Condo Chronicles: The Forgotten Railroad

The wily raconteuse smiled at my obvious ignorance of local history and its more coveted secrets. “Of course, Peter, you vould think that. And I could not blame you. Even many of its locals born here vould probably think the same. Tell me, did you know that trolley trains used to run along the streets of Jersey City and such?” As I shook my head, she continued. “Vell, it is true…the trolley trains stopped long ago, but me and Adela, ve vere here when ve saw them pave over the roads, burying the past with layers of asphalt. After a vhile, everyone forgot about them…but I did not.”

“Wow,” I said, captivated by yet another history lesson. “Really? I had no idea. It’s a shame that it’s all gone. I mean, it’s not as bad as that NYC proposal of tearing down Grand Central decades ago, but still…they could have left some of the trolley tracks, at least. Like what they did with the Highline in the city.”

“Yes, I vish they had kept them as well. And the telephone booths, I miss those too…” started Adela, now caught in a trajectory of nostalgia.

Ulva rolled her eyes with the annoyance commonly found among older siblings, especially when they must spend more than a few minutes in each other’s company. “Yes, Adela, ve know. And you vant people to still use alarm clocks instead of their phones…Nobody cares! As I was saying before interruption, this side of the river vas being built up around one hundred years ago. They got the trolley running first. And then they got the tube tunnels to Manhattan going…And then, Boss Hague and some others on this side started building tunnels here to connect with the subway in Manhattan, so that you could ride a train up the far West Side…”

At this point, I felt some fabric of reality being torn from the mural of New Jersey inside my head. As any Palisades townie can relay to an outsider, the Hudson River is more than simply a physical divider between New York City and the array of towns that form its opposing line, resembling some sort of municipal scrimmage. It also marks the demarcating point between two different cultures of habit, where space is introduced between two different types of people who need breathing room. Sure, there’s a PATH train with distinct stations in Manhattan that connect to New Jersey, but it is more of an airline tram than an actual subway, small in size and reaching only a handful of stops on its way to Newark. The suggestion of an actual extension to a NYC subway line, one that would fully integrate these two communities and states even further, to the point where this corner of New Jersey actually became the sixth borough, creating a scenario where one could pick up some smoked fish from Russ & Daughters and then catch the train to Weehawken and even Little Peru…It was enough to stun me momentarily. Though far from being technologically impossible, it seemed so much like the stuff of science fiction. Strange, though, how far civilization has come since a hundred years ago, where we can now unlock the various mysterious of the universe…and yet how far we have regressed when building a tunnel seems impossible due to bureaucratic concerns, agency corruption, and union negotiations. At times, progress resembles a pair of bratty children on a seesaw, where both little shitheads are intent to knock the other off.

In any case, Ulva could see the thoughts rummaging around in my head, since my slack jaw had descended far enough to allow visibility into my cranium. “Yes, that vould have been something, right? Who knows…maybe they vill decide to do it again. I read something about how Senator Schumer wants to make it happen. Maybe after the Hudson Yards are built…”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I interrupted, knowing the risk inherent after witnessing Adela’s reprimand. “So, you’re saying that the Palisades’ cliffs have tunnels built into them, like some sort of anthill? That they’re even running under Little Peru…No joke?”

Ulva shook her head as she stroked Fünf’s neck and ears, as the dwarvish Herbert continued to annoy his larger companion by playfully nipping at his legs. “No joke. The deal fell apart, and the tunnels vere never connected to the city. And they’ve remained empty and forgotten for almost one hundred years.”

“Yes, they’re really quite something,” added Adela. “I had a boyfriend who claimed to have gone down into them long ago, using a secret entrance in the vall of the Edgewater Tunnel. He said that they are really quite something…”

“Yes…and he also claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil wrestling Bigfoot when he vent camping in the Barrens. And everybody knows somebody who has valked through the Edgewater Tunnel…but nobody has actually ever done it! Really, Adela, you vill believe everything anyone tells you…you need to find a new place to meet men.”

I wonder if there’s a place for German speakers to date online…like JDate, except that it would be called GDate. But naturally, GDate and JDate likely wouldn’t get along…

“But,” I began, attempting to distract the sisters from their lifelong rivalry and myself from tangential thoughts. “There is an entrance to these abandoned tunnels somewhere…”

Ulva placed her coffee beneath her nose, as she was often fond of doing. She seemed to love the smell of coffee even more than its taste, told in volumes by the calmly joyful expression on her face. If you hadn’t known of the beverage or its quality as commercial-grade at best, you would swear that she was savoring something sublime as expertly as any sommelier, and even Taiwanese tea masters might envy her keen ability to discern nuanced flavors. “You know, Peter, this town vas founded by Germans and Austrians almost two centuries ago. The Italians and Greeks vere here later, and then the many types of Hispanics came…but ve vere here first. Ve built its beautiful Lutheran churches and great cathedrals, before they later fell down. Ve built arenas and complexes to Germanic culture, long before any tunnels or trolley came around. Some of those buildings are still stand, and there are still a few German-speakers who live around here. And if you spoke German, you vould hear a secret or two about hidden doors that still exist…”

“And, let me guess…since you speak German, you might know a secret or two?” I asked, pleased once again at having the fortune of such acquaintances.

Ulva slowly and confidently drank a sip of her coffee before answering. “Ja…I might know a secret or two.”

“So, tell us, Peter,” interjected Adela, surprisingly and cryptically, “Since you grew up in the country, are you any good vith a rifle?”

“What she means to ask,” spoke Ulva, only adding to my confusion, “Is this: do you consider yourself a Jäger, Herr Bolton?”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion. For those who wish to read previous chapters of The Condo Chronicles, the Table of Contents is available.

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