Inside the Hell Gate Bridge

Inside the Hell Gate Bridge

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The Hell Gate Bridge is one of the more impressive bridges in New York City. Completed in 1916 to allow through service by trains from New Jersey to New England, the 4 track arch bridge was the longest of its kind in the world when it opened. Supposedly, it was over engineered so that it looked trustworthy enough for people to believe it would stand. Because of this it is thought that this bridge, after humans are gone from the earth, would be the last New York City bridge to fall, lasting almost a thousand years.

Having spent much of my time in Astoria near the bridge I’ve always wondered what it would take to explore it. Unlike the High Line or other right-of-ways I’ve explored in the past this was very much active and very dangerous. We had to keep lights off as not to be spotted and had to keep a keen eye out for any on-coming trains. After a long mile and a half walk in the middle of the night we made our way up the tracks.

It is quite a beautiful sight to see the city from that height, about 7 or 8 stories above the ground. We reached the southern support tower, designed to emulate the great triumphal arches of Rome. Inside there was a small iron spiral staircase leading up to the top of the arch, inside the arch that is. The cavernous space was a sight to behold (no pictures were taken due to the complete lack of light). The structure has large slits in it which seems like a nod to arrowslits in medieval castles. Continuing up another set of spiral stairs leads to the roof. Inside the air was heavy and filled with particles, no doubt from the inches of decaying bird carcases and dirt which lined the floors.

The archways surrounding the roof of the support tower created an interesting effect in that you did not feel at all like you were in a dangerous place much like you do on the roofs of ordinary buildings. The archways created a room with windows out into the city. The weather was so nice that you hardly realized you were outside at all.

The city was only an idea at this point. The noise, the energy, the problems, all were a distant hum; all was quiet and peaceful. Trains passing below offered the only clue to the reality of the situation, but also brought out the adolescent fascination we had of big powerful machines.

We were there for a while, not to do damage but to experience something few ever have the chance to. It was a moment. What has always attracted me to urban exploration was the curiosity in knowing that what one sees in their daily life is only skin deep, that a thousand levels of infrastructure supports everything you take for granted in life. The bridge was there before I was and will be after I am no longer.

We would have stayed, the sunrise from this vantage point would have been indescribable, but legal reasons kept us wary. On our way down we happened to catch sight of a light further below in the tower. Climbing down further we discovered that the tower itself was hollow and inside were four great halls, 7 stories tall each.

While exploring each great hall we quickly ran the numbers as to the feasibility of throwing the worlds most exclusive party inside the base of the tower. Obviously David Byrne was in… A stairwell led down under the floor to a locked door, one which was familiar to me from my many walks around the outside of the bridge in the day. This was the easy way, the less fun way, the practical way in.

We made the climb back to track level and back along the tracks. The night was completed to full, breakfast awaited as a reward.

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  1. What fabulous shots. I grew up in Astoria and the park was our playground. As a teen we made the same trek up to the top as you did, but without a camera. These pictures are the first views I’ve seen of those places in the bridge since the early 1970s. I know that door on Shore Blvd. has been closed for some time. Did you enter illegally?!? As we all did way back when. In a more sporting vein, kids used to climb up into the gridwork from the stone base attached to the park and see how far the could or dared to go out over the river. A long rope was somehow involved. The river was much more intimidating then. There were severe whirlpools under the bridge; occasionally smaller recreational craft would get stuck there. Thanks for the great shots. I always say to my son that the tracks are much wider than they appear from the ground and now I’ll be able to show him. I am partial, but it is my favorite bridge, and if those bastards at Amtrak sunk a dime into it, it would be a much more famous piece of the NY skyline.

  2. thank you so much for the photos……..friends of mine and me did this on the tri-boro back in 1956…..we went down into the abutments of the bridge from the walkway right below the towers…..some of us went up from there and some of us went down the stairs….the tri-boro had many motors in it…probably some kind of generators

  3. when I went up through the entrance on Shore Blvd in the 70’s, I remember a spiral staircase just before track level.

  4. this was wonderful to see. to bad we did not know each other when you did this. I was still working then and am retired now always wondered what it looked like inside

  5. Thanks for sharing as a kid we had a support pillar in our yard my dad still lives their on 22 drive, people who tell me did the heart slow moving train bother us, NO I lived their for 18 years you got so used to the trains you never knew they were passing above you !!!

  6. Seeing your beautiful pics of The Hell Gate Bridge brings me back to my youth as a teenager growing up in Astoria in early 80’s.My brother Nick,myself and our friend Perry used to free climb the bridge all the time.We would start at the base of the bridge on the Astoria park side.We would free climb up the
    Angled beams that ran to the railroad tracks on top.We became so proficient at it that we would have contests to see how fast we could make it to the top. Our fastest time was 68 seconds.We would challenge ourselves all the time by using different free climbing technics.We would even free climb in the rain.We used to climb up and go down the beams on the Randills Island side.When I think back on all the adventures we had on thar bridge I’m astounded as to how fearless and athletic we where,and Insanely stupid!!! we had a few near death incidents but that never stopped us.I sometimes now have dreams about climbing the bridge again,and in my dreams I’m terrified.One of my most precious life memories is sitting in the middle of the top arch on a cloudless warm summer day and looking at the breathtaking view.I was master of all I surveyed.

  7. I grew up in Astoria and the park was our daily hang out. Many a days we would walk up to 28th Avenue and 43rd. Street to gain access to the tracks then walk back to the bridge. Then we found a way to climb up it. There isn’t an inch of the bridge we didn’t explore. Looking back we took a lot of risks but you do stuipid things when you are young. It is a different world up there.

  8. Look … In October 1989 at 2am I walked out the tracks and limed inside those spiral stairs.. And then climbed up the bridge steel arch frame and tied a blow up globe of the world…I was in my wilderness years and something told me to do this… Now I know why…now I am Champion of the World…the lesson: always trust your genius even when you don’t know what it is .
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  9. When I was a little girl in the early 1940’s we lived in Astoria. Mom would take me to a park by the bridge.
    There was a whirlpool she showed me that was scary. Thanks for posting the wonderful pictures..

  10. In 1973 to 1975, they called the hell gate bombers, we learned to climb the beams up to the track from the ones before us as the climbers after us did, climbing up a pipe to the base of the first beam which is the steepest beam up e wore good sneakers with one hand in front of the other on the tivits and your sneakers below you on the digits at the top of the first beam we circled around to the second beam then to the the third, up to the track ,what a rush if you slipped which I did , if you slipped you had to lay flat till you slid down to where we started ,it happened to me once we had one picture of the whole gang of us , that I can’t find,we were chased around the bridge by amtrach who fired salt guns at us, we were the bad asses from the 70s

  11. I really enjoyed your post. I tried once, but the height really got to me. I am currently researching Hell Gate Bridge for an article and loved reading about the ghosts and urban legends. Your pictures are both gorgeous and priceless. Gustav Lindenthal and Henry Hombostel would be flattered of your descriptions Thank you for this.