Hell Gate

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Coordinates: 40°46′54″N 73°55′25″W / 40.781698°N 73.923516°W / 40.781698; -73.923516

Hell Gate Bridge with Queens in the foreground
Hell Gate, shown in red, in a satellite photo of New York Harbor. It separates Wards Island to the west and Astoria, Queens to the east.
USGS topographic map showing Hell Gate at the very bottom

Hell Gate is a narrow tidal strait in the East River in New York City. It separates Astoria, Queens, from Randall's and Wards Islands.[1]


The name "Hell Gate" is a corruption of the Dutch phrase Hellegat (it first appeared on a Dutch map as Helle Gadt[2]). The name was originally applied to the entirety of the East River, by Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, the first European known to have navigated the strait, who bestowed the name sometime during his 1614–1616 voyage aboard the Onrust circumnavigating Long Island, from its namesake Hellegat on (the mouth of) the River Scheldt, in Zeeland back in the Netherlands.[3][4][a]

This name Hellegat in turn was taken from the Greek Hellespont (Dardanelles) which also has a dangerous reputation, in the opinion of historian Edward Manning Ruttenber.[4] Alternatively, the name could be construed to mean "bright strait" or "clear opening", according to geographer Henry Gannett.[6]

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.[7]


The strait was also known as Hurl Gate (or Hurlgate), and so labeled on 18th and 19th century maps and annals,[8][4] this name probably consisting of Dutch warrel 'whirl' and gat 'hole, gap, mouth', in effect denoting 'whirlpool'.[4]


For the whirlpool that develops in Hell Gate, the name Monatun was applied by Dr. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft; the name is said to mean "violent, forcible, dangerous".[4]


In October 1776, Admiral Howe sailed some of the British fleet through the strait, an action which was considered reckless at the time.[9]

In 1851, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to clear obstacles from the strait with explosives; the process would last 70 years.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] The blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey[12] and sent a geyser of water 250 feet (76 m) in the air.[13] A 2006 article described this controlled blasting as "the largest planned explosion before testing began for the atomic bomb".[13] 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.[12] The incident inspired the climactic conclusion of Bram Stoker's novel The Lair of the White Worm.[citation needed]

1885 explosion

By the late 19th century, hundreds of ships, including HMS Hussar, had sunk in the strait.[citation needed] 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.[14] In 1936, it was spanned by the Triborough Bridge (officially Robert F. Kennedy Bridge since 2008), allowing vehicular traffic to pass among Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.[15]

In popular culture[edit]


  • 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 PS General Slocum steamship disaster.
  • Under Hellgate Bridge (1999), directed by Michael Sergio, is a crime drama/thriller film, set in Queens, that features the bridge.[16]
  • Gangs of New York (2002), directed by Martin Scorsese; the main character, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), is sent to Hell Gate Orphanage as a child upon the death of his father


In James Fenimore Cooper's historical fiction novel The Water-Witch, or, The Skimmer of the Seas (first published in New York in 1830[17]), Hell Gate serves as the scene for an exciting pursuit of the brigantine Water Witch by HMS Coquette.[18][19] The Water Witch is captained by Thomas Tiller, an adventurous sailor with a romantic flair, and HMS Coquette by Captain Cornelius van Cuyler Ludlow, a principled young officer in the Royal Navy and a native of New York.

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Hellegat is a fairly common name for waterways in the Low Countries, with at least 20 examples.[5]


  1. ^ Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. (1995). The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. p. 538. ISBN 0-300-05536-6.
  2. ^ "The Atlantic World: Dutch Place Names / De Atlantische Wereld: Plaatsnamen".
  3. ^ Nichols (2018), pp. 10–12.
  4. ^ a b c d e Ruttenber, E. M. (1906), "Footprints of the Red Men. Indian Geographical Names", Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 6 (2): 181, JSTOR 42889915
  5. ^ Van Dyck, Vic. "Hellegat en Hellegat" (in Dutch). Retrieved November 19, 2011.
  6. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 154154. Archived from the original on November 23, 2014.
  7. ^ "Hell Gate". New York History. Retrieved April 15, 2012.
  8. ^ Nichols (2018), pp. 19–20.
  9. ^ "Permanent Revolution". New York magazine. September 10, 2012.
  10. ^ "NOAA 200th Collections: Hell Gate and Its Approaches nautical chart from 1851". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved April 12, 2009.
  11. ^ "Rendering Hell-Gate Rocks; The Submarine Mine Exploded". The New York Times. September 25, 1876. p. 1. Retrieved November 19, 2011.
  12. ^ a b c "Mill Rock Island". New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. June 6, 2001. Retrieved April 12, 2009.
  13. ^ a b Whitt, Toni (June 2, 2006). "The East River is Cleaner Now. The Water Birds Say So". The New York Times. Retrieved April 12, 2009.
  14. ^ Anderson, Steve. "Hell Gate Bridge". NYCRoads. Retrieved April 13, 2010.
  15. ^ Caro, Robert (1974). The Power Broker. New York: Vintage Books. p. 386. ISBN 0-394-72024-5.
  16. ^ "Reviews of Under Hellgate Bridge". Rotten Tomatoes. 1999.
  17. ^ "Goodreads book description of The Water-Witch by James Fenimore Cooper". The Water Witch.
  18. ^ Cooper, James Fenimore (1836). The Water-Witch, or, The Skimmer of the Seas. Carey, Lea, & Blanchard.
  19. ^ Baym, Max I. & Matenko, Percy (January 1970). "The Odyssey of The Water-Witch and a Susan Fenimore Cooper Letter". New York History. Vol. LI, no. 1. New York State Historical Association. pp. 33–41.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)

External links[edit]