With the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Station in 1892, the number of newcomers entering the U.S. via New York harbor increased dramatically. In Jersey City, an integral element of the place from which approximately two-thirds of these newcomers began their new lives sits deteriorating, awaiting a fresh start of its own.
The Jersey City Terminal Train Shed was designed in 1914 by Abraham Lincoln Bush and is the largest of this type designed by Bush ever built. Located adjacent to the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal designed by Peabody and Stearns in 1889, the shed was the loading space for trains entering and leaving Jersey City via the terminal. The structure consists of cast iron columns, steel framing spanning the former tracks, and reinforced concrete canopy roofs over the platforms. The framing itself forms arched structural shapes over the former tracks, retaining the original design which provided open slots of space directly over the locomotives to allow smoke to vent to the atmosphere and not be trapped below the canopy. The train shed is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
Jersey City was a railroad hub as early as the mid 19th century. The extent Jersey City Terminal is the second such building on the site, a site which was created, as with all of Liberty State Park, when the railroad infilled tidal flats. The terminal was expanded and the train shed constructed in 1914, and within a year, the Central Rail Road of New Jersey estimated that the station was being used by over 60,000 passengers per day.
The train shed is attached to the west side of the terminal, which was impressively restored by the State of New Jersey as a Bicentennial project in 1976, and both are in the shadow of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. While trains no longer run to the terminal, the building serves today as a ferry terminus and a visitor’s center with historical exhibits and information. Hundreds of passengers make the trip to Ellis and Liberty Islands from the Jersey City Terminal every day. These visitors park in a location to the west and north of the terminal and the sheds and walk immediately alongside them to enter the terminal. Vacant since train traffic at the terminal ceased in 1964, and presently fenced off for safety reasons, the sheds today present only a shadow of their former, vibrant use.
The Jersey City Train Shed has unfortunately been allowed to deteriorate to an advanced state of disrepair. The steel and cast iron are presently highly corroded with many failed structural members. The marine environment has also had a severely corrosive effect on the reinforcing bars in the concrete and upon the concrete itself. In addition, the former roofing over the structural concrete and supporting steel has also failed and has not been repaired. At the south end of the shed, entire sections of the former roof canopy have collapsed. The failure is both progressive and catastrophic and will continue without some sort of intervention. Further deterioration of the shed also threatens to damage the concourse of the restored terminal.
The condition of the train shed was last documented with a preservation plan prepared in 2000, which included proposals for interpretive rail exhibits and use of the shed as a terminus for a park transportation system. The costs of rehabilitating the structure were estimated to be nearly 50 million dollars, and those estimates have certainly increased in the intervening years. Each year of delay in taking the needed remedial action brings the structure closer to the point of no return. There is no active opposition to the preservation of this structure, only a lack of resources and commitment to pursuing suitable new uses.
This unique train shed is in the midst of many attractions in Liberty State Park, including the Sullivan Nature Area, the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, the Empty Sky 9-11-01 Memorial, the Grove of Remembrance, Liberty Science Center, Liberty Landing Marina, the Morris Canal, and the ferry service to Manhattan, Ellis, and Liberty Islands. It has the capacity and visibility to serve a variety of worthwhile public purposes if only the resources for such can be found.
In 2010, a group of advocates organized Liberty Historic Railway, Inc. One of the group’s goals is to promote the restoration of the Jersey City Terminal Train Shed and its reuse as a terminus for rail shuttles within Liberty State Park. To that end, they have secured state permission and sufficient contributions to update the preservation plan completed in 2000 at no cost to the State of New Jersey. The updated plan will provide a current assessment of the feasibility and costs of stabilizing the train shed.
Historic railroad structures present varied, unique opportunities for reuse. A perfect precedent exists across the Hudson River on the west side of lower Manhattan in the reuse of the High Line, the former elevated train trestle that was remade as a public park. Perhaps in the case of the train shed, a partial restoration of the shed’s original fabric, in addition to marking the full size of the structure in hardscape or landscaping, would be a more affordable option to complete restoration. Preservation New Jersey urges the State of New Jersey and its public and private partners to continue to collaborate with advocates in study and dialogue on design ideas for the Jersey City Terminal Train Shed. Quick action to determine both a vision and funding sources that will preserve this magnificent historic structure is imperative to retaining this significant landmark of New Jersey’s remarkable place in American transportation history.
Martin Robins, Treasurer
Liberty Historic Railway, Inc.