A 1776 map showing the northern tip of Manhattan and Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which is crossed by both Kingsbridge and Dyckman's Bridge. (Taken from map image linked below).
Upper Manhattan and the Bronx were seperated by only a narrow tidal strait until the end of the 19th century. This narrow, meandering, but fast-flowing strait was the Spuyten Duyvil Creek (various alternative spellings are also valid). New York's waterfront sees about a five-foot variation between low tide and high tide, and as the tide came in and out there was often a difference in water level between the Hudson River and the East River, which is affected by the slow and massive tidal movements of Long Island Sound. This differential created dangerous currents.
In his (fictional) book The Knickerbocker History of New York, Washington Irving tells an apocryphal story of how the strait got its name, and how violent the water could be. (The character in this passage is Antony Corlear, a trumpeter sent by 17th-century governor of New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant to warn residents that the British were coming.)
(sagely denominated Haerlem river) which separates the island of
Manna-hata from the mainland. The wind was high, the elements were in an
uproar, and no Charon could be found to ferry the adventurous sounder of
brass across the water. For a short time he vapored like an impatient
ghost upon the brink, and then, bethinking himself of the urgency of his
errand, took a hearty embrace of his stone bottle, swore most valorously
that he would swim across in spite of the devil (spyt den duyvel), and
daringly plunged into the stream. Luckless Antony! scarce had he buffeted
half-way over when he was observed to struggle violently, as if battling
with the spirit of the waters. Instinctively he put his trumpet to his
mouth, and giving a vehement blast sank for ever to the bottom.
The clangor of his trumpet, like that of the ivory horn of the renowned
Paladin Orlando, when expiring in the glorious field of Roncesvalles, rang
far and wide through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who
hurried in amazement to the spot. Here an old Dutch burgher, famed for his
veracity, and who had been a witness of the fact, related to them the
melancholy affair; with the fearful addition (to which I am slow of giving
belief) that he saw the duyvel, in the shape of a huge mossbonker, seize
the sturdy Antony by the leg and drag him beneath the waves. Certain it
is, the place, with the adjoining promontory, which projects into the
Hudson, has been called Spyt den Duyvel ever since; the ghost of the
unfortunate Antony still haunts the surrounding solitudes, and his trumpet
has often been heard by the neighbors of a stormy night, mingling with the
howling of the blast.
Nobody ever attempts to swim across the creek after dark; on the contrary,
a bridge has been built to guard against such melancholy accidents in the
future; and as to moss-bonkers, they are held in such abhorrence that no
true Dutchman will admit them to his table who loves good fish and hates
During the era of the drowned Van Corlear, the normal way across Spuyten Duyivil Creek during high tide was a ferry, operated until 1673 by Johannes Verveelen. (During low tide it was often possible to wade across, whether for travelers on foot or farmers bringing livestock to the city—probably the origin of the name “Fordham” in the Bronx). But in 1693, Manhattan got its first bridge, a wooden toll-bridge structure run by the Philippse family, and built over the old fording spot so that those crossing the Spuyten Duyvil were forced to pay the toll. The charter mandated that the king of England and his representatives, British soldiers, could cross for free, and so it was known as the King’s Bridge.
Around 1713, the Philipse family replaced the wooden span with a new, 24-foot-wide bridge with a wooden deck laid over rough stone supports. It would remain the only bridge across the Harlem River until about 1758, when locals built the aptly-named Free Bridge to avoid tolls on Kingsbridge. Amazingly, the Kingsbridge structure built in 1713 lasted until 1917—after which it was destroyed and buried in the landfill around Marble Hill, over the protests of local historians. But with a lifetime of more than two centuries, this humble stone-and-wood structure remains the longest-lasting bridge that New York City has ever had.
Spuyten Duyvil Creek was far too shallow for larger boats or ships, and ship traffic between the upper Hudson and Long Island Sound had to take a 25-mile detour around lower Manhattan. In 1895, the Harlem River Ship Canal was opened after nine years of work by the Army Corps of Engineers, connecting the Hudson and Harlem Rivers with a navigable channel for ships across the very northern end of Manhattan. At the opening ceremonies, it was said that “the opening of the Harlem Ship Canal was a greater event than the opening of the Erie Canal.” Spuyten Duyvil Creek was filled in; the historic Kingsbridge was demolished and buried in the landfill. Today the curves of Spuyten Duyvil creek are apparent in the curving border of New York County (Manhattan), which extends around the Marble Hill section of the Bronx-side mainland of the Ship Canal.