©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
Under the desk in my home office, and before that, hidden behind the furnace in the basement of the house I used to live in, is a somewhat irregular piece of stone, measuring about eight inches long by five inches wide by four inches high. At fifteen and a half pounds and given its shape, it's uncomfortable for me to hold with one hand for very long.
I came across it one day and took it as a souvenir. I suppose the Consolidated Rail Corporation, or its successor, might send me a bill for it now that they know, but I doubt that considering where I found it.
That location would be in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey, at the corner of Sixth Street and what is now called Luis Munoz Marin Boulevard but was once Henderson Street. This was the site of the easternmost overhead bridge crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad's line to its Harismus Cove Yards, which lined part of the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Sixth Street was just to the north of the railroad line, hard up against a solid granite wall. It followed the elevated trackage all the way its intersection with Newark Avenue. Fifth Street was south of the tracks, but between the railroad and the street there was a row of buildings. I lived there, between Jersey Avenue and Erie Street, in a rented apartment until I was about six and a half. From the third floor, I watched across the street and over the roof of the two-story building on the other side of Fifth. Trains arrived and departed the freight yard across the viaduct on the way to I didn't know where. Switch engines pulled and pushed freight cars in and out of the yard. Mighty electric-powered locomotives hauled seemingly endless consists westbound, and moved equally lengthy trains inbound to the yard. When engineers guided their trains in and out of Harismus Cove, I wondered whether they could see me as I watched them.
As the tracks moved away from the waterfront, they were on a slight upgrade from my right to my left. That set each of the bridges over city streets at a bit higher elevation; the lowest at Henderson nearest the yard, and the highest at Newark Avenue where there was plenty of room for traffic below. I was too young to know whether trucks consistently hit the bridges at Henderson and Grove Streets, but I wouldn't doubt it. Classic black and white checkerboard paint helped warn drivers of the low clearance.
I recalled all of this standing on the corner of Sixth Street and Munoz Boulevard. The immediate corner had not changed much, but nearly everything between it and the Hudson River had. Where there had been railroad yards all the way from Exchange Place to past the border with Hoboken, there was a complete redevelopment: high rises, a shopping mall, three hotels. One of those hotels stood on almost the exact site where my father had taken a snapshot of me holding onto the handrail of a freight car. When I had stayed there, I amazed the hotel's staff, most of whom were either not from the area or would not have been old enough to remember first-hand, what was previously occupying this now Prime Real Estate. I had seriously considered moving back to this area before life took a different turn; good thing, though, as I would have been reaching well beyond my means even then. Six-digit prices had become seven-digit prices, and all rents and leases had commas in them. Still, I thought, wouldn't it have been nice to live somewhere with a few of the skyline steps away, or perhaps even out my window?
No matter, that didn't happen.
What also didn't happen was dense modern development west of the Street Formerly Known as Henderson. A couple of blocks away, Saint Anthony's High School stood out as part anachronism and part tradition. It had been a basketball powerhouse for years, known across the country as a prime recruiting destination for colleges. It also might have been my alma mater had we stayed in the city. Around it was a mix of vacant lots and relatively old housing, absolutely pre-waterfront renaissance.
Back on the corner, what had become known as "The Embankment" began a few feet above my head. With nothing left to connect to, the bridge over Henderson Street / Marin Boulevard had been removed, leaving a scar in the granite stone walls where bridge supports had been in place. Several stones had become loose. One of them was right at my feet.
I noticed that with some of the stones dislodged, it wasn't difficult to climb atop The Embankment. Suppose I had a look from up there?
And suppose I fell and broke my neck, I could hear my mother and father saying. This was going to take a bit of rebellion against my super-high Rule Conformity Score. Although the tracks were long gone and the Penn Central had given way to the Consolidated Rail Corporation, and possibly to some other legal entity, this was still private property. I would be trespassing.
I would also be missing a chance I might never get again. As I mentally composed some excuses to provide to Law Enforcement should I be caught up there, I easily climbed up. George 1, Rule Conformity 0.
And there I was, up on the place where engines pushed and pulled countless numbers of freight cars for Harborside Terminal, Colgate's, the stock yards, car float slips, and other industries. I was only twelve feet or so above street level, but I'd gone back to another world, lack of trackage and overhead wire notwithstanding.
Why stop there?
What if I walked along the tracks to between Jersey and Erie?
Before my Rule Conformity had a chance to kick in, I headed in that direction. The Embankment was full of plant life, but also had strips where nothing was growing showing where the multiple tracks of the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad were. One of them looked particuarly well kept. Maybe I wasn't the only one who'd ever had the idea of walking up here.
It was just a few hundred feet onward to Grove Street and the first bridge. It was still there. When in use it carried multiple tracks. Although deteriorated, it certainly could hold me, I reasoned. I wasn't going to fall through the floor of a structure that once hosted equipment weighing at least fifty thousand pounds each. Across Grove I went, and I picked up the pace. A few hundred feet beyond I crossed Erie Street, and then chugged along to the bridge over Jersey Avenue. I decided not to venture further than that, though I could have.
I wanted to see something else. Retracing my steps, I found it: the place I saw when I looked across the street to the tracks from my third-floor apartment window. There it was... what a locomotive engineer coming into the yard would have seen as I looked at him from there. He could have looked over the roof of the short building near the tracks, across Fifth Street, and over to where I lived.
I paused for a long moment, wondering if any employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, or its successor Penn Central, had done just that: noticed an inquisitive young boy nearly hanging out the window of a brownstone, watching intently the freight trains going by, to or from who knows where.
Time to go. My ability to suppress my Rule Conformity was limited. Back over Erie, back over Grove, and down to the end of the Embankment I walked, slower this time. This was an experience to appreciate and savor, as long as there wasn't a Law Enforcement Official to greet me upon my return to the corner from which I'd started my questionably legal walk.
No one was there, though. I'd made it on and off without being noticed. Back on a public sidewalk, I looked back around. Those granite stones that were used to build this structure... there were thousands of them, the vast majority still in place, only the few shaken loose. No one would miss one of them, right? If they were worth even a few cents they would have been hauled off immediately. But they were just laying there, meaning nothing special to anyone. Well, almost anyone.
I picked up the smallest one I could find. Wow, that's still pretty heavy. I had parked a couple of blocks away. Lugging that rock over to the car was a non-trivial task, proportionately not unlike a Pennsylvania Railroad switch engine struggling to pull cars in and out of the yard. Into the car it went, preserved perhaps not for all time, but at least for my lifetime. Not bad for an ordinary stone laid in a construction project that was completed in 1905.
The next time I was in Jersey City, the railroad bridges spanning Grove, Erie, Jersey, Coles and Monmouth had met the same fate as the one over Henderson: gone as of 1996. There was no longer a practical way to take in the view from the former railroad line to the third-floor apartment on Fifth between Jersey and Erie. In place of locomotives and cars, the travelers of The Embankment are migrating Monarch Butterflies which find shelter in the crowded city.
Butterflies are beautiful, to be sure, but that's not how a young child fascinated with trains will recall the place.
A simple stone helps me remember.
To learn more about The Embankment and the efforts to preserve it, visit their website.