Hell Gate Bridge: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Hell Gate Bridge is a unique structure that has become an important visual landmark. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and design of this bridge, and see how it's been used over time.

The Hell Gate Bridge

Many bridges are named after their destinations; the place you hope to arrive after crossing them. If that's the case, New York City may want to consider renaming the Hell Gate Bridge. This 1,017-foot crossing connects Astoria (Queens) and Ward/Randall Islands over a section the East River which the early Dutch colonists called the ''Hellegat'' (or Hell Gate), for its tricky currents. Today, it's one of the city's most iconic structures. Hopefully the name is just a reference to the channels historic name, and not to the way Manhattanites feel when leaving their beloved island for Queens.

The Hell Gate Bridge

History and Design

In the early 20th century, New York City was growing at an incredible rate. Part of this was the official consolidation of the five boroughs into a single city in 1898, which placed administration of the entire area under a single city government. One of the city's first priorities was to connect the transportation networks of the boroughs, breaking up the self-imposed confinement of each neighborhood. One of the most significant parts of the infrastructural overhaul was to build massive bridges. These structures not only physically connected people, they symbolized the industrial and innovative growth of the newly united city.

Design and Construction

When the Queensboro Bridge opened in 1908, its architect Henry Hornbostel and engineer Gustav Lindenthal became city heroes (at least amongst the building community). They were quickly commissioned to create another bridge together. This one would be an elevated railway, used to bring trains from Manhattan to Queens via the Ward and Randall Islands.

Hornbostel and Lindenthal set to work on their design and eventually developed a unique vision for the Hell Gate Bridge. Their structure would be a through arch bridge, where the arch began below the main deck but peaked above it. This innovative design was made possible only by the use of a new, stronger material called steel (you may have heard of it). As the material behind the skyscrapers, roads, tunnels, and bridges of the growing city, steel represented the new era of modern, industrially powerful New York.

The main span of the Hell Gate Bridge would be supported by a steel, bowstring truss arch. To further the symbolism, the design was chosen to mimic a Roman triumphal arch and anchored to massive towers bearing the same, grandiose aesthetic. While the heavy towers at either end were covered with stone masonry, the skeleton of the arch was left uncovered, proudly displaying the modern use of steel-frame design. As a final touch, the viaduct approaches that extend for thousands of feet in either direction from the main span were modeled on the heavy, Romanesque arches and Roman aqueducts. With structures like this, there really could be no question about New York's opinion of its place in world history.

Construction on the Hell Gate Bridge began in 1914 and was a massive undertaking. The engineering team alone consisted of roughly 70 people. As it began to take shape, the bridge was immediately noted for the almost excessive sense of size, grandeur, and stability. That aesthetic was probably intentional, reflecting not only the power of New York and the railroad industry but also overcompensating for skeptics who worried that such a structure could not support its own weight.

Building the steel arch was considered an engineering marvel of the time

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