Steve Mages, a power planner analyst for PSE&G (Public Service Electric & Gas), decided to walk between sites one day last month and stumbled across a piece of his company’s historic past.
Near the corner of Duffield and Van Keuren streets in Jersey City, Mages found a manhole cover that had been placed by one of the companies that ran local trolley service.
Anyone else might have passed over the find, seeing it as little more than one of the many manhole covers filling the streets of Hudson County. But Mages was an advocate of New Jersey railroad history and knew better.
Before New Jersey Transit became the dominant transportation network in the state, Public Service ran the trolleys, as energy companies used to compete for business by offering services that used the energy they sold.
Many old-timers still mumble about catching a Public Service bus, even though PSE&G has been out of the transportation business since selling off its fleet to the state in 1980. Yet for most of the 20th century, it was Public Service that transported people around the state.
In the years between 1890 and 1900, electricity was primarily used for supplying power to trolley cars. While there was an active movement to bring power to individual homes at the time, the companies that preceded PSE&G were primarily involved in getting people around.
Trolleys were horse-driven before there was electricity, said Richard Dwyer, a spokesperson for PSE&G. This was a particular problem in North Hudson where horses struggled to climb the hill into Weehawken from Hoboken. A single horse pulled most trolleys, but to get out of the lower sections of the county, another horse was employed.
The trolley became one of the central means of transportation for a general public that could not afford a car. Power companies purchased the rights-of-way, and an infrastructure of trolley lines crisscrossed the state.
Founded after tragedy
PSE&G, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was founded because of a tragic accident between a trolley and a car that left numerous children dead.
Thomas McCarter, then the state’s attorney general, decided to consolidate more than 500 power and transportation companies then doing business in the state.
"Hoboken," Dwyer said, "was the beginning of the first trans-state trolley line that went to Camden."
From about 1916 to World War II, Public Service trolleys transported about 450 million people. When buses became the principal mode of public transportation after the war, Public Service became the biggest company in the state, with routes that covered transportation to New York, Paterson, Hoboken and other huge urban hubs in the state.
The manhole Mages found was placed by the North Jersey Street Railway Company, a firm established in 1898, which was one of those later consolidated into Public Service.
Mages speculated that the manhole might be one of the last of its kind, a piece of railroad history once thought to be lost. Manholes at that time serviced conduits for electricity, and this one was suspected to be part of a direct current system with power generated from the now-defunct Marion Generating Station in Jersey City.
Mages sent a photo of the amazingly preserved manhole to management, and this was forwarded to Bill McKelvey, the president emeritus and curator of the Friends of New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center, Inc. McKelvey drove to the Secaucus PSE&G facility to pick up the manhole for inclusion in the recently created New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center. McKelvey called it a significant piece of transportation history and a remarkably well preserved artifact, considering it has been driven over by cars and trucks for 100 years.
"This is a direct link to the past," McKelvey said. "It helps us get a more complete picture of the transportation system and helps us understand what went on back then."
Although the center was authorized by the state two years ago, funding for the purchase of land is still in limbo in the state Assembly. McKelvey said that a 35-acre transportation museum, when funded and constructed near Phillipsburg, will see more than 30 vintage buses and coaches, several antique trucks, and a trolley car along with more than 200 truckloads of archives, artifacts, supplies and materials detailing the state’s rich history in transportation.
For Dwyer, the significance of finding a manhole laid the same year, as when PSE&G took over as the prevailing provider of trolley service in the state is very significant.
"This is our history, the history of New Jersey and the history of PSE&G," he said. "That fact that we found it on the 100th anniversary only serves to remind us of how we got where we are today."