Posts Tagged ‘Astoria’

Is there a sunken treasure in the East River?

December 29, 2011

There is according to a legend dating back to November 1780.

That’s when the HMS Hussar, a 28-gun British warship, sailed up the East River, reportedly on its way to Rhode Island.

With a crew of about 100, and up to 70 American prisoners of war, the Husser sank in the treacherous waters of Hell Gate—the tidal strait between Astoria and Wards Island that felled hundreds of vessels before being dynamited in the 19th century.

“Hampered by the violent currents, the Hussar’s captain, Maurice Pole, struggled to steer toward shore, but the ship sank somewhere between Port Morris and Montressor’s Island (today North Brother Island),” writes Tom Vanderbilt in a 2002 New York Times piece.

“Most of the crew survived, and the masts, it was said, jutted above water for days before being swept away.”

Immediately, rumors hit that the Hussar, carrying payroll for British troops stationed in New York, went down with 2 to 4 million dollars in gold on board.

Was it true? On one hand, surviving sailors claimed the payroll had been dropped off before the frigate sank.

Still, the British launched three serious expeditions to find the Hussar’s remains after the Revolutionary War, supporting suspicions that something very valuable had gone down with the ship.

Over the centuries, treasure hunters have gone into the murky East River waters to uncover what would be worth about a billion dollars today.

Aside from some pottery and other artifacts, no treasure has been found.

The Hussar’s remains haven’t been located either; they’re thought to have become landfill in the Bronx.

[Top: USGS topographical map; middle, a frigate the Hussar may have resembled; bottom, a 1904 etching of Hell Gate in 1774, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

John Jacob Astor: New York’s first drug dealer

May 4, 2011

German immigrant John Jacob Astor, who arrived in Manhattan dirt poor in 1784, made his first fortune (about $5 million) trading furs with native tribes, eventually shipping the pelts all over the world.

But in 1816, opportunistic, ruthless salesman Astor got into another lucrative new business: smuggling opium.

He had already been selling furs to China, bringing skins from the Pacific Northwest to warehouses in New York, where they were then shipped to Canton.

So it was easy for Astor to join the booming worldwide narcotics trade.

He purchasing thousands of pounds of Turkish opium and shipped it to China—illegally, as China had banned opium in 1799, according to this PBS/Frontline opium timeline.

Astor snagged a lucrative slice of the drug biz before quitting after a few years and putting his millions in another sometimes slimy venture: New York real estate. Astor Place, Astoria, and Astor Row in Harlem all bear his name.

New York is a hell of a town

October 22, 2009

More than a few city neighborhoods currently or used to start with “Hell.” Hell’s Kitchen is the most famous—and enduring. (C’mon, does anyone really call it Clinton?)

The nabe’s moniker but it may have first been used in the late 1800s to describe the revolting slums and ferocious gangs in the West 30s and 40s.

Hellgatebridgepostcard

Hell Gate is the name of the once-dangerous tidal strait separating Astoria from Randall’s Island. It’s also a lovely bridge that connects these two land masses across the East River.

Was Hell Gate once the name of the neighborhood on the Manhattan side of the East River too? I’m not sure, but maybe—there’s a Hell Gate Station post office on East 110th Street.

Hellgatepostoffice

And let’s not forget the fantastically named Hell’s Hundred Acres, a gritty term for pre-1970s Soho. The beautiful cast-iron buildings that today house million-dollar lofts were used for decades as warehouses and manufacturing sites. 

Hellshundredacresfire

Safety codes weren’t followed and the buildings allowed to deteriorate, so they often went up in flames—hence the nickname. This photo documents a 1958 fire in a Wooster Street factory that killed six firefighters. Hell’s Hundred Acres indeed.

An airplane view of two East River bridges

April 10, 2009

The Hell Gate and Triborough Bridges—spanking-new and gleaming in this technical postcard—connect Astoria to Ward’s and Randall’s Islands. The islands are two separate entities here, but they’ve long since been united into one island via landfill.

triboroughbridge

It’s a strange view: Manhattan and the Bronx look like pastoral, barely populated villages. Astoria, on the other hand, comes off as an industrial wasteland.

The Triborough Bridge was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in 2008. I hope they don’t rename the Hell Gate; it’s too colorful a name to lose.