005-hell-gate-1928.jpg (72717 bytes) New York Architecture Images-New York Bridges

Hell Gate Bridge

  Contemporary black and white images on this page copyright Dave Frieder ( ). Special thanks to Dave Frieder for permission to use images.


Gustav Lindenthal, Othmar Ammann


The Hell Gate Bridge connects Wards Island to Astoria Queens.




Structural Expressionism, Beaux-Arts




Steel arch Bridge


Type Arch   Year Opened 1917
# of Decks 1   # of lanes/tracks 4
Total Length 17000 ft   Main Span Length 1017 ft
Highway/RR Amtrak   Misc Goes from Queens to Ward's Island and onto the Bronx.
Toll N/A  
Comments Part of a 3 bridge system connecting Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. See the Harlem River Bridges for the other two.


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  Dave Frieder Gallery. Copyright Dave Frieder ( )
The Hell Gate Bridge (originally the New York Connecting Railroad Bridge or The East River Arch Bridge) is a 1,017-foot (310 m) steel arch railroad bridge between Astoria in the borough of Queens and Randalls and Wards Islands (which are now joined into one island and are politically part of Manhattan) in New York City, over a portion of the East River known as Hell Gate.

The Bridge is used by Amtrak and by some CSX, Canadian Pacific, Providence & Worcester Railroad, and New York and Atlantic freight trains. The bridge and structure are owned by Amtrak, part of its Washington, D.C. to Boston electrified main line known as the Northeast Corridor. Metro-North Railroad trains may one day run on the bridge. The bridge is also part of the New York Connecting Railroad, a rail line that links New York City and Long Island to the North American mainland.

The Hell Gate Bridge runs parallel to the Queens span of the Triborough Bridge, which connects Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, and drivers can see the length of the bridge just east of the roadway.

The great arch bridge is the largest of three bridges, along with more than 17,000 feet (5.2 km) long of approach spans and viaducts, that form the Hell Gate complex. An inverted bowstring truss bridge with four 300-foot spans crosses the Little Hell Gate (now filled in); and a 350-foot fixed truss bridge crosses the Bronx Kills (also now filled in).

The bridge was conceived in the early 1900s as a way to link New York and the Pennsylvania Railroad with New England and the New Haven Railroad.

Construction was overseen by Gustav Lindenthal, whose original design left a gap of 15 feet between the steel arch and the masonry towers. Fearing that the public assumed that the towers were structurally integral to the bridge, Lindenthal added aesthetic girders between the upper chord of the arch and the towers to make the structure appear more robust.[1] The original plans for the piers on the long approach ramps called for a steel lattice structure. The design was changed to smooth concrete to soothe concerns that asylum inmates on Ward's and Randall's islands would climb the piers to escape. [2]

The engineering was so precise that when the last section of the main span was lifted into place, the final adjustment needed to join everything together was half an inch. The bridge was completed on September 30, 1916.

It was the world's longest steel arch bridge until the Bayonne Bridge was opened in 1932.

The bridge originally carried four tracks, two each for passenger and freight, but one freight track was abandoned in the mid-1970s. At one time, all tracks were electrified with the NH-PRR standard 11 kV 25 Hz overhead catenary; the passenger tracks since 1917, and the freight tracks from 1927 to 1969.

In 1996, the bridge received a facelift, including its first comprehensive paint job in 80 years. It was painted "Hell Gate Red," a dark, natural red.


Was a target for Nazi demolition experts during World War II as part of Operation Pastorius.
Is a centerpiece of the 1991 film Queens Logic.
Is prominently featured in the 1973 film Serpico.
Was the inspiration for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia
Would be the last New York City bridge to collapse if humans disappeared, taking a least a millennium to do so, according to the February 2005 issue of Discover magazine. Most other bridges would fall in about 300 years. [3]
Was offered in miniature by famous toy train maker Lionel, the toy version being significantly 'abridged' due to the enormous size of the prototype.
Today, a lesson in shameless grandeur and simplicity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We call the confluence of the Harlem and the East Rivers in New York City Hell's Gate. Dramatic, I suppose, but why not! A bridge opened over Hell's Gate in 1917. It's an arch of iron girders. The arch thickens at each end. It thins toward the center. You get a feeling of buoyancy looking at it.

Othmar Ammann, who designed the bridge, caught Hell for it. This, says writer Christopher Bonanos, was an age of ornament, gravity, solidity, and dignity. Ammann's design was imperfect in some ways. But its simplicity, lightness, and freedom signaled a new era in design.

Ammann had finished an engineering degree in Switzerland in 1902 and had come here soon after. Now -- in 1930 -- he was hard at work on two really grand bridges that're sure to carry his name far into the 21st century.

One was the Bayonne Bridge -- an expanded version of his Hell's Gate triumph. It's a huge graceful arch of open structural steel. The other was the longest suspension bridge up to that time. It's the George Washington Bridge with its 3500-foot span.

The George Washington Bridge also has open structural steel towers. At first they were to've been faced with stone, but the Depression required cost cutbacks. Had Ammann meant all along for that great steel span to stand naked at the north portal of New York City? He never would say.

Whatever Ammann's intentions, the outspoken modern architect Le Corbusier called it the most beautiful bridge in the world. Meanwhile, Ammann kept tying New York to land. He built the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. He built the Throgs Neck Bridge.

When Ammann died at 86 he'd just finished his last masterpiece. For the second time he'd given us the world's longest suspension span. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is a plain study in grace, with a 4300-foot central span.

He created a radical new deck design for the Verrazano Bridge to keep it from galloping in the wind. The deck thins toward its edges to guide wind around it. Ammann's work was meticulous. The towers are an inch and a half wider at the top to keep gravity's force dead-vertical -- despite Earth's curvature.

So this remarkable 19th-century engineer left his stamp on bridge-building down through the 20th century. He helped shape a new attitude toward design. Ammann was born ten years before the Eiffel tower was built. And he showed us the steel at the heart of design. Writer Bonanos says that he expressed structure without shame. It is that shameless joy in naked function that touches us. It is the simple grandeur of open steel against the sky.

John Lienhard

The massive beauty and advanced technology of the Hell Gate Bridge (more properly the New York Connecting Railroad Bridge) contrast sharply with nineteenth-century descriptions of the channel that it spans. Named for the dangerous rocks and perilous waters at the confluence of the East and the Harlem Rivers, Hell Gate is surrounded by Manhattan, Queens, and three islands: Wards, Randalls, and Roosevelt (formerly called Blackwell's, then Welfare). Philip Hone (1780 -1851), writing of an 1844 visit there, described "the delightful scene: the clumps of fine old trees clothed in the gorgeous foliage of autumn, the lawn still bright and green, the mild, refreshing breeze, the rapid waters of Hell Gate covered with sailing vessels and steamboats -all combined to present a picture of consummate beauty."

The construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad tunnel under the Hudson River and into Pennsylvania Station replaced the time-consuming and expensive water route for New York -bound passengers and freight from New Jersey and points south. Hell Gate Bridge -from the Sunnyside Yards in Queens across the Hell Gate to Wards Island, then across the Little Hell Gate to Randalls Island, and then over the Bronx Kill to the Bronx -was built to complete the linkage of the New York, New England, and Long Island rail lines with the Hudson River crossing. Together, tunnel and bridge created a direct route over the Bronx Kill to the Bronx.

The longest, heaviest, strongest steel arch bridge in the world at that time and the only four-track long-span railroad bridge ever built, Hell Gate Bridge marks the apogee of American railroad power and prosperity. Government regulation, poor management, and a proliferation of alternative methods of transportation -private cars, trucks, buses, and airplanes -eventually undercut the railroad's primacy.

Engineer Gustave Lindenthal (1850 -1935) and architect Henry Hornbostel (1867 -1961) had previously been responsible for the redesign of both the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges. Lindenthal, who served in 1902 -1903 as Commissioner of Bridges, firmly believed that a bridge could be both technologically sound and aesthetically pleasing. Despite his accomplishments and success, Lindenthal probably had no formal training in his chosen profession but apparently possessed "the extraordinary intelligence, energy, and self-discipline that enabled him to teach himself mathematics, engineering theory, metallurgy, hydraulics, estimating, management, and everything else a successful bridge designer had to know."

PROVIDING A MUCH-NEEDED RAILROAD CONNECTION: In 1892, Oliver W. Barnes, an engineer associated with Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander J. Cassatt and bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal, conceived plans for the Hell Gate Bridge. Cassatt saw the Hell Gate project - originally called the "East River Arch Bridge" - as an opportunity to bring rail traffic from Pennsylvania Railroad routes in New Jersey and points west through New York City to New England. The project was to also tie into the Long Island Rail Road routes, in which the Pennsylvania Railroad had a controlling interest. Meanwhile, Lindenthal saw the Hell Gate project as his chance to construct his Hudson River Bridge, a suspension bridge with a 2,800-foot-long main span that would have been the longest in the world. That same year, the New York Connecting Railroad was incorporated to help realize this plan.

In 1904, Lindenthal, who oversaw the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge and the construction of the ongoing Manhattan Bridge and Queensboro Bridge projects, was chosen as consulting engineer and bridge architect by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had just acquired the New York Connecting Railroad. Under these auspices, Lindenthal was engaged in a project to connect the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad in New Jersey, the Long Island Rail Road in Queens, and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad in the Bronx. Although the project allowed Lindenthal to design the Hell Gate span, it would not include his long-sought goal: a great suspension bridge across the Hudson River. Instead, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to use exclusive tunnels for rail traffic across the Hudson and East rivers.

DECIDING UPON A DESIGN: The entire project, a 3.2-mile-long railroad bridge from Astoria, Queens to the South Bronx, was comprised of the following sections:

  • Highlighting this project was the Hell Gate span crossing the Hell Gate (roughly translated as "beautiful strait" in Dutch), a portion of the East River with treacherous currents separating Queens from Ward's Island, an island that was used for a large state mental hospital. The steel-arch span, which measures 1,017 feet, six inches long, was the longest span of its type in the world when it opened. The four concrete towers that serve as portals to the arch bridge are 250 feet high.
  • An inverted bowstring truss bridge over Little Hell Gate connects Ward's Island with Randall's Island, the former site of a correctional facility. This section comprises of four 300-foot-long spans with reverse arches, each separated by arched concrete piers. The four concrete towers that serve as portals to the bowstring truss bridge are 155 feet high. (The Little Hell Gate has since been completely filled in by parkland.)
  • A 350-foot-long fixed truss span crosses the Bronx Kills. This section was originally planned as a bascule bridge with 175-foot leaves. (Much of the Bronx Kills was filled in subsequent years by parkland.)
  • The viaduct sections are supported by arched concrete supports. From end to end, the bridge measures 16,900 feet long.

Prior to the selection of the current design, three competing designs for a bridge with an 850-foot main span over the Hell Gate were considered: a stiffened suspension bridge with eyebar chains, a three-span continuous truss bridge, and a three-span cantilever bridge. None of these alternatives were selected, not only because of the concerns posed by the dynamic loading of heavy railroad trains, but also because of the tight curve that was necessary to avoid the state hospital buildings on Ward's Island.

The approved design provided the high clearance required for navigation across the Hell Gate, but did not require the long, straight approaches of the other alternatives. Although its foundations would be more costly, the steel arch design was cost-competitive because it required less steel than the other alternatives.

CONSTRUCTING THE HELL GATE COMPLEX: Lindenthal employed a staff of 95 engineers to calculate how the weight of the trains would be borne by various parts of the bridge, how individual steel members would be made and joined, how much masonry would be required, and how the different functions of bridge construction (for example, the location of bridge abutments vis-à-vis the alignment of the steelwork) would be coordinated. With other engineers performing the calculations, Lindenthal concentrated on the aesthetics of the bridge.

Lindenthal also appointed Othmar Ammann, who would later achieve fame in building twentieth-century suspension bridges such as the George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, as assistant chief engineer. Ammann explained the significance that his mentor placed on the visual appearance of his bridge:

Mr. Lindenthal conceived the bridge as a monumental portal for the steamers that enter New York Harbor from Long Island Sound. He also realized that this bridge, forming a conspicuous object that can be seen from both shores of the river and from almost every elevated point of the city, and will be observed daily by thousands of passengers, should be an impressive structure. The arch, flanked by massive masonry towers, was most favorably adapted to that purpose.

A great bridge in a great city, although primarily utilitarian in its purpose, should nevertheless be a work of art to which science lends its aid. An elaborate stress sheet, worked out on a purely economic and scientific basis, does not make a great bridge. It is only with a broad sense for beauty and harmony, coupled with wide experience in the scientific and technical field, that a monumental bridge can be created. Fortunately, the Hell Gate Bridge was evolved under such conditions, and therefore may be said to be one of the finest creations of engineering art of great size that this century has produced.

By 1905, two competing steel arch designs were evaluated for the Hell Gate span. The first design, a "crescent arch" where the upper and lower chords of the arch meet at the anchorages of the bridge, copied the design of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel's Garabit Viaduct in France. This design was assailed because it appeared weak in comparison to the great height at the center of the arch. Another design, a flatter "spandrel arch," had the lower chord begin at the bottom of the anchorages, while the upper chord began at the top of the anchorages. The latter design, which was inspired by similarly designed bridges over the Rhine River in Germany, appeared more rigid, and was ultimately chosen for the Hell Gate Bridge.

The Hell Gate Bridge used more steel than the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges combined. The chords were made of a recently developed material - carbon steel - that gave greater strength for its weight. The heaviest bottom chord sections weighed 185 tons. All of this steel was necessary to handle the heavy rail traffic of the day: the bridge was capable of carrying 60 locomotives at a single time.

Lindenthal also played a role in the design of the tower piers, the caissons for which had to be sunk to a depth of 90 feet to reach solid rock. He adopted the initial tower design submitted in 1906 by consulting architect Henry Hornbostel, but with modifications. The original design left a gap of 15 feet between the beginning of the steel arch and the masonry towers. Fearing that the public assumed that the towers support the bridge, Lindenthal added girders between the upper chord of the arch and the towers so that they would appear connected. The girders did not have any engineering significance, but they added to the architectural beauty of the bridge.

Construction of the Hell Gate project began in 1912, two years after the first trains traveled under the Hudson River tunnels to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. With construction well underway by 1914, another change was made, this time to the viaducts leading to the Hell Gate span. The original 1907 plan called for steel girders and steel piers to be used, since Lindenthal believed that locally soft ground conditions, and the underground network of sewers and utility lines would not support an all-concrete viaduct. Concerns that inmates at the state institutions on Ward's and Randall's islands would climb the steel piers for their escape forced Lindenthal to use concrete for the viaduct piers instead. The steel girders would be kept, but to deaden of sound of passing trains, the rails would be embedded by 14 inches of broken-stone ballast, encased in concrete.

Toward the end of 1915, the two trajectories of the steel arches from the Astoria and Ward's Island anchorages met high above the Hell Gate. The arch bridge, the two smaller bridges and the viaduct were completed in September 1916. By 1917, the first Pennsylvania Railroad train - the Federal Express service between Washington and Boston - went over the Hell Gate Bridge, completing the first uninterrupted rail service between the two cities.

When it opened in 1916, the Hell Gate Bridge was the longest steel-arch bridge in the world. It held that title until the Bayonne Bridge opened in 1931.

DOUBLE-DECKING THE HELL GATE? In the 1920's, when the City of New York proposed the Triborough Bridge to connect Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, Lindenthal, who did not want to spoil the view of his Hell Gate Bridge, devised an alternative design. Instead of constructing what he called a "suspension bridge of cheap pole and washline architecture," Lindenthal suggested adding a second deck to his Hell Gate railroad bridge to carry five lanes of automobile traffic. The alternative plan also called for two spurs: one to East 102nd Street to provide direct access to Central Park, and another at East 116th Street. While he did not immediately call for a spur at East 125th Street - he believed that the area was already too congested - one was planned for construction at a later date.

THE HELL GATE BRIDGE TODAY: The Hell Gate Bridge, which today has the 17th longest main steel arch span in the world, continues to play a central role in rail transportation in the Northeast. Only three of the four tracks are used on the bridge. The two south tracks carry Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains, while the north inner track carries CSX and Norfolk Southern (the owners of the former Conrail routes) freight trains. The north outer track is no longer in operation.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who spent his childhood near the bridge in Astoria, lobbied to have the Hell Gate Bridge refurbished. While the nearby Triborough Bridge was constantly being maintained and repainted, the Hell Gate Bridge had not been painted since it opened in 1916, except by the skillful hands of graffiti artists. Since the bridge was deemed structurally sound by Amtrak president W. Graham Claytor, Jr., he saw little need for spending money for "cosmetic purposes." Buttressed by a 1991 article in The New Yorker on what Moynihan called "a great engineering miracle," Congress appropriated $55 million to repair and refurbish the Hell Gate Bridge. A unique color was even selected for the bridge paint: "Hell Gate Red." The refurbishing project was completed in the 1996.