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.