Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Immigration's lesser-known New Jersey gateway

Today it sits at the edge of New York Harbor, suffering from enduring damage suffered at the hand of Hurricane Sandy. A hundred years ago, it was a busy way station for immigrants coming to the United States to start a new life.

No, it's not Ellis Island, though Ellis is still making its way back from Sandy-inflicted wounds. It's Jersey City's Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, which continues to await repair, more than a year after the storm.

The eaves of the CRRNJ Terminal, in early 2011.
As I mentioned in a previous story about Communipaw Cove, the terminal was built in 1889 to replace an earlier structure as the northernmost destination served by the CRRNJ. By the dawn of the 20th century, its adjacent rail yard was the largest in the metropolitan area, serving nearly 300 trains a day, whether for passengers or freight. New York-bound commuters from Hudson, Union, Middlesex, Somerset, Warren, Monmouth and Hunterdon counties would pass through the terminal to transfer between the train that brought them from home and the ferry that connected to lower Manhattan. As they rushed to make their connection, few if any would have noticed that in a separate waiting room sat a nervous contingent of new arrivals, making a much less routine transfer.

The northern face of the station, a few months after Sandy.
A fair amount of the traffic growth at the terminal was the product of a massive increase in immigration to the United States. About 70 percent of the 12 million immigrants processed at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 were headed to points outside New York, and the CRRNJ Terminal was the first place they landed after they were approved to enter the country. Many had purchased their train tickets before leaving home, in a package deal with their ship's passage, but a ticket office at the Immigration Station was also available for those who still had to plot their course to their new homes. Ferries shuttled them from Ellis to the waterfront station, where they could take trains to their ultimate destination, either directly or through transfer. Operating out of the Jersey City terminal in a cooperative agreement with the CRRNJ, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad offered direct passage to points as far west as St. Louis and Chicago. The Reading Railroad also supplemented the Central Jersey with service to western Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.

On their arrival from Ellis Island, immigrants were guided to a separate waiting room for their trains to be announced, at which point they'd take a designated route to the appropriate platform. It was likely a practical decision, a means to ensure that confused, non-English speakers wouldn't inadvertently board the wrong train and end up in Carteret instead of Cleveland. Similarly, during the heaviest migration years, entire cars of trains would often be designated solely for immigrants.

Unfortunately, the Immigrant/Emigrant Waiting Room no longer exists, having been part of a ferry shed which was demolished many years ago. And I haven't been able to find any official word on when repairs to the building itself will be completed, or for that matter, start.

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