I travel frequently between my home in Massachusetts and New York City, where my employer is headquartered. The train is my preferred mode of transportation for these trips. Most people who pass through New York’s Pennsylvania Station on a regular basis do not think highly of the experience. It’s a stuffy, subterranean dungeon that from an aesthetics standpoint is likely virtually unchanged from what it looked circa 1968.
But for whatever reason, I kind of like it.
Penn Station’s dated look, low ceilings, and position below aging Madison Square Garden make it feel like a time capsule from an era that few care to preserve. Whenever I pass through, I half expect Willis Reed and Walt Frazier to walk around the corner in bell bottoms at any moment. Penn Station is also an unappreciated marvel from a logistical standpoint. It serves approximately 300,000 passengers daily, more than double the volume of its crosstown rival Grand Central Station.
Penn Station is the confluence of three major railroad lines: Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Railroad. This is quite staggering when you consider that Amtrak is bringing long-haul passengers into the city from all directions, New Jersey Transit train’s must all cross the Hudson River, and Long Island is, well, an island.
The more time I spent standing around Penn Station or gliding through its dark ingress and egress tunnels, the more I began to wonder how it all came to be. I found many of the answers in Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes.
Conquering Gotham is a fascinating account of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s monumental effort to bring its rail lines into New York City. Believe it or not, at the start of the 20th century, very few train routes entered Manhattan. While the New York Central Railroad had routes running from the north into Grand Central, its rival “the Pennsy” was forced to terminate its routes across the Hudson in Jersey City, where passengers were forced to transfer to ferries into New York.
This was source of frustration for the leaders for the Pennsylvania, and numerous proposals to bring trains over or under the Hudson were explored. For years, these proposals languished due to factors such as cost and the impracticality of running steam locomotives through lengthy tunnels. The challenge was compounded when the Pennsylvania gained control of the Long Island Railroad, similarly isolated from Manhattan by the East River.
Much of Conquering Gotham focuses on the life and career of Alexander Cassatt, the former Pennsylvania Railroad president who was the driving force behind the Hudson River crossing. In an era known for “robber barons,” Cassett comes across as a thoughtful and visionary leader. His supporting cast of architects and engineers, also profiled in some detail, were an colorful and driven lot as well.
Both sets of tunnels into New York, as well as the construction of Pennsylvania Station, faced monumental challenges. There were many fits and starts before a viable method of crossing the Hudson could be agreed upon. Once underway, both tunnel projects faced engineering challenges, as well as loss of life due to breaches and “sandhogs” succumbing to the bends. And, of course, there was the small challenge of advancing an epic construction project at the height of Tammany Hall’s grip on New York City politics.
Obviously, the Pennsylvania Railroad team eventually conquered Gotham, but its legacy is bittersweet. The majestic Beaux Arts station built as part of the project was left to decay and was ultimately demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Penn Plaza office complex and Madison Square Garden. However, the underlying platforms, tracks, and tunnels of the original Penn Station project remain as a core element of New York’s transportation infrastructure.
Much of this history is hidden from a typical Penn Station visitor, but signs of its history remain. Since reading Conquering Gotham I’ve starting noticing small reminders of Penn Station’s former glory. For example, a mural I’ve walked by dozens of times actually depicts the original station’s Doric columns toppling. In front of Penn Plaza, I also found two of the eagle statues that once adorned the original station, along with a preserved statue of Cassatt lieutenant and eventual Pennsylvania Railroad president Samuel Rae.
You can find Conquering Gotham on Amazon or in the iBooks store. It’s not for everyone, but if you enjoy history, I highly recommend it.