“The City At The Nation’s Front Door”

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On September 26, 1918, the Meuse-Argonne offensive began. The attack on the German lines in France lasted for 47 days, until the war’s end, and remains the longest battle in American history. During the assault, Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, made his troops a surprisingly blunt promise: By Christmas, he told them, they would be in heaven, they would be in hell, or they would be in Hoboken.

Even with eternal bliss as a possibility, it’s a good bet that most of the mud-caked doughboys prayed they’d end up in Hoboken. The small and often overlooked New Jersey city, in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, had been the last place they had stood on American soil, and if they were fortunate, it would be the first place they’d set foot there again. The lucky ones did, and before Christmas.

Today Hoboken is known, in a plain but accurate phrase, as the Mile Square City, but an earlier nickname has more of a ring to it: The City at the Nation’s Front Door. If Manhattan has historically been the gateway to America, tiny Hoboken, the island’s mainland neighbor, and with it part of the once-busiest port in the world, lived its great days with oversized responsibilities. It was among the most important transportation and industrial centers of the early twentieth century and home to one of the greatest railroad terminals ever built.

Hoboken invented the slide rule, ran the first American-built steam locomotive, and played the first organized game of baseball. It gave America Maxwell House coffee, Lipton tea, and Frank Sinatra. But it’s a place few vacationers even know about. “The idea of tourism in Hoboken is a foreign concept,” admits the director and curator of the Hoboken Historic Museum, Bob Foster.

That might be because for years the city has had to maintain its identity right beside what locals like to call “that city across the river.” But they needn’t be insecure. An easy jump from Manhattan by train or ferry, the place has one thing Manhattan will never have: an unobstructed view of itself.

 

Despite Hoboken’s renown as a transportation hub, the best way to get around it is on foot. Laid out in a grid of rectangular blocks almost wholly within a few feet of sea level, Hoboken is very walkable. The east-to-west streets bear numbers—First to Fourteenth, increasing as you move north, or uptown—while the north-to-south thoroughfares have names. Washington Street is Hoboken’s social backbone. An object thrown here will strike a bar or a restaurant before it hits anything else. Hoboken’s single hill is occupied by the Stevens Institute of Technology, whose Castle Point Observation Terrace, 100 feet up, is as high as things get.

THE SYNERGY BETWEEN SHIPS AND TRAINS TRANSFORMED THE TOWN FROM A BUCOLIC HAMLET INTO AN ENGINE OF CAPITALISM.

Anchoring the grid from the bottom of town is the old Lackawanna Railroad Terminal, the city’s most visible landmark. Built in the days when a train station was meant to be a grand entrance to a city, the Lackawanna still fits that role. To get there, climb aboard the PATH train—the “tube” across the Hudson from New York—at any of its five stations in Manhattan for a $1.50 trip. PATH, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, was originally the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad and, in continuous operation since 1908, is one of the oldest subways in the world. After leaving Manhattan’s Christopher Street station, it takes an ear-popping dive under the river and a squeaky climb through the Jersey silt before clattering to rest in a cavern of concrete vaults where stairs lead up to the terminal’s concourse level.

Hoboken came of age before the turn of the last century, when commerce moved by water and rail. It was ideally situated for both. Recognizing the advantages of the city’s proximity to Manhattan together with its mainland presence, the mammoth shipping lines of Hamburg-American and North German Lloyd drove their pilings into the New Jersey shoreline in 1863. Five years later the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad laid tracks down to the water, where it built a wooden station and took over ferry service to New York. The synergy between ships and trains transformed the town from a bucolic hamlet into an engine of capitalism.

 

The Lackawanna Terminal is as imposing a presence today as when it opened in 1907. Designed by Kenneth Murchison, a noted railroad architect, the Beaux Arts confection, sheathed from curb to cornice in lavish ornamental copper, was the fifth terminal on its site and was meant to replace for eternity the four that had burned before it. Strip away all the copper, and the structure is a concrete bunker.

There are, to be technical, two Lackawanna terminals, one for ferries and one for trains. The ferry building juts out long and low over the water, while the railroad wing anchors it by land. Murchison’s creation was a masterpiece of intermodal transportation; the docks were just a few minutes’ walk away, the trolleys even closer.

Though the Lackawanna ran its last ferry in 1967 and its last train five years later, this is still a very active railroad station. Some 30,000 people move through it daily to use the commuter trains of New Jersey Transit, which recently completed a full restoration of the waiting room. During the day, light streams down through a Tiffany stained-glass skylight to the benches and mosaic-tile floor below. At night the room basks in the glow of four monumental bronze chandeliers.