Lecture: The Construction of Old Penn Station and its Tunnels

At the end of the 19th century, Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) 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 New York. By 1901, the brilliant Cassatt had embarked upon the greatest civil engineering project of the times — an enterprise so ambitious, so visionary, it was denounced as corporate folly. Under his direction, the PRR built a monumental system of electrified railroad tunnels under the Hudson River, Manhattan, and the East River to Long Island, capping them all with the crown jewel of Pennsylvania Station.

At this powerpoint lecture, Dr. Jill Jonnes, author of Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels, will tell the story and show slides of this extraordinary engineering feat. For ten years, engineers and legions of "sand hog" laborers battled the crushing forces of two rivers as they burrowed through treacherous glacial soils, suffering blow-outs, explosions, labor troubles and mounting fatalities. Most distressing, PRR engineers feared that the Hudson River tunnels might not be safe and could doom the whole project.

About the Speaker
Dr. Jill Jonnes earned her B.A. at Barnard College, her M.S. at Columbia Journalism School and her Ph.D. in American History at Johns Hopkins University. She has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar and a frequent recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation. Conquering Gotham (Viking, 2007) is her fourth history book, and the second in a Gilded Age engineering trilogy. The first book in the engineering trilogy was Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World (Random House, 2003). Both books have been critically acclaimed.

Personal note from Aaron Donovan
Dr. Jonnes’ book South Bronx Rising is the clearest recounting of exacly how and why the South Bronx fell into urban decay in the 1970s – and how it has been resurrected against the conventional wisdom in the decades since. Reprinted in 2002, South Bronx Rising offers a compelling narrative and a brisk read into an important topic of interest to students of urban planning and city development. She is a master writer and thorough reporter.

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