Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Stem
Embankment Preservation Coalition
WHAT IS THE HARSIMUS STEM EMBANKMENT? *
The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Stem Embankment is a former rail freightway that runs for six blocks
along Sixth Street in downtown Jersey City. A massive segmented stone structure, the Embankment borders
the National Historic Districts of Harsimus Cove and Hamilton Park and is itself a recognized historic site. It
was entered into the State Register of Historic Places in 1999, is eligible for the National Register, and was
named a Municipal Landmark in January 2003.
The Embankment once served as the eastern freight terminus for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the most powerful
railroad in the nation, and contributed to the growth of the Port of New York and the greater metropolitan area.
Seven tracks ran on top of the structure, which descended almost to grade level at its eastern end, where it
entered the Harsimus Yards on the Hudson River waterfront. Goods shipped via the Embankment were loaded
onto a flotilla for transport across the Hudson River, New York Harbor, and the East River. To the south, at
the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger terminalonce the largest passenger terminal in the worldtravelers
ended their cross-country rail trips and boarded ferries for New York or destinations beyond. That terminal is
long gone, but the freightway remains.
Because it was driven through residential neighborhoods, the elevated freightway greatly affected local life as
well as regional economic, social, and political history. Long-time residents remember the sounds of the
passing trains and children scrambling up the walls to gather coal dropped from coal cars.
Built circa 1902, the Embankment substructure was designed and its construction supervised by James J.
Ferris, a self-made Irish immigrant, prominent civil engineer, and Progressive Era politician. The retaining
walls are constructed of enormous sandstone and granite blocks, each weighing up to a ton. They reach a
height of 27 feet at its western end near Brunswick Street. Each Embankment segment is 400 feet long (a city-
block) and 100 feet wide. Gigantic plate girder bridges connected each segment but were dismantled in 1996
by Conrail and sold for scrap.
The historical significance of the Embankment is complemented by its current role in our urban environment.
The Embankment provides open space in a County with a severe park deficit. A sink for rainwater in a flood-
prone Downtown, the Embankment gradually releases water into overburdened city sewers. The top provides
habitat for many animal species and oxygenates air compromised by local and Holland-Tunnel traffic. The
site is part of a monarch flyway that stretches from Canada to Mexico. The Embankment is a quiet neighbor.
In September, 2004, the Jersey City Municipal Council unanimously passed an ordinance enabling the taking
of the Embankment by eminent domain for a passive park and greenway. This action followed six years of
effort by the Embankment Preservation Coalition to promote preservation, development of the top as nature
habitat and passive park, creation of a tree-lined, lighted walkway along its base, and use of the park as a
segment of the East Coast Greenway, a 2600-mile walking and bicycling trail from Maine to Florida. The East
Coast Greenway is 20 percent complete in New Jersey.
The Coalition is represented on a City steering committee that will pursue acquisition and park development.
The Coalition was instrumental in securing 1.6 million in Green Acres funds and is working to raise a
$266,000 match. The Coalition also advocated for a $1.6 million earmark, sponsored by Congressman Robert
Menendez, in the SAFETEA bill passed by Congress in July 2005.
* Parts adapted from Rick James’s Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment Nomination for the State & National
Registers of Historic Places. View: http://jerseycityhistory.net/embankmentnomination.html
Embankment Preservation Coalition
495 Monmouth Street, Jersey City, NJ 07302
Contact: Jennifer Meyer 201-659-4204 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org