On October 10, 1885, 50,000 spectators lined the shores of the East River. A hundred of them came equipped with cameras—a staggering number for the day. They were there to witness and record the world’s largest controlled detonation. Mary Newton, the daughter of a local general, pressed a button that blasted nine acres of the river’s surface 150 feet into the air.
This was the Flood Rock explosion and it was the culmination of an enormous nine-year undertaking. The US Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a seventy-foot shaft, drilling and boring into underwater rocks. As a result of the blast, part of the treacherous Hell Gate passage became more navigable. Ships from New York City’s busy docks could now save time and fuel as they made their way out to the Atlantic. This huge feat of engineering marked just one of the times that Astoria has captured the public’s imagination.
The swirling waters of Hell Gate had been notorious for centuries. “Hell Gate” is a corruption of the Dutch hellegat, meaning “passage to hell.” Sea captains from the seventeenth century on described the difficulty of navigating the tidal flows and gave colorful names to the passage’s swirling eddies and rocks. Washington Irving wrote about a fisherman guiding his skiff “from the Hen and Chickens to the Hog’s back, and from the Hog’s back to the Pot, and from the Pot to the Frying-pan.” Some of these names have been lost to history but the bubbling waters of “the Pot” live on in the name of Pot Cove, just south of Astoria Park. In the 1850s, when the New York Harbor Commission first appealed to the Federal government for help in clearing the rocks, an estimated 1,000 ships a year ran aground in the area.
The abandoned plantation gained the attention of William Hallett, an Englishman living in Greenwich, CT. On December 1, 1652, Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued a deed declaring that he “hath granted and allowed unto William Hallett a Plot of Ground at Hellgate upon Long Island called Jarcks Farm.” This land, consisting of “woods and great swamp” was described as “beginning at a great rock that lays in the meadow and does upwards toward Cripple Bush.” Twelve years later, Hallett expanded his settlement with land “bargained and sold” by Shawwestcout and Erromahare, two members of the Shawkopshee people from Staten Island.
Over the next 100 years, Hallett and his descendants developed the area into a thriving farming community. Early settlers transported grains, livestock, timber, and firewood across the river from Hallets Cove to the growing city of New Amsterdam. The first commercial ferries began operating in the 1700s from Hallets Cove to Hornes Hook—present-day 86th street—in Manhattan. As time went on, pieces of Hallett’s original acreage were sold to various families and by 1800 only the land containing Old Astoria Village remained in the family.
Astoria played a part in the American Revolution as a staging ground for British Forces. 10,000 troops camped in the area after the Battle of Long Island, pillaging farms and stealing food. There was a British Battery at Hallets Cove. In 1780, the HMS Hussar, a British frigate carrying gold and silver for the British Army’s payroll, plus dozens of American prisoners of war, reportedly struck Pot Rock and sank in Hell Gate. The wreck was never found and rumors persisted that the sinking was staged by crew members who made off with the fortune.
After the Revolutionary War, Ebenezer Stevens, one of George Washington’s generals and a participant in the Boston Tea Party, bought part of the Hallets’ pear and cherry orchards. He built a mansion that he called “Mount Bonaparte” on what is now the east side of Vernon Boulevard and 30th Road. Stevens’ lawn sloped down to the cove, where he and his descendants moored boats that took them to work in downtown Manhattan and to fish nearby for blackfish and bass.
During the War of 1812, the military feared that the British Navy’s steamboats would make their way through Hell Gate and attack New York Harbor. General Stevens came out of retirement to command the newly constructed Fort Stevens (named in his honor) on Hallets Peninsula. A lighthouse remained at the site until 1982. Today it is a City park and baseball field named for Major League Baseball’s Whitey Ford, who grew up in Astoria.
By 1839, Halsey had decided that the area needed a new name. Halsey had connections to the biggest fur trader of the time, John Jacob Astor. He proposed that Astor donate $2,000 towards the construction of a new Episcopal female seminary in exchange for naming the village after him. Astor only offered $500, but the money was eagerly accepted and the village was officially named “Astoria,” much to the dismay of most residents who favored keeping “Hallets Cove” or calling the village “Sunswick,” a Native American name for a creek running along present-day 21st Street. The building that Astor funded eventually went on to become the rectory for St. George’s Church . In 1840, the New York Legislature officially incorporated the village under the name Astoria.