Little Hell Gate

What happens when two islands are fused together? Does the expanded landmass adopt the name of the larger island? Do they merge their names in a portmanteau? Or in a nod to modern relationships, retain their separate names despite becoming one island? In a section of the East River called Hell Gate, Randalls and Wards Islands were once separated by an inlet called Little Hell Gate.

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Most of it was buried by 1966, but a small section was preserved as a cove on the Harlem River, transformed into a salt marsh in 2009. Above is a view looking towards East Harlem from the isthmus that fuses the two islands.

As it was

The islands are situated at the juncture of Manhattan, Bronx and Queens but for most New Yorkers, they are an afterthought, situated in the shadow of the elevated approaches to the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges. Before they were connected to the rest of the city, the isolated status of these islands made them ideal for prisons and asylums for the city’s unwanted residents. As the 1883 map shows, adding to the insults is a point at the southeastern tip of Wards Island with a racially offensive name.

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Connected by Rail and Road

With the construction of Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan, a railway connection was designed in 1916 by Gustav Lindenthal to link Long Island, Penn Station and the continental mainland with a bridge above Hell Gate. Its design is the same as that of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As the famous bridge in Australia has climbing tours, why not have the same for Hell Gate Bridge? For now, the only view from the top comes from illegally-conducted visits by urban explorers. The railway does not have any stations on the islands.

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To its immediate south, the Triborough Bridge was constructed in 1936 to connect highways in the Bronx Manhattan and Queens. Notice the unusually high viaduct that takes both bridges above Wards and Randalls Islands. Rumor has it that the elevation was designed to deter escapes by patients of the asylum on Wards Island. In 2008, Governor David Paterson had the bridge renamed after former Senator Robert F. Kennedy. However, anyone who calls the Triborough Bridge by its new official name is not a true New Yorker. If I am ever elected to public office, I vow to restore the bridge to its popular and original name.

1936 aerial

At Little Hell Gate

At its crossing of Little Hell Gate, the railroad viaduct crossed the inlet on a unique structure comprised of four upside-down bowstring arches set on a diagonal to follow the stream. Although Little Hell Gate was shallow, the War Department mandated a high crossing for it.

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With the filling of Little Hell Gate, this bridge now crosses over dry land, as seen on Forgotten-NY.

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A Forgotten Bridge

Between the Triborough and Hell Gate viaducts was a third crossing of Little Hell Gate designed by Othmar Ammann, the engineer behind the Triborough Bridge. Completed in 1936, it carried Central Drive between the two islands. With the islands fused together by the late 1960s, the bridge had become obsolete. Central Drive was relocated to run alongside the structure, which crumbled over the years.

Because this bridge had a famous designer there was a last-ditch push to preserve it as a bikeway but by the end of 1995, Little Hell Gate Bridge was just a memory. In the 1948 aerial survey below, Wards, Randalls and Sunken Meadow islands still have their separate identities with three bridges linking two of these islands.

1948 aerial

Between 1934 and 1970, the inlet was gradually filled by the city, expanding parkland at the waterway’s expense. In 1955, the city fused Sunken Meadow Island to Randalls Island at no cost by allowing contractors to dump construction debris in the water. The western portion of the strait was proposed at the time for a boat basin. Instead, the filling of Little Hell Gate continued into the 1970s until only a small cove remained on the western side of the fused islands.

With Little Hell Gate filled in and Bronx Kill narrowed considerably, the section of East River between 100th and 125th Streets is regarded by many mapmakers today as part of the Harlem River.

What’s There Today

What remains of Little Hell Gate is a constructed salt marsh with a boardwalk path and arch bridge for pedestrians and bikers. Informational signs and decorative fencing indicate that the site is a nature preserve.

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Is This a Spring?

At the head of the salt marsh is a trickle flowing into the inlet. Taking a closer look, water appears to be seeping out of a pier holding up the viaduct. Most likely it is a pipe inside the column carrying water down from the roadway above.

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Between the Bridges

On the isthmus between the once-separate islands, a freshwater wetland was constructed, hemmed in by Central Drive and the Hell Gate Bridge.

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A Revival?

In May 2011, the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design proposed restoring Little Hell Gate in a way that would separate Randalls and Wards Islands.

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The proposal described the landfill as “used for primarily for parking and minor structures.” In reality, part of it is used as a firefighter training academy, a vital part of the city’s infrastructure. That makes the daylighting of the filled section of the inlet highly unlikely.

Returning to Manhattan

The longest pedestrian-only river crossing in the city is the High Bridge, but the longest pedestrian-only drawbridge is Wards Island Bridge. Despite the guillotine appearance of its towers, Ammann described this bridge as one of his favorites. The bridge opened on May 18, 1951. It connects to East 103rd Street in East Harlem.

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Harlem Creek?

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Looking north from the bridge, one sees the unused East 107th Street Pier and a block to the south, a sewer outlet beneath the esplanade. Two centuries ago, this is nearly the exact location where Harlem Creek flowed into the East River. Could this be a remnant of that stream? I’ll save this question for another day.

Again, although Randalls and Wards Islands retain their separate names, the organization responsible for the upkeep of this public park is the Randalls Island Park Alliance, because its offices are located on that island, as is the Icahn Stadium, and ramps to the Triborough Bridge. Another reason why Wards Island does not get the same publicity is because it still has an asylum on it.

This Week’s Book

When an island in the city has a stream flowing within it, the book to use is The Other Islands of New York City, first printed in 1996 by the same publisher as my book. The book mentions the Bronx Kill and Little Hell Gate in the chapter on Randalls-Wards Island. It is now in its third edition. The book is an excellent companion to Hidden Waters of New York City.

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