Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Hell Gate

I’ve never slept well with open doors. As a child, I’d see the light flickering through the crack and imagine it was an otherworldly train, drifting through the dark to steal children who hadn’t properly fallen asleep. It would squeeze down the hall: a luminous blue fog shaped into a car, blank faces pressed against its windows, hands reaching from the gaps to pull any errant child aboard. I’d close my eyes and lay very still, light dancing behind my eyelids, and pray the conductor would pass over me.

I haven’t seen that train for years, but to find it again, I needn’t look far.

By Friedo at English Wikipedia

Finished in 1916, Hell Gate Bridge is a monster made of more steel than the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges combined. In spite of a mid-90’s effort to repaint it, it’s once-violent red has faded to a ghostly pink, giving it a splotchy, desolate appearance. Two stone towers squat at either end, arms and eyes of a structure built so precisely that when the final section was lifted into place, it only had to be adjusted by half an inch.

Since its inception, Hell Gate has been used exclusively for railroad traffic, and today is owned and operated primarily by Amtrak, though it supports some other passenger and freight trains. Its path stretches between Astoria and Randalls and Wards islands, which at the time of its construction housed a correctional facility and mental institution, respectively. The original lattice design of the bridge had to be altered, in fact, to soothe worries that the asylum patients might climb up it and escape. At 1,017 feet, Hell Gate was hailed as the world’s longest steel arch bridge until 1932, when Australia, inspired by Hell Gate’s grandeur, built the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was not the last time Hell Gate would impress.

Even before the bridge was constructed, Hell Gate pass–site of the battling currents of the East, Hudson, and Harlem rivers–was infamously unsafe. Many ships opted to avoid it altogether. In the fall of 1780, the strait swallowed the motherlode of ships–the British man-of-war Hussar–dragging 140 of its crew and its $800 million worth of treasure* down into the silt. The wreckage has never been completely recovered**. Word has it also that when the tide was low, the British would chain American captives to a rock wall in the Hell Gate basin. Then, as the tide time came in, they’d sit in their boats at watch the water rise, relishing the screams of the drowning men. Later, lighthouse keepers claimed that these screams never really stopped, and could be heard echoing through the dark some one hundred years after the river ran over the rebels’ heads. Naturally, the strait continued to be a magnet for death even after the bridge was put in, attracting suicides and Mafia body drops. Once Hell Gate took them, the victims might never be found.

By squirrel83 at Flickr.
By squirrel83 at Flickr.

By the time the 70’s rolled around, the tracks were so seldom used and the bridge had fallen into such disrepair that it’s no wonder its reputation snowballed like it did. Teenagers whispered of a pedophiliac rapist living at the base in Queens–a vagrant that would pull children in to do hideous things to them before murdering (and, according to some, eating) them. The story goes that by the time the police finally went down there, all they found was a room full of photographs of the psychopath’s crime, and a horrible, pervasive stench.

After its new coat of paint in 90’s, Hell Gate was briefly able to pull itself out of the mud. Except that the color faded even as the painters put it on. Except that people started to climb up to explore the tracks late at night, and wonder about how many had died there. Sometimes, stumbling over the black rails, they would see lights. The lights would wax, consolidate into one or two spots, then barrel straight at the traveller along the tracks, only to disappear before running them over.

And sometimes, people would turn and see faces staring back at them from a half-formed train car.

If you’d like to experience Hell Gate in all its glory, the city of New York has made it quite easy, even going so far as to construct a cheerful walking path right along where American soldiers were drowned, where asylum inmates reached up in hopes of escape, where children were rumored to have been dragged to their doom.

Can’t make it right away? Not to worry! Even in the event every human in New York is wiped out, Hells Gate Bridge will last for a milenium more–seven hundred years after all other bridges crumble to dust.

It’ll wait.

* Mimimum estimated 2015 market value.

** Not for lack of trying. For more info, see Myths and Mysteries of New York: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained, by Fran Capo

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