Hell Gate and Its Approaches

This nautical chart depicts Hell Gate, a narrow channel on the East River, at the confluence of the Harlem River, which connects Long Island Sound with New York Harbor. The chart shows Hell Gate in 1851, which is the year that the U.S. Army began blasting ledges and rocks within Hell Gate to ensure safe passage through the channel.

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Like all nautical charts, this particular chart shows water depths. The chart also includes a table with tidal observations for four locations along Hell Gate and a table with information on currents, including where they are strongest and weakest for eight identified stations. Ebb and flood currents are also depicted using arrows over "water" areas of the chart.

This nautical chart includes sailing instructions to enter Hell Gate from two directions. These directions identify obstacles to avoid, currents to watch out for, and even tips for when a mariner needs to drop anchor.

Historical Reference

In the 1700s and 1800s, strong currents and numerous rocks made Hell Gate a graveyard for ships. By the late 19th century, hundreds of ships had sunk in the channel.

In 1851, the year that this chart was published, the U.S. Army began blasting the submerged ledges and dangerous surface rocks within Hell Gate. This blasting continued for the next 70 years. At the time, the Hell Gate explosions were some of the young nation's earliest and most spectacular earthmoving projects. The largest Hell Gate explosion occurred in 1885 when, before an appreciative crowd of thousands, the nine-acre expanse of Flood Rock was blown away. Reports claimed the explosion could be felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey. The New York Times devoted its entire cover page to this "triumph of human will over nature."

  • Chart title: Hell Gate and Its Approaches
  • Author: Survey of the Coast of the United States
  • Year published: 1851
  • Scale: 1:5,000
  • Material: Paper
  • Printing technology: Copper plate lithography
  • Hydrographic survey technology: Lead-line


Related Web Sites

Office of Coast Survey: Historical Map and Chart Collection

Works Consulted

Kornblum, W. (2002). At Sea in the City: New York from the Water's Edge (Chapter 7) [Electronic version]. New York, New York: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.