The Waterfront Of Astoria And Long Island City Holds A Tragic History
Manhattan and Brooklyn have always been famous for their waterfronts. Romanticized in TV shows and motion pictures, the docks and harbors of old New York has spun tales of piracy, bootlegging, gangsters and the city’s once mighty shipping industry.
Unfortunately, little is known about the adventurous waterways of Queens, and it’s organizations like the Greater Astoria Historical Society (GAHS) who has made it its mission to change that.
The GAHS gave a Halloween walking tour of the coastline along Western Queens exploring its scary and often tragic history on October 30, which began underneath the Hell Gate Bridge along Shore Boulevard in Astoria Park and ended in Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.
“We gather here not to disrespect the dead,” GAHS President Richard Melnick said. “If people live in the same area for a long amount of time, some bad things are bound to happen.”
Melnick along with GAHS Trustee Al Ronzoni of the Ronzoni macaroni family who once operated its factory in Long Island City, led a group of more than thirty people along the waters of the East River as tales were told of those lost long ago among the churning waters.
According to Melnick, the first European to traverse the river was Adrian Block in his ship the Onrust in 1610. During the journey he called the body of water the Hella Gut or Bright Passage when translated from Dutch. Soon after, the name Hella Gut became mis-translated by the English who referred to it as the Hell Gate, which, they felt, better represented the aggressive current and whirlpool that swallowed ships and people whole. The first use of the name in English was in 1670 by Daniel Denton who wrote the he and a party set out for the “place known as Hell Gate”.
The whirlpool, located just south of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, was known by locals as “The Pot”. With the use of an actual diary entry from August 31, 1681 Melnick recounted an incident with some Astoria residents and the whirlpool as the tour group listened with much interest.
“In this diary entry it was written that, ‘A party of young people started out for fishing one Saturday. Thomas Palmer and Matthew Smith were sucked into the whirlpool known as The Pot never to be seen again’,” Melnick read.
Other tragic incidents along the East River that were recounted included the story of the HMS Hussar, a ship carrying the payroll for British troops fighting in the Revolutionary War that sank into The Pot in 1777 and the fire aboard the General Slocum on June 15, 1904 near North Brother Island.
Ronzoni spoke about the 1756 tornado that swept through Astoria and the 1938 Hurricane that decimated much of Western Queens and Eastern Long Island.
As the group moved on, Melnick pointed out the Pot Cove or the Pot Rock, a huge glacial boulder sticking out of the water. The rock had been first charted on maps more than 250 years ago.
The tour continued inland through the old part of Astoria Village and down into Long Island City where the former site of Sunswhick Creek was visited. Melnick warned members of the tour group not to fall too far behind as the temperature dropped and the sky began to darken.
“If you get lost just give a holler, and if you see a specter, just scream,” Melnick said.
“The creek [Sunwhick] would rise in the high tide causing people to suddenly become trapped,” Melnick said. “People would get sucked in and drowned as they tried to make their way back to the shore that is now Vernon Boulevard.”
The tour concluded with a lighthearted joke from Melnick before the group broke up and went their separate ways.
“Which subway do Pirates love to take?” he asked. “The R!”
All proceeds collected during the tour went to support the GAHS.
The GAHS, chartered in 1985, is a non-profit organization supported by the Long Island City community. The society host's field trips, walking tours, slide presentations and guests lectures to schools and the public. Regular meetings are usually held the first Monday of the month at 7:00 p.m. in Quinn's Gallery, 35-20 Broadway in Long Island City. For more information, visit http://www.astorialic.org/