"Superb. [A] first-rate narrative" (The Wall Street Journal ) about the controversial construction of New York's beloved original Penn Station and its tunnels
As bestselling books like Ron Chernow's Titan and David McCullough's The Great Bridge affirm, readers are fascinated with the grand personalities and schemes that populated New York at the close of the nineteenth century. Conquering Gotham re- creates the riveting struggle waged by the great Pennsylvania Railroad to build Penn Station and the monumental system of tunnels that would connect water-bound Manhattan to the rest of the continent by rail. Historian Jill Jonnes tells a ravishing tale of snarling plutocrats, engineering feats, and backroom politicking packed with the most colorful figures of Gilded Age New York.
Conquering Gotham will be featured in an upcoming episdoe of PBS's American Experience.
"A human account of how a few visionaries from the Pennsylvania Railroad connected the rest of the country to the nation's greatest port, and how their Philadelphia-centric perspective doomed the world's largest train station." -Sam Roberts, The New York Times
"Lush and lovely prose." -The Baltimore Sun
"In the tradition of David McCullough's narrative of the Brooklyn Bridge . . . intelligent history about building an indispensable part of our infrastructure." -Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Wonderful evocation of a a new century when men believed they could achieve anything2007/5/16
This is a book that can be appreciated on many levels. First and foremost, it is the story of how the once mighty Pennsylvania Railroad brought East-West trains into Manhattan. Though it had become the greatest sea port in the nation, the country's financial and manufacturing hub, Manhattan had no terminal for East-West trains. The New York Central had its trains coming in from the north, but if you wanted to ride the train to Philadelphia and points west and south, you first had to take a boat across the Hudson River to New Jersey.
For decades, the leaders of the Pennyslvania Railroad had tried to come up with a way to bring their trains into Manhattan. A bridge over the Hudson was designed and then abandoned for lack of financial support from other railroads. A brilliant visionary, Alexander Cassatt, as President of the Pennsylvania convinced the board of directors on a great gamble: to invest millions in the building of tunnels under the Hudson, erection of a great station in Manhattan and extending the tunnels across the Manhattan and the East River to Long Island.
The stories are of the herculean engineering effort involved in designing and constructing the tunnels, since none that long had ever been attempted; the problems of dealing with the Democrat Party's corrupt Tammany political machine; the design and construction of the iconic Penn Station; Teddy Roosevelt's campaign against trusts and big business and more.
In short, Jonnes's history is epic because her subjects are epic.
Jonnes has a good writing style; she is able to breathe life into some relatively obscure subjects and does well at attempting to convey the nature of life in the early 20th Century.
None of us will ever be able to visit Penn Station and appreciate that it was designed to be a monument, not a structure that was destroyed a mere half-century after it was built. Few of us will ever be able to appreciate just how important passenger railroads were at one time and fewer still will ever experience the thrill of cross-country travel on a first-class train. Probably none of us or very few will ever experience performing manual labor a hundred feet beneath the surface of a roiling river when labor relations were considered a matter strictly between the laborer and his employer.
Jonnes does a marvelous job of bringing all this to a reasonable semblance of life. It is a wonderful history from a time when technologies we take for granted now were still new and men thought they could acheive anything and believed that the future would be a better place.
Brett M. Reigh
Jill Jonnes does a wonderful job of describing the long and difficult saga concerning the digging of the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, as well as the construction of old Pennsylvania Station in the middle of turn-of-the-century New York's infamous "Tenderloin" district. Very well-written and easy to read, she discusses the travails Alexander Cassatt and subsequent PRR presidents had in dealing with New York's Tammany Hall, the shifting muck and silt under the Hudson River, which at times threatened to doom the project, and a number of other issues related to an undertaking that was described as one of the world's greatest engineering feats. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in railroading, New York City, or the Pennsylvania Railroad in particular.
This book is very good. Highly informative about an enterprise I knew nothing about. A personal look at the people responsible for this feat, as well as politically and socially educational. I had a bit of an issue with some hopping around on the dates; and also toward the end of the book the author stated that the General Waiting Room in the gorgeous Pennsylvania Station was, at the time of its completion, the largest room in the world. She also stated that, at the time, it was the world's largest building. Versailles, Blenheim and the Biltmore come immediately to mind and any number of others that would have been in existence then. I would have liked some facts to back these statements. I would also have liked to know where all of the lovely granite went to. Surely it was not ALL deposited in fields? But then, again, perhaps. After all, some group of idiots managed to decide to tear it down in 1963. Lovely book, well worth the read.
A David McCullough treatment would have been gripping. This, not.2007/6/29
I came to this book prepared to place it in the pantheon of marvelous accounts of epic undertakings and events of the muscled, 19th century America powerbrokers whose vision shaped the world we live in. Unfortunately, Jonnes is not the writer to capture that age.
The majesty of the tunnel undertakings should have been the centerpiece of the story. The effort in the book clearly went into retracing the intrigues surroundinging the graft-ridden political machinery the PRR had to overcome. So, for visual support, we are treated to a number of head- and group shots of the principals, in and out of business meetings, and nostalgic scenes of congested New York streets and waterways. Where are the detailed descriptions, maps and diagrams that flesh out the real story - the mastery of tunnel construction in an unstable footing?
Jonnes has a long way to go to approach the narrative skills of David McCullough in "The Great Bridge," "The Johnstown Flood," or "The Path Between the Seas."
Conquering Gotham and History2007/5/31
Hoss J. Gardner
While reading Conquerimg Gotham by Jill Jones, I felt like I was back in the old neighborhood in New York. I grew up just north of the Tenderlion section, in Hell's Kitchen. Several things stand out in my mind after reading this excellent book: Alexander Cassat as President of the Pennzy, was such an honest and honorable man; New York City has lost a great civic monument; and this book has been an excellent trip into the past. The destruction of Pennsylvania Station has the feeling of being on the level of a national crime. Maybe one day a new station will arise on the site of the old. What a great and fascinating story. Thank you Jill Jones. From Hoss