"Long Island Stories" is an opportunity for local authors, or authors who write about Long Island events and places, to share their work with our local community. There are no restrictions so let your creative juices flow! If you’re a reader, either stop by every now and then to see if a new story has been added, or, join our mailing list by Clicking Here and we’ll let you know when a new story has been added.
"Horseback to Old
by: Richard Weissmann
The sudden appearance of
the breach at Old Inlet after Super Storm Sandy changed Fire Island
overnight. The enormous forces of nature demonstrated their power at one
fell swoop. But, what about changes to our barrier beach that are not so
dramatic? Changes that have been going on gradually for many years?
I was thinking about this recently and it brought to mind a trip that I made on the beach forty-years ago.
Back then I was a seasonal Ranger with the new Fire Island National Seashore (FINS). I was stationed at Watch Hill, and it was a pretty wonderful job. I got to patrol the beach in a big, rusted-out Jeep Grand Cherokee. Sometimes I would be on foot checking the campsites and the marina. Other times I patrolled in a 17-foot Boston Whaler to keep an eye on boaters in Great South Bay. But, in August of 1976, I was assigned to be the horse ranger for the rest of the summer.
Horse ranger? I grew up in Flushing! I had never ridden a horse in my life!
Of course, the federal government spared no expense. I was given two-hours of training by Barbara Avery at her little family farm next to the Swan Deli in East Patchogue.
The next day I was fully in charge of the care and riding of Bandit, a sturdy Morgan horse who had retired recently from the NYC Police Department. Bandit lived in a stable just east of the Watch Hill campground. Once I had mastered getting a bit in his mouth and slapping a saddle on his ample backside, I began to ride him around the general area of the campground and beach.
I was supposed to be in charge, but Bandit had other ideas. He was especially fond of fresh, tender poison ivy leaves, which usually grew in the swale behind the dunes. I tried to be nonchalant as summer bathers expressed surprise at seeing a ranger and horse atop the dunes that were clearly marked with signs to “Keep Off Dunes”. Sometimes, in the heat of day, Bandit enjoyed wading a little too deep in the surf.
On those occasions my riding boots filled with water, until I got better at coaxing him back to dry sand.
During that first week, I’m sure that these spectacles provided entertainment for the campers and beach goers. It also gave me a week of painful saddle sores and a fair amount of sunburn.
By the following week, I felt confident enough to venture farther afield on Bandit. This was in the years before the “High Dunes” district east of Watch Hill had been designated a “Wilderness Area” free from any development. That meant that the several little communities that existed there would soon have to be condemned and removed. So, I decided to ride about four-miles east to Old Inlet, the last of these remote settlements. A friend and fellow ranger, Paul Stoutenburgh, and his wife Barbara, were living there that summer. I would pay them a visit.
I didn’t have any regular patrol schedule. The horse was more-or-less a good-will ambassador to make people feel more accepting towards the federal government takeover of this, somewhat lawless, end of Fire Island. Besides, there were often illegal campers in the eastern dunes. It would be my mission to seek them out.
I rode on the trail behind the primary dunes known as “Burma Road.” This was a name jokingly given to it by returning WWII vets, some of whom built squatter shacks along the trail in this wild part of Fire Island. Burma Road cuts through bayberry, beach plum, catbrier, and beach roses as it follows the natural swale between primary and secondary dunes.
Just east of the horse barn is the first of these little pocket communities, Long Cove. One house, built primarily of driftwood, sits near the top of the dunes. Its owner is a local bayman, but the house is now scheduled for removal or demolition within the year as FINS begins to reclaim the land to establish a National Wilderness Area.
It’s promising to be another hot day as I pass the dune cut in front of Skunk Hollow. Several beach cottages are scattered about and I see a few people on the beach. They are naked. This is not a surprise as Skunk Hollow is an unofficial nudist beach. The Seashore’s position on this was to ignore it. At that moment, I envy the nudists. The new superintendent of FINS had decided that year that all rangers would wear dress green, woolen trousers. Sitting in a hot saddle, I was already beginning to sweat.
A few hundred yards along the trail I spooked a white-tailed deer with a couple of fawns. This did surprise me: deer were not as common a sight in those days, before the population explosion that we currently experience. The little family quickly faded into the scrub pine and high-bush blueberry north of the trail.
Red-winged blackbirds chirred liquid notes from the thicket. Out over the marsh a harrier hawk cruised low in search of rodents or rabbits.
I was enjoying the view over the flat countryside that is only possible when sitting high in the saddle of a big horse.
Or, maybe not, I thought, as the old tower at Whalehouse Point hove into view. During WWII, a Coast Guard station had stood here. The tower was used for spotting any U-boat activity offshore. To my knowledge none were ever spotted, though the Nazis did manage to land some saboteurs forty-miles to the east in Amagansett.
A fellow named Bill Porter owned a rustic cottage where the old station had once stood, and he claimed to own the tower as well. As I approached, I saw him standing next to his 1928 Chevy truck that he used for getting on and off the beach.
“I see you traded in that Jeep for a more reliable conveyance,” he said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “You can’t get stuck in the sand with one of these.”
He held out a cold can of Coke, which I gladly accepted as I climbed down off Bandit to take a rest. But, when Bill invited me to have a look from atop the tower, I couldn’t resist.
I think it was about six-flights of iron steps to the top, but the view was worth it. Beyond the surf, the ocean shimmered blue/green. A few trawlers dragged their nets offshore. To the east, a group of cottages lay tucked into the dunes at Bellport Beach (now called Ho-Hum). North—out near the bay—was Glenna Hulse’s bungalow in the marsh just in front of the Coast Guard dock. I had met Glenna once before and she was a character. I believe she was the only person to live in the wilderness area year-round; winters she fed the wildlife, including deer and a family of foxes.
Before I left Whalehouse Point, I let Bandit drink from the artesian well left over from the Coast Guard days. It gushed cold water from hundreds of feet down and formed a little rust-colored marsh in the sand around it.
I hadn’t gone a hundred yards before I passed the beach house of John and Sarah Ince. Both Ince’s were waiting by the front door with carrots for Bandit. Like everyone living in the wilderness area, they knew that they were living on borrowed time. In the late 1960’s, FINS had given all the residents a temporary lease. These ranged anywhere from 5-years to 25-years. I believe Sarah and John still had a dozen or so years left, and they were determined to enjoy every day of it. Their little house was filled with bird carvings, old bottles, and assorted treasures from the beach. The front door was propped open with part of a rib from the “Bessie White”, a coasting schooner that went aground on the beach in 1928. When I asked about life on the beach, John was willing to wax poetic:
“Every season brings a new set of sights. In the fall the poison ivy turns deep red and huge flocks of snow geese go winging over the marshes. Spring is magnificent with yellow flowers on the beach heather and white blossoms—like snow—on the beach plums. But, you haven’t fully appreciated the place until you’ve been here in winter. Then the snow drifts over the dunes and wind-blown sand coats it with a subtle shade of gray.”
Back in the saddle again, I waved farewell to the couple. The next sign of civilization I came to was the dozen, or so, houses clustered near the boardwalk at Bellport Beach. One middle-aged woman came out of her house and asked to pet Bandit (he was a star wherever we went). I’ve forgotten her name now, but, ironically, she had just retired from the NYC Police force. Both retirees stood in the hot, summer trail and nuzzled each other for a moment.
Continuing my patrol—no offending campers encountered yet—I rode through the most desolate part of the wilderness area. There weren’t even any squatter shacks in the two-mile stretch to Old Inlet. A few deer, several cruising hawks, some rabbits in the thickets, and a set of fox prints in the sand were the only signs of life. The dunes here were massive, though. Some soared 30-feet or more above the low tide line.
Many were streaked with the deep purple tint of fine garnet sand and topped with billowing beach grass. It was truly a unique wilderness of sand, sky, and vegetation, enclosed by ocean and bay.
There were a few signs of civilization past. The rusted-out frame of a Model-A Ford—they were the original beach vehicles—lay off the trail, its skeletal remains almost hidden in the catbrier and poison ivy. Some old timbers emerged from the sand. Perhaps remnants of a ship that sank in the inlet more than a century earlier?
Old Inlet was a navigable inlet in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Fishing boats and coasting schooners regularly accessed ocean and bay through its shifting channel. During the Revolutionary War, a pair of British warships used it to anchor in the bay near the Manor of St. George. But, it was a dangerous inlet even then. By the 1840’s, after a series of storms and shipwrecks that blocked the channel, the inlet had shrunk to a mere trickle.
I don’t think that as I rode Bandit along the hot swale enclosed by high dunes, I had any clue that the island would succumb to a new inlet 36-years later.
Suddenly, up ahead, the long, low-slung roof of the Old Inlet Club emerged from behind the dunes. Up on its second-story deck, I saw Paul Stoutenburgh looking out over the beach with a pair of binoculars. Paul was an accomplished ranger/naturalist who was working for FINS to document the wildlife—especially the birds—of the wilderness area. When he turned the binoculars on me, I waved and urged Bandit forward.
It didn’t take much urging as Barbara Stoutenburgh came out of the house holding an apple for the horse.
“Welcome to paradise!” Paul said as I hitched Bandit to the house railing.
He and Barbara have a deep respect for nature and feel very lucky to get to spend the summer in this isolated place. As we greet each other, a family walked up the boardwalk from the dock. Paul greets them and we all chat as the children pet the horse. Like many of the people who come to the beach here, these are members of the former Old Inlet Club. The club consisted mainly of Bellport and Brookhaven residents who formed it in the early 20th-century. The original clubhouse was destroyed in the great hurricane of 1938 and was rebuilt into the one the Stoutenburghs were now living in. In years past club members used it for family gatherings and parties. It had a snack bar, showers, and changing rooms. Several generations grew up in this little corner of paradise. So, Paul’s job included being a good-will ambassador for FINS. Since the club did not own the property the clubhouse was scheduled for removal, and many club members had to be mollified by the fact that the Seashore would be preserving this section of beach as a “forever wild” place.
While Bandit enjoyed his apple, I joined the Stoutenburghs on the deck for some traditional English afternoon tea. Fresh blueberry scones made with the beach’s wild blueberries, and rose-hip tea made from the wild beach roses (rosa rugosa) that grew in the dunes. Paul and Barbara live on a farm in Cutchogue, so I’m sure that they are used to living off the land, but the Old Inlet Clubhouse brings its own challenges. It has no electricity so food is kept in a cooler and ice packed in each day. The sink has a hand pump to bring well water to the surface. The bathroom is an outhouse and next to it is the outdoor shower. Lighting is candles and oil lamps.
There is a propane stove, however, for preparing meals. The couple makes use of all the natural gifts that the beach supplies: fresh bluefish or striped bass from the surf, blue-claw crabs and clams from the bay, blueberries and beach plums from the dunes.
As he speaks, it’s clear that Paul loves this place. “Barbara and I love to walk the beach together, watch the ocean change its many moods, and wish everyone could experience the wonders of this fascinating world of the barrier beach with us.”
Swallows are darting about under the eaves of the porch. Along the dune line a steady flow of monarch butterflies flutter purposefully along heading west on the beginning of their southern migration. The boom of the surf mixes with the voices of the club member’s children on the beach.
Paul seems to read my mind. Pointing to them, he says, “Those club members knew a good thing and kept it all those years in its unique character. How hard it must be for them to close the books on this. Yet nothing is forever. Let’s hope there will always be a vision of Old Inlet in everyone’s mind.”
I nodded in agreement as I rose and thanked them before making my journey back. Little did I imagine, that, almost four decades later, Old Inlet would become a magnet for summer visitors once again.
"Sad, But True"
by: Rich Giannotti
While doing some research
on my maternal grandmother’s family from Blue Point I learned of this story
which is ultimately about my great, great, great grandfather. Thanks to the
wonderful Blue Point historian Gene Horton ( author of several books
including “Blue Point Remembered”) and a couple of reprints from the
Brooklyn Eagle archive I was able to flesh out this story.
One day in 1904 a man named Riley came to the “poor house” in Yaphank looking for his older brother. He related how in 1882 when he was five both he and his brother were adopted from that place having been put there by their mother who could no longer care for them. He was sent to the Robinson family in East Patchogue and subsequently ended up a stable hand and migrated to Kentucky. He was back in this area for the first time and decided to try to find his older brother.
Through the help of people at the facility he learned his brother had been adopted in March of 1882 by Benjamin Abrams an Oysterman (my ancestor) from Blue Point. He was saddened to learn that “Little Joe” as he was known around town was drowned along with Ben Abrams when the oyster sloop “Alice” capsized on the bar while attempting to come in the Fire Island Inlet. Joe was buried in the old Patchogue Cemetery and Mr. Riley was arranging to have his remains moved to near his home according to the 1904 story.
I then found a story from the Brooklyn Eagle in 1882 documenting the fatal accident. It seems another captain named Suydam from Bayshore was also lost that day. It must have been a bad day to be in the inlet with only sail power and no accurate charts or electronic goodies. Ben Abrams had traded his sloop, Calista (named for his 18 year old daughter) to a man from Patchogue for The Alice six months earlier. A few months after her father’s death, Calista died of “a broken heart” as folks were wont to do in those days.
Some accounts said they were coming in with a load of oysters which seemed odd to me since I thought oysters were harvested in the bay and then perhaps delivered to NYC by boat. I then learned that even at this early date oysters were being over fished in the bay and some oystermen would go up the Hudson to near Sing Sing prison where there were public oyster beds. There was a problem however; that being those oysters were living in polluted water courtesy of the prison inmates. The oysters taken there would be replanted in cleaner waters in New Jersey opposite Staten Island or in that area. After a few weeks in that pristine environment they were deemed edible and the men like my ancestor would retrieve them and bring them to Blue Point or Sayville where they were sold as Genuine Blue Point Oysters!
We tend to wax poetic about the old days. I wonder how many of us would have made it through with nothing but the next catch to keep us housed, fed and clothed?
"The Girl in the Woods"
by: Richard Weissmann
She was only eleven-years
old when she died in November of 1724. According to the ancient tombstone in
the woods, her name was Elizabeth Jessup, daughter of Isaac and Sarah
Jessup. Probably she died of some childhood disease? Perhaps a tragic
accident? I only know that her body rests in what must be the most remote,
and lonely, grave on Long Island—deep in the tangled undergrowth of the
forested peninsula called Jessup’s Neck, which juts northwards into Peconic
Bay like a comma.
Today, this peninsula comprises the Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge. Encompassing upland forest, fresh and saltwater marshes, freshwater streams and ponds, miles of rocky beaches, as well as a native population of virtually every bird, mammal, amphibian, crustacean, and fish known to populate Long Island, the refuge is a local treasure. A hike through the refuge is a journey back into another time.
It was several years ago that my hiking partner and I first descended the forest trail. Chickadees and nuthatches flitted and chattered in the cedar trees. Some flew onto our hands as we held out offerings of sunflower seeds. Ahead, wild turkeys pecked at seeds and insects, then loped comically as they veered into the tangled catbrier and poison ivy along the trail. I wondered if Elizabeth walked this trail and marveled at the bird life? Or, in her day, maybe this was a field of corn or a meadow for horses to graze?
Half-a-mile down the trail the trees ended, the sky opened, and we stood on a gravel beach looking out at the shimmering waters of Peconic Bay. Due west, off in the distance, lay Robin’s Island, across the bay the shoreline of Southold, and, to the east, the waters of Shelter Island Sound. A few sailboats slid lazily by on a light breeze. It didn’t take much imagination to envision the coastal schooners of Elizabeth’s day sailing east from Riverhead loaded with firewood to warm Manhattan homes. Did she watch them go by and wonder what life was like in a big city?
This part of Jessup’s Neck is more like a barrier beach, just a couple of hundred yards wide with a fresh-water pond cupped in its center and ringed with marsh grasses. Some egrets and a great blue heron stood in the pond and a pair of ospreys circled above their nest built in the top of a dead tree. The beach gravel is too soft for comfortable hiking, but, higher up, just below the driftwood and storm-wrack, a white ribbon of sand made a nice trail to follow.
Less than a mile of beach walking brought us to the forested north end of the neck. A mixed forest of hardwoods and cedars is perched upon eroding cliffs twenty-feet above the water. Once we reached this tree-line, we followed a narrow trail on the right that led us past the pond and into the trees for a short-cut across to the opposite shore.
It was near there that we came upon Elizabeth’s headstone, enclosed by a rusting, iron fence, probably erected many years later by someone who was sensitive to the loneliness of the grave. Could it have been an ancestor? A later property owner? Maybe even a historical society? I remember that the forest was especially dense and gloomy there. The leafy ceiling of sassafras and oak trees blotted out the sun, and ominous looking anthills nearby swarmed with red ants. Perhaps solitude is what ghosts prefer.
With some relief we emerged out onto the eastern shoreline and sat on a big, glacial boulder to drink water and eat a snack. Looking east we saw the shoreline of North Haven and the bluffs of Shelter Island. Just offshore a line of wooden poles stuck out of the water with a few cormorants perched on them catching the warmth of the afternoon sun. I recognized these poles as the frame for trap-nets, used by baymen to capture migrating schools of weakfish, fluke, and striped bass. This type of fishing hasn’t changed since its invention by native Americans, and it struck me that it might have been practiced by Elizabeth’s father all those years ago.
We turned to the north again, and with the bluffs on our left, walked to the end of the neck. Since the beginning of the hike we had not met another person. Now, as we stood on the very tip of land where it turned into a long finger of gravel before disappearing into the bay waters, we felt as isolated as two people could get on the mainland of Long Island. The nearest road was nearly three-miles away. The only sound was the chuff of wind and lapping of waves. It was a place frozen in time, steeped in nature; and inhabited by a very old, young ghost.