From 1908 until 1929 the coal-powered, steam-generating Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse, proudly situated on the Jersey City waterfront like a beautiful brick sentinel, literally gave life to the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company’s Hudson Tunnels, a new rapid transit system that physically connected, for the first time, New Jersey with New York. The Powerhouse, designed by the turn-of-the-century architectural firm of Robins & Oakman and engineered by the renowned firm of L.B. Stillwell, illuminated this entire subaqueous subway around the clock, including the wondrous Hudson Terminal in New York City, at that time the world’s largest office and train terminal complex. The Powerhouse was the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad’s celebratory centerpiece, as if it were one of many ornamental train depots that lined the Hudson; its overwhelming architectural beauty and engineering majesty, quite unheard of for a powerhouse, magnificently mirrored the miraculous tubular system that dared to bellow beneath city streets, bedrock, clay, water—a system whose fabled origins stretch back to 1874 and which was, at its completion, deemed one of the greatest large-scale engineering feats of the age (the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the Hudson Tunnels a National Civil Engineering Landmark on October 31, 1978).
The first decade of the twentieth century was a period of astounding economic growth, particularly on the left bank of the Hudson River. Jersey City, one of the world’s busiest, mightiest railroad/ferry centers, was undergoing a physical transformation incomparable in its long history. For almost three hundred years it had remained marshy, untapped, disregarded, a mere dumping ground for Manhattan garbage. Suddenly, at the turn-of-the-century, its large landscape was woven into an architectural paradise by brilliant local and national architects like Hugh Roberts, John Rowland, Jarvis Hunt and James Knox Taylor.
The citizens of Jersey City regarded the Powerhouse as highly as other new “City Beautiful” monuments being erected during the same period: the Hudson County Court House, City Hall, the Majestic Theater, the Jersey City High School, the United States Post Office, and the Jersey City Hospital, among many others. Yet the Powerhouse, although on the same ornamental scale, was intentionally different: it unapologetically lacked rows of thick Corinthian columns, winged flagstones, seductive statuary. Facing the Hudson River, which Jersey City residents rightfully considered theirs, it made its own singular, almost spiritual statement. Its irregular shape and large soldiered windows suggested that of a church. Its crowned smokestacks were its spires; its curved tower its steeple.
The Powerhouse would never have been conceived and constructed (nor, for that matter, would the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company and its mass transit system) if it weren’t for events that transpired in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. In the mid-1860’s, as the country slowly emerged from the warm embers of the Civil War, political and business officials in New York and New Jersey, two extremely populated industrial areas, were calling for a “subaqueous” rail tunnel under the Hudson River, whose waters were increasingly congested with countless sluggish ferryboats. A more convenient, quicker means of transportation was necessary for further economic and physical growth. Wealthy businessmen and institutions with regional interests in mind were more than willing to finance such an engineering endeavor, which was already proven possible by two successful subaqueous tunnels under England’s famed Thames River.
As fate would have it, a man named DeWitt Clinton Haskins, who had had considerable experience building railroads and tunnels on the West coast, arrived in New York with a sensational dream: to connect New York to New Jersey using a vast compressed-air tunnel under the mile-wide Hudson River. Haskins must have been surprised at how easily investors accepted his proposal and dug deeply into their pockets. Despite some doubts, this complete stranger to the area was able to raise an astounding $10,000,000 with which he promptly formed the Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company. Shortly thereafter, in November of 1874, an adventurous team of “sandhogs” started the sinking of the planned system’s shaft at the foot of 15th Street in Jersey City (the entrance to this shaft still exists within feet of the modern-day Newport residential towers).
But Haskins’s endeavor was suddenly stopped by the powerful Lackawanna Railroad, which got an injunction against him with the absurd argument that a river tunnel would seriously cripple the railroad and ferry industries. However, five years later, in September of 1879, the digging resumed. The shaft was sunk an amazing sixty feet below the sandy surface, but not without difficulties. Haskins relied on air pressure alone to keep the river’s mighty silt at bay until masons could construct a brick shield lining, but an awful accident occurred before Haskins could realize his massive mistake: on July 21, 1880, the river suddenly crashed through the bored tunnel, instantly drowning twenty workers (a magnificent, though forgotten, memorial to these men exists in a local cemetery). Despite this amazing tragedy, the digging went on for two more years until 1882 when Haskins’s investors withdrew. After several brief episodes of renewed financing and consequent withdrawals, Haskins abandoned his 2000-foot tunnel. In 1890, several English businessmen sent a famous English civil engineer, Sir Benjamin Baker, to look into the possibility of continuing the work. After Baker informed them that he would like to resume digging—but this time with the same shields used to reinforce the Thames River tunnels—the businessmen promptly commissioned the renowned English contractor, Pearson & Sons, along with teams of sandhogs. Excellent progress was made; only 1600 feet needed to be finished in the “North” tube when a financial crises suddenly crippled the English investors. Work ceased once again, and the tunnel flooded.
In 1892, William G. McAdoo, a young Southern lawyer, moved to New York with his own lofty idea of building an electric rail tunnel under the Hudson River (his only rail experience included the electrification of the Knoxville, Tennessee Railroad). By sheer chance McAdoo became acquainted with another lawyer, John Dos Passos, who just happened to be president of DeWitt Haskins’s defunct Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company. After hearing McAdoo’s prodigious idea, Dos Passos introduced him to Charles Jacobs of the highly-regarded engineering firm of Jacobs & Davies, who had come to America with Pearson & Sons to work on the first tunnel with Haskins (Jacobs would also go on to lead the work on the Pennsylvania Railroad Tunnels under the Hudson River, as well as lay the foundation for Grand Central Station). Jacobs had the abandoned tunnel at the foot of 15th Street drained of sea water and informed McAdoo that the tunnel was in excellent condition.
McAdoo, forming and presiding over a new company, the New York and New Jersey Tunnel Company, which would soon join with other interested companies to become the singular Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, was able to raise sufficient funds to complete the tunnel. Finally, after more than a decade, work resumed in 1902. As soon as the North tube was “holed” through on March 11, 1904, McAdoo was summoned from his office by Chief Engineer Jacobs; they hurried through the tunnel and emerged from the shaft near Christopher Street. On September 24, 1905, the South tube was completed.
Interest in the “McAdoo Tunnel,” or “Hudson Tubes,” as they were sometimes called, swelled throughout the region, particularly in Jersey City, which literally banked on the tunnels’ financial rewards. While other excavations on the Hudson Tunnel line proceeded (along a long stretch of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan; from Exchange Place in Jersey City to the rising otherworldly Hudson Terminal complex at Cortlandt Street; and from Grove Street to Newark), McAdoo fueled the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company with new, powerful investors: Pliny Fisk, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.P.Morgan, among others. Soon the company had $70,000,000 to bring McAdoo’s vision to fruition—”unlimited money,” as the local paper, the Evening Journal, wrote.
It was at this opulent point in time that the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company hired the new architectural firm of Robins & Oakman to design several of the system’s sub-stations, as well as the necessary powerhouse. The architects, of 27 East Twenty-second Street, New York, had previously designed simple, yet elegant commissions, particularly brick residences in Manhattan and Massachusetts. This was, alas, the limited, though respectful scope of their work. But the firm’s greatest architectural challenge was generously handed to them when they were commissioned to design the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company’s powerhouse, in Jersey City, New Jersey, along a wildly busy bed of railroad and ferry depots. The proposed powerhouse was not to be a simple, quiet three-story mansion for a few top-hatted residents: it had to be vast, reaching, powerful, large, immense, beautiful, stunning; it had to be mighty enough to fuel and illuminate a whole subway system, including the aforementioned gargantuan Hudson Terminal complex (which was cruelly demolished in the late sixties to make way for the World Trade Center). As K.B. Conger, Secretary of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, shouted to a reporter: “You can now realize how necessary it is for us to have that big power station over in Jersey City. We will depend upon Jersey City to furnish the motive power for the big enterprises which the Hudson Companies are now hustling to put in operation at the earliest possible date…”
The architects themselves, particularly John Oakman, perhaps recognized this as an opportunity by which to explore and make audible certain elements of classical architecture. But this was a powerhouse, not a civic center, and he was aware of it. No great slabs of sparkling granite from the famed quarries of nearby Pompton would be cut; no cylindrical mounds of smoked marble from the mountains of Vermont would find their way here. The bright sculpted boulders of the Gilded Age would have to be shunned, replaced by simple brick and steel: two key elements in industrial architecture. Of course this shunning of sorts helped to heighten the architectural and engineering challenge. Instead they would create classical architectural shapes (Romanesque windows, Greek crosses, pillared arcades) brick by corbeled brick: each one mathematically arranged, perfectly stacked, precisely positioned, on a scale never seen before. The Powerhouse’s soaring innards would be the most engineeringly advanced machines of the Industrial Age, and its total cost of $4,000,000 was proof. As the Evening Journal wrote:
The power house when completed and fitted with all its equipments will be a place well worth the scrutiny of all who are interested in electrical power transmitting appliances. Dynamos of colossal size are to be installed and the driving wheels will be the largest of their kind in the United States. The leather belting will be in proportion. The house will be a veritable show place because of its great size and the vast amount of the latest improved electrical machinery it will contain. As far as human ingenuity can devise the plant will be such as to reduce to a minimum any chance of a general breakdown.
Also hired was the renowned engineering firm of L.B. Stillwell. John Van Vleck, who worked in Stillwell’s office, designed the steel framework of the Powerhouse; Hugh Hazelton, of the same firm, designed the electrical machinery. Of course the Evening Journal, a trusted champion of Jersey City’s architectural development, highly praised the Powerhouse throughout its phenomenal erection, sharing its almost ethereal engineering qualities:
The power house which is being erected for the Hudson Companies on the block bounded by Washington, Greene, Bay and First streets will not only be the biggest structure of its kind in New Jersey, but will in addition possess features not found in any other power house in the country. Aside from the engineering features, there are other things about this structure that will interest even the layman. To begin with, it will be a power house “de luxe,” so to speak, for it will be provided with porcelain enameled lavatories and bath tubs, also shower baths, for the comfort of the workmen. The interior walls will be covered with white tile. Having started to reverse the usual order of things by taking people under the river instead of over it, the Hudson Companies will also turn things upside down at the power house, at least so far as the coal supply is concerned. The coal bins, instead of being in the basement or cellar, will be on the roof, 90 feet from the ground, and the coal will be fed automatically, by a gravity system, to the furnaces. The coal will be brought in freight cars to the door of the building and will be dumped so that it can be picked up by belt conveyors and carried to the bunkers on the upper floor. From there it will be fed automatically to the furnaces, so that at no stage of the proceedings will it be touched by the hand of man. It will be a power house without coal heavers. The building will be as thoroughly fireproof as it is possible to make it. The facade will be constructed of selected red brick, and all doors and window frames will be of metal. No combustible material will be used in the construction. The immense skylight, which will run the full length of the building, thus giving an abundance of light, will be of copper-covered metal work. Every window in the structure will be fitted with fireproof wire glass. The boiler house is designed to accommodate 16 water-tube safety boilers, each having 9,000 square feet of effective heating surface, or 900 horsepower, as customarily rated. These boilers will be larger than any that have heretofore been used in this country. The boiler settings will be encased in steel, and all door openings into these casings will be made air tight by the employment of details of construction that are quite new to American engineering practice. The boilers will be supplied with superheating apparatus, and all piping and valves will be specially constructed for use in connection with superheated steam. For each 6,000 kilowatts of generating capacity four boilers will be provided, and for each set of four boilers one chimney will be provided, by which the design of the plant will be developed on what is called the unit, or sectional, basis. The chimneys are to be constructed of heavy steel plate lined with brick. The lining will be eight inches thick and will be erected in self-supporting sections, by which plan any section of the lining can be renewed or repaired without disturbing the other sections. The inside diameter of each chimney will be 10 feet 6 inches. The chimneys will rise to a point 175 feet above the sidewalk. The chimneys will also present a novelty in form of construction, for instead of running to the ground level they will be supported upon steel columns. This will permit of the space under the chimneys being utilized for other purposes. The turbo-generators will be operated condensing, with water taken from the Hudson River. These turbo-generators will be of the vertical shaft type, representing the latest improvements in turbine construction. In short, the plant will incorporate all that is best in the engineering art for the attainment of maximum reliability along with economy of production. The steelwork included in the building will be of special construction, due to the increased size of boiler employed, along with their superimposed economizers, which necessitated spans of more than ordinary length. Four thousand tons of steel will be used in the construction of the building.
In early 1908 the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad tested the tunnels by loading train cars with sandbags to simulate the weight of passenger-filled cars. Reporters were also whisked through the tunnels for promotional purposes, and on the day before the official opening the Evening Journal printed a special “Tunnel Edition” to commemorate what was already deemed an historic day in Jersey City. Finally, on Tuesday, February 25, 1908, a crowd of invited dignitaries and reporters, including New Jersey Governor John Franklin Fort and New York Governor Charles E. Hughes, gathered in the darkened 19th Street station, in Manhattan, for a first-run to the Hoboken terminal in New Jersey. Among the roaring crowd (which included a huge group of NYU students!) was a central telegraph operator, who signaled President Theodore Roosevelt at his desk in the White House, who in turn sent a signal back to the Powerhouse, thereby igniting the entire system and setting off jubilant shouts and cheers. The New York Times commented:
The opening marked the realization of a dream which has occupied the minds of engineers for nearly half a century. It is conceded to be one of the greatest engineering feats that has ever been accomplished, greater perhaps than the Panama Canal will be when completed, considering the obstacles which had to be overcome.
Although not present for the opening ceremonies, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter to be read aloud:
My Dear Mr. McAdoo: Now that a beginning is to be made in opening for operation the Hudson tunnel system I write to express my regret that I cannot be present in person and my high appreciation of what you have accomplished. The tunnelling of the Hudson River is indeed a notable achievement-one of those achievements of which all Americans should be proud. The tunnel itself and the great buildings constructed in connection there with represent the work of extraordinary magnitude, represent extraordinary difficulties successfully overcome, while the difficulty and magnitude are even surpassed by the usefulness of the achievement. The whole system is practically below tidal water, and this makes it the greatest subaqueous tunnel in the world. It is a bigger undertaking than any Alpine tunnel which has yet been constructed, and the successful completion represents moving New Jersey bodily three miles nearer to New York in point of time, and immensely increases the case of access from one state to the other. All the engineers and business men who have taken part in bringing this great achievement to a successful conclusion are to be congratulated. It is the kind of business achievement which is in the highest degree creditable to the American people, and for which the American people should feel and publicly acknowledge their hearty gratitude.
Sincerely yours, Theodore Roosevelt
The Hudson & Manhattan Railroad’s Hudson Tunnels were predicted to be the financial salvation of Northern and even Central New Jersey—and Hudson County’s waterfront municipalities, particularly Jersey City and Hoboken, were the main beneficiaries of this prediction. Merchants in both Hudson County and Manhattan took out extensive newspaper advertisements, hailing the convenience that the new system would bring shoppers. The Hudson County real estate market accelerated like never before:
The island of Manhattan will be linked to the rest of the continent by the greatest system of subaqueous tunnels in the world. The method of travel will be revolutionized, for then the ferryboat will cease to be the only means of communication between New York and Jersey City. The importance of this to Jersey City can hardly be told in type, for the linking of Jersey City to the metropolis of the Western hemisphere by means of the river tunnels will practically make this city a part of the big city across the river. Even the most optimistic will be at a loss to figure the tremendous advantage this will be to Jersey City. What its effect will be upon Jersey City real estate can in a measure be estimated by what already has taken place, for no one familiar with the real estate conditions here will dispute the fact that the steady rise in real estate values during the past year or two has been due to the tunnels.
Jersey City, the gateway to the Western world, enters the real estate arena…Is it any wonder that land in Jersey City is in demand or that the opening of the McAdoo tunnels under the Hudson River will bring to this municipality thousands of homeseekers and hundreds of manufacturing corporations and perfect the era of prosperity that has been increasing with every passing cycle of time?
Sadly, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse was shut down in 1929, perhaps as a result of both the stock market crash and changing technology; electricity was eventually purchased from outside sources and sent to the system’s sub-stations. The Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company continued to operate and maintain the Hudson Tunnels until 1962 when it shockingly filed for bankruptcy and was taken over by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which then created the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation (PATH) to run the newly-acquired subway system. Since this tragic acquisition, the expensive, state-of-the-art electrical machinery inside the Powerhouse has been dislodged, vandalized, perhaps sold as scrap.
Although abandoned and neglected for precisely seventy years, the Powerhouse is still the same immaculate architectural entity it was when it opened in 1908; it is still the bold beautiful apparition that rose on the Left Bank of the Hudson River. Its unique design and architectural elements, particularly its splendid, intricate brickwork, are highly regarded by architects and historians. Christopher Gray, the architectural history columnist of the New York Times, wrote that the Powerhouse is a “masterpiece of brickwork…it is like some ancient, partly ruined cathedral…”
The Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse is a first rank, world-class architectural and engineering achievement, one that must continue to exist as a splendid blueprint of Jersey City’s greatest era. It is one of the last reminders of both the Gilded and Industrial Ages: two simultaneous, explosive moments whose ethereal influences reverberate still through our landscape. The Powerhouse is a breathtaking testament to these powerful phenomena. A few months of demolition would wipe out a special period in time already disappearing. Should it be permitted to stand, the Powerhouse would once again become an architectural, engineering, and transportation showcase, a reminder to future generations of commuters and residents of one of the most astounding events of the newly-dawned twentieth century.
- Carleton, Paul. “The Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Revisited.” Dunnellon, Florida: D. Carleton Railbooks, 1990.
- The Evening Journal: “Rushing Work On River Tunnels,” Oct. 6, 1906; “The Present Tunnels Are Only the Beginning,” Oct. 19, 1906; “McAdoo Tunnel and the World’s Biggest Office Building: To Be Operated Entirely From the Immense Power Plant To Be Located Here,” Nov. 21, 1906; “Jersey City Power House For Hudson Tunnels Company,” Dec. 3, 1906; “Bayonne Firm Will Supply Record Boilers,” Dec. 10, 1906; “Tunnel Station Here Almost Ready,” Feb. 12 1907; “New Warehouse For Machinery Centre Here,” March 23, 1907; “Real Estate,” April 3, 1907.
- Fitzherbert, Anthony. “The Public Be Pleased: William G. McAdoo and the Hudson Tubes.” Electric Railroaders Association: June, 1964 (derived from www.nycsubway.org).
- The New York Times: “Trolley Tunnel Open To Jersey,” Feb 26, 1908.
- White, Edward and Muriel. “Famous Subways and Tunnels of the World.” New York: Random House, Inc., 1953.
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