Hell Gate: Names of Fear, Fear of Names
By Michael Nichols
When the Dutch finally ceded New Netherlands to the English in 1674, they left behind a legacy of place names—“toponyms,” to use the technical term. The English, whether to avoid confusion or from lack of interest, kept many, though often in Anglicized form. Thus Breuckelen became “Brooklyn,” Vlissingen became “Flushing,” the Bouwerij became the “Bowery,” and so on. Of all these descendant names, one stands out as particularly forbidding, and the ambiguity of its true meaning has invited all kinds of mythical associations and claptrap. This is “Hell Gate,” which denotes the churlish stretch of the East River between Manhattan and Astoria, Queens, at the nexus of the “Y” formed by the East River to the south and to the northeast and the Harlem River to the northwest.
“Hell Gate” derives from the Dutch Hellegat. At one time Hellegat applied to the entire length of the river, but it was soon supplanted by another name: the Oost [East] Rivier. Oost is more a designation than a name, but the colonial Dutch had a system, a veritable naming convention for their New World rivers that served to indicate the geographical situation of each in relation to the others. The Oost Rivier was so called because it was east of the Noort [North / Hudson] Rivier (or else, because it was east of New Amsterdam). The Noort and the Zuydt [South / Delaware] Rivier were north and south of each other, the Noort being the passage to the upper reaches of New Netherland, and the Zuydt being the colony’s southern perimeter. Of the three, only the Oost remained nameless, carrying its designation into English and the present day: East.
The Dutch also knew the East River was not, strictly speaking, a river, but a strait. As the lawyer and yonkheer landowner Adriaen Van der Donck put it in his Description of the New Netherlands (1655): By some this river is held to be an arm of the sea or a bay, because it is wide in some places, and both ends of the same are connected with, and empty into the sea.
But neither were they always such sticklers for geographical nicety: This subtility notwithstanding, we adopt the common opinion and hold it to be a river.
(Later in the 18th century, surveyors and engineers, who were sticklers and not beholden to the common opinion, included the names “Sound River” and “The Sound” on their military and engineering maps of the East River, presumably for the fact that the river is an extension of Long Island Sound, a body of water separating Long Island from the mainland. These names, perhaps fortunately, never gained currency.)
Eventually, “Hell Gate” was localized to where it is now, which is the section with the bad temper.
After the Dutch left, the English formed their own view of Hell Gate. In his Brief Description of New-York (1670), the English colonist and land promoter Daniel Denton, detailed a rather hellish Hell Gate:
For about ten miles from New-York is a place called Hell-Gate, which being a narrow passage, there runneth a violent stream both upon flood and ebb, and in the middle lieth some Islands of Rocks, which the Current sets so violently upon, that it threatens present shipwreck; and upon the Flood is a large Whirlpool, which continually sends forth a hideous roaring, enough to affright any stranger from passing further, and to wait for some Charon to conduct him through; yet to those that are well acquainted little or no danger.
The flood and ebb still occurs of course—the river flows both ways as the tide comes and goes—and the “Islands of Rocks” Denton refers to were scattered in the wide area off Hallett’s Point. The largest of these took on identities of their own and entered legend: Gridiron Rock, Frying Pan Rock, Pot Rock, Flood Rock. Shipping lanes were plotted around the rocks, but the rocks, the eddies, and the conflicting currents of the tides made toys of ships, and brought the unprepared to an astonishing and untimely watery end. Hundreds of ships are said to have sunk in Hell Gate over the centuries, and it was this reputation for catastrophe that made its Anglicized name so appropriate, at least until the Army Corps of Engineers started blasting the rocks away in the 1850s. (Most of them, anyway; Mill Rock—two smaller rocks joined by the detritus of Flood Rock after it was destroyed—is still there.)
It was the merchant and explorer Adriaen Block who named the river Hellegat, as he sailed through it in 1614, possibly after a passage he knew from the River Scheldt back in his native Holland. Hellegat was and is a common name for waterways and towns in Holland and Flanders, so it is clear that Block was not coining a toponym here but instead appropriating an old world name for a new world location. So close are the English and Dutch orthographies, the course from Hellegat to Hell Gate seems a natural, but it is laden with its own etymological bends and turns.
One day, while idling through the pages of the WPA Guide to New York, I came across this etymological bend in its section on rivers: “The name Hell Gate probably derived from the Dutch Hellegat (‘beautiful pass’).” Beautiful pass?
Those who accept this interpretation may have in mind the idyllic landscape through which the river passes and not the hellishness of the river itself. It is easy to imagine the unspoiled nature of the place in those days—islands thick with trees and dense foliage, the surrounding hills descending to the river’s rocky edge, and silent but for the furious water—a sublime place worthy of its own Thomas Cole. Even today there is a calmness here, citified though it is, with open skies and long views up and down river. The nonchalance of that parenthetical phrase made me think not only were all the lugubrious associations of Hell Gate misleading, but it had been silly to be so easily misled. “Beautiful pass” in a certain context became plausible.
But what is heaven to one is hell to another, and not all writers look to heaven. Daniel van Pelt, in Leslie’s History of Greater New York, had this to say:
Some writers feel squeamish about the name, and have informed a less knowing public that “hell” in Dutch means beautiful, and “gate” means a pass, so that this really should be understood as rather a celestial designation than one applying to the opposite place. But Dutch sailors had not much of an eye for beauties of landscape, and the ugly rocks and dangerous eddies which could cause ruin to thousands of vessels in later days would be likely to get from them a very blunt appellation. ”Hell” is the German word for clear and bright; but in Dutch the word means exactly what it does in English, and “gat” means a hole. So that if we are thrown back upon what the Dutch word “Hellegat” really signifies, we shall come out worse than ever, and must resign ourselves to the harsh term “Hell-hole.”
On the same subject, Washington Irving worked himself into a froth:
Whereupon out of sheer spleen they denominated it Hellegat (literally Hell Gut) and solemnly gave it over to the devil. This appellation has since been aptly rendered into English by the name of Hell Gate; and into nonsense by the name of Hurl Gate, according to certain foreign intruders who neither understood Dutch nor English.
What exercised Van Pelt and especially Irving was the misplaced propriety of those who could not accept the word “hell” in their personal geographies (or maybe utter it aloud when giving directions). Hurl Gate, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, appeared on maps and in books. Dripp’s map of 1858 shows a Hurl Gate Ferry off East 86th Street in Manhattan, and Woodside Avenue in Queens was once known as Hurl Gate Ferry Road—the way to the Queens landing. But maybe hurl was not actually a coddling to the faint of heart: the journalist and compiler of toponyms, Edward. M. Ruttenber, suggested hurl was actually a corruption of the Dutch warrel[en], meaning “whirl.”
The source of all this contention of course is the original Dutch word, Hellegat, which is a compound word, helle (or hel) plus gat. In the days before standardized spelling, the word appears variously as helle-gat, hel-gut, and hell-gadt. Modern dictionaries tell you that gat means first “hole” and second “opening,” but not “gate,” “pass,” or “passage,” though any of those three can be inferred from “opening,” and indeed in a nautical context, gat indicates “gap.”
The real confusion turns on the meaning of the words, hel and helle—and whether the one or the other is the true root of Hellegat roils things more. Hel is a noun meaning “hell,” but it is also an adjective meaning “bright.” So whether Hellegat means “bright passage” or “hell hole” seems to depend on what part of speech hel is. The Engels Woordenboek lists “hell” as a definition for helle-, and includes as examples the combinations helle + vuur (“hell fire”), helle + poort (“hell gate”), and the rather gruesome helle + pijn (“the torments of hell”).
Even in Middle Dutch —- an earlier Dutch, to about the year 1500 -- helle, like the modern hel, also has a double meaning: helder (“bright”) and hell. The Oxford English Dictionary lists helle and hel from Middle and modern Dutch as a source of the English “hell.” There are several mythic associations with hel, not all of them verifiable, and some a bit of a stretch: hel from Helios, meaning sun; hel from Hel, the Norse underworld and the goddess who presided over it; and helle from the Greek. Ruttenber suggested that the Dutch origin of helle can be traced to the Greek, “as heard in Hellespont…which received its Greek name from Helle, daughter of Athamas, King of Thebes, who, the fable tells us, drowned in passing over it.” And Johannes de Laet, the Dutch geographer who apparently read Block’s journals and wrote a geography based on them, writes of the river “which our people call Helle-gat, or the entrance to the infernal regions (infernios).”
There’s another possibility, too, one that hinges on language’s potential for ambiguity: that Hellegat is a pun which turns on mutually discordant meanings, perfectly suited to a paradise of islands geologically configured to generate between them a brutal lick of water. The writer Arthur Guiterman invented an episode to illustrate just such a pun. He imagines Adriaen Block at his first encounter with Hell Gate. De Hellegat! Block exclaims in a fit of patriotism, or nostalgia. Perhaps Block’s timing is right—he arrives when the tide is slack and the river is as gentle as a lake. Later Dutch sailors aren’t so lucky. They arrive when the current is in full throttle against them, threatening to heave their ships against the rocks, and under. Hellegat, they mutter, a devil’s invitation.
Imaginative stuff, but we don’t know. The journals of Block are lost, and even were they to be found, they might not indicate what was going through his mind when he sailed up the strait to the east of the Manathans and thought: Hellegat. And one more thing: where exactly was he when the word came to him, on this side of Hell Gate or that?
Michael Nichols is at work on a book about Hell Gate — a riff on its name, history, and lore. You can read his past contributions to the Blotter here: “Houses of Usher” and “An Afternoon at Blackwell’s Light.”
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