We present the Pad Chamber detector system in the PHENIX experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The three station system provides space points along each track in the spectrometer arms at mid-rapidity and covers a total area of 88 m(2). Its main functions are to provide the track coordinate along the beam and to ensure reliable pattern recognition at very high particle multiplicity. A new concept for two dimensional wire chamber readout via its finely segmented cathode was developed. The full readout system, comprising 172 800 electronic channels, is described together with the challenging design of the chambers. The electronics, mounted on the outer chamber face, together with the chamber itself amounts to 1.2% of a radiation length. Results from cosmic ray tests, showing an average efficiency better than 99.5% for all chambers are presented. The experiences from the full scale operation in the first run are reported. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.