Hell Gate (a corruption of the Dutch phrase Hellegat, which could mean either "bright strait" or "clear opening") is a narrow tidal strait in the East River in New York City in the US. It separates Astoria, Queens from Randall's and Wards Islands (formerly two separate islands, now joined by landfill).
Origin of the name
The name "Hell Gate" is a corruption of the Dutch phrase Hellegat, which could mean either "bright strait" or "clear opening", and it was originally applied to the entirety of the East River. Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, the first European known to have navigated the strait, described it in his journals during his 1614 voyage aboard the Onrust. Hellegat is a fairly common toponym for waterways in the Low Countries, with at least 20 separate examples. Because explorers found navigation hazardous in this New World place of rocks and converging tide-driven currents (from the Long Island Sound, Harlem River strait, Upper Bay of New York Harbor, and lesser channels, some of which have been filled), the Anglicization stuck.
In 1851, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to clear obstacles from the strait with explosives; the process would last 70 years. On September 24, 1876, the Corps used 50,000 pounds (23,000 kg) of explosives to blast the dangerous rocks, which was followed by further blasting work. On October 10, 1885, the Corps carried out the largest explosion in this process, annihilating Flood Rock with 300,000 pounds (140,000 kg) of explosives. The blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey and sent a geyser of water 250 feet (76 m) in the air. The blast has been described as "the largest planned explosion before testing began for the atomic bomb", although the detonation at the Battle of Messines was larger. Rubble from the detonation was used in 1890 to fill the gap between Great Mill Rock and Little Mill Rock, merging the two islands into a single island, Mill Rock. The incident inspired Bram Stoker in the writing of the climactic conclusion of his novel The Lair of the White Worm.
By the late 19th century, hundreds of ships including HMS Hussar had sunk in the strait. It was spanned in 1917 by the New York Connecting Railroad Bridge (now called the Hell Gate Bridge), which connects Wards Island and Queens. The bridge provides a direct rail link between New England and New York City. In 1936, it was spanned by the Triborough Bridge, allowing vehicular traffic to pass among Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.
In culture and media
- Hell Gate: The Watery Grave (1977), is a 50-minute documentary film, narrated by Alexander Scourby, which covers many aspects of the waterway's history, including the clearing of the channel, the building of Hell Gate Bridge, and the General Slocum steamship disaster.
- Under Hellgate Bridge (1999), directed by Michael Sergio, is a crime drama/thriller set in Queens, New York that features the bridge.
In James Fenimore Cooper's historical fiction novel The Water-Witch, or, The Skimmer of the Seas (first published in New York in 1830), Hell Gate serves as the scene for an exciting pursuit of the brigantine Water Witch by the HMS Coquette The Water Witch is captained by Thomas Tiller, an adventurous sailor with a romantic flair, and the HMS Coquette by a principled young officer in the Royal Navy and native New Yorker, Captain Cornelius van Cuyler Ludlow. Here is a passage descriptive of the Hell Gate from the beginning of Chapter XXVIII:
The Manhattanese will readily comprehend the situation of the two vessels; but those of our countrymen, who live in distant parts of the Union, may be glad to have the localities explained.
Though the vast estuary, which receives the Hudson and so many minor streams, is chiefly made by an indentation of the continent, that portion of it, which forms the port of New York, is separated from the ocean by the happy position of its islands. Of the latter there are two, which give the general character to the basin, and even to a long line of coast, while several that are smaller, serve as useful and beautiful accessories to the haven and to the landscape. Between the bay of Rariton and that of New York there are two communications, one between the islands of Staten and Nassau, called the Narrows, which is the ordinary ship-channel of the port, and the other between Staten and the main, which is known by the name of the Kilns. It is by means of the latter, that vessels pass into the neighbouring waters of New Jersey, and have access to so many of the rivers of that state. But while the island of Staten does so much for the security and facilities of the port, that of Nassau produces an effect on a great extent of coast. After sheltering one half of the harbour from the ocean, the latter approaches so near the continent as to narrow the passage between them to the length of two cables, and then stretching away eastward for the distance of a hundred miles, it forms a wide and beautiful sound. After passing a cluster of islands, at a point which lies forty leagues from the city, by another passage, vessels can gain the open sea.
The seaman will, at once, understand, that the tide of flood must necessarily flow into these vast estuaries, from different directions. The current which enters by Sandy Hook (the scene of so much of this tale) flows westward into the Jersey rivers, northward into the Hudson, and eastward along the arm of the sea that lies between Nassau and the Main. The current, that comes by the way of Montauk, or the eastern extremity of Nassau, raises the vast basin of the Sound, fills the streams of Connecticut, and meets the western tide, at a place, called Throgmorton, and within twenty miles of the city.
As the size of the estuaries is so great, it is scarcely necessary to explain that the pressure, of so wide sheets of water, causes the currents, at all the narrow passes, to be exceedingly rapid; since that equal diffusion of the element, which depends on a natural law, must, wherever there is a deficiency of space, be obtained by its velocity. There is, consequently, a quick tide, throughout the whole distance, between the harbour and Throgmorton; while, it is permitted to poetic licence to say, that at the narrowest part of the channel, the water darts by the land, like an arrow parting from its bow. Owing to a sudden bend in the course of the stream, which makes two right angles within a short distance, the dangerous position of many rocks that are visible and more that are not, and the confusion produced by currents, counter-currents and eddies, this critical pass has received the name of "Hell Gate." It is memorable for causing many a gentle bosom to palpitate, with a terror that is a little exaggerated by the boding name, though it is constantly the cause of pecuniary losses, and has, in many instances, been the source of much personal danger. It was here, that a British frigate was lost, during the war of the Revolution, in consequence of having struck a rock called 'the Pot', the blow causing the ship to fill and to founder, so suddenly, that even some of her people are said to have been drowned. A similar, but a greatly lessened effect, is produced in the passage among the islands, by which vessels gain the ocean at the eastern extremity of the sound; though the magnitude of the latter sheet of water is so much greater than that of Rariton bay, and the harbor of New York, that the force of its pressure is diminished by a corresponding width in the outlets. With these explanations we shall return to the thread of the narrative.
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