Story by Bob Bowdon
Photos by Bob Bowdon, Bob Foster, and Leon Yost
I’m pretty sure I’ve been somewhere in Hoboken that you haven’t been. I’ll wager that none of your friends have been, nor the mayor, nor anyone on the city council. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that you don’t know anyone who knows anyone who’s ever been to this place in Hoboken.
Do you know the tower that rises above train station? I’ve walked to the PATH hundreds, nay thousands of times over the past few years, stared up at the Lackawanna Clock Tower and wondered to myself about the section at the top that looks like an observation deck. What an incredible view of New York City, the Hudson River and Hudson County New Jersey someone would have from that vantage point, I thought. How do people get up there, I wondered. On one occasion, I actually got curious enough to squander a couple minutes walking aimlessly through the train station in search for some kind of secret tower entry point. I found nothing.
From a distance, the train station clock tower pierces the sky in this part of town, confusing people in two states with the strange word “LACKAWANNA” in luminous, fulsome display. And yet despite the tower’s unambiguous phallic pride when viewed from afar, once you’re actually inside the building, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. No entry point, no signs – not even a hunchbacked bell tower troll resembling Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein who can say a word about it.
Wondering about this kind of thing isn’t all that normal, I realize. Most people focus on matters that actually advance their life goals, or are conventionally entertaining — not me. I’m often drawn to the very kinds of questions that would elicit a “Why do you care?” from a normal person. And so I kept thinking to myself…. What is that platform that looks like an observation deck? Why does no one know how to get up there?
What does New York City look like from up there? So I had to devise a plan of action, and this turned out to be one of the moments when my status as a beloved and celebrated media personality pays off. (Turns out delusions of grandeur, and the lack of self-awareness it offers doesn’t hurt either.) By committing to write a feature s tory for hMAG about an adventure to the mysterious observation deck, I could credibly approach New Jersey Transit for formal clearance and blow the lid off this whole caper. Or at least take a small step onto a platform that mankind had (virtually) never gone before. Kind of an homage to the late Neil Armstrong. And Shatner.
I call New Jersey transit’s press office, and before you know it, I was set with an appointment to meet Bill the public information officer for New Jersey Transit. Turns out Bill had never been up the tower either. Basically, the only people who ever have are a handful of New Jersey Transit maintenance staff who have the job of changing light bulbs, running a giant fan that cools the structure, and setting the clock. One of these maintenance guys, I’ll call him Mike, also met us on site, and he became our Hoboken clock tower Sherpa.
The first step was to fit Bill and I with our own brand new New Jersey Transit hard hats. I mildly protested about the need for such silly overprotection. Would a molten ingot really be landing on my head, bouncing off harmlessly to oblivion thanks to my judicious use of the “safety first” dork helmet? Which NJT lawyer was getting paid a full-time salary to come up with what I’ve imagined are hundreds of pages of helmet usage codes? Nevertheless, I cooperated, and once my tender skull was provided a new protective layer, off the three of us went onward in search of elevated glory.
What residents gaze on today is, in fact, the second Hoboken Lackawanna clock tower. The original was built in 1907. In that year Teddy Roosevelt was President. In fact, there’s an old postcard of Hoboken that shows that original tower in its original splendor. By the 1950s, however, not many people people were using the word “splendor” to describe anything in Hoboken, and the tower was taken down after it was damaged by high winds, where I’m guessing On the Waterfront thugs sold it for scrap metal and didn’t pay sales taxes.
The original was built in 1907 and designed by architect Kenneth Murchison as part of the Beaux-Arts design. It was taller, 225 high versus today’s humbler 203 feet, and most important, it featured a 2,500 pound bell. And while there’s no bell in the new version, its absence underpins the whole premise for this adventure story. What looks like an observation deck from the ground today was only put there to be architecturally consistent with the old structure. You see, in the old tower, it was the belfry, i.e. where the old giant bell went. Nowadays, there’s no bell, nor even bats – just a platform that seems like an observation deck. Until I got there.
The way you get to the tower is first by going up to the cavernous, empty second floor of the old ferry terminal, then into one of the decrepit offices with peeling paint. There we found a spiral staircase that started us on our quest in earnest. The first thing to know about going up the tower is that the journey is quite obviously not meant for the public. We took at least six highly-pitched steel staircases, before confronting five stories of completely vertical steel ladders. I hit my head enough times on pipes, braces and lattice supports that I not only tried to keep count, but then I lost count. Turns out the hard hats came in handy.
While I’ve never climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, this next tidbit should give you a sense of the difficulty of this trip. When we neared the final ascent to what I’m calling the Observation Deck, the spectre of the progressively tinier crawl spaces and narrower ladders was daunting enough that Bill, our once-intrepid NJ Transit Media Relations guy, had enough. He would wait there for Mike & I to go the last segment and see what we needed to see. Imagine climbing ten stories of ladders nearing a peak, only to give up one or two stories before the killer view. The only way that would happen is if the going gets daunting.
So Mike and I soldiered on to the “Observation Deck.” We made it. It was quite a view on quite a spectacular day. The city. The Boken. The river. All sprawled out before us in magnificent, quiet stillness. The breadth and majesty of the moment was enough to make someone forget about all the bar fights and bad dates that play out every night on the streets below. I even phoned hMAG to inform them of my conquest, and to see if they could have someone photograph me at that moment, waving in triumphant glory as I looked down on everyone literally, (instead of my usual metaphorically).
In case you, gentle reader, ever decide to get your bad self up the Hoboken Lackawanna tower, just understand one thing. It’s no observation deck. It’s a tiny space, smaller than half of an average Hoboken bedroom, with awkwardly placed steel bars and equipment bolted everywhere. I don’t have a particular fear of heights, (we can talk about commitment later), but being up there really is a little scary. Still, I finally rose to the highest height in my adopted hometown of Hoboken, NJ, and have the pictures to prove it. ••