight traffic of the United, especially when combined with the New York bound freight of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, whose freight the United was handling. As the C. & A. had successfully done numerous times before, the United sought a legislative privilege. This legislative request would act as a flash point for a cluster of smouldering local grievances that would set the parameters of much political discourse in Jersey City for the next 100 years. These included: preferential taxation of railroads, state ownership of riparian rights, railroad control of the state legislature and railroad indifference to the quality of life in Jersey City.

In 1868, the United Railroad and Canal Co. sought a legislative enabling act that would have permitted it to purchase, fill and cover with a freight yard and piers much of Harsimus Cove. The company would also have been allowed to select and take through condemnation a route of its choice between its main line and the proposed Harsimus Yards. News of the “Harsimus Bill” (Senate Bill #84) sparked a round of sharp local protest and a rare demonstration of unity in the usually politically fractious City (see Platt, 1973). Initially, the local American Standard decried the “Great Railroad Grab Bill” (The American Standard, Feb. 24, 1868, p. 3). Angry protest meetings, initiated by then-Mayor Gopsill, the Common Council and locally prominent attorneys and businessmen met in the Council Chamber and at the Catholic Institute. (Confessional and immigrant/nativist schisms don’t seem to have colored the protests.) Lobbying missions sixty strong descended upon Trenton. One faction opposed the Harsimus Bill in toto, others sought substantial modification. Many subscribed to attorney James Flemming Jr.’s suspicions: “There are many things in this bill which need ventilation, it is very ingeniously drawn” (Ibid.).

Bill opponents recognized that, while silent on the taxation issue, the bill would greatly magnify the harm done to cities by its implicit extension of New Jersey’s singular system of municipal tax exemption for railroads. Most early railroads in New Jersey had been created by special charter; their payment of taxes or transit duties to the State was judicially held to satisfy all–including local– tax obligations, municipalities being creations of the State. (For a discussion of the legal theories involved, see McLoughlin, 1917). The proposed yards, as well as the new rail route through existing, tax paying private property, would yield no revenue for Jersey City. Some local residents owning property on Harsimus Cove, such as John Van Vorst, objected to the State’s “usurpation” of “traditional abutters’ rights” and the imposition of the common law based Sovereign’s rights to riparian land. In short, the State was taking what local residents had thought theirs. Others objected to the City’s losing all right to impose “wharfage rates” on private owners of piers, or to the City’s losing control over the establishment of streets and sewers on private railroad land.

Residents of the (then) 4th Ward, the residential neighborhood just west of the cove, realized that their neighborhood was the likely route for the new freight line. Attorney George Ransom declared, “They are allowed to open a street one hundred feet wide, which is their intention, to locate on the north side of the blocks between South Fifth (today, Fourth) and South Sixth St. (today, Third)” (Ibid.). It should be noted that the Catholic Institute, host to many protest meetings, was then located on South Sixth St., near St. Mary’s Church. Many church members would have lived in the threatened neighborhood. Ransom’s predicted route would have also taken the railway through the then only 14 year old P.S. 2. Residents’ perception of a rail route through their neighborhood would have been colored by the contemporary situation on Railroad Avenue–by 1860 locomotives chugged out of the Exchange Place Depot every 10 minutes during the day and every 15 minutes at night, with a similar number moving in the opposite direction (Cunningham, 1997, p. 255). Hence, residents blistered at Flemming’s observation: “They are to elevate their railroad if they see fit, consequently if they want to put it up they will and if not they will lace it upon the level of the street” (The American Standard, Feb. 14, 1868, p. 3). In an effort to allay local fears, D. S. Gregory, often described as Jersey City’s “leading citizen” (and not coincidentally a Director of the New Jersey Railroad), announced “he was confident that the road could not come down South Fifth Street, but would turn off from the New Jersey road at the starch factory and go through the poorest section of the City” (Ibid.). Presumably, the “starch factory” was the long-established Colgate Starch Factory, located in a marshy area on Brunswick Street, near what would become the core of Jersey City’s “Italian Colony.” Even Gregory opposed, at least in public, the municipal tax and wharfage exemptions to be granted the United R.R.. Clearly, he understood the character of the threatened neighborhood. His solution was to find a poorer section.

The City’s Common Council proposed its own Harsimus Bill amendments (The American Standard, March 2, 1868, p. 3):

  1. all property in the Bill shall be locally taxable
  2. city sewers shall not be closed up
  3. Hudson Street (parallel to the waterfront) shall be opened
  4. owners shall be indemnified for property depreciation
  5. The power to condemn private property shall only last one year
  6. The road shall be elevated.


Meeting at the Catholic Institute, protesters adopted a resolution, providing:

  1. That the company should be compelled to take the additional land required for their use adjoining Railroad Avenue.
  2. If the above can not be accomplished, and the road must come through the populous part of Jersey City, then they be compelled to take an entire tier of blocks in width and then to locate their road in the centre of the block, with authority to sell the houses as erectedfronting on the street running east and west thereby reimbursing themselves and retaining in the city a large amount of taxable property, which otherwise would be destroyed. (Ibid., March 10, 1868, p.3).


The Senate passed the Harsimus Bill unanimously on March 13, 1868. The House passed it, 50-3, on March 19, but not after some debate. Proponents of compensation for property owners within two hundred feet of the projected railway argued that “the road would damage a portion of the city that is now very handsomely built up.” Opponents of compensation replied that “It may be an advantage to the places the road passes through.” Representative Baldwin “believed that this spot in time would be the Terminus of the Great Pacific Railroad, and he felt very proud of having it located in New Jersey” (Ibid., March 20, 1868, p. 2). The United was forced to pay the State $500,000 for the riparian land. The following year, this sort of transaction would be institutionalized in the creation of the Riparian Commission. The City received several concessions: the new rail route had to be defined by Jan. 1, 1869, the City could build sewers on company land, and the new road had to be elevated at least 12 feet above grade. The United prevailed on the major issues of taxation, compensation and condemnation.

On March 20, 1868, legislators were treated to a trip to Jersey City and sail on the Hudson, courtesy of the United Railroad. Whether this is an early example of a legislative fact finding tour, or simply a reward for services rendered is difficult to ascertain. At the hotel dinner concluding the visit, a champagne toast was offered to the health of “William Harsimus.” Legislators were disappointed that Jim Fisk, the railroad manipulator ensconced in the hotel to avoid New York arrest, did not grant them an audience. Jersey City officials were conspicuously absent from the Exchange Place celebration, after which part of the legislative delegation departed for New York to continue the evening.

Opponents of the new law, now labeled the “Indignants” in the local press, pressed on in an effort to mount a legal challenge. Newspaper accounts present these meetings as angry and divided. Mayor Gopsill is “aghast” at the “strong language” employed by the ultras. At one point, he is “hissed from the chair” (Ibid., March 26, 1868, p.3). Someone suggests that Hudson County Senator Winfield, sponsor of Bill 84, be “removed by the dagger.” Here it should be noted that The American Standard had softened considerably in its opposition to the “Great Railroad Grab Bill.” Prior to the Senate vote it editorialized:

In the plan of our growth as a city, we must start out by conceding the Low Lands upon the rivers as dedicated by force of topography to the occupation of the Railways as truly as our Harbor is dedicated to the holding of ships…. The people say ‘you are going to run over my lot.’ Well, answers the corporation, we have to run over somebody’s lot, or not run at all; which would you have us do? (Ibid., Jersey City and the Railway, March 19, 1868, p.2).)

The acquisition of the United Railroad by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1871 (technically a 999-year lease) provided the infusion of capital needed to accomplish those projects envisioned in the Harsimus Bill. The residents of the “conceded Low Lands,” since 1870 the residents of a greatly enlarged City encompassing the former Hudson City and Bergen, now had to achieve a modus vivendi with “America’s Standard Railway.” The Pennsylvania, which had, through affiliates, recently achieved connection with centers such as St. Louis, Cincinnati and Chicago, would now carry livestock and grain from America’s heartland and freight from the industrial centers of western Pennsylvania across the residential streets of Lower Jersey City.

As the United and the Pennsylvania Railroads were closely connected in the years immediately preceding the “lease,” it is difficult to ascribe responsibility for the final Harsimus Branch route selection to one company or the other. Clearly, D. S. Gregory’s ascription of “impossibility” (political or mechanical) to a route through the immediately adjacent neighborhood was incorrect. A map dated 1870, entitled Cities of Hudson City and Bergen by R. C. Bacot, L.W. Post and J. Camp, Jr., also shows the Downtown section (See Illustration 1). Tracks running from the original N.J.R.R. line cross the Harsimus section between South Third (today Sixth) and South Fourth (today Fifth) Streets. The track, closer to Sixth than Fifth Streets, is labelled “Camden & Amboy and N.J.R.R..” Curiously, a partially filled Harsimus Cove is labelled “United Railroad of N.J..” It appears that the legislative deadline for route selection was met. The projected route sliced through seven blocks. The western two, close to the Mill Creek lowlands, appear to have been largely unimproved. The easternmost block was covered largely with frame sheds. The central four were solidly residential, though not fully built-out on the Sixth Street side. The mid-block route is very much like that demanded by the Catholic Institute protesters’ resolution; there is no evidence that adjacent propertyholders on the Fifth St. side of the railway were either compensated or offered the option of being “bought out.” An examination of the Spielmann and Brush 1880 Sanitary and Topographical Map reveals the likely underlying cause of the selection of the Fifth/Sixth Street route: a prong of swampland extended eastward from the Palisades beyond Jersey Avenue (See Illustration 2). Higher, drier land had been developed earlier, and presented greater political and economic resistance: rows of solid housing, several substantial churches and a masonry public school. The “softer” route presented its own engineering difficulties.

Robert C. Bacot, engineer, surveyor and sometime architect, was a major figure in the civil engineering of the nascent Jersey City. He platted many of the large landholdings in the early city, and saw to the subdivision of the Coles, Van Vorst, Tonnele and Van Wagenen estates. He was responsible for the grading of streets and the installation of much of the original sewer system. An engineering graduate (1835) with considerable experience in his early career in railroad construction, he served as Secretary and Engineer to the New Jersey Legislature’s Riparian Committee (1864) and filed the report that led to the creation of the Riparian Commission, which he served from its inception as Secretary and Engineer. McLean writes that “between 1870 and 1880 he (Bacot) purchased the right of way for the New Jersey Railroad and Canal Company, involving an expenditure of about $2,000,000” (McLean, 1895, pp.350-351). Bacot knew this terrain well; his own “carpenter gothic” house stood (and still stands) at the corner of Third St. and Jersey Ave., as close to the suspected route of the railway as the Catholic Institute. He had in all probability played a role in the early row housing built by Coles on Fourth St., which stood directly in the railroad’s putative path.

The generally accurate Hopkins Atlas (1873) presents the disturbing two dimensional depiction of a railroad running through existing buildings fronting on the north-south streets as the Branch threads its way between the buildings facing Fifth and Sixth Streets (See Illustrations 3A, 3B, 3C). Presumably, this was intended to indicate the future route to be established following purchase of the intercepting structures.

H. W. Schotter, in his 1927 “house history” of the Pennsylvania Railroad, tells us that 1874 saw a new passenger station built at Exchange Place, the great extension of the freight receiving and forwarding facilities at Harsimus Cove, and “…the new railroad to connect with the Harsimus Cove property was also ready for use in the same year…” (Schotter, p. 124). This new line branched from the main line near Waldo Avenue, isolating a small residential enclave on the “hill” that is still known as “The Island.” The fledgling Jersey City Evening Journal observed that in December,1872 the Pennsylvania Railroad was paying $13,720 in local property taxes on land “which is to be used for new track, but the payment of taxes on this will cease next May.” (Evening Journal, Dec. 24, 1872). In 1873 industrial expansion across the U.S. was sharply curtailed following the sharp financial panic of that year, precipitated by a “crash” in railroad security prices. Presumably, this slowed the Pennsylvania’s construction schedule.

A slim volume published in 1875 entitled Jersey City, Hudson County, the Railroad Centre of the East contains a fragile fold-out map of significant rail lines (See Illustration 4). The Harsimus Branch of the “P.R.R.” is depicted, except that one block (Erie St. to Jersey Ave.) is shown as started but not yet completed. The intervening structures shown on the 1873 Hopkins have been eliminated. This Railroad Centre map confirms Schotter’s date, and is about as close as one gets in this sort of archival research to a photograph of a work in progress. It should be recalled that this 1874/5 date is only five or six years later than the experimental elevation of small cable and steam powered locomotives on the far west side of Manhattan. (Holt, 1972). The early elevated lines in New York, of course, were not intended for freight traffic.

The elevated Harsimus freightway, and its successor embankment, are early manifestations of what planning historian Françoise Choay calls “a theory especially favored during the second half of the nineteenth century: the separation of traffic systems” (Choay, 1969, p. 23). Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) had proposed a circumferential glass-enclosed roadway as a means of linking London’s rail stations; the arcade to be flanked by multiple levels of express and local trains. This “Great Victorian Way” was never built, but several years later Frederick Law Olmstead did introduce both horizontal and vertical separation of traffic networks in Central Park. The late twentieth century observer, in retrospect, tends to fix upon the deleterious effects of such multi-level transportation systems, as did many contemporary adjacent property owners. Such engineering work also exercised an utter fascination over the late nineteenth century public. With the advent of the Third Avenue elevated railroad in New York, it seemed quite natural to the Central Park Superintendent to cut vistas through the trees so that the public might admire the engineering marvel (Blackmar and Rosenzweig, 1994, p. 288).

Another sheet, Map of Jersey City and Hoboken Showing Lands Occupied by Railroad Corporations (1882), shows, through color coding, that the P.R.R. by this time owned all of the northern half of the blocks intercepted by the Harsimus Branch line from Newark Ave. to the Harsimus Yards. This would seem to corroborate McLean’s assertion that Bacot had succeeded in obtaining all of the property for the railroad in the 100 foot swath to the yards. A search of deeds by county block number in the Hudson County Registry shows that few properties in the right of way were acquired by the railroad after 1887. Given the lack of earlier corporate grantee indices, it is extremely difficult to trace earlier purchases by block.

The highly detailed 1883 Bird’s Eye View of Jersey City confirms the presence of a two track elevated structure threading its way along the rear of buildings between Fifth and Sixth Streets to the Harsimus Yards (See Illustration 5). Truss type bridges cross north-south streets–some of the trusses seem to lie above the railway, some below. While it is natural to trust one’s eye when studying a work as meticulously detailed as the 1883 Bird’s Eye, it ought to be remembered that detail is not a guarantee of authenticity. The P.R.R.’s line down Railroad Avenue also seems to run on truss bridges, but we know from many sources that the line was not elevated until the early 1890s. Fowler’s 1887 Atlas also confirms the route of the two track freight route ( See Illustrations 6A and 6B).

While the 1883 Bird’s Eye does confirm that the P.R.R. had lived up to the elevation amendment in the Harsimus Bill, it is not conclusive on the material employed in construction. We do know that wooden track elevation was commonly employed in the marshland at the base of the Palisades. However, a brief reference in an 1891 Engineering News article describing the new P.R.R. passenger shed and Railroad Ave. track elevation mentions the earlier Harsimus work. The bulk of the P.R.R.’s freight, we are told, “is deflected from the main line … to the Harsimus Cove branch, a double track line crossing Jersey City on an iron viaduct and terminating at the docks and yards on the water front. This viaduct for the freight traffic was built before the one used for passenger traffic was undertaken” (Engineering News, Sept. 26, 1891). We further learn that all P.R.R. ironwork was painted with red oxide of iron, though exception was made for the Railroad Ave. viaduct, which, in deference to the adjacent Joseph Dixon Co., was painted with the latter’s glossy black paint. Three years earlier (June 25, 1887), Engineering News had published a cross section of the design employed in the later track elevation; the earlier design is not published. The Railroad Ave. design employed longitudinal plate girders supported by transverse plate girders, these carried on columns. The columns are carried on masonry piers bedded on three foot thick slabs of concrete, 11 feet square. Where needed, pilings were driven to support the concrete slabs, 16 per column. Some pilings penetrated to a depth of 50 feet.

Given the marshy conditions on the western portion of the freight line, it seems likely a similar treatment was required, especially when the greater weight of the freight trains is considered.

The Harsimus Yards served by the new freight line were said to have cost “several millions of dollars” and “exceed in their magnitude anything of the kind on the continent” (Shaw, 1884, p. 196). The yards, embracing 1100 feet of Hudson River frontage, contained stockyards (1300 feet by 225 feet), and an abattoir. The stockyards could receive and deliver 500 cars a day. A 180 foot by 1500 foot water slip ran the length of the stockyards and the abattoir. A 1500 foot long pier contained a grain elevator. A separate grain pier and sheds could transfer 150 car loads of grain daily. Another 80 foot tall warehouse held freight. Tracks connected with car floats over float bridges, allowing transfer of entire cars across the River (Ibid.).

From an 1882 P.R.R. publication arguing the Company’s position on the municipal tax question (Exemptions of Railroad Property…, 1882), we glean a statement of “manpower” at the Yards. On average, 145 men worked in the grain elevator, 45 maintained track, 8 were carpenters, 21 inspected cars, 66 handled freight trains and 400 worked the piers and warehouses. Of the 685 workers, 88% were said to live in Jersey City. To their number might be added that of Frank McNally, the Harsimus Yardmaster from the day it opened in 1874 to his retirement in 1904, when the elevated track had just been replaced by the embankment. McNally, who was also a force in local Democratic Party politics, lived at 644 Jersey Ave., perhaps two hundred feet from the Harsimus Branch. Living even closer to the freight line were the successive Superintendents of the New York Division of the P.R.R.. They were housed in a substantial, detached brick-and-stone house on the southwest corner of Jersey Ave. and Sixth Street, doubtless acquired by the railroad as part of the branch acquisition. This served as upper-end company housing. James McCrea, who would succeed Alexander Cassatt as President of the Pennsylvania and oversee the completion of the Pennsylvania Station, New York project, passed his Superintendency living in the company house with the elevated railway in the backyard (Burgess and Kennedy, pp. 517-18).

Today, there is a tendency to view the Harsimus residential neighborhood through the refracting glass of later social decay, and to impute precipitous decline to railroad penetration. Descent seems to have been far more gradual, and its causality more diverse. Vacant lots continued to attract residential development, first four story “flat” style buildings with floor-through apartments, then, near 1900, slightly larger “apartment houses” of sound construction and modern mechanical features, such as steam heat. The row houses of Jersey Avenue remained desirable addresses for such worthies as Col. Asa Dickinson, the county Republican “boss” (638 Jersey Ave.), and furniture merchant and Mayor Hoos, who lived at Third and Jersey. Dickinson’s “club” met at 630 Jersey Ave., at the northeast corner of Sixth and Jersey; the ward Democratic Club met on Sixth Street near Jersey Ave.. Compared to the “carnage” occurring with great regularity at the Erie R.R. grade crossings at Tenth St., adjacent to the now densely populated “Horseshoe” (documented in almost loving detail by the local press) the elevated P.R.R. line might have seemed more neighborhood accomplishment than ruin. In the constant agitation to compel the Erie to elevate its tracks, not accomplished until the first decade of the twentieth century following the Bergen Arches compromise, the Pennsylvania was generally cited as the good corporate citizen. There is some evidence that, faced with the noise of the 7-track embankment’s construction, local residents regretted their previously quiet elevated freight road. “Cars were drawn through as quietly as possible and great care was taken to avoid any objectionable features that the road might bring with it” (Evening Journal, May 12, 1902). Conversely, we know that those railroad-owned homes on Sixth Street closest to the railroad were deemed of little economic value: “For years past it has been almost impossible to find tenants for many of them, owing to the disturbance kept up by the locomotives of freight trains during the early hours of the morning” (Ibid.,April 3, 1901).

The P.R.R. seems to have provoked local residents less with its branch line than with the blocking off of local sewer lines at the Yard. As described by A. McLean in his anti-railroad diatribe Fifty-Years’ War for Equal Taxation, (McLean, 1897), a midnight rainfall on the night of Sept. 23, 1882 backed up sewage water into “hundreds of homes.” Apparently, this was the first significant rainfall occurring at high tide since the original sewers emptying into Harsimus Cove had been capped by the Railroad. By 2 a.m., “hundreds of householders were out in the streets, mad as hornets.” “Mass meetings” led to the Fire Department being called to pump out the sewers; “gangs of men” went out into the “meadows” and “broke out” the ends of the sewers. McLean notes that the impacted area, “only 1800 square feet” [sic] was “the most populous part of the state,” with a population of 24,000.

The population of Jersey City increased from 82,546 in 1870 to 206,433 in 1900 (Condit, 1981, p. 373). Much of this increase, of course, is attributable to European immigration. We do know, from discussions of the overcrowding at the “ancient” #2 School, that much of the neighborhood’s population increase was attributed to the conversion of private homes to apartments (Evening Journal, Feb. 19, 1896). In a time when most walked to work, it must be assumed that an increasing portion of the local population worked at the adjacent Harsimus Yards, or the Erie Yards, or at the rail-related warehouses and express companies in the adjacent Warehouse district. To them, the rattle of an elevated freight yard was less an annoyance than the promise of a paycheck.

As population swelled in the adjacent neighborhood, so did freight traffic on the two-track elevation. By 1900 the P.R.R., long recognized as the “best system in the nation,” (Cunningham, 1997, p. 252) was near the apogee of its wealth and prestige. The Harsimus Branch Embankment is one remaining example of a series of related improvements executed by the company at Jersey City, encompassing the enormous iron and glass train shed, head house and ferry slips at Exchange Place, the Railroad Ave. elevation and the Waldo and Greenville yards. (See Condit, 1981, Chapter 5, for an excellent description.) The Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. of 1901 (partially reprinted in Engineering News, March 13, 1902), describes for shareholders new projects ranging from stations in Washington and Pittsburgh to the possible driving of an electrified tunnel under the Hudson. It also alludes to “a very large amount of work upon the main line and branches of the United Railroads of New Jersey.” One small portion of this work was the replacement of the elevated iron freight road to the Harsimus Yards with a 100 feet wide, 7 track embankment contained within sandstone retaining walls almost thirty feet high.

Like the concurrent expansion of the Harsimus Yards, the Harsimus Branch Embankment project was carried out upon railroad-owned land. Few government approvals were required, other than permission to erect some temporary shoring under trestles until new plate-girder bridges could be dropped into place from the railroad. These requests provoked no public outcry. The coverage in the local press was routine. The railroad and engineering trade press was much more interested in the P.R.R.’s massive Greenville Yards project (another attempt to deal with the company’s huge freight volume), and the final realization of extensive track elevation in Newark. The local press accounts of the embankment’s construction were written by generalist reporters; they are in places tantalizingly vague. These accounts are supplemented by near-contemporary depictions in the 1906 Sanborn Company publication and the 1908 Hopkins & Company Atlas of Hudson County, Vol. 1. (See Illustrations 7A and 7B)

The Jersey City Evening Journal announced on April 3, 1901, that the P.R.R. had taken the “initial steps in the matter of widening its tracks between Henderson St. and Jersey Ave.” (Pennsylvania R.R. to Widen Roadbed, April 3, 1901, p. 2). All tenants on Sixth St. had been served notice to vacate by May 1. The reader is informed that “the railroad company has had the forthcoming operations in view for a long time past, but leases stood in the way.” The Journal states that one additional track was planned as far west as Erie St., but it is suggested that “an extra double freight track to the foot of the hill will be a material fact in a year or so.”

On May 4, 1901, we learn that “the P.R.R. has commenced to tearing down the recently vacated dwelling houses … between Grove and Erie…” (Pennsylvania RR Widening Tracks, p. 4). No mention is made in these stories of the replacement of the existing structure with an embankment. The only recorded protest is from “angry residents” claiming that the proposed wider railroad bridge at Grove St. would interfere with the passage of the Grove St. trolley (Depression of Grove St, April 5, 1901, p. 4).

By June 1, 1901, the public was informed of the “massive retaining wall” to be complemented with a second wall running down the rear property line of the houses on the north side of Fifth St. Solid earth filling will be placed between the two. This new structure would run the entire length of the “present trestle,” and accommodate 7 tracks. Sanford & Stillman, the Contractors, would commence work “early next week.” The project would take “two years or thereabouts…. Each stone used will weigh nearly a ton, and the wall when completed would be a very massive structure.” (P.R.R.’S Massive Retaining Wall, June 1, 1901, p. 4).

The headquarters of Sanford & Stillman Co., Contractors, was in the Pennsylvania’s Exchange Place office building, 26 Exchange Place. This was the successor firm to David S. Cofrode, “bridge and dock builder,” listed in the Jersey City Directory since 1884. Cofrode is listed as living in Philadelphia. A Joseph H. Cofrode and Francis H. Saylor, “bridge builders,” maintained offices nearby at 104 Hudson St. At David Cofrode’s death in 1886 his general manager, Frank M. Stillman, of Rahway, New Jersey, reorganized the firm as Sanford and Stillman. Stillman was president; Arthur E. Sanford, of Newark, New Jersey was Secretary. In 1888 James J. Ferris was recalled to Jersey City by Stillman and named General Superintendent of the company. The firm would eventually be named Stillman, Delehanty and Ferris. As such it would remain listed in the Jersey City phone directory until at least 1943.

By September 26, 1901, the northern retaining wall between Grove St. and Erie St. was reported “almost completed,” that section between Grove and Henderson “half finished.” It had taken almost four months to complete 600 feet of relatively low retaining wall. “About two years” was still the project’s anticipated completion date. “In the meantime, the operations now in progress are furnishing employment for a large force of expert stonecutters, stone layers and laborers. The men engaged are the best of their kind, and they are being paid the highest rate of wages.” (Houses Must Make Way for RR, Sept. 26, 1901, p. 12).

Meanwhile, the P.R.R. was offering for sale frame and brick houses still standing on the south side of Sixth St. from Erie to Brunswick to anyone willing to remove them intact to another site. It is entirely possible that some houses in the vicinity of the embankment began their life-cycle on the construction site. We also know that some buildings didn’t make it off the site intact. As early as October 12, 1901, an apartment house being constructed by a Mr. English at 304 Montgomery St., Jersey City, was described as being built from bricks salvaged from houses torn down “to make way for the stone structure for the Harsimus Branch of the P.R.R..” (Apt House Property For Sale, Oct. 12, 1901).

By the end of April, 1902, “rapid progress” was still being made, but much remained to be done. The railroad had been forced, after the commencement of the project, to buy houses on what had been considered P.R.R. property. $9,000 was paid for a house on the southwest corner of Sixth and Erie, and a like amount for another near the corner of Sixth and Jersey. No explanation is offered in the deeds for these transactions. By this time the “handsome dwelling” in which the succession of P.R.R. supervisors had resided was being demolished (P.R.R. Pushing Work on New Freight Line, April 25, 1902, p.2).

In May, 1902, a letter was published from a group of irate 3rd Ward residents (ward boundaries had been changed in 1894). They refer to an earlier petition to Mayor Hoos from “propertyholders,” objecting to “the noise in general made on the elevated freight road here in the heart of our city.” Harking back to a halcyon past that ended more than one year ago, the propertyholders take exception to “Engines running day and night at a high rate of speed … ringing their bells as they go for blocks at a time … jamming the cars together and making even brick buildings tremble.” They remind the Mayor that “the drilling of cars here in a residential portion of our city was never dreamt of…. Engines are allowed to stand here working their blowers, thereby permitting great quantities of smoke and cinders to escape.” (They Can’t Sleep Because of Trains, May 12, 1902, p. 5).

Although the massive retaining walls had been rising for over a year, the protesters don’t mention this obvious cause for a shift in conditions. The embankment’s construction doesn’t seem to phase them–as the “drilling of cars” surely does. The letter does confirm that traffic on the original elevated line was maintained, if not intensified, during construction. At a certain point, the four retaining walls must have been joined, fill dumped from overhead cars and tamped down. While there is no mention in the local press of the driving of pilings, excavation for footings or the compaction of the fill, considerable sub-surface preparation must have been required on the lowland site. The freight road was doubtless used to deliver masonry, fill, construction equipment and bridging. It is entirely likely that some or all of the original iron elevated roadway is encased within the fill of the embankment.

In June, 1902 the Street and Water Board allowed the P.R.R. to erect a “temporary trestle” across Erie St.. Soon, “the immense embankment is to enclose the freight lines along Sixth St.” (P.R.R.’S Great Work Along Sixth Street, June 11, 1902, p. 3). Presumably, the temporary trestle would resolve differences of grade between the old road and the new.

In July of 1902, a 115-ton girder that was to have formed part of the Coles St. bridge “extension” snapped the 1 1/4-inch wire from which it was suspended from a railway derrick . The girder and the derrick–the P.R.R.’s heaviest–crashed into Coles St., coming into contact with street electric wires. “Thousands” gathered at the scene (115 Tons of Iron Falls from Trestle, July 21, 1902). The Jersey City Police Commissioner, who lived nearby, came very close to electrocuting himself. The derrick operator, who lived on Jersey Ave., walked away with minor injuries. In November of 1902 the Street and Water Board gave permission for two more “temporary trestles” at Monmouth and Brunswick Streets. It is not clear if this means that the retaining walls were completed, or only the abutments on the north/south streets. Given the date, if seems unlikely that the entire embankment could have been erected and filled.

Journalistic accounts of the embankment’s construction stress its monumental qualities. It is “huge, massive, great, immense, enormous.” Landscape historian John Stilgoe, discussing the allure of abandoned railroad corridors, writes of confronting “the everlasting solidity of Egyptian pyramids and Inca roads” (Stilgoe, 1998, p. 42). This is, in part, simply a function of the scale of railroad engineering. It is also the product of a conscious decision on the part of the P.R.R. management to invest at this time in massive masonry construction, such as the 1902 Rockville Arch Bridge, Harrisburg, Pa., the Wilmington, Del. viaduct (1908) and the Philadelphia Schuylkill River (1903) and Mantua Junction (1911) viaducts. It was thought that such construction would save money on maintenance and the need for replacement (Jackson, 1988, p. 143). In the pre-Hepburn Act days of light railroad rate regulation, the railroad could afford such measures. It might be added that, for an industry plagued with the memory of spectacular accidents, some caused by quick and shoddy work, imposing, placid looking construction connoted safety.

Had James J. Ferris, Sanford and Stillman’s prodigious Superintendent (and eventual President) not entered public life in the decade following the embankment’s construction, it is unlikely that much would today be known about his contribution to the railroad landscape of Hudson County. Ferris’s sudden death in 1914 transformed him into a cause célèbre–“the victim of a conspiracy of vilification hatched of designing politicians” (Evening Journal, Editorial, May 16, 1914, p. 16). His huge public funeral, described as the largest ever held in Jersey City, if not in New Jersey, completed his apotheosis as “probably the most capable and efficient public official the city has ever had” (Evening Journal, Editorial, April 28, 1914, p. 14).

It should be noted that we are dependent upon The Jersey City Evening Journal for both information and opinion concerning Ferris. The Journal had campaigned for and embraced the Commission form of government instituted in Jersey City in 1913 (as allowed under the Walsh Act). The “Commission plan,” born out of the exigencies of the Galveston hurricane disaster and aftermath, assigned to elected commissioners the task of directly managing city departments, much as private sector businesses would be managed. This was widely hailed by Progressive Era reformers as a way of eliminating “politics” from city government. Underlying much of this thought was the image of the City Efficient. 1913 saw the appearance of Jersey City’s first professionally produced planning report (Goodrich and Ford, 1913). Departing from the regnant “city beautiful” school of planning, its authors stressed that “a city should be made efficient in the same way the manufacturer studies for efficiency in his private plant” (Ibid.,p.6). For an account of Ford’s planning work in Newark and Jersey City, see Scott, 1971, pp.120-123).

Railroad grade separation was one obvious aspect of “Taylorism” as applied to city planning. As a civil engineer and businessman, Ferris exemplified qualities sought by those preaching the gospel of efficiency. As an Irish immigrant, Roman Catholic and classic “self-made man” in a city with a swelling Roman Catholic, immigrant working class electorate, he was also highly electable. In Jersey City’s first Commission election, in 1913, Ferris, who had once remarked to friends that he thought he could be of “some use” to the city in managing the “Water and Streets Department” was asked to run for office. Elected, he was given charge of the newly created Department of Public Improvements.

Ferris’s family had immigrated to the New York area in the 1860s but had returned to Ireland six years later. At age 20 he again sailed to New York in 1880, finding work as an “ordinary mechanic” with D. S. Cofrode & Co., “bridge builders.” He also began study at the tuition-free Cooper Union. In the early 1880s he worked on railroad projects for Cofrode in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, earning promotions to timekeeper and foreman, while continuing to study engineering. Sometime before 1888 he graduated from Cooper Union with honors. At Cofrode’s death he was recalled to Jersey City by Sanford & Stillman; in 1888 he was made the company’s General Superintendent. From that date he worked largely in Hudson County; he resided in the neighborhood adjacent to the Harsimus Yards.

Installed in Jersey City, he supervised the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s “improvements” at Black Tom, then turned his attention to the P.R.R.. “It was under his direction and according to the plans drawn by him that the foundations of the construction of the elevated railroad structure in Jersey City were laid.” He “built” the foundations for the construction of the trainshed, ferries and office building of the Pennsylvania. He also directed the extension of the New York Central’s piers and sheds in Weehawken, and the construction of the N.Y., Susquehanna and Western’s roundhouse and piers at Shadyside. Ferris supervised the raising of the steelwork for the P.R.R.’s elevated line from the Hackensack River to the mouth of the Bergen (trans-Hudson) tunnel, and was responsible for the foundations and the 200 foot high towers of the railroad bridge over the Hackensack at Snake Hill (Secaucus).

Ferris’s work for the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (“The Tubes”) included: the sinking of the initial vertical shaft at Washington Street, Jersey City, the sinking of the elevator shafts at Exchange Place; and the construction of the foundations for the H. & M. power plant at Bay and Washington Streets, Jersey City. After adumbrating Ferris’s list of accomplishments, the Journal continues: “One of the most spectacular and probably one of the greatest engineering achievements performed by Mr. Ferris was the shift of the P.R.R. freight span from the old stone abutments to the new, at the elevated P.R.R. structure at Newark Ave. near Seventh St., inside of an hour, the railroad freight service only being interrupted for a period of 60 minutes (Jersey Journal, May 16, 1914, p. 1). This is doubtless a reference to the “tying in” of the completed embankment to the P.R.R. system, there being no other Pennsylvania freight track near Newark Ave. and Seventh Street.

We also learn from Boyd’s Jersey City and Hoboken Directory that Ferris resided at 264 6th St., across the street from the embankment, as it was being raised. (He lived with his wife and nine children in a number of houses in the vicinity before settling in to the still standing large brownstone at 569 Jersey Ave., itself only a few blocks from the embankment.) He was elected to the American Society of Civil Engineers in “about 1900,” and was thought “one of the big men in his profession.” In 1903 his firm was re-organized, becoming Stillman, Delehanty and Ferris Co.. “Mr. Ferris was then put in entire active charge of the firm, and was considered the directing head.” In 1912 he was made President.(The Jersey Journal published two extended biographical pieces on Ferris. The first, This Is the Man Whose Scalp Is Sought, April 6, 1914, p. 1., appeared at the height of his political crisis; the second, Ferris Funeral Tuesday, May 16, 1914, at his death. While roughly similar, they do contain some contradictory material.)

Ferris assumed direction of the Jersey City Department of Public Improvement in 1913. Along with his friend Dr. McLaughlin, the “City Bacteriologist,” he attacked the cause of contamination at the City’s newly opened water plant in Boonton, New Jersey. “From the Boonton Reservoir alone 10,000 cubic yards of weeds were removed.” Fired political appointees were displeased. He personally inspected work on City street paving contracts, also annoying politically favored contractors. The “Dr. Goethals of Jersey City” drafted a plan for a comprehensive sewer system.

From the reformist perspective, this was good government.

His opponents counter-attacked. They discovered a clause in the Walsh Act that prohibited commissioners from having private business dealings with regulated utilities, such as railroads. (Ferris continued to manage his engineering/consulting firm, which worked primarily for railroads.) Ferris, fearing that there was “a cloud upon his title to the office” announced in the spring of 1914 that, unless an ongoing effort to amend the Walsh Act was successful, he would resign. From the Journal’s perspective, “You see, the ‘boys’ are not used to working for a business man. They can’t understand why business should replace politics, and they haven’t gotten over it yet” (This Is The Man Whose Scalp Is Sought, April, 6, 1914, p. 1). At the height of the controversy the Journal published a front page photograph of Ferris, looking rather like a post office “wanted” poster, and under it ran the caption “This Is The Man Whose Scalp Is Sought.” There followed a lengthy account of how “Jim” Ferris spent his day, doing the public’s work (See Illustration 8).

The effort to amend the Walsh Act failed and Ferris resigned, effective May 4, 1914. He agreed to continue to inspect public work for the City as a volunteer. On May 15, 1914, James Ferris dropped dead of “acute indigestion.” To the Evening Journal’s editorialist, the true culprits were the “minions of machine politics…. Friends of Jim Ferris are saying today he died of a broken heart…” (Editorial, May 16, p. 16) (See Illustration 9).

Ferris was buried out of his high-style Italianate brownstone on Jersey Avenue. His casket was borne by his fellow engineers and bacteriologist friend down the high stoop as a band in the street played “Nearer My God to Thee.” His funeral was the sort of public ritual at which the Victorians and Edwardians excelled. Although he lived only one block from St. Mary’s church, of which he was a trustee, his casket was born in a procession from his home to Coles St., then to Hamilton Park (6 blocks away), then to Grove St. and the church. This allowed the throng that had gathered in the street in front of his home to distribute itself throughout the neighborhood. As the procession of about 2,500 people passed through the streets, two bands played. City buildings were closed, residences draped in mourning. Twice the procession passed under the embankment’s plate girder bridges (Thousands Join in City’s Last Tribute to the Memory of James J. Ferris, May 19, 1914, p. 1).

At St. Mary’s, the crowd was vastly larger than the seating. The crowd struggled to enter the church. The City’s young Public Safety Director, Frank Hague, pointedly gave up his seat to maintain order outside the building. As the one and one-half mile procession made its way up Bergen Hill to Holy Name Cemetery, students at Dickinson High School were released from class to witness. It was, said the City’s undertakers the following day, the largest funeral in memory. Extra funeral carriages had even been brought over from New York (Ferris Funeral Was the Largest in the City’s History, May 20, 1914, p. 2).

James Ferris is remembered today as a name affixed to a Downtown Jersey City High School. The Harsimus Branch Embankment, used occasionally by Conrail until the early 1990s, remains, the sturdy vestige of a rail economy and a rail landscape that once dominated lower Jersey City. The masonry and earth structure possesses remarkable physical integrity. It stands as a multi-coded cenotaph. It is a survivor of that “golden age of railroading” when “railroads were at their zenith” (Cunningham, 1997, p. 265). It is a more cryptic marker of the half-remembered struggles over its location, ownership, taxation and elevation. And it is an entirely appropriate self-engineered memorial to the memory of an important and seemingly exemplary personage in Jersey City history.


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  • Holt, Gene. E., The Changing Perception of Urban Pathology: An Essay on the Development of Mass Transit in the United States, in Jackson, Kenneth T. and Schultz, Stanley K., Cities in American History, pp. 324-343. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972.
  • Jackson, Donald C., Great American Bridges and Dams, Preservation Press, 1988.
  • Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey: The Railroad Centre of the East, (anonymous). New York: J. Adnah Sackett, 1875. (“Locked Case,” New Jersey Room, J.C.P.L.)
  • (Frank) Leslie’s Weekly, Jan. 30, 1892, pp. 50-52, The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Improvements at Jersey City.
  • McLean, Alexander, Jersey City, New Jersey: A Record of Its Early Settlement and Corporate Progress. Jersey City: Press of the Jersey City Printing Company, 1895.
  • _____. Fifty-Years’ War for Equal Taxation. (New Jersey Room, J.C.P.L) Typed copy of poorly microfilmed March 6, 1897 Jersey City Evening Journal articlewith additional biographic information compiled by J. Owen Grundy, former City Historian.
  • McLoughlin, William G., Paper Read Before the Historical Society of Hudson County, Jan. 23, 1917. (The New Jersey Room, J.C.P.L) Bound as Paper # 13, The Historical Society of Hudson County, Jersey City: Jersey City Public Library, n.d.
  • Platt, Herman K., Jersey City and the United Railroad Companies, 1868: A Case Study of Municipal Weakness, in New Jersey History, Vol. VCI, #4, 1973, pp. 247-265.
  • _____, Railroad Rights and Tideland Policy: A Tug of War in Nineteenth-Century New Jersey, in New Jersey History, Vol. 108, #3-4, 1990, pp.35-58.
  • Railroad Gazette, Jan. 20, 1888, p. 47 Note (track elevation in Jersey City).
  • _____, Nov. 16, 1888, p. 759, Note (more on track elevation in Jersey City).
  • Scientific American, March 2, 1889, pp. 127-134, The Improvement of the Railroad Approaches to New York.
  • Scott, Mel, American City Planning Since 1890. Berkeley, Cal.: U. of California Press, 1971.
  • Shaw, William H., “Compiler,” History of Essex and Hudson Counties, Vol. II., Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1884.
  • Sullebarger Associates, Harsimus Cove Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1987.
  • Schotter, H.W., The Growth and Development of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane and Scott, 1927. (Schotter was Assistant Treasurer of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.)
  • Stilgoe, John R., Metropolitan Corridor. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
  • _____., Outside Lies Magic. New York: Walker and Company, 1998.



(All located in New Jersey Room, Jersey City Public Library)
  • 1841–F. L. Douglass, Topographical Map of Jersey City, Hoboken and the Adjacent Country, redrawn, 1876.
  • 1850–Map of Jersey City and Van Vorst Township, New Jersey. New York: M. Dripps. 1850.
  • 1866–Map of Jersey City. Jersey City. I. B. Culver and Co., 1866 contains 1868 revisions.
  • 1870–Cities of Hudson City and Bergen. R. C. Bacot, L. W. Post and J. Camp, Jr. New York: P. Miller, lithographer, 1870.
  • 1873–Combined Atlas of the State of New Jersey and the County of Hudson. Philadelphia, G. M. Hopkins and Co., 1873.
  • 1875–contained in publication of J. Adnah Sackett included above (Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey: The Railroad Centre of the East).
  • 1879–Map of Jersey City and Environs. Edlow W. Harrison, civil engineer and surveyor, Jersey City.
  • 1880–Sanitary and Topographical Map of Hudson County, New Jersey, Prepared for National Board of Health, Washington, D.C.. Spielmann and Brush, Civil Engineers, Hoboken, N. J.
  • 1882–Map of Jersey City and Hoboken Showing Lands Occupied by Railroad Corporations.
  • 1883–Bird’s Eye View, Jersey City, New Jersey. (no publisher indicated)
  • 1887–Atlas of Jersey City. Jersey City: L. D. Fowler, 1887.
  • 1906–Insurance Map of Hudson County, New Jersey. New York: Sanborn Map Co., 1906. (Basemap 1906, with later “paste-ons.”)
  • 1908–Atlas of Hudson County Vol, 1. (Philadelphia: G.M. Hopkins & Company, 1908).
  • 1928–Plat Book of Hudson County, New Jersey; Jersey City. Philadelphia, G. M. Hopkins & Co..
  • 1967–Jersey City Quadrangle, 7.5 Minute Series, United States Geological Survey, 1967, photorevised, 1981.
  • 1998–Realty Atlas, Hudson County, New Jersey; Vol. 2, Hoboken-Jersey City. Experian, 30th edition.



(Jersey City Public Library)
  • The American Standard (Jersey City, New Jersey) For coverage of debate surrounding selection of railroad freightway route.
  • The Jersey City Evening Journal, later Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey)


Articles on Construction of Embankment

(All Evening/Jersey Journal)

Note: microfilm collection of Journal for this period is not complete; pagination is sometimes difficult to establish, due to the Journal’s habit of altering the newspaper’s composition during the course of the day for various editions and special editions. In some cases, pages are torn or missing. Display quality of the microfilm is also often poor.

  • April 3, 1901 Pennsylvania R.R. to Widen Roadbed
  • April 5, 1901 Depression of Grove St.
  • May 4, 1901 P.R.R. Widening Tracks
  • June 1, 1901 P.R.R.’S Massive Retaining Wall
  • Sept. 10, 1901 Harsimus Cove Improvements
  • Sept 26, 1901 Houses Must Make Way for RR
  • Oct. 5, 1901 Mr. Andrus Sells 101 Erie
  • Oct. 12, 1901 Apt House Property for Sale
  • Nov. 23, 1901 P.R.R.’S Great Work in Greenville
  • April 25, 1902 P.R.R. Pushing Work on New Freight Line
  • May 12, 1902 They Can’t Sleep Because of Trains
  • June 11, 1902 P.R.R.’S Great Work Along Sixth Street
  • July 21, 1902 115 Tons of Iron Falls from Trestle
  • Oct. 15, 1902 Real Estate News
  • Nov. 19, 1902 P.R.R. Trestles Near Sixth Street.
  • Nov. 1, 1906 The Change of Grade on Newark Ave.
  • June 30, 1907 City to Sue P.R.R. Twice
  • Oct. 15, 1913 Want the P.R.R. to Remove Shoring


James J. Ferris Biography

  • April 6, 1914 This Is The Man Whose Scalp Is Sought
  • April 28, 1914 Editorial 
  • May 16, 1914 Ferris Funeral Tuesday and Cartoon
  • May 19, 1914 Thousands Join in City’s Last Tribute to the Memory of James J. Ferris
  • May 20, 1914 Ferris Funeral Was the Largest in City’s History
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