Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels
It's hard to imagine a time when commuting into Manhattan took more than an hour and it wasn't because of the traffic. There was a time, the early 20th century, when the only way to get onto and off of Manhattan, and subsequently Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island, from mainland America was by ferry from New Jersey, or the laborious "up and over" route perfected by the Vanderbilt family and its New York Central railroad line, which took passengers north through New Jersey and into upstate New York, then back south and over the narrow, traversable Harlem River. Despite its prominent rise as America's cultural and economic power bastion, Manhattan had no direct east-west transport route on or off the island. Baltimorean Jill Jonnes' Conquering Gotham meticulously weaves together the building history of Penn Station and its labyrinth of subaqueous tunnels off of Manhattan, from the Pennsylvania Railroad's preliminary battles with a Tammany-controlled New York political machine to the Herculean effort it took to erect an engineering marvel that had never before been attempted in such daring fashion.
Jonnes does this with a dedicated eye for detail and a desire to flesh the story out as much as possible without simply reporting fact, and Conquering is incredibly comprehensive. Throughout much of the book's first part, however, it feels as though the facts are being read from a chronology of events, and not through a balanced historical narrative. Jonnes tries to spice up an otherwise banal narrative by going on brief, episodic rants describing the Tenderloin, the aptly named neighborhood in which the Pennsylvania Railroad hopes to see its grand vision erected, which was then home to numerous whorehouses, nightclubs, and other such tawdry outlets.
The book's second half covers the construction of the tunnels and Penn Station. It is only slightly more readable than its languishing counterpart, as it captures people actually doing something, as opposed to capturing people talking about doing something. Unfortunately, this section of the book also putters along at the same speed as an early automobile. From afar, Conquering Gotham is an interesting story worth learning more about, and Jonnes has done her research. All too often, though, the book feels like a presentation from the smart kid in class who has done all of her homework but never learned how to tell a good story.