Today, Hell Gate in the East River. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Dutch explorers of Manhattan Island called the East
River Hellegat. That meant bright passage. Shipping between
Europe and Manhattan was shorter and safer for ships that followed the upper
shore of Long Island and entered the East River from the north. But, once on
the River, they reached a treacherous stretch of about a mile -- fickle currents
and submerged rocks. The worst of it lay next to Astoria, in Queens, under the
south side of Wards Island. After the name Hellegat changed to East River,
this twisty, mile-long, stretch kept a version of the old name. Now it was
Hell Gate -- an ominous pun on the Dutch name.
So much of our nation's shipping passed through Hell Gate, and we suffered a
steady attrition of life and property. New Yorkers first pressured the US
government to do something about these waters in 1845. Within six years, the
Coast Survey had created maps and marked dangers to shipping. But those maps
only highlighted the dangers. They cried out for some sort of engineering fix.
When Congress provided no relief, New Yorkers went at the obstructions with
explosives. Take, for example, Pot Rock -- rising like a rhinoceros horn from
a depth of thirty feet to within eight feet of the surface. It lay right next
to a shipping lane. They went at it with seventeen tons of explosives. But
that only blunted it. It was still poised to gore the hull of a large ship.
The Corps of Engineers was starting to take an interest when the Civil War brought
work to a halt. But war made it clear that shipping safety was a national
security concern. So the government went to work. Rocks were cut and ground.
But mostly, they blasted away at the forest of subsurface pinnacles.
And there was Hallet's Point, a three-hundred-foot rocky promontory that reached out from
Astoria to catch ships, and to shape dangerous river currents. Removing Hallet's
Point was a daunting project. Workers tunneled down into the rock from behind
a great coffer dam. They cut a spider web of deep tunnels out under the river.
They placed tons of nitroglycerin in the tunnels, and reduced that geographical
feature to rubble.
Today, only some tidal current reversals remain -- occasional challenges for kayaks
and canoes. Architect Gustav Lindenthal's Hell Gate rail bridge
was opened over the north end of the channel in 1916. And I love the park just below
that bridge. The scene is idyllic. It seems to mock the name Hell Gate.
So the origin of one more name has been lost in the fog of time. Think of the LA
Dodgers or Utah Jazz. Or who remembers that 3-M Company was once Minnesota Mining
and Manufacturing -- our major sandpaper source? New Yorkers, spurred by the sinister
name Hell Gate, still boast of their treacherous river. But those dangers were put
to rest by extraordinary engineering over a century ago. The name is now only an
echo of a forgotten time.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A surprisingly complete treatment of the clearing of Hell
Gate was written five years before it was finished. See the
Nov. 1871 issue of Scribner's Monthly Magazine, Vol. 2, pp. 33-53.
"The Unbarring of hell Gate. (no author's name given). All black-and-white
illustrations are from this source. For further information,
Click here, or on the thumbnail image to the right, for a comparison of the
Hell Gate area shown at the time of the 1871 article (with all the
many obstructions), and a Google Earth image of the area today.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.