Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stuff that's not there anymore: Communipaw Cove

Go to Liberty State Park today and you’ll see the remnants of its most immediate former use. The Jersey City terminal of the Central Railroad of New Jersey stands restored against the Hudson River, its rail shed a small indication of the massive amounts of people and freight that once entered and departed the area. If you look carefully around the edges of the lawns and access roads, you’ll see another indication of previous use: the warning signs showing where nature is being allowed to remediate soil polluted by the industry that once stood there.

Aerial photographs of the area from the 1940s and 50s show a substantial number of docks where freight would be loaded onto or off ships. It was in the southernmost part of this area, at Black Tom Wharf not far from the Statue of Liberty, that an act of sabotage in 1916 helped prompt the United States to enter World War I. Move forward to the early 1970s, and this same location shows abandonment following the bankruptcy of two of the region’s largest railroads.

The area’s status as a shipping center actually began with the construction of the Morris Canal in the 1830s. Terminating at the Jersey City shore of the Hudson River, the canal brought Pennsylvania coal east and New Jersey iron west. No doubt, a fair amount of the coal ended up in New York City, as well.

The canal’s builders would have seen a much different topography than we do today. Instead of an expanse of land to the south, they’d have seen a naturally scooped-out shoreline. That was Communipaw Cove, the summer home of Native Americans before the arrival of the Dutch in the 1630s. A tidal flatlands, the area was rife with oysters, as was much of New York Harbor, making for a rather pleasant place to live.

Once the Dutch West Indies Company planted itself there, industrialization, as it was at the time, started in earnest. Settlements sprouted up in the area, including plantations powered by slave labor. Then, as now, proximity to Lower Manhattan fueled transportation: regulated ferry service was established between the island and Communipaw in 1669. Apparently Jersey City real estate was hot, even then.

But why does the cove no longer exist? Well, it comes back, in some regards, to the Morris Canal. The Lehigh Valley Railroad leased the entire thing from its developers in 1871 to gain control of the terminals at Phillipsburg and Jersey City. Founded to transport Pennsylvania coal, LVRR wanted to beef up its New Jersey capacity to get to the lucrative New York City market. The Central Railroad of New Jersey had already established a terminal at Communipaw, and LVRR’s incursion began a lengthy battle that resolved in 1887 with an agreement for both to develop a railyard at the site. That’s when the cove started getting filled in, eventually becoming a huge complex serving the New York area’s shipping needs. From there, we get to the pollution and decay largely eradicated by the development of Liberty State Park in the 1970s.

A fair amount of coastal northern New Jersey has a similar, yet less dramatic history. Naturally marshy areas were filled in and solidified as ‘progress’ marched on. We got fewer mosquitoes and more commerce, but our predecessors also erased what had been there for centuries. Liberty State Park may not be Communipaw Cove, but at least it’s a nice place for a picnic and maybe a little birding. I guess we can get some solace from that.

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