Waldo Tunnel

The National Docks & New Jersey Junction Connecting Railway (ND&NJJCR), controlled by interests of the New York Central Railroad (NYCRR) and Standard Oil, built the Waldo Yard Tunnel between 1889 and 1897. To complete their railroad, the owners had to run the track beneath the main line and crowded coach yard of their arch-rival the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). The result was a protracted and occasionally violent battle between two of the nation's most competitive railroads over property rights, eminent domain, and access to shippers and terminals throughout the Port of New York.

South Portal, Waldo Yard Tunnel, 2008 (Richard Grubb & Associates).

The ND&NJJCRR was chartered on December 10, 1888. The line measured only one-half mile long and was designed to connect two affiliated lines: the National Docks Railway and the New Jersey Junction Railroad. Using the power of eminent domain granted to it by its charter and the state's General Railroad Law, the ND&NJJCRR began condemnation proceedings on March 30, 1889 to secure its easement under the PRR tracks.(1) The condemnation petition specified that the new railroad would pass beneath the PRR in an open cut and require the PRR to raise the level of its tracks more than eight feet. The PRR balked, arguing that the proposed crossing was impossible to accomplish. A court injunction stopped the condemnation proceedings, while numerous suits and counter-suits worked their way slowly through the Hudson County Courts, the New Jersey Supreme Court, the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals, and the United States Circuit Court.(2) While the complaints and appeals proceeded, the ND&NJJCRR devised a new way to cross the PRR by adjusting its own grades and substituting an under-grade arched tunnel for an open cut. On the merits of this plan, the petition of condemnation was tried before a jury and compensation of $95,000 awarded to the PRR on October 23, 1893. The ND&NJJCRR promptly tendered the amount, but the PRR refused to accept payment and prepared to stop construction by any means possible.

ND&NJJCRR laborers begin excavations for the south portal while PRR men dump debris into the hole, August 27, 1895 (New York World 1895a).

The battle then shifted to the construction site. On August 27, 1895, as scores of Italian laborers began to dig into the PRR's embankment to build the tunnel's south portal, the PRR ran in carloads of earth and dumped their contents into the excavation.(3) This was quickly removed by the ND&NJJCRR laborers and used as fill elsewhere on the line. The PRR then substituted loads of building rubble, scrap iron, brick, and large rocks, which were also easily removed.(4) At last the PRR resorted to water hoses and cinders, which they wetted down into a sticky paste that proved more difficult to clear.(5) A hastily arranged conference between the railroad's representatives finally broke the standoff and work was allowed to continue on the portal only. After that, all work stopped until the PRR's final legal objections were dismissed.(6)
ND&NJJCRR laborers retreat as PRR men spray water from above, August 27, 1895 (New York World 1895a).

An uneasy truce between laborers of the ND&NJJCRR and the PRR as work finally commences, August 28, 1895 (New York World 1895b).

The legal dispute over the tunnel helped define larger points in American railroad case law.(7) With respect to railroad crossings, the case established that in disputes arising after the construction of the crossing regarding the use of each road, a court of equity could regulate the matter.(8) With respect to the management of trains at railroad intersections, the case held that the right to build one railroad across another carried no title to the land, but only an easement in which the ground remained in common use for the benefit and exercise of both railroad franchises.(9) The dispute's most far-reaching legal impact, however, had less to do with railroad jurisprudence than with technical issues of court jurisdiction. It established limits by which state courts were required to let go of their jurisdiction over suits in favor of the United States Circuit Court.(10)

South portal, Waldo Yard Tunnel at Wayne Street crossing, 2009 (Joseph Elliott).

In March 1896, all legal obstacles to the tunnel were at last removed and work pressed forward.(11) The Jersey City construction company of F.C. O'Reilly & Son built the Waldo Yard Tunnel at a cost of $232,131.03, but the associated legal expenses increased the final bill to approximately $750,000.(12) At the time, it was reportedly the costliest tunnel of its size and kind in the world.(13) The tunnel went into service around January 1, 1897.(14) On January 24, 1898, the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LVRR) took over full control of the ND&NJJCRR.(15) Once completed, the Waldo Yard Tunnel gave the LVRR and other lines, including the NYCRR, unrestricted access to all of the railroads and port facilities along the Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, and Weehawken waterfronts (including the docks and extensive Standard Oil petroleum refineries in Bayonne). The PRR lost its ability to apportion or prevent the free flow of traffic among these railroads, and its competitors achieved the only north-south rail link among all the Jersey City terminals.

Waldo Yard Tunnel snakes its way beneath the former PRR yard, 2009 (Joseph Elliott).

Waldo Yard Tunnel remained under LVRR control until the railroad's bankruptcy on June 24, 1970. The federally organized Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) assumed control of the area's freight assets on April 1, 1976. Conrail undertook a rehabilitation program of the line in the early 1980s. It also built a new direct connection between the Waldo Yard Tunnel and the nearby Bergen Hill Tunnel in order to facilitate movements along the waterfront. Historically, no such link existed. Conrail also relocated and rebuilt the south portal at the same time. The CSX Corporation and the Norfolk Southern Railroad acquired Conrail in the 1990s. Together they operate the track, known as the National Docks Secondary Line, through a jointly owned company called Conrail Shared Assets Corporation.

For full bibliographic citations, click on the Bibliography page.

1. New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals 1894:B
2. New York Times 1895a:6
3. New York Times 1895b:8
4. New York World 1895a:8
5. New York Times 1895b:8
6. New York World 1895b:4
7. Vroom 1892:217
8. Vroom 1892:217; Baldwin 1904:142
9. Vroom 1892:217; Baldwin 1904:142
10. Dickerson 1895:58
11. New York Times 1896:17
12. National Docks & New Jersey Junction Connecting Railway 1898:17
13. New York Times 1896:17
14. New York Times 1896:17
15. Greenberg and Fischer 1997:163; Transportation Corporation Files n.d.:NDR, ND&NJJCRR

For more detailed information click here for a link to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) report on the Waldo Yard Tunnel.