When you think of national and state parks, the first thing that comes to mind is natural beauty. So many are based on features like mountains, rivers, waterfalls and forests. Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., is a different kind of park. It is a park built on what was primarily landfill and crafted from an industrial wasteland.
The story of Liberty State Park starts with what is a familiar theme for those of us who live in the area. Gridlock. Morris Pesin, owner of a children’s clothing store in Jersey City who later became a city councilman, was visiting the Statue of Liberty with his wife in 1957. Thanks to traffic in the tunnel and long lines at the Battery Park ferry terminal, the trip took 2-½ hours. One year later, Pesin set out on a canoe ride with a Jersey City Journal reporter onboard. He went from the south end of Jersey City on Upper New York Bay to Liberty Island. That trip took 9 minutes. Pesin’s canoe ride is regarded as the start of a campaign by him and a couple other civic leaders in Jersey City to create Liberty State Park.
The land that was to become the park was at one time a transportation and industrial hub. The property includes the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal. The rail station, in operation from 1892 to 1954 is near Ellis Island (A Place to Celebrate Immigrants). It is estimated that of the 15 million or so immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island, about two-thirds headed over to the CRRNJ terminal to hop a train to their destination. Another defunct railroad company, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, also operated out of the terminal.
With the construction of the tunnels going from New Jersey to New York City, the rail terminal lost its importance as a primary gateway to Manhattan. With the growth of automobiles, railroad passenger traffic declined. By the 1960’s, the railroad companies were bankrupt. The terminal was closed and soon fell into serious disrepair. The surrounding industrial area, built as it was around the transportation system, likewise was abandoned and became something of a wasteland.
It took some 18 years after Pesin’s fateful canoe ride before Liberty State Park was dedicated by New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne on Flag Day 1976, part of the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration. During those 18 years, Pesin and the other park advocates were able to obtain funding from Green Acres Bond Funds and Land and Water Conservation funds. The City of Jersey City donated 156 acres to be included in the park. The DEP and Army Corps of Engineers participated in the cleanup of the harbor. The National Park Service undertook the restoration of the old railroad terminal. The cleanup continued even after the 1976 dedication. In August of that year the Asbury Park Press reported the awarding of a $1+ million contract to Cross Bay Wrecking to remove the hulks of 96 derelict vessels, 25 shore structures and “miscellaneous drift sources.” That gives you some idea of the condition of the site that the park was built on.
The park that Gov. Byrne dedicated consisted of 35 acres. Today Liberty State Park includes more than 1,000 acres. That includes a restricted area that is closed to the public as it undergoes a natural restoration. There is a 35-acre nature preserve of tidal salt marshes. But large parts of the park are open to the public and include a magnificent walkway along the coast with views of the State of Liberty, Ellis Island and lower Manhattan. It is a favorite spot for cyclists and joggers and just plain strollers. There is a large picnic area in the shadow of Lady Liberty with barbecue facilities. And it has become a destination for birders with more than 300 species having been identified on the site.
From the docks near the CRRNJ terminal, ferries fulfill Pesin’s original vision by carrying visitors to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. This in the same area where Dutch settlers in the 1600’s ferried people across the river to Manhattan.
What sets Liberty State Park apart is the setting, the view, lower Manhattan, the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. But no sooner had the park been created than that view put dollar signs in the eyes of various developers and politicians. In my next post I’ll describe some of the many schemes past and present to turn this idyllic recreational facility into a profit center.