Penn Station in New York City

Pennsylvania Station Was Once a New York City Landmark

New York City’s Pennsylvania Station is a major rail transport hub on the East Coast of the United States.

Serving more than 600,000 people per day, Penn Station as it is called is the busiest train station in North America.(Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. Encyclopedia of New York City, pp. 498 and 891. Betts, Mary Beth (1995). “Pennsylvania Station”. in Kenneth T. Jackson. The Encyclopedia of New York City.Yale University Press. pp. 890-891)

About Penn Station

Penn Station is located in the centre of the Northeast Corridor, which is an electrified passenger railway line that runs south to Washington DC and north to Boston. Intercity trains running out of Penn Station are operated by Amtrak. Regional commuter trains are operated by the Long Island Railroad. Penn Station provides passengers with access to the New York City subway system.

Penn Station derives its name from Pennsylvania Railroad, the builder and original owner of Penn Station. The current station is the heavily remodelled remnant of a much larger edifice that was completed in 1910. The original station was considered to be a masterpiece of the Beaux Arts style and one of the jewels of New York City architecture.

History of Penn Station

Until the early 20th Century, Pennsylvania Railroad’s network terminated on the west bank of the Hudson River, at Exchange Place, New Jersey. Passengers bound for New York City were required to take a ferry across the river to Manhattan. PRR’s main rival, New York Central, did not have this problem thanks to a line that ran under Park Avenue and terminated at Grand Central Station.

In order to address this competitive disadvantage, PRR first considered building a railroad bridge across the Hudson River. However, the plan fell through when the other New Jersey-based railways refused to share the cost of building the bridge. The only other option was to build a tunnel. This was also problematic, as a tunnel would be difficult to ventilate and was incompatible with the steam locomotives then in use by Pennsylvania Railroad. In addition, the New York State Legislature passed a law forbidding the use of steam locomotives in New York City after July 1, 1908. Fortunately, the concurrent development of electrically powered locomotives made the construction of a railway tunnel under the Hudson River a viable proposition for Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1901, PRR President Alexander Cassatt announced that Pennsylvania Railroad was building a rail link under the Hudson River and a new station south of 34th Street in Manhattan.(Aaron E. Klein, New York Central. Greenwich, Connecticut: Bison Books, 1985)

The original structure was made of pink granite and marked by an imposing colonnade of Corinthian columns. The station consisted of a monumental entrance, as well as a main concourse and waiting room, modeled on the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. This space was roughly the same size as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and was the largest enclosed space in the world at the time of its construction. The engine sheds and boarding platforms were covered by a steel and glass canopy.(Frederick N. Rasmussen, “From the Gilded Age, a monument to transit”, Baltimore Sun, April 21, 2007)

During Penn Station’s 50 year life, hundreds of trains arrived and departed every day, serving points as far away as St. Louis and Chicago. During and after World War I, Pennsylvania Railroad’s other archrival, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad briefly used Penn Station as its East Coast terminus. This arrangement lasted until 1926, when PRR denied B&O access to the station. Use of Penn Station peaked during World War II. After the war, passenger railways saw a decline in ridership, as the jet airplane came of age. By the end of the decade, PRR began looking for a way to divest itself from the expense of maintaining Penn Station.(“Farewell to Penn Station”, The New York Times, October 30, 1963)

Demolition of Penn Station

It did this by optioning the air rights to the station. In exchange for a new, underground station, PRR would receive a 25% share of the newly constructed Madison Square Garden. In an “act of monumental vandalism” that brought international outrage, Penn Station’s original surface structure was demolished in 1963.(Moynihan to Help Recreate NYC Penn Station)

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