History Of The Hell Gate Bridge

Hell Gate Bridge History

Feature Photo: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock

The Hell Gate Bridge is a through arch bridge that spans the Hell Gate strait in the East River. It connects Queens’ Astoria neighborhood with Manhattan’s Randalls Island and Wards Island. However, it is worth mentioning that the Hell Gate Bridge isn’t alone. Instead, it is the longest of three bridges forming a railroad viaduct. The other two are an inverted bowstring truss bridge spanning the Little Hell Gate and a fixed truss bridge spanning the Bronx Kill. Thanks to this, the railroad viaduct has a total length of 17,000 feet.

The Taming of the Hell Gate

Ominous names can have innocent origins. The Hell Gate strait isn’t one of those cases. It comes from the Dutch name Hellegat, which people tend to translate as either “Bright Gate” or “Hell Gate.” Chances are good interested individuals can guess that the Hell Gate strait wasn’t the most pleasant part of the East River. That is particularly true when they learn that the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block named it thus as soon as he became the first European to sail through it in 1614.

The Hell Gate strait was dangerous for several reasons. For starters, its narrowness meant that ships had little room for maneuver. That was a huge problem when the Hell Gate strait was filled with rocks, reefs, and islands. Even worse, it had a natural whirlpool, which further complicated any attempts at maneuvering. Despite these issues, people sailed through the Hell Gate strait anyways because it provided them with more convenient access to the Atlantic Ocean. Their determination to do so was remarkable considering the estimates that about 1 in 50 ships either sunk or suffered damage while passing through it in the 1850s.

Unsurprisingly, people became interested in fixing the problem. In 1850, a group of rich New Yorkers raised the funds for a French engineer named Benjamin Maillefert to clear some of the hazards in the Hell Gate strait. His plan involved lowering gunpowder canisters suspended from poles into the water. Theoretically, those poles would be long enough to keep the workers safe. In practice, well, Maillefert managed hundreds of detonations before he made a serious mistake, which killed three individuals working on the operation while disabling him and his assistant. Still, he made meaningful progress, as shown by how the whirlpool had disappeared almost entirely by this point. As a result, Maillefert was able to convince the U.S. government to get involved, though that didn’t last very long before the American Civil War broke out.

It wasn’t until the late 1860s that the U.S. government decided to get seriously involved. There was an estimate that the project would cost $1 million, which was weighed against annual approximate losses of $2 million in shipping. As a result, the U.S. government proceeded to undermine target after target before blowing them up with explosives. Subsequently, much of the resulting rubble was removed for use elsewhere while the bottom of the strait was dredged to make it of uniform depth. Thanks to these efforts, the Hell Gate strait saw a huge surge in shipping, which further reinforced New York City’s status as the most important U.S. port in those times.

Building the Bridge Itself

Speaking of which, the latter half of the 19th century was also when railroads became critical to U.S. transportation. That had a huge impact on a wide range of matters in a wide range of contexts. One example was the building of the Hell Gate Bridge, which was meant to connect the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad with the Pennsylvania Railroad. On the whole, the construction went very smoothly under the oversight of Bridge Commissioner Gustav Lindenthal. Yes, some girders were added to strategic locations to make the bridge seem more structurally sound. Similarly, the original proposal of a steel lattice was switched out for smooth concrete because of fears of runaway asylum inmates. Nonetheless, construction started in 1912 and finished in 1916, thus creating what was the longest steel arch bridge in the world at the time.

Since then, the Hell Gate Bridge has been surpassed in various ways, which makes sense because building techniques and technologies have continued to advance. Still, it is important to remember that it was quite an achievement in those days. For proof, look no further than the fact that the Hell Gate Bridge inspired the designs of not one but two other well-known bridges. First, there is the Tyne Bridge that connects Newcastle upon Tyne with Gateshead in England. Second, there is the Sydney Bridge that connects the city’s central business district with the North Shore.

Planned Sabotage and Flawed Paint

For the most part, the Hell Gate Bridge’s existence has been uneventful. During World War II, its economic importance made it a target for the Nazis’ Operation Pastorius. However, that doesn’t come up much because the agents never managed to hit any of the targets. Instead, they set off a massive manhunt almost as soon as they landed because one of them was spotted by an unarmed Coast Guardsman who pretended to take a bribe to keep silent and then proceeded to report the incident. Subsequently, two of the agents turned themselves in, which contributed a great deal to the capture of the other six.

Other than that, the Hell Gate Bridge received a new coat of paint in the 1990s for the first time since its completion. The painting resulted in a legal dispute between the owner Amtrak and the painting company George Campbell Painting. Amtrak mandated the use of a custom paint blend called Hell Gate Red. Unfortunately, while that blend provided the necessary protection, its color started fading before the paint job was even finished. Due to that, George Campbell Painting had to redo the paint job in certain places because Amtrak suspected that it had botched the painting process. Eventually, it winded up suing the paint company Valspar, which was settled when the latter agreed to pay compensation for damages. Regardless, this is why the Hell Gate Bridge looks the way it does even though its second coat of paint is relatively new.

The Hell Gate Bridge in Modern Times

The Hell Gate Bridge remains an important piece of infrastructure in the present. Currently, just three of its four tracks are in use because one of its two freight tracks was abandoned in the mid-1970s. With that said, there is a somewhat well-known article from Discover that predicts that the Hell Gate Bridge could stand for another 1,000 years even without maintenance because of its sturdy construction. If so, it seems safe to say that the bridge won’t be going away anytime soon, though it is an open question whether it will get another paint job anytime soon.









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