The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Stem Embankment is a former rail freightway that runs for six blocks along Sixth Street in downtown Jersey City. A massive segmented stone structure, the Embankment borders the National Historic Districts of Harsimus Cove and Hamilton Park and is itself a recognized historic site. It was entered into the State Register of Historic Places in 1999, is eligible for the National Register, and was named a Municipal Landmark in January 2003.
The Embankment once served as the eastern freight terminus for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the most powerful railroad in the nation, and contributed to the growth of the Port of New York and the greater metropolitan area. Seven tracks ran on top of the structure, which descended almost to grade level at its eastern end, where it entered the Harsimus Yards on the Hudson River waterfront. Goods shipped via the Embankment were loaded onto a flotilla for transport across the Hudson River, New York Harbor, and the East River. To the south, at the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger terminal — once the largest passenger terminal in the world –travelers ended their cross-country rail trips and boarded ferries for New York or destinations beyond. That terminal is long gone, but the freightway remains.
Because it was driven through residential neighborhoods, the elevated freightway greatly affected local life as well as regional economic, social, and political history. Long-time residents remember the sounds of the passing trains and children scrambling up the walls to gather coal dropped from coal cars.
Built circa 1902, the Embankment substructure was designed and its construction supervised by James J. Ferris, a self-made Irish immigrant, prominent civil engineer, and Progressive Era politician. The retaining walls are constructed of enormous sandstone and granite blocks, each weighing up to a ton. They reach a height of 27 feet at its western end near Brunswick Street. Each Embankment segment is 400 feet long (a city-block) and 100 feet wide. Gigantic plate girder bridges connected each segment but were dismantled in 1996 by Conrail and sold for scrap.
Citizens of Jersey City have formed the Embankment Preservation Coalition, a group which advocates preserving the span and converting it into an elevated park. The park would be a component of the East Coast Greenway, a national trail from Calais, Maine to Key West Florida.
But this goal faces several obstacles. In 2003, a developer, knowing that the property was desginated as property to be acquired and under consideration for open space, purchased the Embankment, and has endeavored to subdivide the property and build residential housing. The city, although outwardly expressing support for preservation of the Embankment, has often failed to take the steps necessary to acquire and preserve the site. In March of 2007, the city council inexplicably voted against allowing the city to even apply for funding that would have allowed the city to acquire the Embankment. Recognizing the threat to the Embakment, Preservation New Jersey named it one of New Jersey’s 10 most endangered landmarks in 2006.
In Augst of 2007, advocates for the Embankment secured a crucial legal victory when the United States Surface Transportation Board ruled that, when purporting to sell the Embankment to the developer, that it failed to properly abandon the railroad line as required by federal law. In December of 2007, the board denied the developer’s petition for reconsideration.
Despite the remarkable legal victories, advocates remain concerned that City officials lack the commitment to take advantage of this opportunity to acquire the Embankment and develop the landmark as a park. Already, even as the sale of the property has been deemed invalid, certain city officials are proposing “compromises” that would allow the developer to build multiple skyscrapers with an average height of 30 stories on portions of the site. This would impair the integrity not only of the Embankment but of the surrounding Hamilton Park and Harsimus Cove historic districts. Agreeing to this “compromise” would be an unfortunate continuation of a pattern where the City chooses not to follow through on its promises and instead offers developers outrageous deals to which they are not entitled to under the law.
JC Landmarks fully supports efforts to preserve the Embankment and its use as open space as a vital segment in the East Coast Greenway.
– Joshua Parkhurst, Past President, JC Landmarks