A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels
By Jill Jonnes
Viking Books / 368 pages / $27.95
In 1901, only one railroad came directly into Manhattan. The jewel in the crown of the Vanderbilt family, the New York Central ran along the Hudson, then crossed the Harlem River into the financial capital of the world. Ten other railroads ended their runs in New Jersey, then ferried passengers and packages into midtown.
Enter Alexander Cassatt, the seventh president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest transportation corporation in the world. A "safe man, deliberate in considering, slow of judgment, patient in decision," according to the journalist Frank Spearman, Cassatt was capable "when action must come - of a tremendous initiative and follow-through." After considering a bridge across the Hudson, from Hoboken to West 23rd Street, Cassatt decided to build a system of tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey and Long Island - and a massive terminal, grander than the Gare d'Orsay in Paris. Even if it took 10 years, cost $100 million and depressed the price of the company's stock. Even if he had to work through or run over Republican bosses and Tammany tigers to do it.
In Conquering Gotham, Jill Jonnes, a free-lance writer, draws on the voluminous records of the Pennsylvania Railroad to relate the "epic history" of Penn Station and its tunnels. She frames the narrative - in lush and lovely prose - as a classic conflict between the enlightened and the benighted, rational reformers and rogues. This approach is well-suited to the monumental feats of the project's engineers, led by Charles Jacobs, and architect Charles Follen McKim. But it distorts the politics of Penn Station.
Jonnes follows the "sandhogs" as they blasted their way through 16 miles of tunnels, coated iron tubes with two-foot thick inner walls of reinforced concrete, rushed to escape when structures flooded and, all too often, collapsed from "the bends" soon after they returned to the apparent safety of the sidewalks of New York. In 1908, all the tunnels were completed - and the engineers celebrated at a classy Manhattan restaurant, with jokes about a Tunnel Bowling League and a silly song, "The Pennsy Tunnels." But, Jonnes has discovered, as they toasted one another, the engineers knew that the tunnels were moving, rising and falling with the tides of the Hudson. It was an engineering gamble that paid off.
The design of Penn Station was far less dramatic, but no less impressive. Modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, with majestic Doric columns adorning its facade, Penn Station covered 7 1/2 acres. A city unto itself, the terminal had shops, offices, a medical clinic, a police station with a two-cell jail, waiting rooms for funeral parties, a grand stairway, 158 fountains and a breathtaking General Waiting Room. Charles McKim, the art historian Hilary Ballon suggests, had translated "the mundane business of boarding trains into a stately procession."
The construction of Penn Station and its tunnels, Jonnes believes, is a drama of civic redemption. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President Theodore Roosevelt, a heroic Alexander Cassatt enlisted "in an ongoing war over whether the United States will be an honorable republic or a corrupt plutocracy." "Utterly determined to proceed honorably," Cassatt granted pensions to Pennsylvania Railroad employees and gave workers earning less than $200 two 10 percent increases. While Tammanyites disdained constructive uses of government, "except as it might augment influence, patronage or boodle," Cassatt refused to pay bribes or make secret deals. And he prevailed: The Pennsylvania Railroad got its franchise from a once recalcitrant New York's Board of Aldermen and "paid no boodle."
Jonnes' Cassatt is too good to be true. Pensions and pay raises were not bestowed. They were wrung from management by employees with work stoppages and strikes. Nor did Cassatt grant an eight-hour day or prevailing wages to his workers in New York. And there is reason to believe that Cassatt greased some palms to persuade aldermen to reverse themselves. He hired the son of Republican boss Thomas Platt as counsel, at $10,000 a year. He granted the biggest excavation project in America to Isaac Hopper, the lowest bidder, then blinked as Charles Murphy, the chief sachem of Tammany Hall, got the job.
Cassatt had a fatal heart attack Dec. 28, 1906. And so he was present, but only as a bronze statue, more than three years later, when Penn Station opened. He's been bronzed as well in Conquering Gotham, though Jonnes is surely right that but for his foresight and courage - and the hard work of so many sandhogs - no train ever would have left the Pennsylvania Station.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.