The Manhattan Bridge and The East River, Not a River

When my daughter was in fourth grade, I drove a gaggle of girls to the American Girl Store in Rockefeller Center for her birthday. On the way home, I took a wrong turn and ended up in Brooklyn.

It happens. More than I’d like to admit.

We made it halfway across the Manhattan Bridge over the East River when one of the girls at the back of the minivan (we shall call her Drama Girl*) began screaming at the top of her lungs that she needed to pee.

Actual footage of Drama Girl.

If you are a parent or caregiver then you know the panic I felt: somewhere between concern and there-will-be-blood!

We were somewhere along the seemingly endless 1,470 foot expanse of the bridge, 135 feet above the water, darkness enshrouding us, and the unknown at the other end. (The longest bridge in New York by comparison is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island at a span of 4,260 feet.)

If only the designers of the bridge in 1901 would have considered Drama Girl’s needs in 2012.

By the way, the Manhattan Bridge is thirty-two years younger than its famous sister, the Brooklyn Bridge, also spanning the East River.

Oh, hey. Tom Hardy in front of the Brooklyn Bridge.

I swear I’m going somewhere with this. Stay with me. I might even offer more Tom Hardy gifs. I’m a giver like that.

So, if the East River, deserving of multiple bridges connecting Manhattan to various points on Long Island (of which, Brooklyn is one), is not a river, what is it?

Tom doesn’t know either.

Pssst! It is a salt water tidal estuary.

Connecting Long Island Sound to Upper New York Bay, the East River flows from one body of salt water to another, making it technically a tidal strait.

The coolest part of this non-river is a portion at the top called … I kid you not:

Hell Gate

Not actual footage.

This appellation has less to do with the turbulent tides from multiple water sources swirling around large, jutting islets known to take down ships, and more to do with the Dutch word Hellegat, meaning “bright gate.” Adriaen Block**, explorer and anachronistic ice cream aficionado, described it this way in 1614.

Admiral Howe believed the Dutch translation and sailed his British fleet through Hell Gate in 1776. At three in the morning. In a fog. Lucky bastard survived, though one ship and three of his men did not.

Commodore Norrington didn’t know either.

At the lower portion of the sixteen-mile waterway, the first ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn began in… who are we kidding? The Lenape people crossed the East River in canoes dug out from trees to reach their seasonal campgrounds on Long Island before the first Europeans began colonizing America.

Much later, the Dutch built piers and docks on what was New Amsterdam, sending their ferries by 1642. Then the British came, making this section of the river the busiest and most important in the world. Landfill was used to “wharf out” Manhattan, attracting larger ships and businesses. This narrowed the distance between Manhattan and Brooklyn greatly.

Bird’s eye view of the City of New York, Brooklyn, Williamsburg, 1859. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

For which I am thankful. Drama Girl made it to the bathroom without incident.


Tom Hardy is glad you stuck around for this informative jaunt across the East River and time.

* Not my kid.

** He also “discovered” Block Island where there are many wonderful ice cream shops.

More information on the East River:

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