Posts Tagged ‘Hell Gate’

An Upper East Side enclave called Hellgate Hill

June 4, 2012

Most New Yorkers know Hell Gate as the treacherous part of the East River south of Ward’s Island off Astoria and Manhattan’s East 90s.

Here, a confluence of rocks and rough currents once made it a graveyard of ships.

But Hellgate, spelled as one word, used to be a distinct neighborhood too, often called Hellgate Hill.

It was a tiny stretch between 94th and 96th Streets and Lexington and Third Avenues of lovely uniterrupted brownstones.

“The area was named after George Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery, established in 1866 on East 92nd and 93rd streets between Second and Third avenues,” states a 2011 article in DNAinfo.

“The block was developed in 1878 by Michael Duffy, an alderman in the Tammany Hall era of graft who was indicted for bribery in 1886 but got off for being an informant.”

In 2010, 132 years later, community leaders proposed that Hellgate Hill be granted landmark status, giving this forgotten Upper East Side enclave more visibility.

[Top photo: Lexington and 94th Street in 1911, from the NYPL Digital Collection; bottom photo: DNAinfo.com]

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]

An enchanting view of the East River

February 3, 2010

It’s a city of islands, pulsing with color and motion. There’s the Triborough Bridge in the forefront; the 59th Street Bridge skip across Roosevelt Island in the background.

And the East River has never looked so magically blue:

North Brother Island’s tragic past

July 8, 2009

North Brother Island is a 13-acre spit of land in the East River, between the Bronx and Riker’s Island. Unlike bigger Roosevelt Island nearby, it’s never been developed.

RiversidehospitalnobrotherBut it has been inhabited by people—sick people. Acquired by the city in 1885, officials built Riverside Hospital (at right) there, a place to quarantine New Yorkers who suffered from potentially deadly and easily communicable diseases such as typhus and smallpox. It also housed drug addicts until the 1960s.

North Brother’s most famous resident? Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary. The Irish immigrant cook, a carrier of typhus, was committed there in 1908 and died 30 years later. 

The island has another connection to a tragic New York event: the General Slocum disaster. After this steamship caught fire near the island in 1904, hundreds of passengers—mostly German immigrant women and children enjoying an annual church boat trip—jumped into the East River to escape the flames.

Nobrotherislandgeneralslocum

The General Slocum finally beached on North Brother, and many passenger bodies washed up on its shore. All told, an estimated 1,021 people perished—the greatest loss of life in New York City until the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Today North Brother is inhabited mainly by birds; it’s a protected bird sanctuary. The latest episode of the web-only PBS show The City Concealed can take you there.