Happy Birthday, Hell Gate Bridge!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Barge Approaching Hell Gate Bridge

Barge approaching Hell Gate Bridge

It’s hard to believe the Hell Gate Bridge is almost 100 years old.

98, to be exact: The bridge first opened on September 30, 1916. I’ve written about my love for the Hell Gate three years ago, in my birthday greetings to the Bayonne Bridge.

But it’s worth summarizing again why I feel so strongly about the Hell Gate. As I wrote then:

I love bridges. I’m not entirely sure why. Partly it’s the look of them: They seem almost alive, taking off in a leap of concrete, stone, or steel,  somehow infinitely optimistic and everlastingly hopeful. Partly it’s their function: Bringing things together, connecting people and places that were previously divided. And of course, bridges often cross moving water—another of my favorite things.

But though I love them all, some bridges in particular hold a special place in my heart.

Many years ago I worked north of New York City (in Connecticut and later in White Plains). The hours were grueling—some days I’d leave my apartment at 5 AM and not return until 11 PM. Sometimes I drove, but I preferred to take the Metro-North train. I relished the peacefulness of the scenery rolling by.

As we crossed the Harlem River, I’d catch sight of one bridge in particular, a study in contrasts: graceful, soaring, yet solid, composed of two steel arches with slightly different curvatures, so they were closer together at the top of the arch and wider apart at the bases, anchored in solid stone towers.

The rising sun would touch this bridge and (so I thought) paint it a lovely shade of rosy pink.  The memory of that beauty was often the nicest part of my day.

Hell Gate Bridge, seen from our window

Hell Gate Bridge at sunrise, seen from our window

But for years, I didn’t know what the bridge was called, or even where, exactly, it was. All I knew was that the sight of it reliably brightened my mornings.

One day I happened to mention the bridge to my father, a retired naval officer who had once been stationed in New York City, but now lived hundreds of miles away.

He recognized it immediately from my description: “That’s Hell Gate Bridge,” he said. An odd name for a structure of such harmonious beauty! I hadn’t heard of Hell Gate before, and my dad explained it was where the Harlem River joined the East River. Hell Gate was a treacherous body of water characterized by converging currents and occasional whirlpools that had been the doom of hundreds of ships over the past several centuries.

“As a young ensign, I was on a ship that went through Hell Gate,” my father said. “But I don’t recall that the bridge was pink.” That would have been in the late 1940s; I can’t recall for certain what kind of ship he told me it was, but my memory insists it was a destroyer.

Many years later, I’ll not forget the thrill I had the first time I passed under the bridge, in a far different vessel: My trusty yellow kayak, Photon.

We paddle under the Hell Gate Bridge

We paddle under the Hell Gate Bridge (photo by Johna)

As for the bridge’s color, I later learned my dad was right. The bridge was painted “pink” (actually a color called Hell Gate Red) only in 1996—but the paint has faded to a pastel rose, as you can see.

When doing further research, I learned that:

  • The Hell Gate and Bayonne Bridges reflect the vision of the same man, Czech-Austrian civil engineer Gustav Lindenthal. (Lindenthal designed the Hell Gate, and his Swiss co-worker and protege Othmar Ammann designed Bayonne.)
  • Their beauty is no accident. According to Wikipedia, “Lindenthal’s work was greatly affected by his pursuit for perfection and his love of art. His structures not only serve the purpose they were designed for, but are aesthetically pleasing to the public eye.” Indeed!
  • There’s a third sister (or perhaps cousin): The world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although designed by a different firm, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was inspired by Hell Gate and Bayonne.

I also learned that the Hell Gate Bridge was so perfectly engineered that when the main span was lifted into place, the adjustment required was a mere half-inch!

Happy birthday, you beautiful creature. You haven’t aged a bit!

28 responses to “Happy Birthday, Hell Gate Bridge!

  1. My favorite bridge!!! Happy Birthday Hellgate, and many more!

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  2. Beautiful bridge. Gorgeous view.

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  3. Thanks for this interesting article! Gets me reminiscing about several trips we made through Hell Gate on our express cruiser. With good planning we went through the conflux at (near to) slack tide, avoiding the worst of the currents and whirlpools. I cannot imaging going through on a kayak as you show in your photos above!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      You’re welcome, and thanks for posting!

      Going through in a kayak is quite exciting, particularly at full ebb (or flood) current. The trick is to pick a time when there isn’t any traffic, keep paddling no matter what, and don’t worry too much if the whirlpools spin you around. You’ll reorient yourself quickly once you’re out!

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      • I agree that avoiding other boats, especially big/less maneuverable ones, is key. The area seems pretty small when you are in it.

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        • There’s actually plenty of room. What happens, though, is that the wakes get trapped and amplified in the eddies on either side, through which you also have to go to avoid the traffic in the middle. Then you can get some sizable breaking waves. So, paradoxically, Hell Gate is more turbulent in the summer when there’s a lot of boat traffic. In winter, even at peak current, it’s usually quite placid…

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  4. As I scrolled down the page I kept thinking “Sydney Harbour Bridge.” Our coathanger is a tribute to the beauty and design excellence of it’s older cousins

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      I know, that just totally blew my mind–incredible that Sydney’s crown jewel is modeled after a nearly-forgotten (but utterly lovely) railroad bridge in the Bronx!

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  5. I too love bridges. So if you haven’t read “The Great Bridge” by David McCoullough about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Since reading it 10 years ago, I’ve never looked the same way at bridged.

    http://smile.amazon.com/The-Great-Bridge-Building-Brooklyn/dp/1451683235/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

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  6. Johna Till Johnson

    Hi Marilyn,

    We’ve both read it, but you’ve reminded me it’s one of the books I really need to reread it! And for anyone who loves bridges, it’s totally a must-read…Thanks for calling it out!

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  7. Informative and interesting.Thanks!

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  8. Hell Gate Bridge? Interesting name..

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Isn’t it? There’s plenty of debate as to the exact etymology of the name, though everyone agrees the bridge was named for the water it crosses over.

      Some say it was named “Hell Gate” because the waterways were so treacherous (even today they feature strong currents and whirlpools).

      Others say it’s from the old Dutch meaning “bright strait” or “clear opening” (the old Dutch name for the whole East River). Kind of a study in opposites!

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  9. A fabulous bridge – there is a direct architectural connection between this, the Sydney Harbour Bridge (as you observe), the Tyne Bridge – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyne_Bridge and this humble construction not far from where we live – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wylam_Railway_Bridge completed in 1876.
    A fascinating post, many thanks.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Oh how pretty! Both, I mean, but the Wylam is particularly lovely–three arches! I hope you have cause to walk or cycle over it regularly.

      And I particularly enjoyed this comment on the construction of the Tyne Bridge: “Committees met over the next three decades…” :-) I’m just picturing those meetings…. “Gentlemen, let’s review our notes from, ahem, eight years ago….”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have often taken the train from White Plains and I have seen Hell Gate Bridge and always wondered what it was called and where it lead. Great information and wonderful photos.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      So glad to provide the information! I remember how thrilled I was when I first found out…. Thanks for reading, and posting!

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  11. The Hell Gate is also one of my favorite bridges – what a beauty. Thanks for the history!

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  12. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is often referred colloquially and in typical Australian style as “the coat hanger”. I walked over this bridge in 1966 as a youngster. Today, they conduct tours to the top, giving a great view of Sydney. Another great bridge in Australia is the Storey Bridge in Brisbane. I live near Melbourne where we have massive ugly box girder bridge (West Gate) which collapsed during construction killing ~ 30 workers. But compared to Europe and America, we are a bridge backwater.
    Your Hell Gate Bridge is indeed beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Here in Aus we only see the typicals like the Brooklyn etc.

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