THE GHOSTS OF HELL GATE

New York City is a conglomerate of communities such as Manhattan, Brooklyn Yonkers and others, but we wish to take you back to 1760 when New York consisted of only one, which is now Manhattan.  Manhattan was then and is now an island surrounded by three rivers and a bay.   On the western side, the Hudson River flows unimpeded.   On the North, flowing generally from west to east is the Harlem River. On the East, side is the East River, which is an outlet from Long Island Sound and the Harlem River.   Here we have one of the worst confluences of waters known on an incoming tide.   It is aptly named Hell Gate. Below Hell Gate, these waters become the East River.  The East River flows along the east side of Manhattan Island to join the Hudson River at the Battery where it becomes a part of the Narrows and New York Bay.

Hell Gate, on an incoming tide, is a nasty piece of wild water.  With a rocky bottom, a 5.2 mile an hour current from the Harlem River and vicious crosscurrents, it fights with the incoming tide from the sound, causing the  two flows to clash violently with each other incessantly.

In 1760 the lower third of the Island was New York City with the upper two thirds up to the Harlem River all farm lands.

In the 1760s, it had no lighthouse, as there were very few lighthouses on the Atlantic Seaboard.  What “Hell Gate” did have was a deep rocky basin that emptied at low tide leaving the basin completely dry but which refilled again to the brim  at high tide.

About this time, in contrast to what most histories teach, there was a considerable agitation in the Colonies for freedom from England.  This was a direct result of the French and Indian War.   England wanted to fight this war in the same fashion that Wolfe fought Montcalm at Quebec.  The same way as wars were fought in Europe for centuries.  The Colonists thought not, when they were the ones being used for cannon fodder.

The European way of waging war, was to have the two armies stand several hundred yards from each other and exchange fire.  The colonists could not understand the logic of this since their battles were with the elusive Indian who used anything as cover and sniped at anything in the open.  When Braddock was ambushed by the Indians, he complained bitterly that his enemies would not come out in the open and fight like gentlemen soldiers.  The only reason some part of his army survived was because of a young officer named Washington who advanced his frontiersmen (who fought using the Indian's tactics) and extricated the remainder of Braddock’s troops from the ambush.  Without this rescue, Braddock’s entire army would have been wiped out to the man. 

This, however, was no different from all armies up to and including those in World War I.  Soldiers were taught in military schools.  Even the United States fell for the school's insidious rules of “Gentlemanly “ warfare, which included dressing the army in bold colors, marching them to a position two hundred yards from the enemy who were also dressed in bright colors and then allowing the slaughter to begin.   The last army with any members standing won.

This method of warfare set in motion the idea that England did not know how to handle their Colonies, who would be better off on their own without the King and Parliament.

As the freedom movement continued, it grew stronger and more vociferous to the point that the English Crown recognized it for what it was, an incipient revolution.  Those who spoke out too much were taken into custody.  Charged with treason to the Crown they were tried, pronounced guilty, and sentenced to be hanged.

At the public hanging these individuals, as was the custom, were allowed to speak and  continued to give their speeches to the spectators.  For each one hanged ten more dissidents were created.  It had to stop. So the order came down to prepare the basin at Hell Gate.  At low tide British soldiers carted in chains and clamps.  They were followed by the prisoners who were chained to the rock wall, and left to drown with the rising tide.   Hell Gate was far enough away that their screams as the tide rose were heard by only a few farmers.   But that was enough. 

Thus its title, Execution Rocks.  Truly man’s inhumanity to man has no limits.  Hundreds followed the first until 1774 when outright hostilities began.  The name of Execution Rocks has never been forgotten.  In addition to those executed, there are the others who lost their lives in the numerous ship wrecks which occurred with great frequency in these troubled waters then and later.

Some historians say that the line in the Declaration of Independence that reads. “…the murders they commit on the inhabitants of these States…” was included as a memorial to those who suffered death manacled to a rock while the incoming tide sealed their doom.

There is also a legend that when Washington was trying to escape from the island, a vessel loaded with British soldiers sent to flank him was caught in Hell Gate.  All  were lost and drowned.  The rebels thought that was indeed a fine retribution.

It was not until Abraham Lincoln became President that plans were made for a lighthouse at this very dangerous place.  When it was completed in 1867, Congress stated that, “…any keeper assigned may at any time request that he be relieved without prejudice since from this time on no man shall ever feel chained to Execution Rocks.”  It has been said that for years the average tenure of a keeper was a short six months.  They all complained that they could get no sleep because of the screams from the ghosts of those who had been chained to the walls.

NOTE: As of this date, this restriction is no longer needed since all lighthouses in the United States with one exception have now been automated.  That exception is the Boston Lighthouse, another story to be told.

Lighthouse Hell Gate Execution Rocks
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