Due to its proximity to Hell Gate, a turbulent area in the East River, this playground has been named for the monster Charybdis. According to Greek mythology, Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon, the god of the sea. As a young nymph, she flooded lands to add to her father’s kingdom until Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods, turned her into a monster.
Charybdis and her partner Scylla are personifications of the violent waters in the Straits of Messina, which separate Sicily from the Italian peninsula. Charybdis was said to dwell under a fig tree on the Sicilian shore and, three times each day, drink from the strait and spit the water back into the strait several hours later, creating perilous whirlpools and terrifying sailors. In The Odyssey, by Homer, the hero survived Charybdis’s wrath by clinging to a tree for hours until she spit out the water and his raft floated to the surface.
Hell Gate earned its reputation as a dangerous spot when the Dutch first explored this area in the 17th century. The channel, formed by faults deep underground, contains some of the deepest water in the New York Harbor. Its hazardous reefs bear quaint names such as “Hen and Chickens,” “Pot Rock,” “Bread & Cheese,” and “Bald Headed Billy.” On November 25, 1780, the frigate Hussar and its $5 million cargo sank to the bottom of Hell Gate, where the treasure still remains. Attempts were made to remove the dangerous rocks of Hell Gate in the 1850s and 1870s. One effort in 1870s, the world’s largest detonation at the time, shook windows as far away as Newark, New Jersey.
The waters were also the site of New York City’s worst maritime disaster. On June 15, 1904, en route to Long Island’s north shore with the mothers and children of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church on board, the steamer General Slocum caught fire as it approached Hell Gate. At least 1,021 passengers out of 1,300 burned to death on the ship or drowned in the turbulent waters of the East River before the ship grounded on North Brother Island.
Charybdis Playground, situated on the western edge of Astoria Park, was built in conjunction with the 1936 construction of Astoria Pool, under Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981). Originally known as Astoria Park Lower Playground, Commissioner Stern gave it its present name in 1997. The following year, Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone funded a $400,000 renovation. In 2000, Mr. Vallone sponsored a $381,000 project which featured the reconstruction of the comfort station on its south end. With its striking views of both the Triborough and Hell Gate Bridges, this playground is a magical spot along the East River that serves Astoria’s children.
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