You might recognize the Hell Gate Bridge from Serpico. Or the lesser known 1991 film, Queens Logic. Or because it was a target for Nazi demolition experts during World War II as part of Operation Pastorius. Or you might've seen its sister, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in Australia. Or maybe you’re familiar with its hardiness: the Hell Gate Bridge would be the last New York City bridge to collapse if humans disappeared, taking a least a millennium to do so. But to understand the bridge, you must understand the tumultuous waters it spans.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Hell Gate is a narrow tidal strait located in the East River in between Queens and Ward’s Island at the center of a confluence of the New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River (via the Harlem River). It runs the span of Manhattan’s 90th Street to 100th Street, while its narrower, sister strait is known as the Little Hell Gate which flows in between Randall’s and Ward’s Islands.
The strait derives its name from the Dutch word, Hellegat, which has two meanings: "Bright Gate" or "Hell Gate." The name was coined by Dutch fur trader and explorer, Adriaen Block in 1614 after he sailed his newly constructed forty-five foot, sixteen ton ship the Onrust (Dutch for “restless”) through the dangerous passage of water and into the Long Island Sound where he discovered Block Island. Block was also the first European to explore the Connecticut River.
Since Block passed through the Hell Gate, this mile long strait acted as a “key gateway to the Atlantic, marked with a giant whirlpool, punctuated with rocks, reefs and islands.” What makes Hell Gate such a pain to navigate is that its own waters are in a continuous contention with those of the Long Island Sound.
When the tide rises on the eastern seaboard it sets New York Harbor and, farther to the northeast, into Long Island Sound. At New York Bay it splits at the tip of Manhattan, one current pushing up the Hudson and through Harlem River, the other entering the East River. Here with the horizontal movement impeded by the opposite flow of the Harlem River and the narrowness of the channel up to the Sound, the huge basin of the Hell Gate begins to fill. The waters, like wild beasts, circle their confines, impatient for the chance to escape.
The downcoming flow of the Harlem River is then stopped by the strength of the escaping currents and sent back up through Little Hell Gate and the Bronx Kills, and the channels to the west, like a sluiceway, is filled with swift seething water racing up to the Bronx shore. This flow builds up for hours, building up to a high tide along the East River shore. Then at a time when other waters settle into slack, the downcoming tide, which has been delayed four hours by the distance and the drag of the Long Island Basin, begins its relentless drive—and the struggle for mastery is on.
Four hours after entering the sound this tide has changed the flow of the river which is down the narrow ‘sluiceway’ from the Bronx and down Little Hell Gate channel into Hell Gate Basin, counterclockwise around Millrock and as far down the river as the upcoming tide will allow. To this confusion of ebbs, add the rocks, reefs, and freakish whims of the winds. At ebb tide the process was reversed, but no less confusing.
The Hell Gate's most famous victim succumbed to its waters 80 years earlier. The H.M.S. Hussar was a 28-gun, 6th-rate, Mermaid Class, Frigate of the British Royal Navy. Built at Rotherhithe on the Thames River in 1763, the ship was 114 feet long by 34 feet wide with a crew of over one hundred. It fought in minor sea battles off the coasts of Ireland and Portugal before being dispatched to New York in November 1780 to fight the colonists as part of a 100-ship "Cork" Fleet.
The British army owed a large amount of backpay to its soldiers, so the Hussar arrived in Manhattan with wages and 70 American Prisoners of war. The exact amount is under dispute, but a coin dealer interviewed by the Times in 1985 estimated that the ship contained 960,000 British pounds in gold, worth roughly $576 million at the time.
Today, Joseph Governali, a real estate agent, treasure salvager, and actor who goes by the stage name Joey Treasures, is one of the world’s most prominent seekers of the Hussar’s Fortune.
In 2013, Governali claimed to have recorded footage of part of the Hussar wreckage off the Tiffany Street Pier in the Bronx. Governali believes the Hussar wreckage might have been pushed northward by a storm many years ago, and also claimed to have salvaged a British Beer pitcher said to be the only remaining one of its kind in existence. According to his TV pilot, Joey Treasures found a gold coin, too.
By the 1850s, one in fifty ships passing through the Hell Gate were either damaged or sunk—an annual average of 1,000 ships ran aground in the strait. Ships would navigate extra ocean mileage to avoid this passage to the Atlantic. Captains seeking to test their mettle would have to wait for the slim window of time where they could navigate their ships safely through the Hell Gate.
But burning extra coal while waiting for the dissemination of those treacherous high tide waters was a waste of time and money. French engineer Benjamin Maillefert was the first person to attempt to clear the passage. Maillefert was hired in 1850 by Mr. E. Meriam, "a public-spirited citizen of New York," to remove some of the larger rocks in the Hell Gate. Congress refused to pay for the arduous work of removing the rock, so Meriam sought donations from New York merchants.
For $15,000, Maillefert proposed to lower a canister of gunpowder to the rock by rope via a lengthy pole, and then set off the explosive from a safe distance. The first blast knocked four feet off the top of Pot Rock, and the project continued for several months. A barrage of 284 charges set off on Pot Rock gave a clearance of 18 feet—240 more charges on Frying Pan and Ways Reef lowered them 9 1/2 and 13 feet, respectively.
The project was progressing until one perilous day. Here is Claude Rust's account:
The relentless blasting of Hell Gate went on till March 1852, when the law of averages caught up with Maillefert. After placing a 125-pound charge of powder atop a rock, he took what he thought were the lead wires to the submerged mine and paid out the line till he and the supply boat were a safe distance from the explosion site. Upon touching the wires to the battery terminals in his boat, he blew the other boat clear out of the water and was thrown 50 feet in the air himself. Of the five men in the operation, three were killed and Maillefert and his assistant were disabled.
Despite all this, Maillefert was able to dismantle a large portion of strait's whirlpool and claimed that if he continued with his efforts, Hell Gate would ultimately be the safest passage to the New York Harbor.
Everything was progressing—Congress, pleased with the results, even chipped in $20,000 to continue the operation—until the Civil War disrupted the plan. The Hell Gate received a twenty year reprieve.
In 1876, U.S. Army General John Newton was charged with clearing the three acres worth of the impassable reef (about three football fields' worth of square feet) beneath the waters of the Hell Gate. Newton's plan called for 30,000 pounds of explosives, and his team began drilling mine shafts into the rock.
It took seven years of tunneling, the drilling of 7,000 holes, and the burying of 4,000 explosive charges to blow the reef to kingdom come.
On October 10, 1885, The New York Times described the explosion in high poetic, all-caps fashion:
RENDING HELL-GATE ROCKS; THE SUBMARINE MINE EXPLODED. A COMPLETE SCIENTIFIC SUCCESS. THE TERRIFIC RENDING FORCE LIBERATED BY THE FINGER OF A CHILD—A JARRING TREMOR OF THE EARTH, AND A SHARP, BUT NOT LOUD REPORT—IMMENSE GEYSERS OF WATER THROWN UP--THE FORCE EXPENDED MAINLY IN THE WORK OF BURSTING THE REEF—CONFIRMATION OF GEN. NEWTON'S THEORY OF THE EFFECTS OF THE DISCHARGE—THE RUSH OF THE CURIOUS CROWDS—INCIDENTS OF THE DAY THROUGHOUT THE CITY. BEFORE THE EXPLOSION. THE EXPLOSION. AFTER THE EXPLOSION.
"On 11:52 a.m. on October 10, 1885, with all charges in place, the cavern at Flood Rock flooded with water—12 year old Miss Mary Newton pressed the key that set the charge and snapped the shutter of the camera that took this picture" (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
At the time of its construction in 1917, the Hell Gate Bridge was the longest steel arch bridge in the world. Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad between 1912 and 1917 for the purpose of connecting the Pennsylvania and New Haven railways, its 20,000 tons of steel spans 1,107 feet from the shore of Astoria to the Bronx's Ward Island.
For years the bridge created a vital connection between New York and New England for both freight and passenger traffic. In its heyday, the bridge was an inspiration for international engineers. In 1928, the Tyne Bridge was was completed in Newcastle, UK. In 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge (nicknamed the "Coathanger" because of its arch-based design) was officially opened.
With the mid-century rise of the automobile, traffic on the bridge declined, and by the end of 1968, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with New York Central (Penn Central) to avoid bankruptcy. The partnership would only last until 1970 amidst insurmountable financial problems, archaic technology, and a lost shipping contract with the U.S. Postal Service, among other reasons.
Amtrak soon took control of the railway. During this time, freight traffic also petered out to a point where the fourth freight railway of the bridge was removed to cut costs. In 1976, Conrail was brought in to boost bridge traffic (both freight and passenger ) but was eventually cut down to one round trip from the Bronx to Long Island.
By the late eighties, the Hell Gate was in disrepair. Because of the continuous change in ownership over the years, no one company would claim responsibility in maintaining it. The result was two grime and graffiti-covered towers and an arch whose paint had all but eroded.
In 1991, Senator Patrick Moynihan—once a kid from Astoria—drummed up support from congress to allocate $55 million to repair to the bridge. This led to the invention of the color "Hell Gate Red." A flaw in the paint formula resulted in the bridge's current faded appearance. It was Amtrak's decision to go with the unique color. It was also Amtrak who decided to stick with the flawed paint for reapplication after the original quickly faded before the job was even completed.
Here’s the bridge’s original color circa 1916:
The Bridge’s new-ish quick-fading paint job circa 2004:
The Hell Gate Bridge also spawned many urban legends. According to the urban explorer website ltvsquad.com, there were countless ghost stories and urban legends associated with the bridge in the 1970s, which included the neighborhood children seeing lights of phantom trains that never arrived. If a train did arrive, what followed was the disembarkation of the lost souls of the Spanish and Dutch explorers whose boats, as legend has it, sank in the turbulent currents directly below the bridge for which it was named after.
As a rite of passage, teenagers would climb onto the bridge itself and play chicken, proving their courage by not being chased off the bridge by the demons who called the Hell Gate home. "There were legends of a child molesting homeless rapist, who would grab kids and drag them into the massive chamber in the base of the bridge blindfolded," ltvsquad.com claims. "According to legend, when the police finally figured out where he was dragging the kids to and stormed the place, they found areas covered wall to wall of photos of said kids being raped. The sickly smell sent investigators out to the park to throw up in the nearest trash can."
There is no official record of any of this happening. But in September of 2015, a well-dressed man was found dead in Astoria Park below the bridge with a paper bag over his head.
Today, Amtrak still runs over the two southwesternmost tracks of the bridge. Canadian Pacific stipulates use of the freight track to Long Island (Conrail was split by Norfolk Southern and CSX). Providence and Worcester, another carrier who supported Conrail before the split, also uses the freight line.
Jets and Giants fans have the privilege of riding over the bridge thanks NJ Transit and Metro North’s Train to the Game which sponsors a ride to Met Life stadium every Sunday at 1pm during football season.
In 2009, according to the Queens Gazette, a five-foot piece of debris fell from the bridge into backyard of a longtime resident of Astoria.
"I heard a loud noise when it fell, it looks like a rubber hose. I've never seen anything like it," the resident told the paper, adding that she often notices nuts, bolts and pieces of wood that have landed in her yard from the bridge and sets up a gazebo in the summer to protect against the falling objects.
Which is ironic seeing how in 1918, two years after completion, the bridge was one of the first to be analyzed for structural stresses, and the data was used by engineers around the world for years to follow. According to Structure Magazine, “The superb bridge remains in active service with no major repairs necessary, having outlasted many other railroad bridges.”
According to a Discover Magazine article that imagines a world where humans are extinct, barring an earthquake, the Hell Gate is "easily good for another thousand years."
"It was not given its due," said Antonio Meloni, the group's director and a local civic leader, who called the Hell Gate the "unwanted stepchild" of the city's bridges. Meloni cited safety concerns regarding the bridge's visibility for low-flying aircraft and helicopters. Today the bridge still employs the most rudimentary of lighting.
“The towers of the bridge are currently equipped with red lights to warn aircraft and others along the bottom to help guide marine traffic. Adding additional lights could pose a safety threat,” an Amtrak spokesman told us. "Installation of additional or enhanced lighting on the bridge itself would become a safety hazard for our engineers by reducing their existing line of vision.”
Oh Hell Gate Bridge, you pink-skinned, "unwanted stepchild" of New York's transit system. You will turn 100 this year, most likely to little fanfare or publicity. But it's a comfort to know that you're out there, lurking in the night, a testament to human ingenuity.
Ryan Healy is a writer living in Manhattan.