In October 2014 I explored the southern part of what's now (more or less) known as Randall's Island. It comprises the formerly separate Randall's (or Randalls) and Ward's (or Wards) Island land masses, sprawling underneath the multi-span Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.
Many people, especially old-timers, continue to use the bridge's old name, the Triborough, which gives you an idea of Randall's Island's location: at the intersection of three of New York City's boroughs. The Bronx lies to the north, over a narrow channel called the Bronx Kill. Queens stretches to the east, over the rushing waters of Hell Gate. To the west is Manhattan, over an arm of the Harlem River.
On July 4 we headed to the north end of the island for a salt marsh tour advertised by the Parks Department. It was the perfect excuse for a trip to see the areas I didn't get to in my previous post. That time, I'd reached the island by walking over the pedestrian Ward's Island Bridge from Manhattan at 103rd Street. This time, since we were aiming at the far north end, we took the M35 bus from Lexington Avenue and 125th Street.
The bus dropped us near the arched Hell Gate Bridge and Railroad Viaduct, which will be 100 years old in 1917. The Parks Department has recently created a walking and bicycle path underneath the span called the Hell Gate Pathway.
(There's nothing devilish about Hell Gate, except the dangerous currents. The name comes from the Dutch hellegat, meaning "bright strait" or "clear opening" – although, funnily enough, when I enter "hellegat" into Google Translate and tell it to translate from the Dutch, it comes up with "hellhole." Go figure.)
As it happened, there'd been a mixup at the Parks Department, and at first no one showed up to give the salt marsh tour, leaving about a dozen urban explorers in the lurch. But one intrepid visitor called the department and shortly thereafter, the Deputy Administrator of Randall's Island Park arrived in an electric cart to save the day.
One thing he explained that I found useful were the island's confusing names. Before the City obliterated the channel separating the two islands with landfill, the northern segment was Randall's, the southern Ward's. Now the Parks Department is normalizing the properties to be called Randall's Island overall, with just one numbering system for the dozens of ballfields spread over the expanse.
The Bronx Kill Salt Marsh we'd come to see lies on the northern shoreline, with ballfields just across the path.
The City constructed the marsh in 2008-2009 to compensate for habitat lost in Manhattan's Riverside Park when a Greenway link for bicyclists and pedestrians was constructed projecting over the Hudson River. New York City requires these sorts of environmental mitigations. The results can be surprisingly unrelated to the causes.
Just west of the Bronx crossing, you can hoof it down to the Kill, look across the water and see railroad cars lined up on a spur of track, waiting to take supplies to and from the New York Post and Wall Street Journal printing plant.
To the east, people fish and picnic in the reconstructed Sunken Meadow section of the park, which the City opened in 2010.
The coastline here provides a good view of North Brother Island (pictured below) and South Brother Island. North Brother Island's hospital buildings, where Typhoid Mary was confined for many years, are now in ruins and mostly concealed by vegetation, but the smokestacks still protrude into the sky. Now off-limits to most visitors, it's maintained as a bird refuge and a "Forever Wild" site.
North Brother Island
Rounding the northeast corner of the island and continuing south, it's easy to see how Hell Gate got its reputation as a rough spot for navigation.
The rough waters of Hell Gate
Hell Gate Bridge was the longest steel-arch bridge in the world when it opened 100 years ago, in 1916. It current paint job – a unique color called "Hell Gate Red" – comes from a 1990s refurbishing. (I got closer to the bridge on my earlier visit.)
Looking south to Hell Gate Bridge
After the salt marsh tour, we headed back to the Viaduct for some shade. The steel beams make a geometric wonderland above. I don't know if this is Hell Gate Red, though. It's more of a lavender.
We took a quick walk through the Little Hell Gate Salt Marsh on the west side of the island, roughly where a channel used to separate Ward's and Randall's Islands. (More photos of this marsh are at my earlier post.)
Flowers bloomed and birds did their thing in the Native Plant Garden.
Juvenile American Robin on Randall's Island
It's a nice walk down to the Ward's Island Bridge along the west side of the island, which we crossed to return to Manhattan.
There's a great deal more to Randall's Island/Ward's Island than concerts at Icahn Stadium and grassy ballfields. And now you can walk there from The Bronx as well as from Manhattan and Queens. Or take a bus. Still never been there? You've got fewer and fewer excuses.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media