You might recognize the Hell Gate Bridge from Serpico. Or the lesser known 1991 film, Queens Logic. Or because it was a target for Nazi demolition experts during World War II as part of Operation Pastorius. Or you might’ve seen its sister, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in Australia. Or maybe you’re familiar with its hardiness: the Hell Gate Bridge would be the last New York City bridge to collapse if humans disappeared, taking a least a millennium to do so. But to understand the bridge, you must understand the tumultuous waters it spans.
Hell Gate is a narrow tidal strait located in the East River in between Queens and Ward’s Island at the center of a confluence of the New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River (via the Harlem River). It runs the span of Manhattan’s 90th Street to 100th Street, while its narrower, sister strait is known as the Little Hell Gate which flows in between Randall’s and Ward’s Islands.
The strait derives its name from the Dutch word, Hellegat, which has two meanings: “Bright Gate” or “Hell Gate.” The name was coined by Dutch fur trader and explorer, Adriaen Block in 1614 after he sailed his newly constructed forty-five foot, sixteen ton ship the Onrust (Dutch for “restless”) through the dangerous passage of water and into the Long Island Sound where he discovered Block Island. Block was also the first European to explore the Connecticut River.
Since Block passed through the Hell Gate, this mile long strait acted as a “key gateway to the Atlantic, marked with a giant whirlpool, punctuated with rocks, reefs and islands.” What makes Hell Gate such a pain to navigate is that its own waters are in a continuous contention with those of the Long Island Sound.