One of the most iconic structures in Queens turns 100 years old today, March 9, and several community groups are hosting events to celebrate and educate residents on its historical significance.
Antonio Meloni, director of New York Anti-Crime Agency and president of the Astoria Civic Association, organized several meetings in 2016 to bring together groups interested in paying homage to the Hell Gate Bridge. The celebration will consist of a number of events in Astoria throughout the entire year.
Meloni’s group, which was founded in 1984, has hosted cleanups around the bridge and is responsible for organizing the creation of more than a dozen murals near the structure to beautify the area.
“We growing up here felt such a kinship to the bridge and we still do,” he told QNS.
Construction on the bridge started on March 1, 1912 and was completed on Sept. 30, 1916. It was officially open to rail traffic on March 9, 2017.
The bridge’s name is a spin on the Dutch word Hellegat, which means “hell channel.” The name is fitting considering the East River was the scene of one of the city’s worst maritime disasters. On June 15, 1904 the steamboat “General Slocum” caught fire and sank in the East River near the bridge, killing 1,021 of 1,342 passengers.
The Greater Astoria Historical Society (GAHS) kicked off the celebration last September with a number of lectures and on March 9 it will host the Hell Gate Bridge Centennial Celebration. Cake and bubbly will be served at 35-20 Broadway and Dave Frieder, known as “The Bridge Man,” will recount his experience climbing the bridge and will share interesting facts about the bridge’s construction.
Meloni has also partnered with graffiti artist Eli Lazare to commemorate the bridge with several murals depicting the bridge then and now. In June, a 5K run will be organized in conjunction with the Hell Gate Runners and Federation of Italian American Organizations of Queens.
Several committees have been formed to help plan a concert with fireworks, a day of service to clean up the area near the bridge and elected officials along with Meloni have called on Amtrak to repaint the bridge.
In 1992, the New York Anti-Crime Agency, NYPD and Marines organized Operation Gung-Ho. The only operation of its kind because of the combination of federal, city and community groups, Meloni said, the groups cleaned up 250 stores and repainted the entire bridge.
“In ’92 it had been graffiti-ed,” Meloni said, adding that it had constantly been tagged since the 1950s. “We tried to clean it up and it would get totally hit again. We cleaned 250 stores with 130 marines, cops and volunteers. [We had] 10 Humvees. We looked like a Humvee expedition but no explosives.”
Meloni said it took hundreds of gallons of paint to finish the job and after that day it was never tagged again. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan allocated $55 million to have the bridge refurbished. It was painted “hell gate red” in 1996 but “somebody screwed up on the pigment,” Meloni said, which turned into the pink color that it is today.
He still has hope that current Senator Charles Schumer will step up to get funding for a new coat of paint and is also trying to get a local company to install lights around the bridge.
“We want to make sure the hell gate has that same respect not only to keep it clean but to make it a focal point,” Meloni said. “It’s more than just a structure. It’s been an icon in this community for the longest time.”