The Jay Street Connecting Railroad

| 11 Nov 2014 | 11:38

    Around 1994, attending to business down in the old industrial district between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges once known as Vinegar Hill, now re-christened DUMBO (for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), I came across the remains of an abandoned railroad. There were steel rails running through the cobbled streets, with here and there a spur that turned off the main line and into a low-rise factory or industrial loft. In some cases the line ran straight into what were now luxury apartment buildings. Of course, there were no trains: The many asphalt and concrete patches over the rails showed the line to be long abandoned.

    The Brooklyn waterfront was once served by something called the Jay Street Connecting Railroad–JSC for short. You can see on the Port Authority’s New York Harbor Terminal map for 1949 where the railroad lines ran: They stand out bright red against the elegant expanses of blue water and buff-gold land. Like the yards, piers and terminals that fringe the waterfront, they’re the color of Monopolyboard hotels. You can see the short line’s spaghetti tangle of tracks better (at a scale of one inch to 400 feet) on the Port Series maps published by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s records, the JSC operated from 1904 to June 1959.

    From the Port Series map alone, the JSC seems to have been among the shortest railroads in the United States, with a main line no more than a half-mile long. It began in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge, just north of New Dock St., in what is now the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park. It then ran north along Plymouth St. At Adams St., the main line swung west for a block, toward the East River, and then north into John St., finally terminating amidst the complex of piers, warehouses and factories between Jay, Bridge and Gold Sts. owned by Arbuckle Brothers, the family firm that made Yuban Coffee and owned the little railroad.

    In its life and death, the short line’s history illuminates change: in industrial technology, in the regional economy, in the neighborhood it served (named Vinegar Hill by an 1820s developer, after the site of a fierce battle during the Irish rebellion of 1798). For example, Empire-Fulton Ferry Park only exists today because the railroad preserved the open space for team tracks: an open-air freight terminal where the crews of horse-drawn teams and wagons (and later trucks) could unload cargoes from freight cars directly into their vehicles. Unlike most railroads, the JSC had no direct connection with another railroad. On the map, it seems as solitary as a Lionel train set on a kitchen table. In fact, it connected to the nation’s other railroads by carfloat: long, flat-decked barges with railroad tracks on them for transporting freight cars about the harbor. This was not unusual: at one time, New York’s railroads used tugboats and barges to move over 5,300 freight cars every day about the harbor, providing direct service to pier heads in all five boroughs.

    From the 1830s onward, the harbor handled almost half of the nation’s foreign trade while serving the largest manufacturing region in the United States. Numerous railroads tapped into this business by building to the Jersey side of the Hudson River: the Pennsylvania, the Erie, the Lackawanna, the Lehigh Valley, the Jersey Central, the Reading. As Thomas R. Flagg notes in New York Harbor Railroads, serving New York was not easy. The area is divided by rivers and bays. Building direct railroad connections in and about the harbor was technologically challenging and prohibitively expensive. Until 1910, when the Pennsylvania Railroad built the huge Pennsylvania Station complex, tunneling both the Hudson and East Rivers, and 1917, when Hell Gate Bridge brought the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad from the Bronx into Long Island, Brooklyn and Long Island had no direct rail connections to the rest of the country. (Even then, the Pennsylvania’s Hudson tunnel was only for passenger trains, being too small for freight.)

    During the 19th century, Brooklyn’s waterfront saw explosive industrial growth. Factories and warehouses were built at the water’s edge, many with their own piers. From the 1880s, most railroads used carfloats to carry freight cars between waterfront freight yards in, say, Jersey City or Weehawken, and waterside freight terminals in the five boroughs. Cars with Manhattan- or Brooklyn-bound freight were shunted toward float bridges, with steel structures attached at their land end by hinges and the other end either floating freely with the tides or suspended from an overhead framework. A tugboat hauling a float loaded with Jersey-bound freight cars shoved it up to the float bridge. Once the float was pinned to the bridge–secured with toggle bars and heavy ropes–a locomotive pulled the cars from the float, one at a time to prevent capsizing, replacing them with cars from the yard. Then the tugboat hauled it back across the harbor.

    The JSC was created by Arbuckle Brothers, once synonymous with Ariosa and Yuban coffees, a huge wholesale grocery firm founded before the Civil War: Even its locomotives were painted in Arbuckle’s signature orange and black. In 1860, Arbuckle Brothers operated a single store in Pittsburg; within two decades, it would be among the largest importers of coffee and sugar in the United States. This was due largely to John Arbuckle, an amazingly imaginative man, who devised a sugar-based glaze to keep roasted coffee beans from going stale. He then invented a machine that graded, filled, weighed and sealed roasted coffee beans in paper packages of uniform weight and quality. One machine replaced 500 people who had previously done the same work by hand. The machine even labeled the bags. By the 1870s, Arbuckle was shipping its coffee across the country in brightly colored one-pound bags. Cowboys had a passion for it–some call Arbuckle’s Ariosa "the coffee that won the West."

    By the turn of the century, Arbuckle’s owned a factory and warehouse complex on the waterfront north of the Manhattan Bridge, with ocean-going freighters docking at its three piers to unload Colombian coffee beans for its roasters. Believing that a railroad would be more efficient in shifting cargoes among the buildings, John Arbuckle started what became the JSC in 1904. On realizing the railroad might profit from serving neighboring businesses, Arbuckle’s extended it along Plymouth St., eventually reaching North Dock St. around 1920.

    From the beginning, the JSC relied on import-export traffic from the steamship lines at its piers and freight cars interchanged by carfloat at its Jay St. float bridge. Short trains of two or three cars constantly rumbled through Vinegar Hill for delivery to factories and warehouses along the right of way. Goods requiring delivery to other parts of Brooklyn were unloaded at the team track by express men with wagons and trucks.

    The JSC’s identical steam locomotives, respectively numbered 1 and 2, were powerful six-wheel switchers ordered new in 1906 from the world’s largest locomotive builder, the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Short wheelbases let them shove boxcars along the railroad’s extremely sharp curves into its customers’ warehouses and industrial lofts. The railroad also had its own barn-red tugboats, with unusually tall pilot houses (so that their captains might see over the tops of the boxcars on their floats) and slender stacks painted in Arbuckle Brothers orange and black.

    Other railroad freight terminals, similarly interchanging freight cars by carfloat, lined the shores of the five boroughs. The Bush Terminal Railroad, serving the massive industrial complex built by Irving T. Bush at the beginning of the 20th century, was the largest. On a 200-acre Brooklyn lot, Bush constructed 15 industrial lofts (each six to eight stories high), eight steamship piers, more than 100 warehouses and a railroad that, at its busiest, used eight locomotives and even provided commuter service into the complex.

    By the 1930s, the JSC had replaced its aging steamers with an offbeat collection of cheap, second-hand gasoline and diesel-electric locomotives from three different builders, as diverse as a sampler box of chocolates. Most were literally unique, built to demonstrate some manufacturer’s pioneering technology. Oldest and freakiest was Number 3, the second-oldest gasoline-powered freight locomotive in America. It was essentially a shack housing a 175-horsepower engine on a flatcar, built by General Electric in 1915, a generation before anyone believed internal combustion would replace steam in powering American transportation.

    Arbuckle’s began selling their properties during the Great Depression. Eventually, even Yuban Coffee (the name comes from "Yuletide Banquet") went to what is now Kraft Foods. The railroad soldiered on, enjoying a booming business during WWII. Then change came to Brooklyn’s waterfront and the JSC. Coal for home heating and industrial use, once the single largest category of harbor railroad freight, vanished with the adoption of oil and gas heat. Suburbia’s demand for better roads and highways made motor trucking more flexible for customer service than railroads and carfloats. In 1955, Sea Land Service, Inc. pioneered containerization at its Weehawken docks. Within a generation, stevedoring–the labor-intensive break-bulk or piecemeal system of unloading ships–had been replaced by intermodal containers: standardized trailer-sized steel boxes that could be freely shifted with a crane from one mode of transportation to another–from ship to flatbed, say–within two or three minutes. Containerization’s efficiency, combined with construction of the Port Authority’s container ports in Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, nearly destroyed Brooklyn’s waterfront even as the factories themselves began relocating from the city. In any case, carfloat service was profitable only with cheap labor: building, maintaining and operating the fleets of tugboats and carfloats had become astronomically expensive almost overnight.

    As late as 1955, the JSC was busy enough to afford another second-hand diesel. But within four years, its business shriveled away. On June 27, 1959, the railroad was abandoned. Its equipment was scrapped on site or sold. It was the first harbor terminal railroad to fail. Today, the sole survivor is the New York Cross-Harbor Railroad, operating a daily carfloat between CSX and Norfolk Southern at Greenville, NJ, and the remains of the former Bush Terminal Railroad in Brooklyn. On land, the Cross-Harbor interchanges with the South Brooklyn Railway, another tiny railroad, surviving by the skin of its teeth, that once, legend says, attempted to haul a dead whale by flatcar to the Coney Island Aquarium. The whale proved too big for the tunnel south of Fourth Ave., but that, as they say, is another story.

    Of the JSC, only the rails in the street remain. About a year and a half ago, I noticed that my local New York Sports Club displays a huge poster of an incredibly buff runner sprinting up a Brooklyn street near the Manhattan Bridge. There are rails embedded in the cobblestones beneath his feet. The photographer used them to focus the viewer’s attention on the runner.