People have long known about the Bermuda Triangle as being a dangerous place for ships and boats, but New York City has its own version know as Hell Gate. This name was earned because this narrow straight, where the swirling waters of the East River push against the churning ones of the Long Island Sound, had very dangerous conditions and claimed hundreds of ships over the years going way back to when the Dutch called the place New Amsterdam.
There were (and still are) many jagged rocks along the shoreline on both sides, and the clash of river and water from the sound make a whirlpool with no safe harbor that would have challenged Odysseus as much as the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy that legend says the ship destroying monsters Scylla and Charybdis called home.
Hell Gate remained a ship captain’s nightmare over the years until the Army came in during the late 1800s, blasted rocks, and tried to make navigation of this waterway safer. One could say they were mostly successful, but the greatest disaster of all took place in June 1904 when a ferry known as the General Slocum caught fire in Hell Gate, floundered, and then eventually became grounded. Over a thousand people (many women and children) died that day, and the waterway once again lived up to its name.
On a recent very cold, bright winter’s day, I went for a visit to see Hell Gate. You can get there easily by car or take the N train to Ditmars Boulevard and 31st Street; it is a quick walk to where Ditmars Blvd. ends and Astoria Park begins. Walking through the snow covered park there was a chill in the air, but the view is spectacular where the imposing Hell Gate railroad bridge hovers over the northern tip of the park.
As it is today, the water still seems to be swirling and churning like a whirlpool, but there are no imposing rocks lurking under the water as in the past. There are still dangerous looking rocks on the shoreline. Looking north under the railroad bridge, one can see Wards and Randalls Island on the other side.
Looking south from under the railroad bridge, one can see the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (once known as the Triborough Bridge) with the cityscape of Manhattan behind it; the troubled waters of Hell Gate lie underneath these two bridges.
It was a quiet day and I waited as long as I could in the sub-freezing temperatures, but no ship came through the water as I stood there. In a way, not seeing any ship navigate its way through the narrow passageway kept the legend alive for me, and I could just imagine the fear the old ship captains had going through these tempestuous waters with those rocks being so close on both sides.
Tourists should note that on a spring day this would be a lovely place to visit, with the park containing playgrounds and having a beautiful view of the river, bridges, and the city. A picnic would certainly be in order then, but on this day it seemed fitting that the park was as quiet as a graveyard overlooking the water where so many ships were lost.
Hell Gate remains an interesting and solemn part of New York City history, and it is worth a visit to see the view and experience something different in between shopping, Broadway shows, and dining out. As for New Yorkers who may have never ventured out to Queens, this would be a good excuse to do so, and don’t forget your camera.
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