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The Construction of Penn Station and the North River Tunnels

On January 1, 2021 Moynihan Train Hall officially opens to the public, a new commuters’ wing catering to both Amtrak and Long Island Railroad train passengers at New York’s underground (and mostly unloved) Penn Station.

To celebrate this big moment in New York City transportation history, we’re going to tell the entire story of Pennsylvania Station and Pennsylvania Railroad over two episodes, using a couple older shows from our back catalog. 

PODCAST The story of Pennsylvania Station involves more than just nostalgia for the long-gone temple of transportation as designed by the great McKim, Mead and White. It’s a tale of incredible tunnels, political haggling and big visions.

Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest railroad in the world by the 1880s, but thanks to Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad, one prize was strategically out of their grasp — direct access to Manhattan.

An ambitious plan to link New Jersey to New York via a gigantic bridge fell apart, and it looked like Pennsylvania passengers would have to forever disembark in Jersey City.

North River Tunnels of the Pennsylvania Railroad: Tunnel C crossing Tunnel B West of Sunnyside Yard as seen during cut-and-cover construction, 1909

But Penn Railroad president Alexander Cassatt was not satisfied. Visiting his sister Mary Cassatt — the exquisite Impressionist painter — in Paris, Cassatt observed the use of electrically run trains in underground tunnels. Why couldn’t Penn Railroad build something similar?

One problem — the mile-wide Hudson River (or in historical parlance, the North River).

This is the tale of an engineering miracle, the construction of miles of underground tunnels and the idea of an ambitious train station to rival the world’s greatest architectural marvels.

Listen to the show here or on your favorite podcast player:


Alexander Cassatt and his son Robert, as painted in 1884 by Mary Cassatt

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Old Penn Station vs the new Moynihan Train Hall

The view of Penn Station from the roof of Gimbels Department Store.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

For this round of photographs, let’s focus on the inside of the station, shall we?

Images of the spectacular main waiting room and the classical Corinthian columns. Read here about something very mysterious and tragic which occurred near here in 1914.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

This is what greeted you as you got off the train and headed for 33rd Street.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Crowds await the arrival of superstar preacher Billy Sunday in 1917. Read all about his visit here.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The interior from the 1950s during rush hour. Getty has a terrific collection of Penn Station photographs over the years.

Getty Images
Getty Images

From this angle of the waiting room (taken in the station’s early days) you can see a statue of Alexander Cassatt, Penn Railroad’s former president, in its wall niche. Cassatt, brother of impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, never got to see the completed station, as he died in 1906. (The station opened in 1910.)

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

From this angle, you can really see the relation of the train platforms with one of the entrances. Seems easier to navigate than the current Penn Station, don’t you think?


Here are a few ‘cleaned up’ hi-res images from the fine folks over at Shorpy, who have a bit of a thing apparently for old Penn Station. Go over to their blog to check out the rest of their work.

Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy
Cleaned up version courtesy Shorpy


The Holland Tunnel
George Washington Bridge
Grand Central Terminal

8 replies on “The Construction of Penn Station and the North River Tunnels”

A few architectual elements from the old Penn Station are on exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum’s sculpture garden. One is a “slumbering female figure that stood beside an enormous clock over an entrance. Each of four pedestrian enteryways were surmounted by a clock flanked by two allegorical figures representing time.” Day on one side, Night on the other. The museum has one of the Night figures. The sculptor was Adloph A. Weinman who, also designed the Walking Liberty half dollar that was minted in the 30’s & 40’s. The museum’s figure was salvaged from the NJ Meadowlands. Unfortunately the sculpture garden is small and funding limited so not much of their collection of salvaged architectual items can be displayed.

Help!!! What is the name of the piece of music with violin and flute played at the beginning of this podcast?

Thank you to anyone who may know!

I was in the Amtrak Board room when Senator Moynihan saw the first model of the Farley Building that would transform it into the new Penn Station. From that day forward, Senator Moynihan fought to obtain funding for the project. It was his persistence that resulted in this project being completed. Unfortunately, it took decades and he would never see the completed project.

I’m late to your party. So let’s get the standard where-have-you-been-all-my-life line taken care of right away.

I’m a native southern Californian and still live there. I don’t have a regular workout—a physical one, anyway. My brain workout— part time machine, part transporter—is history. Since our pandemic began, I’ve been drawn into New York City.

I won’t go on now but I happened upon the podcast last night. I often fall asleep with my headset/headband contraption on. But I finally had to take it off last night because my brain was having way too much fun.

So welcome to my life, Bowery Boys.

I, too, am late to the party, but am so glad that I have discovered The Bowery Boys. I am a spatial learner and map lover and absolutely love how you “situate” your listeners in your episodes. In this year of limited travel, I have been able to relive many of my visits to NYC with your podcasts, map in hand as I listen. Love, love, love your shows, and I’m just getting started!

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