The Blowing Up Of Hell Gate

Jul 28, 2021 0 comments

As ships from across the Atlantic sail up East River and into Manhattan, they pass through a narrow tidal strait called Hell Gate situated between Queens and Ward’s Island. Tides from the Long Island Sound, New York Harbor and the Harlem River meet here, making this mile-long stretch of water very treacherous to navigation with giant whirlpools and hidden underwater reef. Historians estimate that about one in 50 ships trying to run the gauntlet of Hell Gate was either damaged or sunk in the 1850’s, and on average, about a thousand ships ran aground in Hell Gate each year.

Flood rock explosion on October 10, 1885.

Flood rock explosion at Hell Gate on October 10, 1885.

The strait derives its name from the Dutch word Hellegat, which means “bright passage”, and was originally given to the entirety of the East River. It was coined by Dutch fur trader and explorer, Adriaen Block in 1614 after he sailed through the dangerous passage of water and into the Long Island Sound. After the British took over the Dutch colony in 1664, and renamed it “New York”, Hellegat became East River, but the perilous one-mile passage retained its Anglicized version “Hell gate”.

Writing for Military Engineer, author Claude Rust explains why this passage appeared hellish to sea captains:

When the tide rises on the eastern seaboard it sets into New York Harbor and, farther to the northeast, into Long Island Sound. At New York Bay it splits at the tip of Manhattan, one current pushing up the Hudson and through the Harlem River, the other entering the East River. Here, with the horizontal movement impeded by the opposite flow of the Harlem River and the narrowness of the channel up to the Sound, the huge basin of Hell Gate begins to fill.

The waters, like wild beasts, circle their confines, impatient for the chance to escape. The down coming flow of the Harlem River is then stopped by the strength of the escaping currents and sent back up through Little Hell Gate and the Bronx Kills, and the channels to the west, like a sluiceway, is filled with swift seething water racing up to the Bronx shore.

This flow continues for hours, building up to a high tide along the East River shore. Then at a time when other waters would settle into slack, the down coming tide, which has been delayed four hours by the distance and the drag of the Long Island Basin, begins its relentless drive—and the struggle for mastery is on. Four hours after entering the sound this tide has changed the flow of the river which is now down the narrow ‘sluiceway’ from the Bronx and down Little Hell Gate Channel into Hell Gate Basin, counterclockwise around Mill rock and as far down the river as the upcoming tide will allow.

To this confusion of ebbs and flows, currents and eddies, add the rocks, reefs, and the freakish whims of the winds. At ebb tide the process was reversed, but no less confusing.

hell gate

As the harbor of New York expanded, merchants petitioned Congress to make Hell Gate safer for navigation. It was suggested that a canal be built through nearby Hallet's Point bypassing Hell Gate altogether. But when Congress refused to act, in 1850, New Yorkers decided to take matters in their own hands and hired French engineer Benjamin Maillefert, whose specialty was underwater blasting. For $15,000 Maillefert proposed to lower a canister of gunpowder to the rock by rope via a lengthy pole, and then set off the explosive from a safe distance. The bombardment continued for several months, by which time Maillefert had successfully shaved off the top of Pot Rock by 18 feet, and lowered Frying Pan and Ways Reef by 9 and 13 feet, respectively.

Maillefert’s efforts almost totally eliminated the strait’s whirlpool and eased the tide flows. Buoyed by the success, Maillefert claimed that if he continued with his operations he could make Hell Gate the safest entrance to the Harbor. Even Congress was pleased with the results and chipped in with $20,000. But the Civil War brought work to a halt.

Hell Gate channel in 1871.

Hell Gate channel in 1871.

In the late 1860s, after the Civil War, Congress realized the military importance of having easily navigable waterways, and charged the Army Corps of Engineers with clearing the remaining rocks at Hell Gate. After seven years of digging 7,000 holes, and filling 4,000 of them with 30,000 pounds of dynamite, on September 24, 1876, in front of an audience of people the rocks were blasted out of existence. The blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey and sent a geyser of water 250 feet in the air.

Blasting continued for nine more years, culminating with another spectacular detonation on October 10, 1885. About 280,000 pounds of high explosives along with 5,000 pounds of dynamite were used to reduce Flood Rock to rubble. The event was viewed by 50,000 spectators.

Claude Rust gives an account of the spectacle:

With a muffled rumble from the depths of Hell Gate, nine acres of the river surface was lifted into the air, a tremendous mass of rock and foam 150 feet high. A sickening jar was felt on land, and seconds later waves lapped the shores. The greatest single explosion ever produced by man was over.

Flood rock explosion on October 10, 1885.

Flood rock explosion on October 10, 1885.

Lauding the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Engineering News and American Contract Journal reported that “although the volume of explosives used here exceeded six-fold the greatest charge ever previously fired in the world, the work of the engineers was so well done and the precautionary measures of Gen. Newton so well taken, that no accident or delay of any kind occurred.”

After the successful blasting, the floor of the harbor was dredged and more than ninety thousand tons of broken rock was removed, which was used to fill the gap between Great Mill Rock and Little Mill Rock, merging the two islands into a single island, Mill Rock.

Today, only some tidal current reversals remain at Hell Gate, throwing an occasional challenge to kayaks and canoes. East River had long ceased to be the center of New York's shipping industry, which had, by the end of the 19th century, moved to the Hudson River. The wharves of East River slipped into decay until the area was finally rehabilitated in the mid-1960s.

# The Conquest of Hell Gate
# Hell Gate, The Engines of Our Ingenuity


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