Article A: "Conquest of the Palisades: A Triumph of Victorian Traction Technology "

by Al Mankoff (published in "Electriclines" magazine, March/April 1992)

V iewing the amazing technological wonders at London's Crystal Palace during the opening ceremonies of the great exhibition of 1851, the Reverend Charles Kingsley was deeply moved. His listeners heard him endow these new wonders with qualities of the divine:

"The spinning jenny and the railroad," he said, "Cunard's liners, and the electric telegraph, are to me ... signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a mightly spirit working among us... the Ordering and Creating God!"

In the ensuing years technology spawned one marvel after another, and no obstacle seemed to withstand the secular genius of man's mind.

The "Spirit of the Age" is well represented by the story of how a handful of visionary traction engineers conquered the challenge of the Palisades.

The problem was simple; a solution was not. New York was then and is now, a great megalopolis whose streets teem with people who live in the city and commute to it. From the earliest days, the great barrier of the Palisades stood like a fortress wall, running north and south of the city a mile to the west across the Hudson River. Nestled in the flat space between the escarpment and the water's edge were the communities of Hoboken and Weehawken. To the south lay Jersey City; to the west, along the summit ofthe cliff, lay, from south to north, Jersey City Heights, Union City, West New York, North Bergen, Cliffside Park and Edgewater.

There was no easy route around the great stone wall to the north; the southern flank through Jersey City was workable, but gave only roundabout access to the heights, which were ideal for development, and for commuters' homes. Some way through, under or over the obstacle would open millions of acres for settlement and give additional access to the countryside and towns of north and west Jersey. Steamrailroads very early had tunneled the Palisades and crossed the no-man's land known as the "Meadows"-that stretch of barren swampy terrain west of the Heights and Jersey City-to tap the large industrial cities to the west.

Initial applications of transit technology to the conquest of the Palisades came with the Hoboken & Weehawken Horse Railroad Company, organized on February 14, 1860 (becoming the North Hudson County Railway Company on March 29, 1865) and its first horse car route. Early in that decade, dummy engines were tried on routes leading from the Hoboken ferry, but the grades proved too great. To improve tractive power, horses were harnessed four to a car. This cut the one-mile trip from the ferry to the top of the hill to 20 minutes.


Two great wagon elevators, one at Hobeken and another at Weehawken, were built in 1873 by the North Hudson County Railway Company.

Powered by steam, these imposing structures were able to take on a fully loaded horse and wagon, or a horse car carrying a swinging load, lifting it 400 feet along and a hundred feet high from the base to the crown of the cliff in one minute.

This was the first horse car elevator in the world. Two units, each counterbalancing the other, did the work, one up, one down. But delays, especially at rush periods, were agonizingly long. Nevertheless, these relics remained in place far longer than one would expect.

The last wagon elevator company, the Peoples Elevating Company, remained under the Public Service umbrella until it was dissolved on February 9, 1934. By then, of course, service had long since ended, and all that remained of the Hoboken elevator was a vertical scar on the Palisades, directly north of the point where the great trestle soared outward from the edge of the Palisades cliff.




In time, as traction technology grew bolder, four major routes managed to overcome the Palisades barrier, each in its own way, each representirg engineering sophistication of the highest order.

The earliest involved the construction of what remained for some time the largest wrought-iron structure in the world. This was the great Hoboken Inclined Cable Railway, which was built because traffic on the wagon elevator exceeded capacity.

The Inclined Cable Railway was an ingenious answer to the old dilemma. The entire structure was anchored on towers 22 feet wide at the top and fifty feet wide at the base, with each secured to piers of bluestone and brick built upon cross timbers holding together clusters of between 16 and 20 heavy piles. These extended through the soft meadow land fmm 20 to 90 feet to meet the solid rock foundation beneath.

The roadway was formed of sixty-seven pound steel rail laid on white oak blocks to iron plates riveted between two iron channel bars, which also served as guard rails.

From an elevation of eight feet at the ferry, the structure rose to fifteen feet over the street, continued on for 3,500 feet, then began a grade of five percent. Two curves, one at the ferry and the second at the foot of the steep grade, led to the great trestle. At its highest point, the structure soared 95 feet above the meadows.

At the Palisade Avenue terminus at Jersey City Heights, a boiler-house, a depot and an engine house were built. Four boilers supplied the steam. Two 500-horsepower Corliss steam engines drove the cable drums, and provision was made for the eventual installation of two additional engines. The 2-1/2 mile, 1-1/2 inch cable weighed over 20 tons.

At the ferry terminnl, the down-track ran through a switch into the up-track, so that only one track entered the station. The down-cable passed to the end of the station below the platform and around a large sheave, then returned as the up-cable.

When cars arrived in the station, they came in on momentum, having let go of the cable about 700 or 800 feet before the station. Cars were unloaded and reloaded in less than a minute, with exiting passengers going out the right front door and boarding passengers entering from the rear left.

Cable operation was short-lived, however, though it did survive long enough for a 1-1/8 mile elevated extension to be built as far as Hudson Courthouse, Jersey City, in 1890.

Electrification came later in the 1890s. For more than a half-century, with the former cable structure popularly known as the "Hoboken El" cars of the Public Service Railway, and later, Public Service Coordinated Tranaport, made the tedious climb up the hill and the long, seemingly perilous descent.

It was the only point on the system requiring a test of the brakes before proceeding downhill, and one of a very few locations in which the hand brakes on cars were used in conjunction with air as a matter of practice.

The structure remained in place until January, 1950, when contractors disassembled it piece by piece. Elimination of trolley service on August 9, 1949 spelled doom for the venerable relic. Today, nothing but a scar on the lip of the Palisade escarpment remains of this masterpiece of Victorian engineering.


The structure stood hardly a hundred feet back from the waters edge. It soared straight upward, almoat 200 feet above the teeming river, and could be seen for miles. Strategically placed on a long pier berthing pleasure boats and situated directly over the West Shore Railroad station, the massive contraption poured revelers and awed tourists by the thousands up the elevators to board the trains of the North Hudson Railway Company, bound for the Romanesque towers of an early-day Disneyland known as El Dorado, situated just off the railway right-of-way near the edge of the cliff. It also served as a boon to local commuters from Weehawken, Guttenberg, Union, and other residents of Hudson County.

Why the builders insisted on an open cut through the Palisades and erection of the viaduct extending almost a quarter-mile out and over the pier, rather than settling for a simple elevator at the mouth of the cut, no one has ever satisfactorily explained. Perhaps the sheer extravagance of the project impressed the late Victorian minds who saw the structure and experienced the ride.

The elevator machinery and cars were manufactured by the Otis Brothers, from designs furnished by Thomes Brown and Edward Trapp, North Hudson County Railroad Company engineers. The elevated structure, 873 feet long, was built by the Passaic Rolling Mills Company.

The tower rested on a 45-1/2 by 60-foot base; 2,000 tons of steel were required for its construction. Its height was 197 feet above the water, the lift of the elevators was 148 feet. The three cars, measuring 21 ft. 6 inches long by 12 ft. 6 inches wide and 10 feet high, operated independently. Each car held 130 passengers and was furnished with mahogany hardwood.

Each car was suspended in a steel cradle or frame formed of angle and channel iron. Eight cables, as well as safety devices, were attached to each car. Six of the 7/8-inch cables were attached to the hoisting machinery and two to the counterbalance weights.

The elevators were the largest in the world, with a capacity of 20,000 pounds raised 200 feet per minute. The cars carried up to 130 passengers each-390 for every trip. Passengers averaged 100 per minute in actual operation. As many as 60,000 visitors used the facility over a ten hour day. The vertical trip upward was completed in 45 seconds.



Descending the steep grade toward the Hoboken Terminal required careful monitoring of the brakes by the motorman. This view is from the 1920's.

No. 2804, Union City Line, pauses on the El to pick up early morning riders in 1943. Note "bug-eyes" on platform roof required by Union City ordinance.


Car No. 2491 at Palisades Avenue elevated station, Sept. 30, 1935.

The viaduct leading to the elevators rested on towers similar to those which supported the Hoboken Elevated. Six of these were sufficient for the railroad roadway, including the main elevator tower at water's edge. The railroad boarded and unloaded passengers onto covered wooden platforms extending west about one-third of the distance to the cliff.

The great elevator and viaduct lived a short life. The magnificent contraption closed on June 29,1895, when the North Hudson County Railway Company opened a new electrified trolley route from the West Shore Ferry Terminal to the county line, climbing private right-of-way adjacent to Pershing Road. The structure itself-the station, the elevators, the operating plant and the viaduct-were destroyed by fire on February 7, 1898. No other artifact of the time is so little-remembered; for an immense presence in such a prominent location, precious little survives to remind us of this memorable creation of engineering whimsy. Today, almost a hundred years later, the great yawning vent of the cut can still clearly be seen high on the cliff, contemplating time and the river, flowing far below. Long covered by the structure of a roadway, it appears as a dark cave on the forbidding lip of the Palisades, an object of idle curiosity for New Yorkers who notice it from across the river.

Probably not one person in a hundred thousand is aware of the great elevators, or their role in defeating the Palisades in an age now gone and forgotten. And no one alive today can recall the immense thrill of viewing, from that unique structure, the grand megalopolis sprawling north and south of a river crammed with sail and steam.


On the opposite side of the Hudson River, across From 15th Street in Manhattan, lies West Hoboken. Beginning at the 14th Street ferry at Madison Avenue and 15th Street on the Jersey side, the North Hudson County Railway built a trolley line that was in every respect ordinary-until it encountered the massive wall of the Palisades.

In a daring feat of engineering imagination, the company sliced into the stone barrier, building a spectacular double-looped line 3,688 feet long for an ascent of 160 feet. The rise began with a wooden trestle that ran north and south and nearly parallel with the east side of the tracks of the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad, the Western Railroad, and the Jersey Central. At that point, ascending care were going almost directly south, until they reached a 90 degree curve, with a radius of 75 feet, which took them over the tracks by way of an iron truss. A second 75 foot curve of 93 degrees, 58 feet took the right-of-way along the face of the cliff, gradually rising and crossing the old Hillside Wagon Road and heading north to a height of 110 feet, where it entered the northern loop. A radius of 60 feet and a curve of 215 degrees, 16 feet took the care to the southwest, and, still climbing, crossed the 140-foot contour line, once again, over the Hillside Wagon Road. A final arc of 100 degrees, 32' and a 100 foot curve brought the line to its destination at the lip of the Palisades and its connection with the rest of the system.



Original blueprint for the gigantic passenger elevator at Weehawken, N.J.

North Hudson County RR. Passenger elevator at Weehawken, N.J. as built.

Stone ballast taken from the hillside itselfwas used in construction. Cars operated on 56 pound rail, reinforced with 32 pound guard rail. The structure, built by Miles Tierney, the prime contractor, and C.B. Brush as chief engineer, set the company back some $120,000, (easily the price of a present-day studio condo in the same area.) By no idle coincidence, Miles Tierney was also the president of the North Hudson County Railway. Surfacing and finishing of the road was directed by a former Erie Railroad engineer, William Starr, the General Manager of the North Hudson County Railroad at the time of construction.

Power for the Hillside line was supplied by a 14,000 horsepower compound Corliss engine. The route involved maximum grades of 5.15 per cent, but curve grades did not exceed 1.5 per cent. At the time, the North Hudson County Railway operated about 50 miles of road, of which 24 were horse car, 19 electric trolley, and 7 miles of steam road carrying some 17,000,000 passengers annually.


This remarkable route, still well within the memory of many alive today, hauled millions of pleasure-driven New Yorkers from the steaming asphalt of the city streets to summer frolics at the Palisades Amusement Park situated at the summit of the Palisades across the Hudson River, close to where the George Washington Bridge now stands.

It also served for years as a reliable commuter artery from the 125th Street Ferry to bedroom communities as far away as Paterson, the industrial center of mid-northern New Jersey.

The fondly-remembered 3500 series cars that operated on this route in its later years were built by Public Service Railway at its Newark Shops. They saw service on the Southern Division in Camden in the teens, and on the Newark-Trenton Fast Line before closing out their years of service on Bergen County lines. Double-ended, short platform cars, with deck roofs and comfortable leather seats, the cars were a paragon of trolley luxury, ideal for the long, winding inter-urban-like route from the river, heading north and west from the great metropolis. The cars were sorely missed when the line closed down, despite a storm of citizen protest, on August 5, 1938.

The cars were shuttled to the Passaic Wharf, the Public Service scrapping facility on the banks of the Passaic River in Newark, where they rusted away until they were scrapped in the summer and fal1 of 1940, ending a service life that spanned the state from north to south and east to west.

The line on which they operated in those last years was the last gasp of the engineering genius ofthe Victorian years, but by no means the least spectacular in design or in utility.

Beginning as a modest single-track route up the face of the cliff at Edgewater, negotiating a tortuous switchback and a series of turnouts on the way, the route, built by the Bergen County Traction Company, initiated service on April 20, 1896.

After BCT merged with the Ridgefield & Teaneck Railway Company in February of 1900, emerging as the New Jersey & Hudson River Railway & Ferry Company, work began in March of that year to double track the route up the cliff, and to build what became famous in later years as the local Horseshoe Curve.

For years, the powerful arc lamps carried on the front of the cars flashed across the dark river as they descended the grade and rounded the great curve.

Today, more than one elderly enthusiast can recall Iying in bed as a child on the Manhattan side of the river, falling to sleep as the golden rays sped across the walls of the room. More than one youthful curiosity, piqued by the sight of the angular grade across the river, investigated and became enchanted forever after with the giant Pullma-Red 3500s.



El Dorado Amusement Park advertisement.

Hillside Line at Hoboken, N.J.

The new double tracked right-of-way opened on February 19, 1901, with 70 feet of Palisades rock blasted away, and massive stone and masonry walls holding back the tons of earth and rock above. The "Park on the Palisades" at the sumnut opened in May of 1901 and became the Palisades Amusement Park on May 18, 1908, greatly increasing summertime traffic on the ferries and on the line.



No. 3594 on Riverside Line in Camden, New Jersey. Train operation was rare in both Northern and Southern Divisions of Public Service, though many cars were so equipped. -E.T. Francis Archives Photo

Hudson River Car No. 3584 in storage at public Services Passaic Warf in Newark, N.J., July 1939. Cars were scrapped in Summer and Fall of 1940.



No. 2809, with Hudson Terminal in distance, slows for elderly passenger mounting steps to station, 1942.

Route map of Hoboken trolley lines.



Public Service cars enroute to Hoboken crossing over many rail lines. A. Gilcher/N.J. International Collection

Now overlooking the rapidly-changing, upscaled landscape below, the old right of way still exists, overgrown with trees and shrubbery and cluttered with the refuse of contractors and builders. The Horseshoe Curve is there, and here and there a clue to what this spot once was is still visible.

Today, the revitalization of the waterfront and on-and-off discussion of a waterfront light rail line gives promise of the rebirth of urban rail along the Palisades. But in these years now fading into a new century, only those who saw the old route at its grandest can stand there and imagine what it once was.





Horseshoe Curve with George Washington Bridge in distance (here and photo directly above).

Hudson River Line No. 3526 on Horsehoe Curve, Edgewater, New Jersey, May 29, 1939. Wilbur Sherwood Collection

Previous Page | Next Page

Trolley Treasures Home Page | Trolley Treasures Vol. 1 Cover Page

Content: © 1997 Al Mankoff
Layout & Design: © 1997
Brett Putnam