OK, first things first. Those crossing the bridge have no need to abandon all hope. The bridge is known as the Hell Gate Bridge because it spans the section of the East River known as the Hell Gate. This particular section of river has no demonic connection, nor does it lead to any section of hell; it just separates Ward's Island from Queens. The water was named in 1614 by Adriaen Block, captain of the Onrust sailing south from Albany; Hellegat, in Old Dutch, translates apparently to 'beautiful strait'**. (Please remember that the Dutch named many of the peculiar features of this town: their word for "river" came into English as "Kill"; thusly, the huge garbage dump on Staten Island has its now-ironically fitting name because a clean river once ran through it, not because of the smell.)

And now, the bridge.

Plans for a rail bridge connecting Long Island to the American mainland were long in coming. The previous methods of getting trains through the area either involved ferrying the trains down the Hudson from the Bronx to Jersey City, or a long and costly detour through Westchester into New Jersey. Oliver W. Barnes, an engineer and friend of Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander J. Cassatt, first drew up plans for the East River Arch Bridge in 1892. This bridge was to be part of a whole series of connections joining the Pennsy's railways in New Jersey and Connecticut through New York City. Bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal saw in these plans the possible realization of his dream to build a huge suspension bridge over the Hudson River. The New York Connecting Railroad company was formed that year to bring these ideas to reality.

The Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the New York Connecting Railroad sometime around 1904, and that year appointed Lindenthal as consulting engineer for the entire project. Lindenthal had made a name for himself in New York with his work (some still ongoing) on three other East River bridges; this new project would ask him to join the tracks of three separate rail companies on three separate land masses. Unfortunately for Lindenthal, the plans favored rail tunnels under the Hudson rather than the bridge he dearly wanted; he was, however, given a bridge to design over the Hell Gate.

The bridge project would actually be constructed of three smaller bridges joining north Queens to the south Bronx. The first, crossing the Bronx Kills, was originally planned as a bascule bridge in case the Kills ever became navigable, ended up as a 350' long truss bridge. The second, crossing the now-filled Little Hell Gate between Randall's and Ward's Islands, would be four reverse-arch bridges of 300'. And finally, there would be the main span, crossing the Hell Gate itself to land in Queens. All of these bridges would be connected by several thousand feet of viaducts; the full project would be more than three miles long. The bridge would also carry an unprecedented four lines of rail traffic.

Designing the bridge was difficult. The final steel-arch design was chosen because of the limiting factors inherent in the project's design. It would have to be strong enough to bear the weight of several locomotives crossing at once, with the ability to bear the locomotives of the future; it would have to rise high enough over the East River to allow ships to pass underneath; and its approach would have to handle the sharp curve required to avoid the mental hospitals on Ward's Island. And, of course, it would have to be cheap.

Lindenthal hired 95 engineers to work on the technical details of the bridge's construction, freeing himself to work on the aesthetics. Not only, he reasoned, should the bridge look impressive in order to accentuate the importance of this rail link, but it would be seen by all the passengers on these trains and also visible from all over the city. Otharr Ammann, his assistant chief engineer, felt that

[a] great bridge in a great city, although primarily utilitarian in its purpose, should nevertheless be a work of art to which science lends its aid. An elaborate stress sheet, worked out on a purely economic and scientific basis, does not make a great bridge. It is only with a broad sense for beauty and harmony, coupled with wide experience in the scientific and technical field, that a monumental bridge can be created.1
Two designs for the arch were brought forward in 1905. The first design, inspired by a bridge built by Gustave Eiffel in France, was rejected due to its apparant weakness. The second, approved, design, was similar to that of bridges that spanned the Rhine in Germany, and appeared more sturdy than the former. The bridge was to consist of a great steel arch, flanked on either side by two tremendous stone towers.

Construction was started on the project in 1912. Lindenthal was forced to changed some plans in 1914. The original design called for the viaduct to be supported by steel piers and girders, but the local government felt that the inmates of the island's mental hospitals could climb the steel girders and escape. This, along with the knowledge it would quiet the sounds of the rails, changed the makeup of the piers from steel to concrete.

The arch had to be constructed simultaneously from both sides with no falsework in between. The Hell Gate itself was still being used for shipping, and its waters were far too treacherous to build any support in the middle. The arches would be supported from behind, anchored in boxes filled with 850 tons of pig iron, until the two halves were joined; this happened in 1915, making it the longest steel arch bridge in the world.

The bridge project was completed in 1916, and supposedly opened to rail traffic on September 30th of that year. Most other sources point to the Opening Day ceremonies being held on April 1, 1917, with the first train (part of the Federal Express service, running from Boston to Washington) crossing the bridge two days later, and completing the link started in 1904 with the building of the Pennsylvania tunnels under the Hudson River and furthered with the 1910 opening of the East River rail tunnels.

The bridge underwent very few changes in the rest of its history. Lindenthal suggested that a second deck be added to carry cars and pedestrians and join the bridge to Manhattan, but this was overruled in favor of the Triborough Bridge. The bridge went unmaintained for most of its life, unpainted (except for graffiti) and raining rust and the occasional bolt down onto Astoria. Amtrak president W. Graham Claytor, Jr. felt that since the bridge was still structurally sound, they didn't feel the need to spend money to make it look better. A campaign, started in the late 1980s by Astoria native and state Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, got $55 million from Congress to refurbish the bridge. The project was finished in 1996 and the bridge was repainted the unique color "Hell Gate Red". (The bridge has gone unmaintained again; Hell Gate Red is now faded, and graffiti is again visible from shore).


The entire bridgeway is 16,900' long. The Hell Gate Bridge itself has a 977' span, 1,017' with the two Gothic towers on either side of the arch included. The bridge was the longest of its kind in the world until the Sydney Harbor bridge opened in 1931 (itself quickly beaten out by the Bayonne Bridge that same year), and remains the 17th longest in the world as of at least 1997. The bridge was also the heaviest in the world when constructed, containing 20,000 tons of steel; this is more steel than used in the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges combined, and four times as much as used in building the Woolworth Building. The roadway clears the East River by 135 feet. The four towers rise 250' above the two islands, and the arch itself reaches a peak of 305' above mean high water.

The girders that connect the top of the arch to the towers were installed purely as a cosmetic decision, changed from the plans of architect Henry Hornbostel by Lindenthal. Lindenthal feared that the original design, with the arch terminating before it reached the towers, would cause the public to feel that the towers were the sole support of the bridge and modified the design to allay those fears.

The bridge is still in use today. The two south tracks are electrified (using overhead catenary wires) and run Amtrak's Northeast Corridor lines up into Boston. The more southerly of the northern tracks carries freight trains. The final track is used solely for maintenance vehicles; sources differ as to whether the tracks have been removed entirely or are used by service cars and road railers.

The bridge was the first four-track railroad bridge ever, and as of this writing, remains so. The bridge was designed to hold up to 90 locomotives (at their weight in 1917) at once, making it still adequate for the electric and diesel trains of today.

The plaque on the bridge still gives its name as the East River Arch Bridge. Some sources claim the official name of the bridge is the New York Connecting (Railroad) Bridge; none specify when the "real" name of the bridge became generally accepted.


** Some people claim that the name comes from the tricky navigation required to sail this turbulent stretch of water, for the currents here are rapid and the glacier that formed New York left many rocks in its wake, making the ride particularly hellish. These people are wrong.

(1) Steve Anderson, http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/hell-gate/


http://www.nyrail.org/amtrak/hellgate/ (Google cache)
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City. Kondansha America, New York:1997 (originally published 1966)

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