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Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 19, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Hardcover, Bargain Price, April 19, 2007
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--This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Modern Manhattan is a miracle in many ways, but all of its imports, commuters included, must traverse at least one river to get there. In 1900, the New York Central, owned by the Vanderbilts, already gave Manhattan a northern connection over the narrow Harlem River. A southern connection over the mile-wide Hudson would be a whole different story. Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was the visionary on the project. But how to do it? A bridge plan fell through due to expense; a tunnel would lack the oxygen needed for steam engines. The breakthrough lay in the cutting-edge electrified locomotives developed in Paris. Historian Jonnes (Empires of Light), demonstrating impressive immersion in the Gilded Age, ably spins the tale, which bears some similarities to The Devil in the White City. This is a vivid story of hardball Tammany Hall maneuvering and mind-boggling engineering. Once construction began, the two-track narrative settles on the daunting construction of the tunnels and Charles McKim's much-admired design of the terminus at Pennsylvania Station, prized by New Yorkers only after its ill-considered demise in 1963. Jonnes can claim an important addition to the popular literature of how New York became the archetype of a great American metropolis. (Apr. 23)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.

From Booklist

Commemorated in many a rueful history book after "barbarians" demolished it in the 1960s, New York City's Pennsylvania Station was the visible manifestation of a titanic subterranean project. Its sweeping story, involving engineering challenges, an inflexibly honest corporation leader, flexibly corrupt politicians, and street-level sociology, comes together marvelously in Jonnes' admiring history of the undertaking. It arose from the Pennsylvania Railroad's determination to run its trains directly into Manhattan; in the 1890s, Penn passengers had to alight in New Jersey and board ferries, a scene Jonnes evokes with an excerpt of Penn president Alexander Cassatt's experience of the inconvenience. The main impetus to the enterprise, Cassatt, operating in an era of lightly regulated capitalism, wielded substantial power, and his decisions structure Jonnes' narrative. Cassatt's siting of the station in the city's notorious den of iniquity, the Tenderloin, introduces the outstretched palms of Tammany Hall, while his taste for the classical aesthetic introduces Charles McKim's design of the station. Equally interesting on the technical hazards of the tunnel work, Jonnes has produced an exemplary construction epic. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (April 19, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670031585
  • ASIN: B001550A9K
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,354,439 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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."
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Format: Hardcover
You do not need to be a railroad history fan to be captivated by this book, as this book delves into the gilded age of business in America as well as the monumental corruption of Tammany Hall and the aldermen in turn of the century New York. A great book on the Pennsylvania

Railroad: it's leaders, planners and civil engineers and rank in file, arguably one of the greatest corporations in American history.
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Format: Hardcover
There was a point while I was reading Jill Jonnes', "Conquering Gotham", that I wished I could reach back through time, grab old Penn Station and plunk it back down onto its comfortable spot at 7th Avenue and West 32nd Street. Not the tawdry Penn Station I remember walking through as a child of eight or nine with my mother on the way to visiting my father at his showroom around the corner on West 31st Street, the one with the dusty, decrepit old signs, the misplaced ticket counters blocking one's way , and the general filth and neglect following years of the financial decline of its eponymous Railroad company owner. No, it would be the pristine building with the tremendous open spaces that must have awed travelers to New York and that can only be seen now in old black and white photos. Or, it would have been the restored Penn Station that almost surely would have been had it only survived a few more years into the 1980's or 1990's, and just as actually did happen to that other great New York Train station a few blocks to the northeast.

The story related by the author was really about the dream of one man, Alexander Cassatt, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad to connect the greatest, best run railroad in America, to its greatest city. In an era when most railroad heads were Robber Barons who manipulated their company's stock to enrich themselves and who cared nothing or little for their shareholders, employees or passengers, Cassatt was a statesman who ran the `Pennsy', as it was affectionately called, always with the goal of improving it.

For his project, Cassatt was able to turn to an outstanding team of engineers including the great English tunnel builder, Charles Jacobs, bridge builder Alfred Noble and James Forgie.
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