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Tunnel to Terminus: The Story of Penn Station

Jun 9, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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When the grand concourses of New York City's old Pennsylvania Station were demolished in 1963, the remnants of a mammoth subterranean project were swept away, too.

The story behind Penn Station — and the tunnels that connected New Jersey with water-locked Gotham — was a high-stakes drama that pitted the nation's greatest corporation against the forces of Tammany New York, America's richest city and most important port.

In her new history of the project, Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and its Tunnels, author and historian Jill Jonnes gathers the cast of corporate leaders, corrupt politicians and daring engineers who brought the station to life in 1910.

In the 1890s, Pennsylvania Railroad passengers boarded ferries in New Jersey to travel to New York. Alexander Cassatt, president of the railroad, was determined to run his trains directly into Manhattan. Operating in an era of lightly regulated capitalism, Cassatt wielded substantial power and managed to outwit Tammany Hall politicians in the fight for the franchise.

But creating the tunnels under the force of two crushing rivers would be a treacherous job. Jonnes details the heroic feats of engineers and "sand hog" laborers as they burrowed through soil.

Despite blow-outs, explosions and mounting fatalities, Penn Station — architect Charles McKim's great Doric temple to transportation — opened in 1910, forever changing New York and its suburbs.

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