Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

A Riveting History of Penn Station

My last read but one: Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels, by Jill Jonnes. This book was not on my list to read, but I noticed it on the shelf of new nonfiction titles at the library, and it looked interesting. I’m glad I tried it. It’s history, but reads like a novel. Here’s a snip from the book’s website:

As the nineteenth century ended, Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt sought some way—other than huge fleets of ferries from New Jersey—to bring the PRR’s tens of millions of passengers into water-locked Gotham. By 1901, the brilliant Cassatt had embarked upon a course so ambitious, so visionary, it was denounced as corporate folly.

Under his and Samuel Rea’s direction, the PRR would build a monumental system of electrified tunnels under the Hudson River, Manhattan, and the East River to Long Island, capping them all with the crown jewel of Pennsylvania Station. This high-stakes Gilded Age drama pitted the nation’s greatest corporation against the unruly forces of Tammany New York, America’s richest city and most important port.

Set in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., Conquering Gotham is the history of a political and engineering battle that forever changed New York’s physical and psychological geography. Cassatt took on J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt, and Boss William Croker, as the PRR secretly assembled land for a terminal in the Tenderloin vice district, amid the whore houses, crime, and dance halls. Engineers and legions of “sand hog” laborers battled the crushing forces of two rivers as they burrowed year after year through treacherous glacial soils, suffering blow-outs, explosions, labor troubles and mounting fatalities. In fact, haunting the entire monumental project was a deep secret—PRR engineers feared that the Hudson River tunnels might not be safe and could doom the whole project.

I can see this book appealing to a much wider audience than just history buffs. If you’re a New York City lover, or have an interest in urban planning, engineering, the Gilded Age in particular, or just enjoy human drama, you’ll probably like it.


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This entry was posted on August 2, 2009 by in Recently Finished Reading.
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