By Paul Hicks
In 1614, five years after Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name, a Dutch navigator, Adriaen Block (for whom Block Island is named), became the first European known to have sailed the length of Long Island Sound.
After embarking from Manhattan Island into the East River, Block managed to navigate the treacherous currents where the river meets the Sound. Called Hellegat by the Dutch (meaning bright or clear entrance), the place name became anglicized as Hellgate (or Hell’s Gate), signifying the difficult and sometimes perilous passage.
Soon after entering the Sound, Block’s ship, the Onrust (Dutch for “Restless”), passed through a series of rocky reefs, which in colonial times became known as the “Devil’s Stepping Stones.” On one of those reefs near City Island still stands the Stepping Stones Lighthouse, built in 1877.
According to legend, the local Siwanoy people chased the devil out of their tribal area in present-day Westchester onto what is now City Island. The devil picked up huge boulders lying there and tossed them into Long Island Sound, using them as stepping stones to make his escape on to Long Island. Many ships have since been lost trying unsuccessfully to maneuver around these and other rocky reefs in the Sound.
Both the Indian legend about the devil and the dangers faced by mariners on Long Island Sound have been given as explanations of why some colonial era maps called the Sound “The Devil’s Belt.” One German map translated the name as “Der Teufels Belt.” The name might also have had some association with Hell’s Gate.
There are so many shipwrecks lying under Long Island Sound and waters elsewhere in the New York City area that they are collectively called “Wreck Valley” by scuba divers. One of those divers, Dan Berg, has a website that includes charts, guidebooks, and other information about the “history, legend, condition, aquatic life, and pertinent dive information on over 140 shipwrecks” (www.aquaexplorers.com/shipwrecks_NY_NJ.htm).
The most notable shipwreck in local waters occurred on March 31, 1886 when a sidewheel steamer, <The Capitol City>, ran onto the rocks in a dense fog either off Rye Beach or off Parsonage Point (accounts differ). The captain of the 259-foot vessel, which ran between Hartford and New York, was navigating with a compass at the time and thought they were well clear of the shore. Fortunately, the boats were lowered rapidly, and the twelve passengers as well as the crew reached land safely.
Only three months later, The New York Times reported: “The 15-ton passenger and freight steamboat <Ruggles>, bound from Derby, Connecticut to New York, struck the same rocky part of the Sound near Rye Beach yesterday where the steamer <Capitol City> went down last March. The accident is ascribed to a variation of the compass.” The <Ruggles>, however, did not end up on the shipwreck charts along with the <Capitol City>.
In the waters off Playland lie the remains of the <Benjamin F. Packard>, a square-rigged sailing ship. Built in 1883 and nearly 250 feet long, she was originally designed to transport cargo between the Atlantic and Pacific by way of Cape Horn. Her last voyage took her from Puget Sound to New York, hauling lumber in the 1920s.
In 1930, the <Packard> found a second life as an attraction at Playland. Down in her hold were exhibits of ship models and various curios from her voyages to the South Seas. On pleasant evenings a dance band played on her main deck, which was fitted out as a restaurant. During a violent hurricane that swept the Eastern seaboard in 1938, the <Packard> was torn from her mooring, suffered severe damage, and had to be scuttled. When the tide is low, you may be able to see the remains of the substantial hull near the Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary.
Next time you look out over Long Island Sound from the water or the shore, remember that it is teeming not just with wildlife but also with history and legends. Also, if you discover the location of <Capitol City’s> remains or the real explanation for why Long Island Sound is sometimes called the Devil’s Belt, please let me know.