The Harsimus Branch Embankment is a segmented stone structure that runs for a half-mile along Sixth Street in Downtown Jersey City and is part of a longer right of way. A massive remnant of the Pennsylvania Railroad, once the mightiest economic engine in the world, the Embankment was a key contributor to the growth of Jersey City and the entire Port of New York and New Jersey. The historic significance of the structure, built circa 1902, has been recognized at the federal, state, and local levels.
The Pennsylvania Railroad Embankment freight line at 6th Street, the PRR passenger line at Railroad Avenue (now Columbus) and other rail lines visible here shaped Jersey City's downtown neighborhoods.
For more than a hundred years the Embankment and a previous elevated structure carried cargo from the American heartland to the west bank of the Hudson, where it was delivered locally to warehouses or stockyards or moved onto boats for destinations in Manhattan and beyond. Together with other rail lines to the north and south, the Harsimus Branch shaped the contours of Downtown Jersey City neighborhoods. Today its Embankment is the border between the National Historic Districts of Harsimus Cove and Hamilton Park, and is integral to their historic fabric.
With the other rail lines that ran through Jersey City, the Harsimus Branch and its elevated structures influenced the economics and political and social life of the area. At its peak, the Harsimus Yards, the eastern terminus of the Branch, provided hundreds of jobs for city residents. The Embankment itself was a powerful presence in daily life, running as it did through residential backyards and past churches. Longtime residents near the Embankment remember the sounds of trains, children scrambling up the walls to gather coal dropped from coal cars, and the occasional stray cow running through the streets.
Since the 1990s, when freight use ceased, Nature has seeded the Embankment, which now includes old field meadows and upland forest habitat for birds and other creatures. The site is part of the monarch butterfly flyway that stretches from Canada to Mexico, and it 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, helping to control CSOs (combined sewer outflows) into the Hudson Estuary. Embankment trees oxygenate air compromised by local and Holland Tunnel traffic. The Embankment has been a quiet neighbor to more than 300 properties along its length. It and the longer transportation corridor now offer opportunities for future public uses, including rail, trail, and open space. that will serve a burgeoning city population.
In September 2004, the Jersey City Municipal Council passed an ordinance enabling the acquisition of the Embankment by eminent domain. The Embankment Preservation Coalition identified funds for acquisition, development of the top as a nature habitat and public park, creation of a tree-lined, lighted walkway along its base, and use of the elevated structure as an off-road segment of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile walking and bicycling trail from Maine to Florida.
Acquisition was delayed, however, as government boards and courts on local, state, and federal levels decided whether the Harsimus Branch is a line of rail subject to federal law and protections for the public, and if the Embankment can be demolished. In 2014, federal courts definitively agreed with the position of the City of Jersey City, Rails to Trails, and Embankment Preservation Coalition that the Harsimus Branch was a federally regulated railroad under the jurisdiction of the Surface Transportation Board (STB). The future of the Branch and its Embankment now largely lies with STB decisions.
Currently the STB is reviewing, as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act, historic assets that will be affected if STB grants a permit to abandon the railroad. The Coalition's position is that all potential adverse effects could be avoided by the STB's enabling the City to acquire the Branch.
For a physical description and more detail on Embankment history, read Rick James’s Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment Nomination for the State & National Registers of Historic Places.