The Newtown Pentacle

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Happy Centennial, Hell Gate Bridge.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One hundred years ago today, the construction of the Hell Gate Bridge was finished. It had been ongoing since 1912, and it was a bit of a contemporaneous construction miracle – as far as the details of how the Pennsylvania Railroad engineers (specifically Gustav Lindenthal) managed to build the span out from both shorelines simultaneously – and to have the completed sections precisely join (with a 5/16th of an inch tolerance) over the Hells Gate section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Ward’s Island. It was “officially” dedicated and opened to rail traffic on the March 1st March 9th of 1917. The first commercial usage of the bridge began on April 1st of 1917, when a Washington to Boston passenger train crossed it. These days it’s owned by Amtrak. (strike throughs indicate corrections offered by my pal Dave Frieder, the “Bridge Man,” who is going to be presenting his vast knowledge on the subject at a lecture at the Greater Astoria Historic Society next Monday night).

For a piece on the bridge that I wrote for my old Brownstoner Queens column back in 2013 – click here. For another Brownstoner Queens column that discusses the Hells Gate section the East River – click here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hell Gate is as iconic to Astoria, Queens as is a plate of spanokopita.

Lots of local businesses, even the Greater Astoria Historic Society, use images of the bridge on branded clothing items like t-shirts and hats and there’s an assortment of local businesses that incorporate “Hell Gate” into their name.

Virtually no one talks about Mighty Triborough as being our icon, incidentally. There’s ancestral memory in Astoria that remembers Robert Moses carving the Grand Central through the neighborhood, which left a bitter taste.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s a rail bridge, Hell Gate. Most of the traffic you see using it is passenger service run by Amtrak, but occasionally CSX or another freight carrier transits from Queens to the Bronx via Hell Gate. The bridge plugs into the Long Island rail network via the New York Connecting Railway, which extends to the Sunnyside Yards (where you can switch into the LIRR system) and uses the East River tunnels to travel into Manhattan – and by extension travel under the Hudson and into New Jersey and the rail network of the entire country. This bridge, and those tunnels, are Long Island’s only rail link to the continent.

That’s it, other than floating rail cars around on barges, but that’s a whole other banana.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Astoria locals, as in the folks who are in the “born and raised” crowd hereabouts, have all sorts of spooky adolescent legends about the Hell Gate Bridge. There was supposed to have been a child killer living in the tower on the Astoria Park side… there’s a demon train which will appear if you dare to climb the bridge to its deck… there’s a lot of Astoria stories out there.

I’m told that climbing Hell Gate is a rite of passage for teenage boys hereabout, and observable graffiti up on the deck seems to back that up. There’s meant to be four tracks up there, but I’m told that one of them is all but abandoned.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a local committee that’s sprung up to celebrate the Bridge centennial, but so far there’s only been a couple of meetings and not too much has emerged from attending them. Nice people though. Anywhere else is the United States, or even in NYC, the centennial of a major bridge like this would be met with parades, and fanfare, and school kids would be taught about the days when Americans were still capable of doing great things… but… this is Queens…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Personally, I’m regretting the inclement weather today as I wanted to to go visit the old girl on her de facto birthday.

Upcoming tours and events:

“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 30, 2016 at 11:30 am

16 Responses

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  1. Just for the record: The Grand Central Parkway was built mostly on unused land, landfill, along the western edge of the salt marshes astride the Flushing River, then east of that, through what was the woods. I’m not sure how much, if any private property was condemned through eminent domain for its construction. I could stand corrected as I haven’t read on the GCP’s history in some time.

    The Long Island Expressway, however cut a major swath through Maspeth and causes much local hard feelings to this day.

    The name of Robert Moses was not well liked in much of Queens.

    Don Cavaioli


    September 30, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    • Astoria Blvd. was not exactly uninhabited.

      Mitch Waxman

      September 30, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      • I had assumed that I made my point clearly in a concise and succinct paragraph but maybe I am mistaken.
        As I would not have the temerity to suggest out humble narrator has some reading comprehension issues in replying with a non-sequitur so the fault is mine. Some clarification is necessary and I shall type more slowly just to make sure the point hits its target.

        Look again at the word “mostly” which in colloquial English means a lot of but not all and that I tacitly acknowledged some private land was used. And take note of the phrase “not sure how much if any” denoting uncertainty. I hadn’t specifically checked the details and was relying on memory but the statement in sum and substance is correct if not in trivial pedantic detail.

        As you have tersely pointed out that Astoria Boulevard was not exactly uninhabited nor, I might add, was that particular part in 1936 very densely populated either so it does not offer answer or refutation of what I had posted sine qua non.

        It’s far from the worst example of neighborhood busting Moses did or does Astoria Blvd. comprise the whole of Queens County?

        Don Cavaioli


        October 14, 2016 at 3:55 am

  2. Mitch, this 5/16th’s of an inch being off at the end. What did they do? “Squeeze” the beams together at that point? Machine or manually? If so, does this cause any engineering stress on the structure? Also, how much of the “being off” would and could be tolerated? An Inch/ A foot? A yard?

    georgetheatheist . . . on the level

    September 30, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    • The guy to ask on this one is Dave Frieder, who will giving a lecture at Greater Astoria Historic society on Monday night.

      Mitch Waxman

      September 30, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      • I can’t make it that evening Do us a favor and pose the questions?

        georgetheatheist . . . on the level

        September 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm

      • If I can make it, that is. Dave’s a buddy, and a HELL of a photographer btw.

        Mitch Waxman

        September 30, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    • The Gap was 5 /16 of an inch and that was at the connection of the Lower chord. 2 3000 lb. jacks were used to push the sections together and close the gap. The 3000 lbs. is the amount of force or compression the jacks could exert.

      Dave Frieder

      September 30, 2016 at 3:04 pm

  3. The bridge was dedicated and opened to rail traffic on March 9th, 1917. Not at any other time. On April 1st 1917 regular rail traffic began on the bridge

    Dave Frieder

    September 30, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    • my sources said March 1 for the dedication, but a I bow to your superior knowledge. You are, after all, the bridge man.

      Mitch Waxman

      September 30, 2016 at 3:06 pm

      • I contacted the Penn State Archives for a LOT of valuable information.

        Dave Frieder

        September 30, 2016 at 3:14 pm

  4. Also the Bridge Towers sit on Ward’s Island and in Queens. Not Randall’s Island.

    Dave Frieder

    September 30, 2016 at 3:07 pm

  5. Everyone from the community is invited to come to our exhibit on building the bridge, and talk by Allan Renz, grandson of bridge builder Lindenthal, as well as Dave “The Bridge Man” Frieder. Starts at 630 PM at Astoria Historical, 35-20 Broadway, L.I.C., NY!

    Bob Singleton, Exec Dir

    September 30, 2016 at 3:32 pm

  6. Beautiful story Mitch. You make me feel like I am there even though I am on the Newtown Creek.

    Ron Blendermann

    October 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm

  7. […] been talking about the Hell Gate bridge since Newtown Pentacle started. This recent post, commemorating the day on which the steel of the bridge was finished, for instance. As an aside, […]

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