Jersey Central Railroad Terminal

The World Trade Center towering here over the abandoned terminal had been open for business less than two years that October. Only two months earlier, in August, French aerial daredevil Philippe Petite staged his dramatic, unauthorized high-wire walk between the towers. Ironically, Petite's stunt helped the Trade Center it the community acceptance it had been struggling to generate without success. In a darker irony, the Twin Towers would fall in 2001 while the decrepit Jersey Central Terminal would be restored as part of Liberty State Park, where it serves as museum and administration office.

Many private sector railroads collapsed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Jersey Central succumbed in 1967. Officially, it was called the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Its terminal at the foot of Johnston Avenue in Jersey City was directly across the Hudson from Manhattanís financial district. The Jersey Central served a large commuter population. But the Jersey Central linked with many other railroads, the Baltimore & Ohio for one, and so offered service to virtually all points west. Its proximity to Ellis Island meant that many immigrants passed through during the first half of the 20th century.

This picture was taken from a control tower overlooking what had once been a web of tracks that served the terminal and nearby freight yards. By the fall of 1974, all the rails had been removed for salvage . The control tower itself was gone within a year as the slow development of what is now Liberty State Park began.

When the terminal shut down in 1967 there was virtually no transition. One day it was operating, the next day it was not. Things were simply left as they were. In the Jersey Central offices, that meant file cabinets, coffee cups, unopened correspondence, rubber stamps, and typewriters. The inevitable scrappers took that stuff as well as copper and anything else they could sell.

Another, different group descended on these buildings -- railroad buffs. They stripped the walls and desks of anything that would eventually become memorabilia Ė pictures, paperweights, and posters. By 1974, the place had been picked clean.

Even then, seven years abandoned, it was a walk-in. There was no fencing. Nothing was boarded up. Ranger Dave, who you'll meet below, provided security of a sort, but that was minimal. Thatís the way many abandoned buildings were then. So few people tried to get in, I suppose, that that it just wasnít worth expensive security.


Ranger Dave and the Cupola

Dave Caroff was a N.J. State Park Ranger from South Jersey who had volunteered to guard what was soon to become Liberty State Park. He and a small dog lived in a shack on the former rail yard, now a eerie moonscape of torn up tracks, mounds of dirt, and at least one old box car on cinder blocks. He worked alone and was pretty much on call even when not officially on duty. Dave volunteered for the job, he explained, to find some peace away from his quarrelsome family. That job was to protect 1,200 acres of newly acquired state land that included the old station.      

Despite Daveís best efforts, one thief stole decorative copper he estimated was worth $13,000. At the time of the theft in 1972, scrap copper was worth 38 cents a pound. A year later the price of copper climbed to nearly $1 a pound, and on the night of July 22, 1973, a group of daredevils made off with the copper cupola.

When he did encounter thieves, all Dave could do was phone the Jersey City Police; he had to return to his shack to do that. He couldn't even to that when the scrappers turned out to be off-duty Jersey City officers. They waved hello as they came and went.

The copper was already gone from the cupola when I first came to the old terminal. Ranger Dave must have been somewhere else when I finally climbed the old steel ladder up through the roof and into the cupola. There were no walls to block the 360 degree view. To the northeast was downtown Manhattan and the original World Trade Center.

Iím not sure how it happened, but while shooting pictures with my Pentax, I heard the unmistakable sound of keys as they answered the call of gravity, hitting the metal ladder rungs as they fell.

I had found my way up following the light from the open cupola. There was no such light source down below, and I didnít have a flashlight. The keys had to be found by Braille on the splintery wood floor 30 feet down. It took time and sapped the fun from the day.

Of course, the terminal was restored and is now part of Liberty State Park. .

This shot was taken from the same control tower vantage point as the one on the previous page, this time with a telephoto lens and a rare roll of color film.


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