Hoboken Shore Railroad – A Unique Railroad in a Prize Location of National Importance by Peter Brill
218 pages, soft cover, glossy paper, indexed, 21 color and 15 black and white photos, 51 illustrations and 32 maps.
The Hoboken Manufacturers’ Railroad (HMRC), later known as the Hoboken Shore Railroad (HBS) was a nationally known carrier, despite its diminutive size, through its freight operations as well as numerous ICC and court filings, all the way up to the U. S. Supreme Court, not to mention a nationwide advertising campaign, an important role in World War I; an executive action by President Coolidge and ownership by innovative SeaTrain Lines.
Electrified operations, freight-only, commenced at a rather late date, 1897, to serve the extensive steamship docks and warehouses lining the Hoboken waterfront. For decades, the company’s affairs would be influenced by the sons of railroad pioneer and founder of Hoboken, Colonel John Stevens. Although the Erie was its only physical connection, the little road effectively connected with all the railroads entering the west side of the Port of New York.
In the years leading up to World War I, the Port of New York rail network was severely congested, that is with the exception of the HMRC which prosecuted a nationwide print advertising campaign to let shippers know it could move their freight expeditiously. During World War I, the U. S. Government seized the piers of the German steamship companies and made agreements with the other steamship companies to gain control of the entire Hoboken waterfront along the railroad as well as the railroad itself which was put under the War Department. Hoboken was a major point of embarkation for troops heading to the European theater. The War Department owned the road for a decade and when it decided to sell it, the New York Port Authority, with congressional and state support, made a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to buy the line as the HMRC was an integral element in the Authority’s plan to streamline rail service on the west side of the Port through the establishment of belt lines under unified management.
In the late 1920’s, the railroad was a major destination for raw silk traffic from the Orient in dedicated and intensely guarded high speed trains from West Coast ports. The HMRC had to appeal to the ICC and the courts to receive an increased share of the freight revenue on its silk traffic to cover the greatly increased costs associated with the highly valuable commodity. The case involving the transcontinental raw silk move went all the way to the Supreme Court.
A group led by a private investor bought the railroad in 1927 and soon replaced the electric operation with two box cab diesel electrics which marked the company as a pioneer in dieselization. The new owner was more focused on steamship operations and plunged his investments into bankruptcy. Beginning in 1932, the little road was owned by and hosted innovative Seatrain Lines’ only East Coast terminal. Extensive ICC and court proceedings followed as SeaTrain entered the domestic transportation market in competition with railroads through its routing between New Orleans and Hoboken via Havana. HMRC’s business peaked in the SeaTrain years but World War II resulted in government conscription of the ships. After the war, SeaTrain addressed its need for more room by moving to NYS&W at Edgewater. HMRC’s traffic level, already reduced by the cessation of SeaTrain service during the war, dropped once peacetime returned.
However, the railroad survived with nationally known customers such as a Bethlehem Steel Shipyard, a Todd Shipyard, Lipton Tea and the Maxwell House Coffee and Franklin Baker divisions of General Foods. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the railroad was owned by one of the Nation’s leading real estate developers whose aggressive investing led to another bankruptcy. The flight of industry, a phenomenon common throughout the Northeast, sapped the railroad’s traffic to the point it was not included in the formation of Conrail and abandoned operations. The lack of planning for including Erie Lackawanna, HSB’s sole connection, in Conrail may also have contributed to its abandonment.
Two General Electric 44-ton diesel engines powered the railroad over its last quarter century. Although both units were sold off after abandonment and went through numerous ownership changes, one survived and in 2022 is the property of the Tri-State Railway Historical Society which intends to fully restore No. 700.