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CONQUERING GOTHAM by Jill Jonnes Kirkus Star


A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels

by Jill Jonnes

Pub Date: April 23rd, 2007
ISBN: 0-670-03158-5
Publisher: Viking

A tale of large-scale engineering during the Gilded Age, when America was on the rise and grand enterprises were the badges of its ascendancy.

Historian Jonnes (Empires of Light, 2003, etc.) evidently had to spend much time burrowing into the slime and muck of Tammany politics before she could get down to digging through the Hudson River silt and mud. The Tammany-dominated Board of Aldermen had the power to kill the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ambitious project to link its mainland rails by subaqueous tunnels to the island of Manhattan. But the PRR’s stalwart president, Alexander Cassatt, who had already done away with free rides and secret rebates, had no intention of paying the customary bribes. Aided by newly elected reform mayor Seth Low, the PRR forced the Board’s approval without boodle on Dec. 16, 1902. Though North River tides caused the tubes to undulate slightly, the difficult construction was finally completed successfully. At the culmination of the 16-mile tunnels, where Manhattan’s seedy Tenderloin District had formerly sprawled, stood Pennsylvania Station, the grandest public space in Gotham. Opened in 1910, Charles McKim’s magnificent Roman-style terminal survived just 53 years, approximating the life expectancy of a citizen born when the PRR’s first train made the cross-river transit. In the tradition of David McCullough’s narratives of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, Jonnes’s elegy to a mighty engineering feat is clearly reported and populated with a well-delineated cast of robber barons, heroic builders and a few crooks sporting handlebar mustaches.

Intelligent history about building an indispensable part of our infrastructure.