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Exploring NY's East River: Some of It's Rich History

May 30, 2018

Sailing out of Long Island Sound, Execution Rock and Sands Point Light disappear out of sight as you enter New York’s East River.  A little farther down river, on your port side, stands LaGuardia Airport and the city’s notorious prison complex, Rikers Island. On the starboard side, the remains of Riverside Hospital come into view on North Brother Island. Its most famous resident, Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary, was held there, in quarantine, for a total of 26 years.  She died in isolation on November 11, 1938 and was buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery, in the Bronx.
About 1.5 miles down-river of the island, the Harlem River and tidal waters meet at the river’s most hazardous site, Hell Gate (=Hurlgate). During a spring ebb tide with easterly winds, its nine acres of waters swirl and pile up in a chaotic chop. The current can exceed 5 knots!
In 1614, Dutch explorer and trader, Adriaen Block, managed to sail safely through Hellegat (its Dutch name). He was headed for Long Island Sound. It was during that same trip that he explored the Connecticut River and discovered Block Island.
Hell Gate’s most famous wreck occurred in 1780. The British frigate HMS Hussar,  said to have been carrying backpay for the British army, struck one of  the gate’s rock reefs. Its remains and treasure were never recovered.
During the mid-1800s, one in fifty vessels navigating through Hell Gate was either sunk or suffered crippling hull damage. During a 1848 survey of the waterway, US Navy Lieutenants Davis and Porter observed eight wrecks in a single day.  The shipwrecks were attributed to Hell Gate’s most dangerous obstruction that laid barely under the surface, Pot Rock. At the Navy’s recommendation, explosive charges were put in place over Pot Rock, Frying Pan and Way’s Reef. The depth of the water was increased, but the losses to shipping continued.
In the early 1870s, engineers began tunneling below Hell Gate’s obstructions. A series of interconnecting tunnels, totaling 7,425 feet, were constructed from the shores of Hallett’s Point. Completed in 1876, some 30,000 pounds of explosives were installed in pits drilled into the tunnels’ walls and ceilings. On September 24, 1876, huge crowds gathered on the shores of the East River to witness the blast. “Three minutes, two minutes, one minute, THERE!”  A huge geyser rose to about 123 feet to the collective gasp of the onlookers. The project was successful in increasing the depth over the reefs by 21 feet, but there was yet one other serious obstruction, Flood Rock.
Over the next nine years, a sea wall was constructed surrounding the obstruction. In preparation for its destruction, the rock was honeycombed with “four miles of tunnels with 15,000 holes drilled into their ceilings.” Loaded with explosives, the October 10, 1885 blast was said to have been watched by some 50,000 spectators. The reef was successfully destroyed. It was the last major obstruction in the waterway.
A short distance down-river of Hell Gate, a 50-foot tall stone lighthouse, marks the north end of Roosevelt Island. Built in 1872, its construction has at times been attributed to a mental patient who was a ward of the island’s asylum. A plaque positioned near the structure until the 1960s, partially read “This work was done by John McCarthy who built the lighthouse…” It is also believed that the structure may have been erected by some of the island’s prisoners. Though the Blackwell Island Lighthouse was operated privately, to mark the approach to Hell Gate, it was furnished by the Lighthouse Board with a 4-th order Fresnel lens. It displayed aa fixed red light. The beacon was decommissioned during the 1940s.In 1972, it was listed on the National Register of Historical Places and two years later, it was declared a New York City landmark.
Over time, Roosevelt Island changed name six times. Purchased in the early 1600s by the Dutch from the Canarsie tribe who called it Minnahannock, it was then renamed Varcken (=Hog) Island. In 1666, it was named Manning Island after its new owner. Twenty years later, it again took the name of its new owner, Blackwell Island. In 1828, the City of New York purchased the island as a site to house those considered societies undesirables. Over time, a poor house, a smallpox hospital, a lunatic asylum and prison were erected on the island. A February 1866 Harpers Monthly Magazine article summed up the prevailing attitude of some the local authorities. “Most of the patients are from the lower ranks of life. They are generally friendless or poor. Many arrive committed by the city magistrates, their friends being ignorant of their affliction or whereabouts.” Twenty-one years later, Nellie Bly, under assignment as an investigative reporter, committed herself to the asylum for a short stay. “I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be…”
 After publishing her findings, the City of New York appropriated an additional 1 million per annum for the care of the asylum’s patients. For additional information, go to Google and enter: Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly, it is  full text online.
In 1921, Blackwell Island was renamed Welfare Island. The name stood until changed in 1973 to Roosevelt Island. Today, the island is a great place to visit with river walks that provide a great view of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Down-river, at the junction of the Hudson and East Rivers stand Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty.
For over 200 years, Governors Island served as a military garrison. It served as “the longest continuously active military post in the United States.” The Army was stationed there from 1794 to June of 1996 when its facilities were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. Over the next 30 years, the installation became the world’s largest Coast Guard base and the USCG headquarters for the Atlantic Area command. In 2003, 22 acres of the island was designated as a National Monument. At the same time, the remaining 150 acres were transferred to the Trust for Governors Island, an agency that is dedicate to the development of its portion of the island into public parkland. For more information go to the following National Parks Service web site: https://www.nps.gov/gois/index.htm

 

 

 

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