Conquering the Palisades ‘Hoboken El’ was an engineering masterpiece

Four major transportation routes managed to overcome the Palisades mountain barrier each in its own way, each representing engineering sophistication of the highest order.

The earliest involved the construction of what remained for some time the largest wrought-iron structure in the world: the great Hoboken Inclined Cable Railway.

The Inclined Cable Railway was an ingenious answer to the old dilemma. The entire structure was anchored on towers 22 feet wide at the top and 50 feet wide at the base, with each secured to piers of bluestone and brick built upon cross timbers holding together clusters of between 16 and 20 heavy piles. These extended through the soft meadow land for 20 to 90 feet to meet the solid rock foundation beneath.

The roadway was formed of 67-pound steel rail laid on white oak blocks to iron plates riveted between two iron channel bars, which also served as guard rails.

From an elevation of eight feet at the ferry, the structure rose to 15 feet over the street, continued on for 3,500 feet, then began a grade of 5 percent. Two curves, one at the ferry and the second at the foot of the steep grade, led to the great trestle. At its highest point, the structure soared 95 feet above the meadows.

At the Palisade Avenue terminus at Jersey City Heights, a boiler-house, a depot and an engine house were built. Four boilers supplied the steam. Two 500-horsepower Corliss steam engines drove the cable drums, and provision was made for the eventual installation of two additional engines. The 2.5 mile-long, 1.5 inch-thick cable weighed more than 20 tons.

At the ferry terminal, the down-track ran through a switch into the up-track, so that only one track entered the station.

When cars arrived in the station, they came in on momentum, having let go of the cable about 700 or 800 feet before the station. Cars were unloaded and reloaded in less than a minute, with exiting passengers going out the right front door and boarding passengers entering from the rear left.

Cable operation was short-lived, however, though it did survive long enough for a one and one eighth mile-long elevated extension to be built as far as Hudson Courthouse in Jersey City in 1890. Electrification came later in the 1890s.

The ‘Hoboken El’

For more than a half-century, with the former cable structure popularly known as the “Hoboken El,” cars of the Public Service Railway – and later Public Service Coordinated Transport – made the tedious climb up the hill and the long, seemingly perilous descent.

It was the only point on the system requiring a test of the brakes before proceeding downhill, and one of a very few locations in which the hand brakes on cars were used in conjunction with air as a matter of practice.

The structure remained in place until January of 1950, when contractors disassembled it piece by piece. Elimination of trolley service on August 9, 1949, spelled doom for the venerable relic. Today, nothing but a scar on the lip of the Palisade escarpment remains of this masterpiece of Victorian engineering.

Editor’s note: A full version of this column was originally printed as “Conquest of the Palisades: A Triumph of Victorian Traction Technology” in the March/April 1992 issue of Electriclines magazine. The full story can be read at


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