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 October 1776, Admiral Howe sailed some of the British fleet through the strait which was considered reckless at the time.
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.
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 brigantineWater 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.
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 film in Queens that features the bridge.