Trains on Hudson Street

A photo reveals freight-filled life of a street long ago

Left: Hudson Street, about 1910, looking south from Laight Street. Right: The scene today. At right, 161 and 157 Hudson Street still remain.

How would you like it if a freight train came rumbling across your front yard several times a day? You probably would not like it a bit. Yet that was just what confronted anyone living on Hudson Street between Beach and Laight streets a century ago, as shown in this marvelous photo (above right) taken around 1910.

The photograph looks south on Hudson from a point just north of Laight Street, the street onto which some wagons are turning at center left. (In the distance, is the yet-to-be-completed Wool­worth Building.) Beyond the turning wagons is the New York Central Rail­road’s freight terminal, which Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt had erected in 1868, destroying a once-upscale residential neighborhood.

A glance at the photo, indeed, can hardly indicate that this area was once the polite, well-to-do center of what is now Tribeca. The huge, gaunt freight terminal occupied the land that in the 1820s and 1830s had been St. John’s Park, an exclusive retreat to which only nearby residents had access and which was tightly controlled by members of the graceful church on Varick Street, St. John’s Chapel.

But New York City’s rapid growth was sweeping all before it and, as the city expanded, the forces of industry and commerce took over. Polite society moved out of the handsome houses surrounding St. John’s Park and gradually the houses themselves were torn down and replaced by commercial structures. In 1868 the park’s owner, Trinity Church, which for some contorted reason saw no future in it, sold it to Vanderbilt, who put up the massive three-­story freight station as the southern terminus of his railroad’s vital line delivering goods to the city.

So this was the scene decade after decade as trains rumbled back and forth on the Central’s tracks, which came down West Street, turned southeast on Canal and then south on Hudson, clanging and screeching at all hours of day and night as they delivered their goods to the terminal.

Only in the 1930s did the city and the railroad finally decide a change was needed. The tracks were torn up and a new terminus was built at Houston and West streets to handle incoming freight (and named St. John’s Terminal as a remembrance of the old days in Tribeca). The railroad line was rebuilt as an elevated structure that traversed Chelsea and the West Village; it is today’s High Line, the new delightful park that is so popular.

As for the old St. John’s Park that for so long held the noisy and disagreeable freight building, it is today filled with exit roads from the Holland Tunnel.