Penn Station Lives!
IN 1963 NEW YORK CITY’S HISTORIC-PRESERVATION movement lost its greatest battle, and the Pennsylvania Railroad proceeded to demolish the architect Charles Follen McKim’s elegant Pennsylvania Station, in the heart of Manhattan. The new commercial structures that rose in its place offered none of the architectural distinction of the splendid Beaux Arts building they replaced, and ever since then railroad passengers have had to make do with a sterile, low-ceilinged subterranean facility. But lamentable as the loss of Penn Station may have been, it was in a sense really only a small, partial loss, for the building was but the visible capstone of an extraordinary, far-reaching tunnel-and-terminal project completed early in the century to give the railroad long-sought access to Manhattan. One of the largest civil works projects ever undertaken by a private company, that great engineering complex still functions as a vital component of New York’s transport network. Almost ninety years after it opened, the enduring work is thriving as never before, with prospects of an even greater utility to New York transportation in its second century.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was chartered in 1846 to provide a route to the West that would help Philadelphia recover the leading position in American commerce it had lost to New York. Philadelphia never did regain its pre-eminence, and the railroad soon saw that it needed a link to New York for its own success. By 1871 this had been achieved by leasing the United Canal & Railroad Companies of New Jersey, which brought the Pennsylvania’s trains right to Jersey City, on the west bank of the Hudson River opposite Manhattan. Here the railroad’s passengers transferred to ferries to complete the journey to New York.
This was not an arrangement the Pennsylvania liked, for the trains of the rival New York Central & Hudson River, which reached New York from Albany on the east bank of the Hudson, provided an uninterrupted journey right into the handsome Grand Central Depot, on Fortysecond Street. “The Pennsylvania, as the Central’s greatest rival,” wrote the railroad’s centennial historians, George H. Burgess and Miles C. Kennedy, with wonderful understatement, “could not view this situation complacently.”
The Hudson River was more than half a mile wide and up to 65 feet deep alongside Manhattan. Neither a bridge nor a tunnel of the magnitude needed for such a crossing had been achieved by nineteenth-century engineers, and for thirty years the Pennsylvania would seek in vain to find an alternative to its ferry crossing. “We listened to any scheme to get into New York,” recalled the Pennsylvania executive Samuel Rea years later.
As early as 1874 the Hudson River Tunnel Company actually began tunneling under the river from Jersey City to the foot of Morton Street in Manhattan. But the company ran into an almost endless series of lawsuits, accidents, and financial crises, and more than thirty years passed before its tunnel was finally completed. Even if a tunnel could have been successfully driven at that early date, steam locomotives remained the only practical railroad motive power, and it was unclear how trains could be pulled through a long tunnel without their passengers being asphyxiated. The tunnel company talked vaguely of using special locomotives “consuming their own steam and smoke” or run by compressed air. Others proposed trying a cable system.
Given this unresolved question, the Pennsylvania was much more interested in a possible bridge crossing. In 1884 a proposal by the engineer Gustav Lindenthal for an enormous suspension bridge at Canal Street caught the railroad’s attention. But opposition by shipping interests and the War Department to the piers that would have been needed in the river channel helped doom the idea and others like it that followed over the next decade.
IN 1892 SAMUEL REA, THEN AN ASSISTANT TO THE Pennsylvania’s president, analyzed a number of schemes for an improved entry into New York. Pointing out that Lindenthal’s North River Bridge Company had now obtained approvals for a relocated bridge from both states and from the War Department, Rea recommended that the railroad proceed with an effort to reach Manhattan with a high-level bridge that would take its trains to a new terminal at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street.
Once again the Pennsylvania was to be frustrated in its long quest. To help pay for the enormous cost of a bridge, Rea had proposed to include the other New Jersey railroads as well. Before anything could be done, however, the Panic of 1893 struck, and none of the railroads could afford to undertake such a plan. When the Pennsylvania was ready to revive the idea at the end of the decade, the other railroads still could not help.
By this time the railroad had a decisive new president in Alexander J. Cassatt. Unable to persuade the other railroads to join in, Cassatt decided that the Pennsylvania would build its way into New York alone. The wealthiest and most powerful transportation company in North America, the Pennsylvania was probably the only railroad that could have even considered such an enormous effort.
Samuel Rea, now a vice president of the railroad, believed that advances in both tunneling technology and railroad electrification had finally made the idea of a railroad tunnel under the Hudson feasible. In 1901 he persuaded Cassait to visit a new electrified portion of the Paris-Orléans Railway while traveling in Europe. Operating conditions on the French line were similar to those that a tunnel line under the Hudson would face, and Cassatt came away convinced that he had the solution to his problem. Before the year was out, location studies for a tunnel had been started. Rea was placed in overall charge of the work, and a distinguished board of six engineers, one of whom was Lindenthal, was appointed to provide technical oversight.
THE ENORMOUS PROJECT WOULD INCLUDE A NEW double-track railroad beginning at a junction with the railroad’s main line at a new station called Manhattan Transfer, just east of Newark, and extending across the Hackensack Meadows on a high fill before tunneling through the Palisades and under the Hudson to reach a new midtown Manhattan station. In 1900 the Pennsylvania had acquired control of the Long Island Rail Road, and it decided to bring that line’s commuter trains into the new terminal too. To accommodate this traffic, as well as the movement of trains between the station and a new servicing yard in Queens, the line would continue under Manhattan to tunnel across the East River.
Jointly with the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, the Pennsylvania would build a great bridge across the East River at Hell Gate to link the New Haven’s New YorkBoston route with the new Manhattan terminal, providing a new through route for passenger trains between New England and points south and west of New York. The tunnel route would be electrically operated all the way from Manhattan Transfer to Long Island City in Queens. The Long Island, too, would electrify its lines for operation into the new Manhattan terminal. All told, the project would cost $160 million by the time it was finished in 1917, an amount equivalent to about $2 billion today.
The length, river depth, and riverbed conditions involved made the underwater tunnels an undertaking of unprecedented scope and difficulty. The tunneling was to be the most time-consuming part of the work, and it was the first to begin. For both sets of tubes the Pennsylvania adopted a shield tunneling technology based on one devised by Marc Isambard Brunei for a tunnel driven under the Thames River between 1825 and 1843. The shield was a cylindrical structure that was pushed forward by jacks as a tunnel was excavated through soft material; the shield supported the material until a permanent tunnel lining was put in place. For the New York tunnels this technology would be combined with the use of compressed air to support the ground during construction, and the permanent tunnel lining would be of cast iron.
The British tunneling engineer Charles M. Jacobs was put in charge of the twin tubes that would carry the line under the Hudson. Alfred Noble, a distinguished American engineer who was also involved in planning the Panama Canal, headed the construction of the four tunnels under the East River. Both were to confront some daunting problems.
THE HUDSON TUNNELS WOULD HAVE TO BE drilled deep under the river to clear the dredging plane, 40 feet below mean low water, established by the War Department. At the deepest point the bottoms of the tubes would be 97 feet below mean high water. Jacobs himself designed the massive steel tunneling shields, which each weighed about 193 tons fully equipped. They were driven forward by 24 hydraulic jacks, each exerting a force of 3,400 tons, as the segmented cast-iron tunnel lining was installed behind the advancing shield.
The Hudson River tubes had to be driven through a fluid silt, and the engineers worried about stability. Jacobs designed and patented a scheme for supporting the tunnel from the solid foundation in the riverbed, but the railroad’s board of engineers finally decided it wasn’t needed, and to this day the tubes float up and down a fraction of an inch with every tide.
Jacobs originally expected that the shields could be pushed through the silt without taking any material into the tubes through the doors installed in their fronts for that purpose. Without letting in silt, however, the shields tended to rise, and it proved impossible to keep the tunnels on the correct vertical alignment. Jacobs experimented with opening the doors to admit some of the displaced material and found that he could steer the tubes up or down to maintain the correct alignment simply by admitting more, or less, silt.
The problems Alfred Noble encountered under the East River were different but no less difficult. At some points the tunnel had as little as eight feet of fine sand above the tops of the tubes, making compressed-air “blowouts” likely. The engineers tried dumping a blanket of clay from barges over the tubes. This helped, but there were still frequent blowouts. One in June 1906 sent a crew of twenty workers running for their lives as the tunnel flooded, and two of them drowned. Caisson disease—the bends—from working under the high pressure was also a major problem on the East River, and it caused a number of deaths.
Preliminary tunnel construction started in mid-1903, and the first shield began its advance under the Hudson in May 1905; tunneling under the East River was under way by the end of that year. Shields moving toward each other from each side of the Hudson met at midriver in the fall of 1906, but the four East River tubes were not closed until early 1908. Concrete lining and other work was completed, and the tunnels were readied for the installation of track before the end of 1909.
Electric trains would be what made the tunnels useful, and the railroad set about planning for them in its usual methodical way. George Gibbs, an electrical engineer, was appointed to head a special committee to establish the characteristics of the system and design the motive power. In 1906 the Pennsylvania had electrified a New Jersey subsidiary, the West Jersey & Seashore, with a direct-current third-rail system, and this became a testing ground for the development of locomotives for the New York project. Three experimental electric locomotives were built, and a fourth was borrowed from the New Haven’s newly completed main-line electrification between New York and Stamford, Connecticut. Two Pennsylvania steam locomotives joined the test fleet to provide a comparison of their tracking qualities with the electrics’.
A SECTION OF TRACK NEAR Franklinville, New Jersey, was fitted with a system for measuring the forces a locomotive imposed on the rails, and the tests were carried out during 1907 and 1908. An experimental unit from the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company proved to have by far the best tracking qualities and stability. The railroad’s engineers attributed this to its high center of gravity and its asymmetrical wheel arrangement—a four-wheel guiding truck and four 72-inch-diameter driving wheels—and the railroad’s design for its own tunnel engines reflected these qualities. The resulting DDl-class electrics were machines of prodigious capacity. Each twounit locomotive was almost 65 feet long and weighed 155 tons. Powered by two 2,000-hp electric motors, they could attain a maximum speed of 80 mph and a maximum tractive force at starting of 50,000 pounds.
The choice of an electrification system was an equally important challenge. Most electrifications up to this time had employed a low-voltage direct-current system similar to that on the West Jersey & Seashore, with power at about 650 to 700 volts drawn from a heavy third rail by means of a sliding shoe attached to the locomotive or electric car. An alternative to this was the new high-voltage alternatingcurrent system developed by Westinghouse. This employed a single-phase AC power supply, typically at 11,000 volts, drawn from an overhead wire system by means of a sliding pantograph. It avoided the severe line losses (from resistance) that plagued low-voltage DC installations and had been adopted by the New Haven for its new electrification out of New York.
To learn more about the performance of alternating current, the Pennsylvania installed it on some five miles of a Long Island branch near Garden City and began tests late in 1908. George Westinghouse wrote to the Pennsylvania’s president, James McCrea, urging him to choose AC, but to no avail. The railroad soon decided that extensive further experimental work would be needed before AC could be adapted to its tunnel-and-terminal conditions, and the cost would be too high. After only two months the Pennsylvania announced its decision to employ a thirdrail DC system like those already adopted for its Long Island subsidiary and used by the New York City’s new subway system. (The railroad would start switching to AC in 1932.)
By the time the installation was completed in 1910, the Pennsylvania had laid almost 95 miles of electrified track, while the Long Island had electrified almost 80 miles. A huge power plant with 32 boilers and seven steam-turbine generators was erected at Long Island City to power both. The signaling and interlocking system that controlled the tunnel-and-terminal network included eleven electropneumatic interlocking plants controlling almost 500 signals and switches. It was said to be the largest railway-signal setup in the world.
The emblem of the entire New York project was of course the magnificent Pennsylvania Station. Covering a two-city-block site between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and Thirtyfirst and Thirty-third Streets, it was, as one writer put it, “the outward and visible sign of a triumph hidden under the waters of the Hudson River.” Its architect was Charles Follen McKim, of New York’s McKim, Mead & White partnership, one of the greatest American architectural firms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
George Gibbs, the electrical engineer, compared McKim’s design for the station to a “monumental bridge” over the railroad’s tracks, which lay 40 to 60 feet below street level with the various station facilities stacked in layers above them. Passengers descended from entrances at street level to a lower waiting room and concourse level and then again to the platforms. “McKim’s plan,” wrote Lewis Mumford, “had a crystal clarity that gave the circulation the effortless inevitability of a gravity-flow system, with pools of open space to slow down or rest in when one left the main currents.”
Alexander Cassatt had wanted to build a hotel above the station, but McKim had convinced him that this would be inconsistent with the monumental gateway the nation’s greatest railroad should have in the nation’s greatest city. Instead McKim designed a low, horizontal building rising only 60 feet above street level, except at the center, where the roof over the main waiting room soared to 153 feet.
For inspiration McKim turned to Roman models. The exterior was executed in the Doric order and built with pink Milford granite from Massachusetts. The entire length of the principal facade along Seventh Avenue was a colonnade inspired by Giovanni Bernini’s Tuscan colonnade surrounding the Piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. The main waiting room was patterned after the tepidarium of Rome’s Baths of Caracalla. The adjacent concourse was roofed with an intricate structure of open latticed steel arches supporting a glass roof of intersecting barrel arches suggestive of the iron-and-glass train sheds of Europe.
EXCAVATION OF THE STATION SITE began in 1904, and construction of the building itself in 1906. By late summer of 1910 the station, together with an enormous new equipment storage and servicing yard at Sunnyside, across the East River in Queens, and the great network of tunnels, tracks, and electric power, was complete. On September 8 the Long Island Rail Road began bringing an ever-growing stream of commuters to Manhattan, and on November 27 the Pennsylvania itself began using the station.
It was almost seven more years before the final element of the project, the bridge across the East River at Hell Gate, was finished. Designed by Gustav Lindenthal, this was an enormous steel arch spanning 977 feet, 6 inches and rising to a maximum height of 305 feet above mean high water. It contained 18,900 tons of structural steel, and it remains the longest railroad arch bridge ever built.
Construction of the foundations at each end of the bridge began in July 1912, and erection of the steel arches began a little more than two years later. To avoid interference with water traffic in the busy channel, these were cantilevered outward from each side. The arches were closed in a little more than a year, and the entire span and the approach structures were ready for trains by early 1917. At that moment Cassatt’s vision was finally fully realized.
Completion of the work enabled the Pennsylvania to reorder railroad passenger service in fundamental ways. A person could now travel without changing between Pennsylvania Station and points as diverse as Key West, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. The railroad’s publicists began calling the new station the Gateway to America. But most Penn Station travelers weren’t going very far at all. The availability of direct service to Long Island set off a boom in home building in the suburbs there that has not stopped to this day. In the Long Island’s first twelve months of operation into Penn Station, it carried about six million passengers. By 1916 the number had more than doubled.
Pennsylvania Station was built to accommodate as many as half a million daily passengers, and soon after it opened, Samuel Rea, by this time the president of the Pennsylvania, found himself defending his work against charges that it had been wastefully overbuilt. Time was to prove him right. By 1919 the station was accommodating almost thirty-five million a year, eclipsing Grand Central Terminal as the busiest New York station. Less than a decade later more than sixty million used it annually, enough to make it the most heavily used railroad station in all North America. By 1939 its yearly traffic had reached a then record level of almost sixty-six million passengers.
SOMETHING WAS ALWAYS HAPPENING IN THIS GREAT temple of transportation. Artists and writers found inspiration in the grandeur of its spaces and the emotions of arrival and departure. Movies were filmed there, and the station was the site of one of the first public demonstrations of television. In 1929 a Ford Tri-Motor belonging to Transcontinental Air Transport, a TWA predecessor, was pulled into the great waiting room for ceremonies celebrating the start of the Pennsylvania’s Airways Limited, a new rail-air transcontinental service.
World War II provided the ultimate test of Penn Station’s carefully planned circulation system and its expansive public rooms, as enormous crowds of servicemen, families, war workers, businessmen, and government officials surged through the station. Its busiest year ever was 1945, when more than 109 million travelers passed through. Every day the station saw an average of 300,000 arriving or departing passengers and more than nine hundred trains rumbling in and out through the tunnels. And everything worked just the way the architects and engineers had planned.
There was a brief period of optimism about the railroad passenger business at war’s end, but it rapidly faded in a world of interstate highways and low-cost air travel. By the end of the 1950s traffic would fall to less than a quarter of its wartime peak. As the number of passengers declined, Penn Station began to look more and more like the white elephant some of its early critics had called it. Its operating expenses, upkeep costs, and property taxes ran to several million dollars a year, and there was too little revenue to cover them.
By this time the Pennsylvania was ready to reconsider Alexander Cassatt’s original idea of development directly above the station. In 1963 a plan was announced to tear down the station and supplant it with an office tower and a new Madison Square Garden. New passenger facilities would be provided belowground in what would seem to be not much more than an extremely large and not especially attractive subway station.
What followed was one of the first great battles of the historic-preservation movement. Opponents of the destruction of the classic building organized and picketed. New York’s mayor, Robert Wagner, promised them a hearing before the city committees that would rule on the needed permits, but in reality the city had no legal authority to block anything, and demolition was under way before the end of the year. But if the preservation battle for Penn Station was lost, it led to a much larger victory. New York soon had a new law that gave a Landmarks Preservation Commission jurisdiction over changes to a designated landmark. A few years later the new legislation helped save Grand Central Terminal from a fate similar to that of Pennsylvania Station.
The new subterranean Penn Station was a functional place of unadorned, cramped spaces that offered none of the grandeur of what it had replaced. The architectural critic Vincent Scully sums it up well in his book American Architecture and Urbanism . “Through it one entered the city like a god,” writes Scully of the old station. “Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
But from that dismal time of the 1960s, things have gradually gotten better. The formation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation—Amtrak—in 1971, together with a massive federal investment in rehabilitating and modernizing the Washington-New York-Boston Northeast Corridor, has rejuvenated the fortunes of Penn Station’s intercity passenger trains. By the end of the 1980s Amtrak was transporting more than eleven million passengers a year in the corridor. Completion of a new connection to its Hudson River “Empire Corridor” in 1991 allowed Amtrak to shift twenty daily trains and a million passengers annually from Grand Central to Penn Station. Current plans are for 150-mph highspeed trains in the Northeast Corridor beginning in 1999, expected to add another three million annual passengers.
New public authorities in New York and New Jersey took over Penn Station’s commuter services in the 1960s and 1980s and have invested millions in their rehabilitation and modernization, and commuter traffic has rebounded. The station’s daily passenger count has moved toward levels not seen for many decades. By the end of the 1980s the station was handling a daily average of close to 300,000 passengers and 800 train movements. During a typical morning rush hour in 1990, 115 trains carrying almost 100,000 passengers arrived at Penn Station.
The Long Island Rail Road, which accounts for threequarters of Penn Station’s traffic, began a series of improvements in 1982 to help it handle the growing numbers. Architects planned a complete reconstruction and expansion of the railroad’s station facilities that brought an architectural quality to Penn Station that hadn’t been seen since Charles McKim’s station was torn down. New Jersey Transit will soon begin a similar reconstruction of its portion of the station.
SINCE 1980 AMTRAK HAS COMPLETED MAJOR improvements to its Penn Station facilities for intercity passengers, but these have proved insufficient to meet the needs of the carrier’s growing traffic. By happy coincidence, space has become available in New York’s monumental James A. Parley post office building, just across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station. This has given Amtrak the opportunity to restore a Beaux Arts splendor to its New York terminal.
The post office building was completed in 1913 on a site, like Penn Station’s, directly above the train platforms, and it was designed by McKim, Mead & White. The plans architects have developed for it envision the conversion of a mail-handling room in the central court of the building into a “Great Hall” that will house a waiting room, a concourse, and other station facilities. New pedestrian and taxi entrances will be established, and an underground passageway will link the new spaces to the remainder of the station. A complex financing plan involving federal, state, city, and Amtrak contributions has been established for the project, and the work may soon begin.
Still greater things may be in store for New York’s enduring Penn Station under a study for improved access to Manhattan being completed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. One conception envisions one or two new tunnels under the Hudson to bring even more trains to an enlarged Penn Station and a new tunnel link with Grand Central Terminal.
Whatever specific plans may emerge for it, the great New York tunnel and terminal works completed by the Pennsylvania Railroad at the outset of this century should be ready to fulfill an even greater role in New York transportation as they begin the next. They are the enduring legacy of the great old Penn Station, and few engineering works have met the test of time so well.