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Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  466 Ratings  ·  63 Reviews
The demolition of Penn Station in 1963 destroyed not just a soaring neoclassical edifice but also a building that commemorated one of the last century's great engineering feats—the construction of railroad tunnels into New York City. Now, in this gripping narrative, Jill Jonnes tells this fascinating story—a high-stakes drama that pitted the money and will of the nation's ...more
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Published May 28th 2007 by Tantor Media (first published 2007)
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Dan Palmer
Aug 13, 2014 Dan Palmer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading this book two things stand out in my mind:

1) This book is much more a book about the unprecedented engineering of the river tunnels than it is about Charles McKim's lamented travertine and granite pile, and that is fine with me. To truly appreciate the architecture of any era one must also appreciate the engineering that made such architecture possible.

2) The hour that PBS devoted to this fascinating story of muscle, mud machinery and architectural majesty did not do its story jus
Conquering Gotham tells the history of the building of Penn Station and the building of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). The story is fraught with ego, engineering feats and sacrifice of the common worker like most Gilded Age histories. The struggle of the conquering the east river and the tunnels being built is the primary story in the book with little actually devoted to Penn Station other than being a building out of place and time. The book also covers the typical Tammany Hall corruption and ...more
Dave Courtney
Feb 06, 2015 Dave Courtney rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Conquering Gotham presents itself as an inside examination of the incredible Penn Station. In reality it is the story of the politics, the tunnels, and the people that forged a path for the railroad to finally make its way in to the heart of Manhattan.

I have always been fascinated to learn of Penn Station, especially as someone who never had the privilege of seeing it first hand. I have always wondered at the reasoning and the politics that led to its demise. In this sense, for me, the best por
Jul 10, 2016 Jeffrey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-written and comprehensive of the Pennsylvania Railroad's herculean efforts to expand its railroad empire underneath the Hudson River and into the heart of New York City. The feats of engineering are all the more interesting because of the historical context, which is well-developed by the author. The book goes easy on the science, which is good, although it omits an explanation of the single biggest problem faced by the tunnel engineers (sinking and drifting of the tunnels). At ti ...more
Sep 30, 2015 Lynn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was of particular interest to me as I have read a number of books covering the general time period. Additionally, having lived on Long Island and in NYC, I was a long time rider of the LIRR and often in Penn Station. The book examines the daunting political struggles against Tammany and eventually the President, the seemingly insurmountable physical and engineering issues and great insight into the character and personalities of the men who planned it all. The brainchild of Alexander Cassat ...more
Warren Benton
Rating 3.5
This book is about Penn Station and how the great men of Pennsylvania railroad wanted to make New York easily accessible to the people on the other side of the Hudson. This book goes briefly over the engineering feats but focuses more on how the then president of the PRR had to fight with Tammany Hall to try to keep the PRR as clean and honest as possible. When Cassatt caught wind of how some of his employees were getting kickbacks he went in and cleaned house.

This book will be enjoya
Feb 06, 2010 Ron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ron by: Paul Steinke
A really good read, about the Pennsylvania Railroad's long-delayed (and desired) entry onto the island of Manhattan. The book makes the creation of urban infrastructure interesting, and it's particularly fun to read about the incremental construction of the tunnels, and how they were shifting around under the alluvial silt under the Hudson River. But what I was hoping to learn more about, but only found a little bit of, was how the Pennsylvania Railroad was seen by New Yorkers as a Philadelphian ...more
Jan 05, 2013 Robin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is probably the best book that could have been written about the Pennsylvania Railway's epic struggle to bring its railway to New York early in the 20th century given the constraints of the material. Before then all the railways, save for the New York Central of the Vanderbilts, had to terminate at the Hudson River and send their passengers across in ferries. Conquering Gotham relates the business, engineering and political battle to build tunnels under the Hudson and turn two blocks of Man ...more
William Thompson
Dec 09, 2013 William Thompson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you're wanting a book about the Penn Central Station in New York City, this is not the book. Instead, it is an informative, excellent book on the travails of building the necessary tunnels to bring the Pennsylvania Central Railroad trains from New Jersey into Manhattan and the tunnels necessary to take the Long Island Railroad from Penn Central Station that almost immediately began to create the huge residential developments on Long Island. Before the tunnels were built, the Vanderbilt-contro ...more
Ryan Holiday
This book is interesting but ultimately disappointing. The title and description do a magnificent job overselling the book as a cutaway look inside an urban landmark. Rather than a treasure trove of unknown details and secrets of a subway and train terminal that millions of people use on a daily basis, it is dry narrative of the men who constructed it.

For instance, it's more than 100 pages into the book that ground is finally broken on the tunnel and nearly halfway until Penn Station begins to t
Jun 13, 2010 Chrissie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Nice pictoral synopsis of the incredible challenge of bringing the railroad into Manhattan from the West. Reads like a novel most of the time and uses quotes and historical items to corroborate historical events. The portions that make it particularly interesting bring the current events of the time into perspective to illustrate how this epic project was possible and ultimately successful. We truly live in a different age.
My only criticism would be the many characters that are part of this stor
Despite never having been to New York City, I find myself drawn to both fiction and non-fiction about it, especially the period from the 1870's to the 1910's. This work provided some additional background (as well as a pleasant excursion) into that world.

Jonnes provides a great amount of detail in both the construction aspects and the political wheelings and dealings of the herculean task of bringing the railroad to Manhattan. I'm not sure which was the greater foe: Tammany or the Hudson River!
Aug 13, 2008 Dan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
are you a former history major? this book might just be for you. not gonna lie, i was at a bookstore's closing sale and saw this book on the shelf. it looked interesting so i grabbed it. anyway, as you might be able to tell from the title, this book details the pennsylvania railroads epic struggle to build tunnels beneath the rivers surrounding manhattan. obviously it wasn't easy. both in terms of physical construction and the citywide corruption necessary to get something of this magnitude buil ...more
Jun 23, 2011 Peg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Found this book at a hotel and started to read it; had to buy it to finish. This is a true story set in the golden age of railroads at the beginning of the 20th century. It chronicles the building of the tunnels under the Hudson River to connect the Pennsylvania RR lines that spanned the country with Manhattan. Prior to these tunnels being built, passengers would have to leave the trains in NJ and take ferries across the river to reach NYC. The engineering challenges were monumental, as were the ...more
Feb 02, 2014 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd rate this book somewhere between a 3 and 4.

Interesting to learn about the trials railroad executives had to go through to build Penn Station. I was confused throughout the book when the author was describing the grandeur of the station because the present day Penn Station is sad and characterless.
Tim Robinson
May 07, 2016 Tim Robinson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: engineering
An epic story; a great triumph; a great tragedy. This was the Heroic Age of American industry and commerce, when anything was possible and giants walked the land. Tunnels under two great rivers; four New York blocks cleared; the world's largest room in its fourth largest building; commuter suburbs opened up to relieve the most crowded island on the planet; lines from Boston to Miami and from Long Island to Chicago. What has Donald Trump done that can compare to this?

As usual, I would have liked
Philip Fierlinger
This book was particularly interesting since I grew up in the Main Line neighborhood where Cassatt lived and of course spent a fair bit of time going up to NYC through those very tunnels into Penn Station.

For some reason, I seem to have a some strange kick for reading books on history, shipping, pioneering, and the New York region.

I really wish there was a video that would show exactly how the tunnels were dug out. It's not all that clear from the descriptions in the book.

Other than that, I rea
Jun 22, 2009 Chad rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book covers the the epic trials faced by the PRR when building Penn stations and it's associated tunnels in NYC. Jonnes brings to life the assortment of colorful railroad barons, Tammany bosses, politicians, engineers and others involved in this massive construction effort. The biggest to date on American soil and the building of the longest sub-aqueous tunnels at that time. Tunnels that are still in use today I might add. Makes on feel sorry for the loss of such a great building from the N ...more
Jim Plybon
Jun 12, 2015 Jim Plybon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent story line and history of getting access to manhattan, underground.
Apr 16, 2011 Ahf rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a great argument for abridged books (which I normally hate). There was about 1 hour of really exciting and interesting story here, but it took 8 hours to tell. About the creation of Penn station in NY, and the associated tunnels to get the trains into the city. I've always wondered how tunnels under water were built (now I know) why the rail system of the US has the names it has, and how that grew like topsy, the evils of Taminey, and what Teddy Rosevelt was like as a president. I got go ...more
Reuben Cohen
Mar 06, 2013 Reuben Cohen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For non-fiction this is an incredible story. We take those trains that go under the Hudson River for granted. Well, it was quite an event to make that happen. And I am not referring to what it took to connect a tunnel that started both in Manhattan and NJ and make them meet in the middle. There was all of the politics it took to make it happen. But I will not spoil a good story. Read on because you may find politics may not have change too much in the century since these events took place.
Jan 06, 2016 Bob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: us-history
Very enjoyable read about the construction of Penn Station in NYC and the tunnels that connected it to New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut. More than an engineering tale, the PRR took a stance against the corruption of the day and had to fight the governments of NYC and NY state to accomplish their goals. I had recently finished reading "The Bully Pulpit" and it was nice that this book connected to that one in dozens of ways and yet had almost no overlap; a perfect compliment!
Jan 27, 2016 Scott rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First off this book had immense appeal because of my interest in architecture and design throughout the Guilded Age in addition to its struggles, it's triumphs and the speed of the ever-changing field of technology and engineering of that time. This book also gave me a sense of pride reading about a fellow Pennsylvanian, Alexander Cassatt and his rise through the ranks to steer the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad into one of the most successful and momentous periods in its history.
Gordon Howard
May 03, 2010 Gordon Howard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent non-fiction book about the construction of the Pennsylvania railroad's tunnels under the Hudson River, and the magnificant Pennsylvania Station on New York's west side, in the first decade of the 20th century. The tunnels are still used today for AMTRAK and commuter passenger trains. The station, sadly, was demolished in 1963. Lots of interesting vignettes of the railroad's executives, the architects, and the times in New York City.
May 27, 2014 Todd rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebooks, non-fiction
Dec 09, 2012 Du rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-govt
This was a really well written non-fiction book. It was intricate where it needed to be and grand where it should be. The work and deals that went into bringing the railroad across the Hudson River into NYC was amazing, and the scope and scale of Penn Station was incredible. It is amazing that such a structure was removed and lost for us. The images in the book leave you wanting more.

I'm glad that I picked this book up.
Michael Carnell
Jan 28, 2011 Michael Carnell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: rr-prototype
Loved this book. I read it as an audiobook and, while my daughter made fun of it, I thought it was fantastic. Ok, if you aren't a rail or history buff much of it would probably be very dry or boring, it is just the type of thing for someone like myself. It goes far beyond just the mere building of Penn Station and the railway and covers much of the culture and politics of the time.
May 19, 2011 Brent rated it it was ok
I was intrigued by the premise of this book, and I enjoyed it up to a point. However, I found the story began to drag in the middle and I lost interest. To be fair, I was attempting this book during the last couple weeks of my semester, as finals and project due dates loomed. I may have been better served choosing an easier and lighthearted read and saving this book for a later date.
Jake Berlin
i loved this book, but then again i'm a sucker for history of both the gilded age ("triangle", "american eve", "devil in the white city") and of immense engineering projects ("cadillac desert", "the great bridge"). my only complaint is that jonnes occasionally veers too far towards woodword-style journalism, but it's a small one. i was engrossed from cover to cover.
Greg Diehl
Just got back from NYC - which made reading the history of Penn Station more vivid. Interesting tour of an amazing project that is still significantly impacting Gotham over a century later.
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