The majestic Hoboken Terminal is the last survivor of the great Hudson River (New Jersey) waterfront railroad stations still serving in its original function, and is arguably the most striking and impressive. The station was constructed and owned by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (DL&W) and designed by Kenneth M. Murchison in the Beaux-Arts style. Today, the terminal has vastly changed from the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s. The building was first restored in the latter 1980s, bringing back up to standards for general commuter service. However, perhaps the most thorough restoration began in the mid-2000s when plans were formulated to restore the structure essentially back to its original appearance when it opened in the early 20th century. This long process is nearly complete and in 2011 even the former ferry slips will return to service carrying commuters, sightseers, and riders in general to and from downtown Manhattan.
For many railroads, except the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central, the New Jersey waterfront was as close as they would be able to get to the downtown New York City area of Manhattan. So, to reach the district several railroads including the DL&W, Central Railroad of New Jersey (whose ornate Jersey City Terminal is the only other such facility still standing along the waterfront), Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and others either built or shared terminals along shores of the Hudson River directly opposite Manhattan and used a fleet of ferries to transport passengers directly into the downtown area.
Today's Hoboken Terminal, which opened in 1907, was actually a replacement for the original building, which burned in 1905 due to a ferry catching fire while docked and spreading throughout the complex. The DL&W's replacement, however, would be far more stunning than the original. Commissioning the architect Kenneth M. Murchison the new station would have a Tiffany glass ceiling more than fifty feet high and walls of limestone made with iron and bronze. Additionally, the main concourse was adorned with Greek Revival motifs. The building would also have a spectacular double staircase from the main waiting room featuring ornate cast iron railings that would carry passengers above to the waiting ferries, which would take them into Manhattan.
Perhaps the building's most stunning and recognized feature is its copper-adorned facade, the very same copper used to construct the Statue of Liberty! The use of this special material was purely by happenstance. At the time of the Hoboken Terminal's construction there was so much copper left over from the statue project that it needed to be used for something, else it be sold for scrap. As such, it was gladly incorporated into the terminal. The building's other remarkable feature was a new train shed design that later became widely employed. The DL&W's chief engineer designed the structure, Lincoln Bush. Typical train sheds of the day were arched or rounded whereas Bush created a new design that was cantilevered, which allowed it to be far cheaper to construct and maintain.
While the Lackawanna system was never a major intercity passenger train service it's most famous station nevertheless was home to such famous streamliners as the Phoebe Snow, Owl, New Yorker, and Pocono Express. To locals, however, the terminal became well known for its significant commuter operations ferrying folks to and from work, something that it still does today. The downfall of the terminal began after World War II, a fate experienced for most other large train stations at the time. As folks abandoned trains for cars and planes Hoboken Terminal saw increasingly dwindling passengers through its halls.
The first major blow came in the 1950s when the terminal's famous clock tower was dismantled. The iconic structure stood 225 feet from the ground and actually needed to be removed due not only to its poor condition but also structural damage it had received. By the time Amtrak began service in the spring of 1971 all through, intercity trains stopped calling to the building and have not returned since. However, the terminal has always functioned as a commuter station even during the industry's lowly years of the 1970s and 1980s, when passenger rail service in this country all but disappeared for a time.
Perhaps what truly saved the building from demolition during those times was the loss of nearby Pennsylvania Station in the late 1960s, an incident that still haunts New York City today. The loss of one of the world's greatest train stations also saved nearby Grand Central Terminal. After its first restoration in the 1980s a complete overhaul was planned beginning in the 2000s with the clock tower fully restored and opened to the public in 2007 (contractors used original blueprints to rebuild the structure). Interestingly, the tower is entirely authentic with a clock, keeping time, at the top and adorned in matching copper.
Additionally, the original neon-lit "Lackawanna" sign also has been added to the tower. It's quite a sight to see during the nighttime hours. The last restoration project remaining on the building are its ferry slips, which will look and serve in their original function, save for one that will be used as a museum or gift shop. At one time the building was in danger of being razed but after the Pennsylvania Station's demise a much more alert and historical conscious public saved the building, which was restored in the 1980s, much to its original splendor.
Along with hosting commuters (of which 50,000 pass through its doors daily), today Hoboken Terminal continues to also ferry passengers, literally! The ferry system was discontinued before the 1970s but was revived in the 1990s. While long distance trains may never again call at the station it has held a much better fate than many other grand railroad stations and terminals across the country, and besides still serving in much of its original function you can visit the building any time you wish to see the magnificent architecture of the waiting room, concourse, and even the train shed of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad's Hoboken Terminal. For a history of the DL&W please click here.
Check out the website's digital book (E-book), An Atlas To Classic Short Lines, which features system maps and a brief background of 46 different historic railroads.