One of the founding tenets of ACL was to give a voice to the little guys, to the under appreciated things that perform a great service everyday without any recognition. It is with this in mind that I turn your attention to one of the world’s greatest and often overlooked roadways, the General Pulaski Skyway, the world’s first “super highway.” ACL has a rich tradition of highlighting some of the tri-state’s greatest roadways (not really but it amuses me to say things like this), the Merritt Parkway comes to mind as a perennial favorite. In truth, ACL doesn’t really cover highways very often because it is a pretty random concept. It turns out that this is really only the second such post on a road, and many would argue that the Pulaski Skyway is overlooked for a reason, or a whole host of reasons.
While everyone can agree that the Merritt Parkway is a fun and scenic road to drive, the Pulaski Skyway is probably a tougher sell. I have been literally wondering about the hulking iron structure since the first time I took the three and a half mile trip through the North Jersey industrial corridor and on across the Hackensack and Passaic rivers. I fly out of Newark’s Liberty International airport often, which is a trip that requires a journey over the Pulaski Skyway. Almost every run-in with the Pulaski has led me to say to myself: “I need to do some research on this strange series of bridges and elevated highways that carries me through the swamps and across this North Jersey industrial battlefield.” I’m strange, I know.
Eventually one day I was bored enough to actually go through with finding out more on this depression era bridge-roadway-thing. What I discovered was likely more than anyone ever needs to know about a single bridge. It turns out a guy named Steven Hart actually wrote an entire book about the Pulaski Skyway called The Last Three Miles, which quickly became required reading for me. The book is pretty interesting for a few hundred pages about a boring bridge in a swamp. It talks in detail about the great difficulty in getting from Newark to Jersey City dating back to the 1700s. Apparently, the whole swamp / horse and buggy thing was murder (Hackensack Plank Road is named such, because it was literally made of planks across the Meadowlands swamps — sounds terrible). Apparently, teams of horses would have to pause in Newark to “blood up” in preparation of the onslaught of mosquitoes that the final push up to Jersey City. Seems shit was pretty intense before the state of New Jersey finally got around to building this thing. The real impetus behind the “Skyway” was the completion of the Holland Tunnel in 1927. Before the 1&9 and the Pulaski Skyway, massive amounts of traffic just dumped out onto the dilapidated Jersey City streets with nowhere to go. Getting from Jersey City to Newark, even in the late 1920s, was a three hour affair.
These days my trips across the Pulaski are punctuated with me spouting boring facts about how each rivet was done by hand, and about how the Army Corps of Engineers basically came into the design process at the 25th hour and derailed a whole lot of engineering work done by a whole bunch of grizzled old railroad men just to ensure that the rivers were passable and shipping lanes unobstructed. I also learned that General Casimir Pulaski is a the Polish Count and revolutionary war era father of he American Calvary — a satisfying but still puzzling bit of knowledge. Why the roadway is named after him? That’s a question I could not answer.
The one thing that the Pulaski does share with the Merritt is the fact that both are a helluva a lot of fun to drive. This is still true today because both predate the modern U.S. highway system, both fast and furious roadways and both are pretty unsafe. The Pulaski is basically the most dangerous road within a few hundred miles, if not the entire Eastern Seaboard. It’s not pretty, but it sure does have an interesting story.