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Pennsylvania Railroad
Harsimus Branch Embankment
The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy

Pennsylvania Railroad
Harsimus Branch Embankment
Photo © 2000 Leon Yost

The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment, a massive sectional retaining wall that traverses six residential blocks between Fifth and Sixth Streets, is one of the few intact relics of the legendary Pennsylvania Road-arguable the largest, wealthiest, and most influential of several railroad companies that occupied Jersey City's landscape for nearly 150 years.

Designed by James J. Ferris, a prominent civil engineer and politician in Jersey City for whom a local high school is named (Ferris also supervised the piling and pouring of the Powerhouse's vast concrete foundation), the Embankment was erected form 1901-1905 to replace an older iron and timer embankment that was deemed too low and unstable.

The Pennsylvania Railroad commissioned Ferris to design the elevated freight line on Sixth Avenue to bring seven railway lines through downtown Jersey City to Harsimus yard on the Hudson River. According to local historian John Gomez, ". . . Ferris made a conscious, successful attempt at integrating the massive structure into the surrounding residential streetscapes with as much elegance and beauty as one can give a stone bridge. The colossal granite and sandstone embankment soared segmentally - block by block, connected by steel bridges - past tenement windows, stables, warehouses and places of worship. Christened the Pennsylvania Railroad Stem Embankment, it stands as Ferris's engineering masterwork - and it turns out, his only surviving span."

Residents of the quiet historic neighborhoods of Harsimus Cove and Hamilton Park, perfectly separated by the Embankment, had to adjust to this powerful structure. Around-the-clock steam locomotives carrying produce and live cattle cargo emerged westerly from the Pennsylvania Railroad Cut, traveled past tenement windows atop the 7-track Embankment, and led directly to the Harsimus Cove freight yards and waterfront wharves. Constructed of enormous sandstone and granite blocks, the Embankment reaches a breathtaking height of 27 feet at its western terminus near Brunswick Street. Each block-long section is 400 feet long and 100 feet wide. Gigantic plate girder bridges connected each segment but were dismantled in 1996 by Conrail and sold for scrap. Although no longer utilized, the Embankment is recognized as an engineering monument and was entered into the State Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Reference:

Gomez, John. "End of the Line?" Jersey Journal 3 August 2005.

For a full description with photographs of Pennsylvania Railroad
Harsimus Branch Embankment, click on the link below:

Pennsylvania Railroad
Harsimus Branch Embankment
Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy website.

 

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub