Books: Under the Hudson

Building the tunnels leading to the original Pennsylvania Station was a heroic undertaking.


"Conquering Gotham A Gilded Age Epic:
The Construction of Penn Station
and Its Tunnels" by Jill Jonnes

Credit: Preservation

By Jill Jonnes
Viking, 384 pages, $27.95

At the turn of the 20th century, no bridge or tunnel yet connected Manhattan Island to New Jersey, so all passengers and freight approaching New York City from the west and south had to cross the Hudson River by boat. Railroads were in their glory then, and the 10 rail companies serving the city from New Jersey were deeply frustrated by the inconvenience and expense of running fleets of often dangerous ferryboats and barges across the one-mile expanse of river. Twelve hundred trains a day served the railway terminals on the Jersey shoreline, and ferries transported 80 million passengers a year into a city that was, in journalist Jill Jonnes' words, "the world's greatest port as well as the nation's colossus of trade, finance, manufacturing, and culture."

Building a tunnel under the Hudson had been proposed as early as 1873, and constructing a bridge over it in 1884, though neither plan succeeded. In 1899 an extraordinary man named Alexander Cassatt became president of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. The brother of the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, he had been born to wealth and schooled in Europe and at Rensselaer Polytechnic in upstate New York. He went to work for the railroad, then retired at the age of 42 to collect art and racehorses, but he continued to serve on the company's board of directors and took the head job after two presidents died in two years. As Jonnes tells his story in Conquering Gotham, Cassatt was made of different stuff from the typical Gilded Age robber barons. He shared their capacity to think big, and their intransigence, but he was a man of culture and, at least by the standards of the day, principle.

By 1901 Cassatt had committed his railroad to building tunnels across the Hudson to a station of European magnificence in Manhattan, and more tunnels across the island and beneath the East River, giving the railroad eventual access to New England. While engineers probed the Hudson River bottom to study the feasibility of securing tunnels in its soft alluvial soils, agents for the railroad secretly began buying up property in Manhattan on the blocks between Seventh and Ninth avenues and 31st and 33rd streets in the Tenderloin.

Those blocks would by 1910 accommodate a cavernous underground railroad terminal, above which would rise one of America's most monumental buildings, Charles Follen McKim's Roman masterwork, Pennsylvania Station. For American preservationists, those blocks would become the locus of their greatest heartache, as well as their rallying point, when Penn Station was torn down in the 1960s, an act as monstrous and inexplicable as the Taliban's destruction of the great Buddhas at Bamiyan. Jonnes points out that New Yorkers never embraced the station the way they did Grand Central, for instance, but Parisians never liked the Eiffel Tower and yet it stands.

The story of Penn Station's rise and fall is a familiar one, and despite her book's subtitle, Jonnes devotes less than a quarter of Conquering Gotham to retelling it. Her real aim is to describe the construction of the tunnels crossing the Hudson to the station, and she does so armed with stacks of paperwork the railroad company preserved about the project. This trove, the many period newspaper accounts of the undertaking, and other materials allow her to piece together a story of extraordinary determination and expenditure (the Pennsylvania Railroad spent $125 million on the project in all) in the face of Tammany Hall corruption (which Cassatt stood up to), engineering enigmas and construction disasters, a labor force unsettled by the dangers of the job, scandal within the company, and public skepticism encouraged by howling headlines.

It should be a better story than it turns out to be here, an equivalent to such infrastructure page-turners as David McCullough's books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the contemporaneous Panama Canal, to which the Hudson River tunnel project was often compared. The problem might be in part those dusty railroad archives, which must have had for the author the exciting pull of virgin territory.  But these papers were the practical communications of businessmen, whose writing was at best as dusty as the records themselves, and whose perspectives on their heroic project ranged from the guarded to the perfunctory.

Still, the undertaking was indeed heroic. Many workers perished in building the tunnels, and both Alexander Cassatt and Charles McKim died before Penn Station opened its doors. Thanks to Conquering Gotham, I'll never glide under the Hudson again without remembering what those energetic, unyielding men did.

Robert Wilson is editor of The American Scholar and author of The Explorer King, which will appear in paperback in the fall.

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