CONQUERING GOTHAM: A GILDED AGE EPIC: THE CONSTRUCTION OF PENN STATION AND ITS TUNNELS
By Jill Jonnes
Viking Adult, 368 pages, $27.95
Most of us know how the story of the original Penn Station ends: The breathtakingly grand neoclassical structure—designed to be a suitably splendid entryway to the nation’s largest city—was razed by the cash-strapped Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1960’s and replaced by the current charmless depot that we, unfortunately, know so well today.
The beginning of the story is equally compelling in historian Jill Jonnes’ new account, Conquering Gotham, subtitled A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels.
Great achievements of the past have a way of seeming inevitable after the fact. That’s certainly true of the tunnels that link Manhattan to New Jersey (i.e., the mainland United States). Conquering Gotham does an admirable job of conveying just what an engineering challenge the construction presented, as well as the urgency of the need by the late 19th century.
At that time, the only rail connection between New York and the rest of the country came into the city from the north, across the Harlem River, to the current Grand Central Terminal. This lone railroad, privately owned by the Vanderbilts, was inadequate to the needs of the growing city, Ms. Jonnes says.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was the nation’s largest, yet its trains came to an abrupt end in Jersey City. By 1901, 80 million rail passengers disembarked in New Jersey and were ferried into the city each year.
“With each passing decade, the situation became more untenable, more disastrous,” Ms. Jonnes writes. Sometimes, in the winter, the Hudson was too icy to navigate; at other times, the river was simply log-jammed by the boat traffic.
Alexander Cassatt, who became president of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1899, was determined to find a means of getting its trains into the city. He flirted with a bridge across the Hudson; after all, the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. But by 1899, it was still the biggest bridge ever built, and the mile-wide Hudson would require one almost twice as large.
Ultimately, Cassatt didn’t want to shoulder the entire cost of a bridge—estimated at $100 million—since the Pennsylvania Railroad would be required by federal charter to share access with its competitors. (It’s rather mind-blowing that, at that time, private corporations undertook such mammoth projects without any public funding.)
In 1901, Cassatt decided to build tunnels instead, but this was no simple matter: A separate attempt begun in the 1870’s to connect New York and New Jersey had been stymied by one disaster after another as the silty riverbed proved unpropitious for tunnel-building. The half-completed tunnels were abandoned in 1891, and the man who championed the doomed project died bankrupt.
Nonetheless, Cassatt laid out an ambitious plan. The Pennsylvania Railroad, which also owned the Long Island Rail Road, planned to spend $40 million to $50 million to build 16 miles of tunnels, running from Weehawken, N.J., underneath Manhattan and then under the East River to Long Island City, with a new Penn Station at the system’s center.
Not only was the undertaking financed entirely by the railroad, but the company fought with the city for permission and wound up agreeing to pay New York an annual franchise fee of more than $75,000, to rise to more than $110,000 annually after a decade.
Cassatt hired Charles McKim, an architect who designed much of the Mall in Washington, D.C. The classically inclined McKim was given a great deal of financial leeway: His Penn Station would be the fourth-largest building in the world, built of glass and Milford granite, with a 150-foot-high domed ceiling and 60-foot Doric columns.
Altogether, the project took seven years to complete, and the cost rose to $100 million. Cassatt, who had staked his reputation on the project, died before its completion.
Conquering Gotham is a well-written and well-researched account of an astoundingly ambitious undertaking. Ms. Jonnes skillfully weaves together the multifarious aspects of the project, from the technical complexities and political wrangling to the personalities of Cassatt and McKim.
It’s a bit rich at times. She occasionally veers toward hagiography, presenting the Pennsylvania Railroad and its president as embattled pillars of rectitude in a corrupt world. When the railroad tried to buy up land around 32nd Street on the cheap before its plans were made public, word got out.
“Sensing his corporate enemies gathering, Cassatt felt forced to press forward before he was truly ready,” she writes.
You feel sorry for the poor guy—until you remember that he was no neophyte, but rather the president of the nation’s largest railroad in an era in which the railroads wielded unprecedented economic and political power.
Still, it’s a good story, well told. Knowing how it ends doesn’t detract, but rather lends pathos. It’s difficult to imagine reading this book without sighing over the untimely demise of all that grandeur.
Adelle Waldman is a writer living in Manhattan.