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.