The Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Bridge carries Norfolk Southern Railway freight trains over the Hackensack River near Kearny, New Jersey.
The New Jersey Railroad & Transportation Company (NJR), the third railroad incorporated in the state, became the first to reach Jersey City when it laid its tracks across the Kearny meadows in 1834. 2 By 1838, the NJR had cut through the traprock in Bergen Hill to reach the Hudson River waterfront opposite Manhattan and in the following year, the railroad made a connection with the Camden & Amboy Railroad at New Brunswick to provide the first direct railroad service between New York and Philadelphia.
The NJR was absorbed by the United Canal & Railroad Company of New Jersey in 1867, which was then leased in 1871 by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) for a term of 999 years, becoming known as the Harsimus Branch. 2
The PRR merged with the New York Central Railroad in 1968 to form the Penn Central Railroad (PC). 2 PC filed for bankruptcy in 1970 and in 1976, Conrail assumed control of the former PC’s freight operations, including the operation of the Hackensack River bridge. The Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX acquired Conrail in 1998.
Hackensack River Bridge
To cross the Hackensack River, the NJR acquired a majority of the Hackensack & Passaic River Bridge Company’s stock as the company owned and operated a bridge over the river for their Newark Turnpike. 2 The railroad attached their own bridge adjacent to the south side of the Turnpike’s crossing. After an unfavorable court ruling against the NJR, the railroad erected an independent structure south of the Turnpike dedicated solely for railroad use in 1846.
The crossing became overburdened after the PRR completed its freight terminal at Harsimus Cove along the Hudson River in Jersey City in the mid-1870s. 2 It was replaced with a swing-span structure just 5½-feet above mean high water with channel clearances of 61-feet and 60-feet. The bridge was significantly rebuilt by 1894 and ultimately replaced in 1905 with another swing-span structure six-feet above mean high water with channel clearances of 56-feet and 58-feet.
Swing span crossings were typically built where wide navigational channels needed to be crossed, but they had significant drawbacks as they were slow to open and close, and pilots with wide barges had difficulty navigating between the mid-channel pivot and river piers. 2 Additionally, swing bridges were often built just a few feet above mean high water which required that the crossing be opened for all but the smallest of vessels.
The passenger bridge became increasingly outmoded with each succeeding year as maritime traffic along the Hackensack River grew, with the bridge opening as much as 35 times per day, delaying river traffic and passenger trains alike. 2 As early as 1920, the swing bridge was noted as being a navigation hazard because of its close proximity to two other bridges for the PRR’s passenger line and the Newark Turnpike. 2 It was recommended by the New York, New Jersey Port & Harbor Development Commission that all three bridges be consolidated into one structure.
The crashing of the Glendaruel vessel into the Lincoln Highway swing span in June 1922 resulted in insurance underwriters no longer insuring large self-propelled vessels for damages caused to bridges because of the risk of navigating the Hackensack River near the swing bridges. 2 During the summer of 1924, Col. H.C. Newcomer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held hearings on the fate of the swing bridges as the Corps called the crossings as obstructions to navigation because of their low clearance above the water and narrow draw openings. 1 At public hearings, the representatives of various industries and commercial interests pleaded for larger, higher bridges that would provide a minimum vertical clearance of 35 to 40 feet to allow nearly all tugs to pass unimpeded.
On April 25, 1925, Secretary of War John W. Weeks signed an order notifying the PRR to replace the passenger bridge within four years with a structure that could provide a navigational channel of 150 feet and a vertical clearance of at least 35 feet. 1
The PRR objected as raising the level of the freight bridge to the required height would have necessitated raising the railroad tracks approaching the bridge for two miles and require changing the grade of the nearby Meadows Yard, disrupting much of the goods handling for the port region. 2 Because of the potential for mass disruption in regional freight movements, the Corps granted the PRR an exemption and specified that the freight bridge only needed to be raised by four feet to achieve a vertical clearance of 13 feet.
The railroad selected Waddell & Hardesty to design a new vertical lift bridge that could be situated immediately north of the existing swing-span. 2 The project was headed by three key PRR personnel: A.C. Watson, Chief Engineer of the New York District, T.W. Pinard, Engineer of Bridges & Buildings, and J.J. Vail, Construction Engineer.
Construction began at the end of 1928 and the new freight-only crossing opened to traffic on November 2, 1930. 2 Erected by Phoenix Bridge Company at the cost of $4.5 million, it consisted of:
- A Parker through truss lift span 206 feet in length that provided a navigational channel of 158 feet, flanked by two Pratt truss tower spans;
- A western approach consisting of one through girder and four deck plate steel girders;
- An eastern approach consisting of one deck plate steel girder and a six-span concrete viaduct
- State: New Jersey
- Route: Norfolk Southern Railway
- Type: Vertical Lift, Parker Through Truss, Pratt Through Truss
- Status: Active - Railroad
- Total Length: 1,188 feet
- Main Span Length: 206 feet
- “History.” Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 2020.
- Modica, Glenn R. “The Hackensack River Vertical Lift Bridges Historic District.” New Jersey Department of Transportation.