New York City’s Hell Gate Bridge sits on the north end of the East River, between Astoria, Queens and Randall’s Island .The bridge is named for the once-dangerous channel it bridges, derived from the Dutch word hellegat, which means “hell channel.” Five years ago, infrastructure aficionados marked its centennial year with cake and events and this year, Hell Gate Bridge turns 105 years old.
Hell Gate also happens to be a favorite of Dave Frieder, “the Bridge Man” and author of The Magnificent Bridges of New York City who has been documenting sights from atop the city’s bridges for over two decades. With his help and that of our Chief Experience Officer, Justin Rivers, we’re sharing ten fun facts and secrets about the Hell Gate Bridge. Want more? Join us for an in-depth discussion in our upcoming virtual talk about the Secrets of Hell Gate Bridge!
Secrets of Hell Gate Virtual Talk
1. The Hell Gate Bridge is Actually Comprised of Three Bridges
The Hell Gate Bridge is actually comprised of a complex of three bridges: the well-known Steel Arch, an inverted bow string arch that spans a former water-filled channel (Little Hell Gate) between Wards and Randall’s Islands, and a small truss bridge, which would have been a double bascule-type bridge that goes over a small “Kill” between the Bronx and Randall’s Island.
In 2015, a pedestrian and bike route was opened beneath arches of the truss bridge, providing a pleasant and easy way to connect between the Port Morris in the Bronx and Randall’s Island. The bridge was the result of years of activism by groups like South Bronx Unite and others which have been advocating for healthier urban design for a community adversely affected by continued industrial waterfront conversion.
2. Hell Gate Bridge Was Once the Longest Steel Arch Bridge in the World
The Hell Gate Bridge was the longest steel arch bridge in the world when it was dedicated in March 1917. While it’s not the most recognized span in New York City, it did serve as the design inspiration for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, the Tyne Bridge in England and our very own Bayonne Bridge, which connects Staten Island and New Jersey.
According to Dave Frieder, the Bayonne Bridge uses suspender ropes to support the roadway, while the Sydney Harbour and the Hell Gate use I-beams due to the extreme “live loads” (traffic) they carry. The Bayonne Bridge has also had a significant design change when the roadway was raised from 151 feet to 215 feet to accommodate larger freight ships coming into the ports of New York and New Jersey.
3. Part of the Hell Gate Bridge Sits on Shallow Bedrock
The Queens-side tower of the Hell Gate Bridge sits on solid bedrock, reaching only 15 to 38 feet below the ground level. In order to construct the bridge. The Wards Island side was a completely different story all together because it lay near the upturned rock strata that had made the Hell Gate so treacherous to navigate by water. Also a gas line that had been run under the river prior to the bridge’s construction revealed a fissure in the bedrock which made creating a uniform bridge foundation nearly impossible.
Lindenthal’s solution for the Wards Island tower was to utilize fifteen 18-foot diameter caissons to provide solid footing for the tower. It took sandhogs several weeks to dig down deep enough to discover the reported fissure and it was much deeper than they had original thought based on initial borings. The solution was one Lindenthal had already used closer to the surface. He used concrete. He secured one of the caissons with a concrete arch where the fissure passed through its center and where the fissure lay at a connection point of two other caissons he bridged the gap with a concrete cantilever. It was the first time this practice was employed in bridge building. In comparison to the Queens tower, the Wards Island tower caissons reach down anywhere from 94 to 123 feet.
4. The Hell Gate Bridge Can Carry Sixty 200-Ton locomotives
Photo by Dave Frieder
The Hell Gate’s “live load” capacity is 24,000-pounds per foot (that is 12 tons per foot), one of the most extreme load capacities for a bridge. In fact Lindenthal designed the bridge so, 60, 200 ton locomotives could be placed end to end and the structure could easily take the weight.
Yet throughout the bridge’s history the bridge has never come close to testing that capacity. According to Sharon Reier’s book The Bridges of New York City, on the very day the Hell Gate Bridge opened in April 1917 the future of private rail in the United States was being called into question. A mere two days later the United States would declare war on Germany and a year later all rail would be nationalized for the war effort. The Pennsylvania Railroad would have a hard time bouncing back from this precedent over the next fifty years. At its height the PRR would run about 65 trains daily over the bridge which would plummet to four after the failure of the Penn Central in 1970. Currently Amtrak runs approximately 40 trains over the bridge.
5. The Hell Gate Bridge Could Last Over 1000 Years
The “grip” of a bridge rivet (or mechanical fastener) is the thickness of the steel it holds together. The rivets of the Hell Gate Bridge happen to have the longest grip of any bridge in New York City: over nine inches. Due to the high carbon steel it is constructed out of, the span could last well over a thousand years.
Unfortunately that 1000 year guarantee does not include the paint job. By the early 1990’s the steel’s coating was in rough shape so with the urging of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US Congress allocated $55 million to re-paint the bridge for the first time since it was built. The color chosen was a deep red called “Hell Gate Red.” But there was a problem, the clear urethane top coating wasn’t formulated to withstand UV bombardment from the sun. This, in turn, faded the red undercoating which was already fading before the paint job was finished. Amtrak chose to use the same paint in the late 90’s to patch up the damage but it too began to fade. Over the years, it has had more paint jobs since.
6. The Hell Gate Bridge Is Missing a Track
In 2000, one of bridge’s four tracks was removed because it was not being used. Amtrak thought about installing a roadway for service vehicles, but that idea never came to fruition. When the bridge was originally constructed, the Lindenthal wanted to put in two pedestrian walkways on each side of the span for maintenance but the idea was scrapped due to budget issues.
Today, two tracks are reserved for Amtrak trains, while the other one is for CSX Freight trains. When you take Amtrak to and from Boston, you will see the Hell Gate Bridge up close when it crosses over the span.
7. The Hell Gate Could Have Been A Different Kind of Bridge Altogether
A close up of the Hell Gate Bridge’s top chord. Photo by Dave Frieder
The Hell Gate could have almost been built as a crescent arched bridge but Gustav Lindenthal, who designed the span, felt a spandrel arch would make the structure appear stronger. In this design, the upper chord or arch reverses its curve as it comes close to the towers.
Gustav Lindenthal had two very well known engineers assist him with the bridge’s construction: Othmar Ammann, who designed the George Washington Bridge, Verrazano, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Triborough and Bayonne Bridge, and David Steinman, who is known for building the Henry Hudson, the Marine Parkway and the mighty Mackinac Bridge between the north and south peninsulas of Michigan.
8. There Was a Temporary Gap in the Hell Gate Bridge
When it came time to close the arch of the bridge during construction, there was a 5/16th of an inch gap at the apex. Lindenthal employed 3000 ton hydraulic jacks, considered to be the most powerful in existence, to get the job done. Several massive gusset plates breaking girders were also used to secure the two sections of the arch together permanently at a staggering 280 feet above the water. The two-hinged arch actually appears to be hingeless because the design called for the hinges to be obscured by steel housing nestled close to pylons.
The hinge design was essential so that the pylons could take on some of the thrust of the chords not sending it into the ground as in other hingeless bridge designs. Even though it appears that the both upper and lower chords are exerting the thrust, in reality it is only the lower chord.
9. The Hell Gate Bridge Towers Serve No Purpose
Photo by Dave Frieder
Dave Frieder tells us that the stone towers of the bridge, which sit above the road deck, serve no real structural function. They’re purely decorative. Early tower renderings by Henry Hornbostel (who worked with Lindenthal on the Queensboro Bridge) showed lavish Beaux-arts towers with separated arch abutments above the roadway. Those were scaled down in much less detail to the connected arched towers we have today. In a New York Times article, Allan Renz, the grandson of Gustav Lindenthal, reveals that his grandfather “wanted the bridge to look a particular way” and that “the [stone towers] made it look right.” Yet even the chain of masonry arches which lead to span and are structurally functional were celebrated for their beauty, According to The Bridges of New York City, one journalist wrote that piers were almost unmistakably Egyptian and they felt as if “you are standing in the portico of a mammoth unfinished temple.”
In 2015, urban exploration photographer, formerly known as @hakimms shared with us his photographs from atop and inside the Hell Gate Bridge, including inside the stone towers.
10. The Owners of Hell Gate Bridge Have Changed
When it was completed in 1917, the Hell Gate Bridge was part of the New York Connecting Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad. The PRR, which entirely funded the project, originally owned the bridge. Now, it’s owned and maintained by Amtrak.
Want more? Join us for an in-depth discussion in our upcoming virtual talk about the Secrets of Hell Gate Bridge!
Secrets of Hell Gate Virtual Talk
Next, check out some urban exploration photos atop the Hell Gate Bridge.