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A Role That’s Ended

Another HAER survey tagged “engineering,” and this time it’s one that we have a connection to. The picture above shows the ferry sheds and main terminal building of the Central Railroad of New Jersey in Jersey City, as seen from the Hudson River. The Central was a small and ultimately futile railroad with two main branches. One ran from Jersey City south and west, carefully avoiding the larger towns and cities already served by the Pennsylvania Railroad. There was a short branch to Atlantic City that was popular in the summer months. The other main branch ran west from Jersey City into the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. Bringing coal to New York was a profitable business, but there was heavy competition from the Lackawanna and Erie railroads, among others. It would be useful today if all of the suburban service of the Central were still in use, but it was abandoned in the 1970s bankruptcy and merger into Conrail, in part because anyone heading to New York (the vast majority of commuters were not going to Jersey City) had to switch to a ferry.

The story of the Jersey City terminal is slightly less depressing, but only by comparison. The ferry sheds were demolished shortly after the 1974 and 1981 HAER photographic survey.

The train shed was abandoned at the same time. It is a “Bush shed,” patented by Lincoln Bush, providing slots for engine exhaust through a low-level folded-plate roof. The Central’s Bush shed is, as far as I know, the only one ever built with cast-iron columns rather than steel.

The ferry and train sheds were built in 1914, replacing older sheds; the 1889 terminal building was kept intact during that renovation and has been restored since the HAER survey. It has some nice exposed trusses in the roof.

A large proportion of what is now Liberty State Park in Jersey City was once the train yard for this station and the adjacent freight yard, stripped of all railroad infrastructure and planted with grass and trees. It’s a nice park and badly needed in Jersey City.

Our involvement concerns the train shed, which is fenced off and gradually facing apart. I’ve reviewed its condition in 2000, 2010, and 2012, and, unsurprisingly, it got a little worse each time. The embedded rebar and steel beams in the roof are rusting as what’s left of the waterproofing on top of the roof decays; as the concrete splits apart from rust jacking, it collapses. It would cost a lot of money to repair the roof – I believe the estimate in 2000 was 16 million dollars – and no one has a use for the shed. If the tracks are filled in to the platform level, it’s a space with a less than 12-foot ceiling, hundreds of columns, and a perimeter mostly facing a park. Demolishing it, in 2000, was estimated to be about two-thirds the cost of repairing it, because of the presence of asbestos that would have to be remediated. Spending millions to demolish a structure that no one cares about is hard to justify, so nothing has been done.