So, Why “Hell Gate”?
Back in the mid 1600s, my 9th Great-Grandfather William Hallett owned a farm on the western edge of Long Island, in the area that is now present day Astoria. It was known as “Hellgate”, or “Hellgate Neck” named after the dangerous portion of the East River that bordered it. But why the name “Hellgate”?
The Dutch explorer Adriaen Block originally gave the name “Helegat” to this section of the East River. The name in Dutch translates as “Bright Passage”, but in one of history’s great jokes this area has been known for centuries as “Hell Gate”. According to the official East River website (yes, there really is one), “The swirling tides of the East River were famed for bedeviling sailors…The Hell Gate contains the remains of countless ships.”
Missy Wolfe, in her book “Insubordinate Spirit” says this about the location of the Hallett’s farm:
“…They made their home on a point of land on the furthest reach of western Long Island, which they called ‘Nassau Island’, where the currents from three large waterways – the East River, the Harlem River, and Long Island Sound – intersected over a shallow and rocky shoal. In the 1600s when the tides changed here, these waters swirled viciously and noisily and caused a famously dramatic and exceedingly treacherous whirlpool…By the late nineteenth century, many ships, some say a hundred a year, foundered in the shallow strait where the violent currents of the three waterways collided.”
So why don’t we see the river acting this way today? Again quoting from the East River website: “In 1885, engineers dug excavations, and inserted explosives in them to remove the treacherous reefs and rocks. This culminated with the largest manmade explosion before the atomic bomb. Today, the Hell Gate is spanned by the Hell Gate Bridge, completed in 1917, and the Triborough Bridge completed in 1936 (recently renamed the RFK Bridge).”
Below is an 1885 map showing the Hell Gate area, as well as Hallett’s Cove and Astoria.