While Hell Gate Bridge has a quite ominous name it has no symbolic
meaning and only describes the region of the East River in which the
structure spans (which is notorious for having deadly currents). The
bridge was originally known as the East River Arch Bridge but the name
was changed to better reflect the area in which it was located (the
bridge is also sometimes called the Hell's Gate Bridge). The project
had its earliest beginnings dating
back to 1892 when then Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander
Cassatt (who also oversaw the railroad building its legendary
Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan)
envisioned a bridge to not only connect his western lines with the
PRR-controlled Long Island Rail Road but also give the company direct
access to New England railroads like the New York, New Haven &
Hartford (the New Haven).
He consulted with engineer Oliver Barnes and bridge designer
Gustav Lindenthal on a bridge which would not only span the East River,
Ward's Island (where a mental hospital was located, it would force the
bridge to include a rather sharp curve to avoid the property), and
Randall's Island but also the communities of Astoria, Queens and the
South Bronx. Entire libraries could be written on the Pennsylvania
Railroad ranging from its history to the different businesses it owned,
far, far too much to cover here which is a mere brief history of the
railroad. The Pennsy was an institution to the City of Philadelphia and
State of Pennsylvania. For over 100 years the keystone represented the
PRR as much as it did the State of Pennsylvania itself.
While Lindenthal had originally hoped to build Hell Gate as a
massive suspension bridge he was overruled with the railroad settling on
a steel-arch span directly over the East River and Hell Gate, a
bowstring truss design spanning the islands, a fixed
truss crossing the Bronx Kills, and finally concrete-constructed
viaducts along the rest of the structure. The bridge would be
wide enough to support a four-track main line and would top out,
end-to-end at an incredible 16,900 feet or 3.2 miles. Construction began in 1912, about two years
after Pennsylvania Station had opened and President Cassatt had already
passed away, never able to see either his incredible station or bridge
The celebrated and central piece of the bridge which spanned
the East River used a "spandrel arch" design, similar to bridges which
crossed the Rhine River in Germany, which was meant to convey power and
strength. A key element in this look were the two massive stone masonry
towers that rose well above the bridge's deck.
By September, 1916 the Hell Gate Bridge was all but complete and a year
later the Pennsylvania Railroad dispatched the first through train
connecting Boston with Washington, D.C. Today, the bridge remains an
important artery for both freight and passenger trains although its
track layout has been altered over the years. Today, only three tracks
remain with only two of those electrified as one is for freight traffic.
The article gives a very detailed history and timeline of the bridge's construction along with its overall dimensions.
Given the incredible size and power that the Pennsy demonstrated for more than a century across the railroad industry and American business in general it is not surprising that many books on the company have been written throughout the years. A newer title that looks at the PRR's early growth and expansion which has received very good reviews is The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume 1: Building an Empire, 1846-1917 by author Albert Churella. The book is nearly as big as the railroad itself, spanning nearly 1,000 pages as it intricately details the history of the PRR during its rise to power.
Hell Gate Bridge