Queens by sea

By Dustin Brown

Coasting along the turbulent waters of the East River late last month, a crew of seafaring novices caught a brief but memorable glimpse of what navigating between the boroughs was like 100 years ago.

As the boat passed beneath the wide span of the Hell Gate Bridge, its hull bobbed and swayed to the violent rhythm of a notoriously strong current. Passengers' feet bathed in the cool waters of the East River, which poured onto the deck through holes along its edge when the boat leaned precariously from one direction to the other.

The Island Current, a 15-year-old custom-built Gloucester boating vessel, sailed two weekends ago from the Bronx's City Island south toward the Queens East River shoreline, carting a crew of history enthusiasts keen on rediscovering the nearly 90-year-old Hell Gate Bridge and its surrounding sites.

“The engineers claim that with a regular coat of paint, this bridge could last as long as the pyramids,” said Greater Astoria Historical Society President Bob Singleton as he gestured toward the bridge, a four-track railroad crossing that carries Amtrak and freight trains across the East River.

The motley assemblage of passengers had little in common beyond curiosity about the city's waterways and a connection to one of the tour's two leaders: Bernard Ente, a Maspeth resident who periodically offers off-beat tours around the city, and Singleton.

“Most New Yorkers see the waterway as a barrier instead of the highway it used to be,” Ente said. “I feel the best way to see the city is to get on the waterway.”

The trip was made possible by a grant from the Queens Council of the Arts to help the historical society create new types of historical excursions that break away from the traditional mold of the walking tour.

“It's not only a new tour,” Singleton said. “It's also a totally new medium of conducting a tour – and that's by boat.”

Among the 20 passengers on the Hell Gate excursion were a crew of engineers lured by enticing views of the bridges, a doorman from Astoria whose first love is history and two Hungarian tourists.

“It's a part of New York that I've always wanted to see and never had a chance to see,” said Art Carella, 46, a Sotheby's executive who lives in Astoria.

The name Hell Gate comes from the Dutch “Hell Gat,” which directly translates to “bright passage” – a name Singleton believes emerged from the glimmer of sunlight voyagers see bouncing off the Long Island Sound once they pass north through the channel.

But the name assumed another meaning for the English, vividly capturing the dangers of a violent waterway notorious for sinking ships.

“My theory is it's Hell Gate because it's hell going through it,” said Gladys Elchair, 38, a Long Island resident who works as a pharmacist at New York Hospital Queens.

Between the 1850s and the 1920s, the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to clear the channel and calm its waters by blasting away rock formations – one of which, the destruction of Mill Rock, was described by Singleton as having been the world's largest explosion before the atom bomb.

Although the channel is now largely free of obstructions, the infamous current is as strong as ever as passengers on the Island Current learned firsthand.

“It's so narrow you get a lot of turbulence bouncing off the walls,” said Capt. Chris Cullen, who guided the ship through the rough waters of Hell Gate. “A lot of current pushes through a very narrow strait.”

In the mid-1800s, travelers on either side of the river would ring a bell to beckon the ferry across the channel – a journey that could take up to an hour and a half when the tide was especially rough.

Even after the hazards of crossing the East River were tamed by bridges and tunnels, the crossing still came saddled with its share of headaches.

Once the Triborough Bridge was completed in 1939, the first car to cross the span stalled before completing its journey, forcing reporters covering the event to push it through the toll plaza in order to get their story.

But when stubborn New Yorkers continued to use the 92nd Street ferry after the bridge's opening, Robert Moses – the legendary city official responsible for many of the city's construction projects in the last century – had the Manhattan dock destroyed to break them of their habit.

“By retelling these stories, it really impresses in people's minds how they're a part of a continuum of history,” said Singleton, who recounted those and numerous other tales over the course of the voyage. “The story of our city can be told by going through these inlets and streams and bays and coves and just talking about the people that course through there.”

For some of the passengers, however, history took the back seat to aesthetics.

“I think the Hell Gate is one of the most beautiful bridges in New York,” said Jim Brand, 29, an engineer originally from Richmond Hill. “I don't know any other bridge that can be purple and get away with it.”

For more information about tours, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 278-0700, or visit its website at www.astorialic.org.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.