Monday, December 7, 2009


Yesterday, four of us walked from the Ditmas Blvd N train stop in Astoria towards the water and then over the Triborough Bridge to Ward’s & Randall’s stitched-together islands and from there back to Manhattan and 125th Street. Our pathfinder N also clued us in to a fine brunch at Fatty’s Cafe. This is the Hell Gate Bridge, built in 1917 by the Pennsylvania RR and then called the New York Connecting Railroad East River Arch Bridge. In need of a paint job, it’s still a very handsome structure with grand viaducts on both sides rising above the terrain. It’s 1017 feet between towers, which made it the longest steel arch bridge in the world at the time of its construction. Astoria is on the right, Ward’s Island on the left. This picture is from the pedestrian walkway of the Triborough Bridge (1936), now the RFK Bridge.
That’s the roiling Hell Gate below, and damn, was it moving southward swiftly. From the Dutch “Hellegat,” hell channel, descriptively enough; this was a fierce and deadly passage between Long Island Sound and the East River until its underwater rock outcroppings were blasted out in 1876. The blasting did not help the paddle-wheel ferry General Slocum which chugged through here in June of 1904 while on fire. Within twenty minutes, at least 1021 passengers were dead in the city’s worst disaster prior to the attack on 9/11. None of the boat’s life-saving equipment was up to snuff. Most of the passengers were women and children from the Kleindeutschland community of the East Village. The tragedy broke the back of the community, which was centered around Thompkins Square, and survivors largely abandoned the neighborhood, some to settle in Yorkville.
Of their bones are corals made… along the waterfront at Astoria, OHS found this extraordinary clump of coral. I hadn’t been aware that corals live in cold northern waters, but they do, both on the continental shelf and much deeper. Some are very old and have been analyzed for signs of climate changes over time. Deep-sea dredging for seafood has wrought devastation to these coral communities. Figures. How this piece got into the Hell Gate we don't know.
Ward’s and Randall’s used to be separate islands but are now connected with fill. Both of the islands were potters’ fields in their time. Various institutional structures (Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a vast sewage plant) and sports fields and stadium are to be found there. One of the streets had a beautiful line of bishop's crook lamp-posts, lighting the way to nowhere or the looney-bin, which ever came first. We stumbled across this sweet little bridge, leaping what’s left of the Little Hell Gate Inlet, which used to separate both islands.
The bridge leads to a short boardwalk with interpretive signs ("All butterflies are insects!") and some color amid the sere reeds.
Crossing over the Manhattan/Randall’s segment of the Triborough, we saw a peregrine flying around the bridge towers, pausing to rest on the westernmost tower as we passed below. On the Manhattan side, this road salt supply dump had an intriguing look.

All in all, an excellent afternoon. The city as site of exploration remains inexhaustible.

1 comment:

nehoccramcire said...

fantastic post about a bridge we admire everyday, yet, till now, we knew nothing about...also never realized that the general slocum disaster occurred here...nice pictures, to boot...