“These are history making days,” declared The Evening Journal in 1908, referring to the wondrous Bergen Arches, a spectacular narrow concrete and blue trap rock canyon of train tunnels and open-air railbeds which were burrowed through the vast Bergen Hill section of the Palisades, in Jersey City, New Jersey, between 1906-1910, and which lunge nearly 5,000 feet east to west from Palisade Avenue to JFK Boulevard. Considered to be one of the greatest examples of railroad engineering on the Eastern Seaboard, the Bergen Arches had been forgotten for decades after being abandoned as a result of nationwide post-war railroad bankruptcies. The Bergen Arches are now encapsulated over time in a canopied forest of urban vegetation and wildlife.
The surge of passenger traffic at the turn of the 20th century on the renowned Erie Railroad demanded that the line’s old Bergen Tunnel (constructed 1856-1861) be abandoned for a new cleaner, multi-track system. The double-track Bergen Tunnel was notorious for poor ventilation due to enormous steam locomotives; for gruesome accidents; and for annoying, money-losing gridlock. It soon became clear that the Erie’s entire financial future rested on its ability to physically expand, just as the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad and Central Railroad of New Jersey had done years earlier with their open cuts. Competition between the railroad companies was very keen. The Erie, regarded as one of the most reliable and comfortable passenger lines in the country, had to expand in order to retain its envied prestige and reputation. Improvements in Jersey City would, therefore, define its future.
In 1896, the Erie Railroad announced ambitious plans to build a new open cut through Bergen Hill immediately adjacent to the old Bergen Tunnel, which itself would eventually be used for freight traffic only. Passengers, residents and elected officials rejoiced at the news, but it would not be until 1906 that construction would actually begin. The project had been seriously delayed by complicated land acquisitions and countless property-owner lawsuits. Ten years later, after all legalities had been worked out, Erie Railroad engineers swiftly pushed ahead with their ingenious engineering plans. They started by clearing procured land, closing off city streets, and literally moving rows upon rows of tall brick tenements (and even a church that stood on the stunning Palisadian cliffs) to new locations. Teams of laborers hired by the Millard Construction Company, a Philadelphia-based firm commissioned by the Erie Railroad to dig the cut and build four arched tunnels, went to work in severe winter weather. The latest construction methods developed by engineer W. F. Brothers of the Balanced Cable Crane Company were utilized, with gigantic steam shovels, stone crushers, stackers, traverses, cable cranes, hoists, pulleys, electric motor carriages, and belt conveyors. Engineering News reported in its February 21, 1907 issue that:
…contractors are installing a comparatively new system for hoisting and conveying [which] has been used on the rapid transit subway construction in New York City, at the Devonport, England dock yards, and in the erection of the bridge over the Zambesi River at the Victoria Falls in South Africa. The plant to be installed for the Bergen Hill excavation, however, is larger by far than any other ever made and involves some important features of novelty.
Using 250,000 pounds of dynamite to shape the mile-long cut and arches, workers blasted through 800,000 cubic yards of blue trap rock. 160,000 cubic yards of earth were excavated. Four short tunnels with widespread arched portals were blasted and chiseled out of the original Palisadian bluffs and faced with concrete made from the pulverized trap rock. The arched tunnels acted as natural bridges for the cobbled city streets that intersected high above the railbeds. Situated between these tunnels were soaring cuts that were “open to the blue sky of heaven,” as described in Men of Erie, thereby eliminating the coal smoke nuisance created by the old Bergen Tunnel. The open cuts were given a width of 60 feet at the base and 100 feet at the top. At certain points the depth of the vertical cliffs reaches 85 feet. The top edges of the cliffs were emblazoned with thick grass, draping flower beds and ornamental iron fencing, and adjacent city streets that looked down at the cut were beautifully landscaped at the expense of the Erie.
The creation of this engineering marvel did not come without financial and human sacrifice. The project’s stupendous cost of five million dollars effectively curtailed the Erie’s plans to build a new monumental train and ferry terminal at the Jersey City waterfront. Scores of laborers lost their lives or were permanently maimed in the deep cut by roaring rock avalanches and accidental blasts, thereby crowding the City Hospital and morgue at taxpayer cost. Nearby residents suffered physical harm as well: boulders uplifted by dynamite whirled through the sky like stone seagulls and crashed through gabled roofs or landed in vined gardens. The Millard Construction Company, although revolutionary in construction techniques, practiced poor safety precautions. Lawsuits ensued.
The Bergen Arches were opened to the public on June 13th, 1910, nearly four years after construction began. Residents, elected officials and dignitaries watched as luxury passenger locomotives emerged from the cut’s expansive eastern portal atop the towering cliffs of the Palisades and spanned a colossal steel trestle that slowly dipped to grade level at the Jersey City waterfront several blocks down where the old Erie Terminal stood. The Jersey Journal reported the event in an extended story featured on its front page:
After three years and eight months of unremitting work, which includes the customary delays that beset great engineering undertakings, the Erie Railroad Company has so far completed the task of constructing an open cut through Jersey City Heightsthe gigantic engineering feat is one of the greatest in the history of the Erie Railroad and of great importance, as it will afford the relief that has been needed for years as a result of the rapidly growing passenger traffic that has developed and continues to develop within fifty miles of New Yorkto the entire passenger service it means no more tunnel delays, no more closed windows, stifling atmosphere or artificial light, but a clean, wholesome ride for everybody and the elimination of the only passenger tunnel on the Erie Railroad between New York and Chicago.
The Bergen Arches, a monumental engineering corridor that has contributed to Jersey City’s and New Jersey’s former prominence as a central railroad terminus, is the metropolitan area’s last remaining large railroad cut in its original form and splendor. The sheer sight of its astounding engineering elements conjures up an era of growth and prominence as dictated by the mighty Erie Railroad. Its battered folding cliffs and arcing concrete portals exist as reminders of brilliant engineers and laborers. Its narrow nave of cascading Palisadian rock erupts in the viewer’s eyes like a receding apparition.