Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Crossing the Hudson: Historic Train Terminals and Piers

Crossing the Hudson: Historic Train Terminals and Piers
Written by Hector Luis Aponte III

The Historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal
Built in 1889 by architectural firm Peabody & Stearns, the C.R.R.N.J. Terminal (Communipaw Terminal) was the gateway for many immigrants arriving from Ellis Island. Many used the terminal to migrate into New Jersey or venture to the west coast to start their new life as American citizens. By the turn of the century, the station accommodated between 30,000 and 50,000 people per day on 128 ferry runs and 300 trains. By 1914, the Central Railroad of New Jersey expanded the train shed to twenty tracks and platforms, and was considered the largest ever built. The train sheds were designed by American Engineer Lincoln Bush.

The Historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ.
Photo: Hector Luis Aponte III
In 1929, the Central Railroad of New Jersey introduced a new, fast, and luxurious locomotive named the Blue Comet. It serviced the Jersey City-Atlantic City route. On August 19, 1939, the Blue Comet derailed at milepost 86 near Chatsworth Township due to extreme weather conditions; 13.5 inches of rain had fallen, causing the soil supporting the track washed away. There were forty-nine passengers onboard the train that day: thirty-two were injured and the train's chef later died from injuries sustained during the crash. In 1941, the Blue Comet was withdrawn from service, never to be seen again.

After 1929, the railroad industry rapidly declined due to the expansion of highways, competition from trucking companies, and switch from coal to oil and gas. Finally on April 30, 1967, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, which had filed for bankruptcy, closed its doors at the C.R.R.N.J. Terminal for good.

Left forgotten and on the verge of disrepair, the C.R.R.N.J. Terminal and the acreage surrounding it was bought through local, state, and federal funds. A cleanup of the property was completed over the course of many years and the building would become a centerpiece for Liberty State Park. In 1975, the terminal was added to the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. Until Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when it was damaged by flood waters, the terminal was used for special community events, exhibits, and ticketing for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. As of today, it is anticipated to reopen sometime in 2015.

I have been a fan of this landmark since I was a boy. I have recently started a petition to help Liberty State Park raise awareness so one day the train shed behind the terminal can be fully restored so future generations can learn where their ancestors departed from after arriving in the United States.

Erie-Lackawanna Terminal from New York City. Photo source:

Hoboken's Erie-Lackawanna Terminal, Hoboken, New Jersey
Built in 1907 by architect Kenneth Mackenzie Murchison, the Hoboken Terminal served commuter ferries crossing into New York City via the Chelsea Piers at the near-identical 23rd Street Union Ferry Terminal (demolished in 1950) and the Erie Railroad (later Erie-Lackawanna Railroad) traveling west. The first subway system linked the terminal and Manhattan in 1908. This transportation system brought many immigrants (German, Italian, Hispanic and East Asian) to Hoboken in the early twentieth century.

Erie-Lackawanna Terminal, August 2013. Photo: Hector Luis Aponte III
The terminal originally had a 225-foot clock tower, but it was demolished in the 1950s due to structural damage and deterioration from harsh weather. A replica of the original clock tower was erected in 2007 with four foot copper letters that spell “LACKAWANNA” and light up at night. The original ferry slips were fully restored and the terminal reintroduced ferry services in 2011. Today, the terminal continues to offer train and ferry services. The terminal was listed on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 1973.

Historic Chelsea Piers, Chelsea/Meatpacking District, New York City, New York
Built in 1910 by architectural firm Warren and Wetmore (designers of Grand Central Terminal), the Chelsea Piers serviced the grandest ocean liners of the early 20th century. The complex consisted of nine elegant piers and a ferry terminal north on 23rd Street that brought immigrants from Ellis Island. The most famous ship lines to use the piers were the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line) which occupied Piers 59-62 (later used by the United States Lines) and the Cunard Line (later Cunard-White Star Ltd in 1934) which occupied Piers 53-56. Other lines such as the French Line (C.G.T.) and later the Grace Line occupied Piers 57 and 58.

Chelsea Piers in 1910. Photo source: Library of Congress
Original Chelsea Piers postcards. Photo: Hector Luis Aponte III
R.M.S. Carpathia (left) at Pier 54 with Titanic survivors on April 18, 1912.
R.M.S. Lusitania (right) docking at Pier 54. Photo source: Library of Congress
The Piers are most famous for the R.M.S. Titanic and Lusitania disasters. Titanic was scheduled to dock at Pier 59 until she hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank in the early hours on April 15, killing 1,519 of the 2,224 passengers on board. The Cunard Liner Carpathia rescued 705 survivors and brought them to Pier 54 so they can disembark to tell their stories to the media. About 30,000 New Yorkers surrounded the pier so they can hear the survivor's accounts to the tragedy. On May 1, 1915, the Cunard Liner R.M.S. Lusitania left Pier 54 bound for Liverpool. Six days later on May 7, she was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland killing 1,195 of the 1,959 passengers. This event led the United States to declare war on Germany during WWI.

Pier 57 fire (left), and the abandoned Piers 53, 54, and 58 circa 1960s (center and right).
Photo: Hector Luis Aponte III
In May of 1932, a massive fire broke out in Pier 54, destroying the entire terminal section. It was rebuilt eight months later, which was a record at the time. By the mid-1930s, ocean liners were being built larger to accommodate more passengers and the piers started to become obsolete. New life was breathed into Chelsea Piers in 1939 when WWII broke out and warships needed a place to dock. In 1947, Pier 57 was completely destroyed by fire. In 1952, Pier 57 was rebuilt using an Art Moderne influenced design and its foundation built with concrete caissons, which was considered an “engineering marvel” at the time. All of the other piers were also remodeled with an Art Moderne motif. In the 1950s, cargo ships used the piers to import and export goods, but that was short-lived. By the 1960s, cargo ships stopped using the piers and they began to fall into disrepair.

Westway cross-section diagram (left). Photo source:
Pier 54 demolition in 1991 (right). Photo source: New York Magazine July 29, 1991
In the 1970s, plans for a new underground highway called "Westway" were being designed. Many historic piers, including the Chelsea Piers, were to be demolished. In 1985, the Westway Project was abandoned because demolishing the piers would adversely effect the Hudson River’s striped bass population. In the summer of that same year, Piers 56 and 58 were demolished due to their fragile state.

Pier 54 on August 3, 2013 (left). Photo: Hector Luis Aponte III.
Pier 57 rendering (right). Photo source: Young Woo and Associates.
Preservationists demanded to have Pier 54 preserved due to its historic significance but the city denied it because of its poor condition and deemed it a health hazard. In 1991, Pier 54's Terminal and street side building was demolished, but the original arch entrance and foundations were preserved. In 1994, the surviving piers 59-62 were renovated to what is now the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex. Pier 57 was added to the State and National Register of Historic Places in 2004, and will reopen in 2015 as a retail hub with a sky park.

Hudson River Piers Project 2nd model (2012-2014). 3rd model in development.
Rendering: Hector Luis Aponte III
Since 2011, I have been working tirelessly on a plan to restore Pier 54 to its former glory, which would include a museum, recreation-use and other activities. I founded the Pier 54 Conservancy, which it a support group and an unofficial archive of all things Pier 54 and Chelsea Piers-related materials and artifacts.

About the Author
Born in Hoboken, Hector Luis Aponte III has been learning about maritime history since he was seven years old. The first subject that sparked his love was the Titanic and has since expanded his interest in other historic ships (most notably the R.M.S. Olympic). He has been collecting historic ocean liner artifacts for the past two years and is a long-time historic train fanatic. His all-time favorite is the Blue Comet of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Since 2011, Hector has been working on a plan to restore and preserve Cunard-White Star Pier 54 to its former glory and has been supporting the restoration of the S.S. United States. He believes that they are an important piece of history that should not be ignored.

For More Information
Liberty State Park
Friends of Liberty State Park


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