Imagine this. You are on a ship. You see nothing but open water around you. You have been at sea for many days. Then… you see it. You see… the Statue of Liberty. You have arrived in the land known as America. The ship slowly passes the statue, and everyone cheers. The ship pulls up to the dock of Ellis Island where you pass through customs. “Welcome to America,” you hear. You are now in the Land of the Free.
Now some of you are saying, “That is so wonderful. I always enjoyed watching those old stories on how people came to Ellis Island. How about the Statue of Liberty? It is always such an amazing site to see. There is one very big problem. When people came to America through Ellis Island, they came by boat, not by train. When you are coming from Europe and Africa, boats, not trains, were the way you came. Therefore, you will not see me anywhere around these islands.”
You have a great point. Because the Atlantic Ocean divides Europe and Africa from North America, everyone did arrive by boat. How did they continue from here?
As mentioned, people were brought to Ellis Island as it was were everyone went through U.S. Customs at the time. Once they passed through customs, they were then ferried to what is now Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Now some of you are saying, “Wow! Jersey City, New Jersey is where many first stepped onto mainland America. However, they still went by boat.”
That is true, but they did not stay there. When they came to Jersey City, something special was awaiting them to take them deeper into this new land called America. They arrived at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal. You have read it correctly. They departed Jersey City by train to destinations across America.
The terminal was built on land that was filled in from ballast of ocean-going ships. The terminal was enlarged through the years to accommodate more passengers. In 1914, a larger terminal was built with 20 sheds, and it was the largest train shed ever built. It became a commuter station for those commuting to New York City connecting to the ferry. In 1967, railroad traffic was rerouted to a terminal in Newark, and service ceased at the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal. It fell into ruin until it was bought with state and local funds. The head house was restored, but the shed areas were left in ruin as a reminder of what once was. It was later added on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the old Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal is part of Liberty State Park and has been preserved as a museum. You can see a few cars on display to include a caboose, boxcar and baggage car. You can see the ruins of the terminal where the people awaited the trains to take them to their destinations. You can walk through the restored head house where people waited for the trains and purchased tickets. If time allows, you can purchase tickets to ride the ferry to Ellis Island and to Liberty Island. You can walk outside a get a great view of downtown New York City to include the Freedom Tower and a view of the Empire State Building. You can also view the 9-11 Memorial that remembers those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center disaster.
Liberty State Park is located at 1 Audrey Zapp Drive in Jersey City, New Jersey. There is paid parking on the west side of the old terminal. (It is right where the trains would have exited the terminal.) There is no admission fee to walk around the park to see the old terminal, the skyline of New York City, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the 9-11 Memorial, but there is an admission fee for the ferry to both Ellis and Liberty Islands. (Please note that there may be long wait times for the ferry.) You can find more information on the hours, ferry times and the history of the terminal at https://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/liberty.html.
The next time you see the Statue of Liberty or a photo of it, think of it as a lady welcoming people to a new land. Think of it as a lady shining the light of freedom. Think of it as the place where many rode their first train in North America.