The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

shocking coruscations

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Conversation offered by divers and submarine enthusiasts inform this posting, which like your humble narrator, lingers about at Hells Gate.

Explorations of the occluded depths in this area, as reported, reveal a shattered series of reefs and alluvial boulders underlying this region of the East River. In addition there are depressions found in the sediment here, which form enormous cauldron like holes dropping down into the silt choked darkness, and I am informed that such formations are commonly called “pots” by those familiar with such subaqueous geography. Within these pots might be found a hodge podge of archaeological record, but the strong currents above them form venturi effect vortices within, and any who might enter one are considered to be extraordinarily lucky to exit such a feature intact and alive.

from “Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner” at

Satan appears to have troubled the early settlers in America almost as grievously as he did the German students. He came in many shapes to many people, and sometimes he met his match. Did he not try to stop old Peter Stuyvesant from rowing through Hell Gate one moonlight night, and did not that tough old soldier put something at his shoulder that Satan thought must be his wooden leg? But it wasn’t a leg: it was a gun, loaded with a silver bullet that had been charged home with prayer. Peter fired and the missile whistled off to Ward’s Island, where three boys found it afterward and swapped it for double handfuls of doughnuts and bulls’ eyes. Incidentally it passed between the devil’s ribs and the fiend exploded with a yell and a smell, the latter of sulphur, to Peter’sblended satisfaction and alarm. And did not the same spirit of evil plague the old women of Massachusetts Bay and craze the French and Spaniards in the South?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Rumors which have persisted since the advent of European colonization suggest that great treasures might by found in these deep eddies and swirling maelstroms of the underwater grottoes. Famously, the wreck of a British ship called “the Hussar” carried a great fortune and many lives down to the bottom of Hells Gate- and the aboriginal inhabitants of the archipelago related stories of a race of giants who originally inhabited these islands that would cross the river by merely stepping across the rocks. Of course, there used to be a lot more rocks, before the Army Corps of Engineers set off the greatest manmade explosion (until Hiroshima) in history to “assure navigability”.

The effort to clear “flat rock”, “frying pan”, “pot rock”, “Flood Rock”, and “Hallet’s 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 23, 2009 posting “A Bright Passage”.

from “Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner” at

Back in the days before the Revolution, a negro called Mud Sam, who lived in a cabin at the Battery, New York City, was benighted at about the place where One Hundredth Street now touches East River while waiting there for the tide to take him up the Sound. He beguiled the time by a nap, and, on waking, he started to leave his sleeping place under the trees to regain his boat, when the gleam of a lantern and the sound of voices coming up the bank caused him to shrink back into the shadow.

  • At first he thought that he might be dreaming, for Hell Gate was a place of such repute that one might readily have bad dreams there, and the legends of the spot passed quickly through his mind: the skeletons that lived in the wreck on Hen and Chickens and looked out at passing ships with blue lights in the eye-sockets of their skulls;
  • the brown fellow, known as “the pirate’s spuke,” that used to cruise up and down the wrathfultorrent, and was snuffed out of sight for some hours by old Peter Stuyvesant with a silver bullet;
  • a black-looking scoundrel with a split lip, who used to brattle about the tavern at Corlaer’s Hook, and who tumbled into East River while trying to lug an iron chest aboard of a suspicious craft that had stolen in to shore in a fog.

This latter bogy was often seen riding up Hell Gate a-straddle of that very chest, snapping his fingers at the stars and roaring Bacchanalian odes, just as skipper Onderdonk’s boatswain, who had been buried at sea without prayers, chased the ship for days, sitting on the waves, with his shroud for a sail, and shoving hills of water after the vessel with the plash of his hands.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A busy industrial corridor in the ominous 21st century, the efforts of engineers have rendered Hell Gate tame and predictable, although one might still observe the occasional spiral eddy and acre wide pools of swirling water near the shorelines on windy days. If one watches carefully, a phastasmagorical plethora of animal forms persists in this part of the river- diving cormorants are common, Birds of Prey are present as are riverine and littoral mammalia, and there are said to be other less well known phyla. Every now and then, one might even encounter a U.F.O. (an Unidentified Floating Object).

Who can guess, after all, what is is that may be hiding down there?

from “HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY with illustrations, Portraits & Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals. New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882.” at

Hallett’s purchase at Hell Gate Neck included much of the territory later incorporated as the village of Astoria. The original proprietor lived there to the age of about ninety, and was foremost in many early improvements. He divided his property at that point in 1688 between his sons William and Samuel, the former receiving the lands south of the road Since forming Greenoak Street, St. George’s Place, Welling and Main streets and Newtown avenue, the latter the lands lying north of that road.

It is probable that the Indians who sold Hell Gate Neck to William Hallett were of the Canarsie tribe, a clan of reputed power whose jurisdiction extended over the whole of Kings county, the islands in Hell Gate, and, O’Callaghan says, some part of Newtown. A large tract of land including the southwestern portion of the present city was deeded “to the inhabitants of Newtowne, alias Middleburg,” by Pomwaukon and Roweroenesteo of the above tribe, July 9th 1666.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Indolent, and quite susceptible to environmental stressors, your humble narrator has commented several times about the odd sonic qualities of this patch of the East River. Mighty Triborough never sleeps, and its steel hums continually. Staccato, the traffic over Hells Gate is no less affecting, but it is just not in the same league as the constant oppression of  infrasonic drone emanating from Triborough, or the din of nearby heavy industrial activity on Wards Island.

Here is part of a recording made on May 28th of 2010, directly beneath the Triborough Bridge… using the admittedly poor microphone of an iPhone headset… for your consideration…

from wikipedia

After the war ended, Jaspar Ward and Bartholomew Ward took ownership of the island that later carried their surname. Although a small population had lived on the island since as early as the 17th century, the Ward brothers developed the island more heavily by building a cotton mill and building the first bridge to cross the East River in 1807, connecting the island with Manhattan at 114th Street.

The bridge, paid for by Bartholomew Ward and Philip Milledolar, was a wooden drawbridge. The bridge lasted until 1821, when it was destroyed in a storm.After the bridge was destroyed, the island was largely abandoned until 1840, when the island was transformed into a dumping ground for everything unwanted in New York City. Between 1840 and 1930 the island was used for:

  • Burial of hundreds of thousands of bodies relocated from the Madison Square and Bryant Park graveyards.
  • The State Emigrant Refuge, a hospital for sick and destitute immigrants, opened in 1847, the biggest hospital complex in the world during the 1850s.
  • The New York City Asylum for the Insane, opened around 1863.
  • An immigration station from 1860 until the 1892 opening of Ellis Island.
  • Manhattan State Hospital, operated by the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene when it took over the immigration and asylum buildings in 1899. With 4,400 patients, it was the largest psychiatric institution in the world. The 1920 census notes that the hospital had a total of 6045 patients. It later became the Manhattan Psychiatric Center.

2 Responses

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  1. […] maritime folklore from past centuries was offered in “shocking coruscations“, which is told against a series of twilight photos from good old Hells Gate between the two […]

  2. […] an experimental combat vessel at Hells Gate, described here. The esoteric history of Hells Gate was discussed in this 2010 post, and the largest explosion in human history prior to the atomic era as well as why its called […]

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