Hell Gate

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For other places with similar names, see Hell Gate (disambiguation).

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 (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).[1]


The name "Hell Gate" is a corruption of the Dutch phrase Hellegat, which could mean either "bright strait" or "clear opening",[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]


In October 1776, Admiral Howe sailed some of the British fleet through the strait which was considered reckless at the time.[5]

In 1851, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to clear obstacles from the strait with explosives; the process would last 70 years.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] The blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey[8] and sent a geyser of water 250 feet (76 m) in the air.[9] The blast has been described as "the largest planned explosion before testing began for the atomic bomb",[9] 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.[8] The incident inspired Bram Stoker in the writing of the climactic conclusion of his novel The Lair of the White Worm.

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.[10] In 1936, it was spanned by the Triborough Bridge, allowing vehicular traffic to pass among Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 154. 
  3. ^ Van Dyck, Vic. "Hellegat en Hellegat" (in Dutch). Retrieved 2011-11-19. 
  4. ^ "Hell Gate". New York History. Retrieved April 15, 2012. 
  5. ^ "Permanent Revolution". New York magazine. Sep 10, 2012. 
  6. ^ "NOAA 200th Collections: Hell Gate and Its Approaches nautical chart from 1851". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  7. ^ "Rendering Hell-Gate Rocks; The Submarine Mine Exploded". The New York Times. September 25, 1876. p. 1. Retrieved 2011-11-19. 
  8. ^ a b c "Mill Rock Island". New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. June 6, 2001. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  9. ^ a b Whitt, Toni (June 2, 2006). "The East River is Cleaner Now. The Water Birds Say So.". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  10. ^ Anderson, Steve. "Hell Gate Bridge". NYCRoads. Retrieved 2010-04-13. 
  11. ^ Caro, Robert (1974). The Power Broker. New York: Vintage Books. p. 386. ISBN 0-394-72024-5. 
  12. ^ "Goodreads book description of The Water-Witch by James Fenimore Cooper". The Water Witch. 
  13. ^ Cooper, James Fenimore (1836). The Water-Witch, or, The Skimmer of the Seas. Carey, Lea, & Blanchard. 
  14. ^ Baym, Max I. & Matenko, Percy (January 1970). "The Odyssey of The Water-Witch and a Susan Fenimore Cooper Letter". New York History LI (1) (New York State Historical Association). pp. 33–41. 
  15. ^ "Reviews of Under Hellgate Bridge (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes. 

External links[edit]