The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

The River of Sound

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NYC panorama 5

Queens Museum of Art- Worlds Fair Panorama, East River at center- photo by Mitch Waxman

The Dutch Captain Adriaen Block, whose naval career had carried him from his native Amsterdam all the way to the Pacific territories of the Dutch East Indies (possibly even the Moluccas), was sent in 1614 to follow up on Henry Hudson’s discoveries in the New World. The States General put him in command of the Tyger. Block journeyed to Manhattan island, and traded with a group of the native Lenape. By the fall, the ship’s hold was full of otter, beaver, and other skins. A fire broke out and consumed the ship- stranding Block and his men in the New World, on a dangerous and wild island called Manhattan.

 Cliche Manhattan Silo Sunset Skyline 9

East River Shoreline, from Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City- photo by Mitch Waxman

East River shoreline

East River Shoreline, somewhere between Long Island City and Ravenswood. Photo by Mitch Waxman

Salvaging what they could, Block and his men made a deal of some kind with the Lenape to help them build a new 16 ton ship- The Onrust (the Restless). Aboard Onrust, Block proceeded up the East River, and into Long Island Sound. He sailed into Narraganset Bay, “found” Block Island, entered the Housatonic River in Connecticut, found something he called Roode Eylandt, and ditched the Onrust on Cape Cod after running into another Dutch ship. Block returned to Europe and his corporation was eventually awarded exclusive trading rights for the “New Netherlands” for a few years. Roode Eylandt, incidentally, is where H.P. Lovecraft was from.

Believing that the tidal straight which modernity calls the East River was an actual “river”, Block’s charts connected it with Long Island Sound- hence “River of Sound”. It is more a part of  New York Harbor, watershed-wise, and nothing other than constituent with the Sound- as it is with the Hudson River, Bronx RIver, Bronx Kill, and Newtown Creek. He was the first documented European to successfully navigate a treacherous section of the river, just off the coast of modern-day Astoria Park.

 lucky day on glass beach

Glass littered East River Shoreline, near Astoria Park. Photo by Mitch Waxman

He christened the eddies and whirlpools of this widow making area “The Bright Passage”. In Dutch- Hellegat, in English- Hela’s Gate- or Hells Gate.

 Hells gate Bridge, and TriBorough

Hells Gate Bridge, and Triborough, near Astoria Park. Photo by Mitch Waxman

Common Dutch seafaring terminology for any whirlpool was Hellegat. Sailors in that time had an expansive vocabulary that was passed man to man for water and weather- not unlike the famous 64 words used to describe different kinds of snow conditions used by the Esquimaux in their polar wastelands. (esquimaux is an archaic and somewhat racist french term. apologies for usage, the tribes prefer to be referred to as Inuit, Yupik, or Aleut and to be greeted with smiles).

Incidentally, Hel is the goddess of Death to those of the Norse way of thinking. She was the daughter of Loki– the trickster god who was born of the Jotun (giants) and adopted by Odin. Her silent mead hall was where those who died peacefully waited for Odin to climb Yggdrasil and sacrifice himself physically (he gave his right eye to the well of protean Mimir as payment) in return for revelations of Ragnarok– which would bring about Valhalla. This of course is a standard grain king/matriarchal queen of life-birth-death sort of myth, same as some… more modern stories. I’m kind of a mythology geek too-

By the 1890’s- hundreds of ships had gone down at Hell Gate and the US Army Corps of Engineers Major General John Newton was tasked with fixing Hell Gate.

Irregular reefs and whirlpools have claimed dozens of ships in this part of the river and the commercial interests of New York City demanded that the Corps of Engineers render the area navigable. After the efforts of the French engineer, M. Benjamin Maillefert failed in 1856, the task of taming Hells Gate fell to John Newton, lieutenant- colonel of engineers, brevet major-general of the Army Corps of Engineers. His men dug tunnels branching downwards from a coffer dam and under the river itself. These tunnels were packed with explosives and the reefs were detonated from below. The work was made manifest in two detonations. The latter, 1885 event was the largest manmade explosion in human history. The explosion was heard as far away as Princeton, New Jersey- and was unsurpassed in destructive intensity (by WW1 and WW2 mind you) until the explosion of the atom bomb over Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. 

Oddly enough, the remains of what just might be Block’s Tyger was found in 1916 by workmen excavating ground in Manhattan for a subway extension. It was near the corner of Greenwich and Dey, twenty feet under the ground and due east of where the World Trade Center’s North Tower was. The remains should still be in the hands of the Museum of the City of New York. The Old Salt Blog has an interesting article on the Tyger as well as photos of the ship as it was found.

Zen at Glass Beach

Also, if anything you read here is contradictory to something you know, leave a comment and let’s talk about it…

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 5, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Posted in East River

Tagged with ,

8 Responses

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  1. […] quoting from the Newtown Pentacle posting of June 5, 2009- The River of Sound […]

  2. […] coastal walks, through the soot choked brutalities of northwestern Queens, along the East River. Above, Queensboro thunders away , thrumming out ultrasonic scalar waves in the manner of some […]

  3. […] The horizon becomes a three point perspective lesson, with a Shining City rising and occludes the horizon, over a River of Sound. […]

    • Before Adriean Block discovered Block Island naming it after himself, the island was discovered by Giovanni da Verrazzano, who named it “Claudia”, in honor of Claude, Duchess of Brittany, queen consort of France and the wife of Francis I. The island has also been previously identified as “Luisa,” after Louise of Savoy, the Queen Mother of France, and the mother of Francis. Before anyone else named it, the Indians called it Manisses meaning ‘island of the little gods.’


      May 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm

  4. […] Point Reef” was explored in some detail in a Newtown Pentacle Posting of  June 5, 2009- “The River of Sound”, and the enigmatic Hells Gate Bridge and its environs was discussed in some detail in the September […]

  5. The glass on the waters edge is probably the residual from the 1960’s, 1970’s. That strip was where all the young people gathered during summer nights. It was littered with bottles thrown down onto the rocks.


    December 18, 2010 at 4:55 am

  6. […] 2 generations of their patrol vessels, plying the estuarine tides of the River of Sound- commonly known as the East River to […]

  7. […] in human history prior to the atomic era as well as why its called “Hells Gate” was offered way back in this 2009 post, and in this one as […]

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