Category Archives: jersey city

Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery

The world is strewn with cemeteries more or less forgotten, and while in Jersey City in New Jersey (after visiting the abandoned train station and discovering the site of the Black Tom Explosion), my adventurous friend Hannah and I walked to one of them. (If you are keeping track, this is a lot of walking for one afternoon. We estimated 8 to 10 miles.)

The Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery is a small burial ground at around six acres, with a healthy population of woodchucks burrowing around the graves (really!) almost beneath the rumble of a highway. It gets its curious name of Harsimus from a nearby neighborhood, which derived it from a Lenape phrase meaning something like “Crow’s Marsh.”

The cemetery was established in 1829, the inaugural cemetery for the first cemetery company to start up in New Jersey (this was the time on the cusp of the rural cemetery movement and privatization of burials away from churchyards). Like the other cemeteries established in the mid-19th century, it was laid out to be a garden as well as a place for interments. Unfortunately, it was abandoned in 2008, although luckily a group of volunteers, the Friends of the Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery, have now dedicated themselves to its upkeep. (There’s also a caretaker who lives in the house you see above.) Still, it’s far from its former garden cemetery glory, but there is a beauty in its decay.

The most interesting area of the cemetery is this sort of secluded area nestled between two forested areas. The woodchucks love it, too, and you have to watch your step or risk twisting an ankle in one of their burrows.

See! Hopefully they aren’t stealing flags off military graves like those rascally woodchucks in upstate New York.

That flag looks unstolen, at least.

Here is some documentation of me exploring and being careful for woodchuck burrows, care of Hannah’s camera.

Apparently Charles F. Durant, the first American to go up in a hot air balloon and the man who brought the silk worm to the US, is buried in the cemetery, but I didn’t see him. Many of the graves are overgrown or toppled, and others lean precariously. However, you can still detect the waves of immigration from the names, with old Dutch and English graves transitioning to Italian, German, Polish, and Russian. Immigrants to Ellis Island would often come directly to New Jersey to travel by train to the rest of the United States or even stay, so it’s not surprising to see such a diversity of surnames. There are also many Civil War soldiers, and even, oddly, some military relics that turn up, as it was used as a training ground for World War I and II.

At one point, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery was so popular with visitors that tickets were charged for entry to stroll the grounds and appreciate the monuments, but now traffic is light. The cemetery friends do seem to be making an effort though to get people in with concerts and other events, which I think is great. That’s really the only way for cemeteries to survive total neglect is to get them to become a place for the living as well as the dead to appreciate the history contained in their grounds.

It looks like someone has also tried some decorating.

If you find yourself in Jersey City, stop in and check it out, there really is an amazing collection of graves here, each with stories that I’m sure are waiting to be uncovered. There is a guard you might find at the entrance, this cat with a rather furrowed brow who watched us suspiciously, but it was probably just looking out for the place. Someone has to. (Good thing it has a bit of help, too.)

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Liberty State Park & the Black Tom Explosion

Manhattan is an impossible place to grasp while you’re on it, it’s only with water between you that you can see the density of the buildings and stratus of the architecture. Buildings indicate neighborhoods and you can see how it all ripples from impossible heights down the island. For some of the best views, I recommend traveling to Jersey City and walking through Liberty State Park, which is what Hannah and I did after exploring the park’s abandoned train station. The park was also of interest to me as the site of the biggest act of WWI sabotage committed on US soil: the Black Tom Explosion.

If you do make it over to Liberty State Park, be advised that there is absolutely no shade by the water and it is also an incredibly long park, so be prepared to walk and walk and walk. While a sprawl of green now, the area of the park was once part of the industrial waterfront. When the railroad station closed and these industries declined, the area was derelict and abandoned. The park was finally opened in 1976 and is now comprised of an incredible 1,122 acres.

The park takes you by the bridge to Ellis Island, which is quite close. We could see some of the off limits areas which I would love to someday be able to visit.

You can also get the closest to the Statue of Liberty without taking the ferry.

Getting back to the aforementioned Black Tom Explosion, the marker for it is at the very end of the park, after the skyline of Manhattan has become more distant. Back in 1916 in the middle of World War I, Black Tom island, which was near Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty stands, was used as a depot for thousands of tons of munitions that were destined for the Allies in Europe. (Origins of the island’s name are vague, but some attribute it to coming from an African American fisherman who lived there at one time.) On July 31 of 1916, a fire broke out on the island and a little after 2 in the morning it all began to explode with a force that is estimated to have been a 5.5 on the Richter Scale.

From 25 miles away in five states, people could feel the massive explosion and windows were shattered in buildings everywhere. Debris and schrapnel shot through the night, some into the State of Liberty, and the heat melted objects like the above bottle. The Jersey Journal had its clocktower stopped by schrapnel at 2:12 am, a wall of City Hall in Jersey City was cracked, the Brooklyn Bridge was rattled, and the State of Liberty’s shaken torch had to be closed and has in fact remained closed ever since. (The torch, like the rest of the statue, was never actually designed for so many visitors, and the ascent to the top of it had to be done in almost pitch black darkness, but the heavy explosion and destabilization of the arm made it even more impossible.) Immigrants who were on Ellis Island were all quickly transported to Manhattan, where people had awoken across the city among the sounds of shattering glass.

The explosion was later found to be the work of German agents, and Germany had to pay $50 million dollars for the explosion, which they finally completed in 1979.

I assumed that the grand circle of flags shown above were a memorial for the seven people killed in the explosion and the hundreds injured, but it turns out that I was wrong. They do allow you to take the most patriotic photo ever, sort of like combining all the postage stamps into one grand shot.

This is as close as it gets to an official commemoration of the explosion on the New York Harbor, a faded informational plaque bordering the picnic tables under some shady trees. Black Tom island was almost completely destroyed, and you won’t find it on any current map. All that remains of it has been incorporated into this picnic ground at f Liberty State Park.

I’ll leave you with some historic photos from the explosion:

And here is the view from the Statue of Liberty’s torch taken around 1910, six years before it was closed. Although you probably won’t be able to see this in person unless you are a very important person, you can view the National Parks Service torch cams online.

Exploring an Abandoned Train Station in Jersey City

Exploring new places and abandoned things are what get me out of the apartment on lazy weekend mornings, and since last Saturday was so gorgeous with its early fall cool breeze and bright summery sun, what better thing to do than to take the ferry to Jersey City and seek out the ruins of an old train station?

I met up with my friend Hannah at the World Financial Center and we boarded the ferry for Jersey City. I had never been to this city just across the Hudson before, so I was curious what we would find.

It turned out the ferry docked not far at all from our derelict destination. The skyline of Manhattan gleamed in the not-so-distant distance, but Jersey City had a distinctly suburban feel. The station turned out to be the only thing in the area really left to ruins, as the surrounding park was carefully maintained and bordered a marina with charming white boats bobbing in the water.

The train station, overgrown with plants, its tracks lost beneath foliage, was once the gateway for the Central Railroad of New Jersey. It was built in 1889 and was in operation until 1967.

Passengers once arrived by ferry, like us, to this grand terminal before boarding the trains behind it.

The terminal building is topped with a clock that doesn’t seem to quite have the right time. In its four corners are labels and symbols for science, commerce, industry, and agriculture.

This building is actually beautifully renovated and still has ferries, except now they only go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Word to the savvy tourist: go here to visit those monuments. The wait appeared significantly less than from Battery Park, plus you get to go through this glamorous old world terminal. Many immigrants from Ellis Island actually entered the US through this building, so there is added history as well.

Here is the corridor connecting the ferry building with the tracks. Now you can buy snacks here.

Strangely, a snack stand that was shaped like a boat said “Miss Liberty” on one side and was topped with an image of the Statue of Liberty. But on the other side it seemed like we had suddenly switched coasts. Unless there is some sort of epic ferry ride to Alcatraz from New Jersey that I don’t know about. So… is there only one version of this boat concession stand and you flip it around depending on what tourism center you are at? That…. does not make sense.

Anyway, back to the abandoned section of the station. While the ferry building looks almost new, the tracks have been left to the elements and are beautiful that way. Metal columns connect to arches of a ceiling where shafts of light pierce down. In some places, trees have grown up through the roof to the sky.

I wonder what these drawers below the train signs were for? Tickets? They seemed to be sealed shut so I couldn’t investigate too closely. And they were a bit dusty.

At its peak in 1929, it’s estimated that 21 million passengers passed through the station and ferry terminal. However, the Depression, competitor railroads, and finally the automobile caused its decline.

Unlike many architectural relics of the railroad era, the station was saved by destruction, largely to the efforts of the local community.

There was a stunning view from the small balcony on the terminal facing Manhattan, where you can also see the remains of the old piers.

Interestingly, the bricks by the pier are made from wood and have to be frequently replaced. We learned this from a National Parks ranger, who had to make sure no one went on the small area of federal land leading to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries without going through security.

Here is a last view of the pier. If you ever want a low impact urban exploration activity, I highly recommend visiting the old station. However, our journey would not end there and in fact would include many miles of walking. But I will save that for another post.