Whitey Ford Field

Hellgate Field

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Sources conflict over the true meaning of the name Hell Gate. The Dutch rendering, Hellgat, is translated as “open passage,” and in this context refers to the East River as it opens into the Long Island Sound. Formed by a fault deep under the surface, the water, at over 100 feet in depth on the Manhattan side, is among the deepest sections of New York Harbor. Hell Gate earned its reputation as a difficult waterway with tricky tides and many obstructions with colorful names such as the Frying Pan Rock, Hen & Chickens, Shell Drake Rock, and Bald-headed Billy. Native American legend held that at low tide it was possible to jump from reef to reef and cross Hell Gate without swimming.

After the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, British General Robertson built batteries here that cannonaded American positions on the shore of Manhattan. Various British units occupied this spot throughout the American Revolution. On November 25, 1780, the frigate HMS Hussar carrying 150 men, including a number of American prisoners, and three years of payroll for the British naval garrison in Newport, sank in the passage. The treasure was never recovered and some suspect the sinking was actually a cover-up for the theft of the money.

It is estimated that the wrecks of over 1,000 ships lie in the Hell Gate. Starting in the 1840s, and continuing for the next 80 years, the Federal government tried various means to remove the rocks and reefs that made the Hell Gate dangerous to shipping. In October 1885, over 300,000 pounds of explosives were detonated, obliterating the once treacherous nine-acre Flood Rock. Nearly 100,000 people gathered on the Manhattan banks of the East River to watch what is said to have been the world’s largest explosion prior to the atomic bomb. Windows rattled as far away as Princeton, New Jersey,

In 1942, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) petitioned the City to assign this property, located along the East River at 26th Avenue and 2nd Street in the Hallet’s Cove section of Queens, to Parks after the Board of Education stopped using the facility. Well maintained, the field already had a baseball diamond, running track, and grandstand, and needed only minor repairs. Moses argued that the site was necessary in this section of Queens, as the neighborhood lacked adequate opportunities for baseball and other forms of “adult recreation.” In October of 1943 the site was assigned to Parks and became known as Astoria Athletic Field.

The City acquired this land in February 1906 and used it for Board of Education purposes. Beginning in 1907, the U.S. Government leased part of the site for a monthly fee of $16.66 to the Coast Guard so they could maintain a lighthouse and bell along the water at the site.

The lighthouse remained on the seawall until 1982, when it began to lean. The Coast Guard determined that the most cost-effective solution would be to create a new light, and it was relocated to a light stanchion on the field. In 1985 the park’s name was changed to Hellgate Field by Commissioner Stern for the water passage that the park abuts.

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