Wednesday, January 30, 2013

25 Books: Book #2 - Conquering Gotham

At the beginning of the 20th Century, New York was growing into a major metropolis. But transportation in between the boroughs (especially in and out of Manhattan) was still somewhat difficult. It wasn't until the construction of Penn Station and its underwater tunnels that train travel in and out of Manhattan was even feasible. Accomplishing such an engineering feat required a company willing to take tremendous risks and invest huge amounts of money in such a project. That company was the Pennsylvania Railroad led by its visionary president Alexander Cassatt. The story of the Penn Station construction project is told in Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes.

Today, the idea of an underwater tunnel is not so very foreign. But in 1900 such things were still relatively new. The construction of such a tunnel was a dicey prospect at best as numerous workers had perished in other tunnel projects. However there was no better way to solve the problem of how to connect Manhattan to New Jersey and to the other boroughs.Once the project was completed the city would be completely transformed. Suddenly people would have the freedom to move out to the suburbs and still be able to get to their jobs in the city.

As for Penn Station, for several decades it stood as a grand station in the midst of Manhattan. Unfortunately poor planning and a change in transportation choices (as Americans migrated towards air and roads in the 1950s and 1960s) doomed the grand temple to a brief existence. Still Penn Station managed to serve as a grand monument not only to the determination on Andrew Cassatt but of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to revolutionize travel into and out of Manhattan. Its story is still an interesting one to read as it involves courage, risk-taking, battles against political corruption and good old-fashioned American ingenuity to accomplish what many thought was impossible.

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