Superstorm Sandy was perhaps the worst storm to hit the east coast in recorded history. Entire villages were wiped out—some of them on the barrier island off New Jersey, others on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens or the southern shores of western Long Island. Tens of thousands of homes are uninhabitable or worse.
We here on the East End look around at the damage done and compare it to what we hear on the news reports and we just thank our lucky stars things were not worse here. Our power was out for a few days. We had flooding, some trees down, some houses damaged, but we got through it. Our villages of Westhampton Beach, Quogue, Hampton Bays, Southampton, Water Mill, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Amagansett and Montauk have survived with minor damage, but they are intact.
There is some talk about not entirely building back some of the villages to our west and south that have been destroyed. And it brings to mind the fact that in the list above of villages on eastern Long Island, there could have been another village mentioned. But there isn’t. And that’s because this local village was wiped out many years ago, in another violent storm, the Hurricane of 1938, and it was never rebuilt. I refer to the community known as the Montauk Fishing Village on Fort Pond Bay. There are lessons to be learned from it. Here is the biography of that village.
Until 1895, all of Montauk was uninhabited except for the Lighthouse keeper, people in six or seven scattered homes down by the ocean and, in some woods, a few remaining Montauk Indians. In that year, however, the owners of the Long Island Railroad extended the tracks from Bridgehampton to a site at the edge of Fort Pond Bay, a deepwater bay, in Montauk. There were plans to bring ocean liners and freighters into that bay. A huge port city was to be built there. The plan flopped, however, and so all that got built at Fort Pond Bay was the great railroad yard with its half dozen parallel tracks built for all the expected railroad freight cars, a wharf with railroad tracks on it and several wooden warehouse buildings.
In 1898, however, President William McKinley chose Montauk as the site where members of the American army—over 21,000 soldiers strong—could return to our shores after the conclusion of the successful Spanish-American War in Cuba. Here, they would recover from the yellow fever and other tropical diseases they had encountered in the Cuban campaign. After that, they would be mustered out to their homes around the country.
The Army built its own wharf on Fort Pond Bay, to the west of the railroad wharf, and that’s where Teddy Roosevelt, among other members of that campaign, disembarked from their transport ships. Teddy Roosevelt’s political career was launched while he rested up in Montauk.
A few years after that, fishermen from Nova Scotia, who had begun bringing their catch to the numerous fish factories on the bay 10 miles to the west in Napeague, came ashore for the first time at those now abandoned wharves. They noticed, among other things, giant leftover wooden crates that, during the Army’s time there, had been inserted in railroad boxcars to transport the Army’s horses. The fishermen could build shelters and houses out of those crates and some of the other stuff lying around. And they could tie up their boats at these wharves. Perhaps these men could bring down their families and set them up where these abandoned wharves were, right there on the beach. It was a beautiful spot on the curve of a bay.
Thus was a ready-made village born on the shoreline of Fort Pond Bay.
During the next few years, more and more of these fishing shacks were built on the arc of that beach, some behind a dirt road that ran parallel to the water, but others between that road and the water. Several bars and taverns were built. A post office was built. A schoolhouse. There was an ice house where ice from nearby Tuthill Pond could be cut in wintertime and dragged to. There was E.B. Tuthill’s fish packing house, where fishermen could box their catches in ice and send them off by rail to the city. In the late 1920s, Perry B. Duryea Sr. bought E.B. Tuthill’s place and renamed it Perry B. Duryea Fish Co. Today, Perry B. Duryea & Son remains in business, operated by members of the third generation of the Duryea family.
There was a storehouse. There were outhouses, boathouses, toolsheds. But unlike residents in East Hampton and westward, Montaukers led a rough life, even for those times, without electricity, gaslight or running water. Water came from a well and had to be hauled to the homes.
There was, however, kerosene, and the residents used that to light lanterns at night. As for heat in the winter, well, although there were no trees in the dunes of Fort Pond Bay, there was coal on the tracks. The town sat right next to the train station, for heaven’s sake, and that’s what the trains ran on. And nobody owned a car. Why bother? If anyone wanted to go anywhere, for example, New York City, it was only three and a half hours away by train if you had the fare. Or you could just go in your boat.
Captain Gus Pitts, as an old man in the 1980s, was interviewed about what things were like at the Montauk Fishing Village in the early days. He had spent most of his life there—his father left Nova Scotia to work on bunker boats out of Napeague in the early 1900s and brought the family to Montauk—until its demise in 1938, and thereafter at a home elsewhere in Montauk and with his fishing boat safely in Montauk’s newly built deepwater harbor known as Lake Montauk four miles to the west.
Pitts recalled the potbellied stove heating the one-room schoolhouse and how the teacher sometimes sent students (only 25, from first through eighth grade) out either to gather seaweed or run onto the tracks to gather coal to keep it going. He remembered Dr. Edwards, who had a practice in East Hampton and who came out to Montauk when trains weren’t scheduled either on horseback or by railroad handcar.
In the mid-1960s, living in Montauk, I spoke with more than half a dozen of the old fishermen who had been involved in the rum-running business back in the 1920s and ’30s in Montauk. I published what I learned in Dan’s Papers at that time.
The bootleggers would come in their big cars down the dusty road into town with bowler hats, fancy clothes, guns and lots of money. They needed, they said, men of the fishing community to go out at night in their boats and meet up with certain freighters from Canada or Europe who had arrived laden down with crates of Scotch or other hard liquor. In the dark, the crews would unload them into the smaller boats, and take them back to shore at the beach at Montauk and from there over the dunes into the backs of the trucks the rumrunners would have there. They flashed $50 bills for the job. This was more money than the fishermen had ever seen.
“We’d fish by day, then go out and get the hooch at night,” one fisherman told me. “We never slept.”
It was a sad day when the Volstead Act was declared unconstitutional on December 5, 1933, but it was nothing compared to what they would feel on the afternoon of September 21, 1938, when this huge hurricane steamed up the coast and slammed into eastern Long Island.
People had heard it was on its way, but nobody thought it would come through when it did. It had sped up and crashed through two days before it was expected and it came through very fast.
The storm packed 110-mile-an-hour winds, blasted through at 60 miles an hour, which added to its rage, and as it came it brought a huge storm surge with it, that, here in Montauk, swept through the little town and ripped it to bits. Ten miles to the west, the storm flooded through Napeague, even putting the railroad tracks underwater. Montauk was now an island, inaccessible, and it was to remain that way for the next two days.
On the day that it hit, Perry Duryea, the Town Supervisor, was in East Hampton. Though much damage came to that town, Duryea’s first concern was for his family and friends at the Fishing Village.
He could not get in touch with them. The telegraph office at the railroad station was not working. The phone lines were down. The trains were not running. There was nobody getting in or out. On the third day after the storm, he and some other officials requisitioned a tractor and a driver and spent several hours getting through to Montauk, where he found most of the village destroyed, washed away or torn off its foundations.
He also found his family, who rode out the storm in their home, which remained intact. Other residents of that village had abandoned their homes, run across the tracks and taken shelter inside the heavy railroad cars parked there. From there, they could watch their village die. Other Montauk fishermen trudged up the hill Montauk Manor and took shelter in the rooms there.
Supervisor Duryea sent out the following telegram to the Red Cross: “Montauk fishing village practically destroyed. Number of boats lost. Residences destroyed, several lives lost and missing. No water, lights or phone connections. Fishing industry wiped out. Immediate and necessary.”
An attempt was made to put some of the houses back on their foundations. Some succeeded. Some didn’t. Most of the residents vowed not to return. The village was too open, too vulnerable to storms. People re-settled, bringing their families and fishing boats to Lake Montauk, where a new inlet had been blasted.
And then, in 1942, it was over. World War II had broken out. The U. S. Navy decided to seize this broken property and on it build a Naval base where torpedoes, fresh from factories in Long Island City, could be brought out and tested. The residents were given a deadline, and soon thereafter there came the Navy bulldozers and construction crews.
Today, there are still a few remains of the former Montauk Fishing Village. Perry B. Duryea & Son, Inc. is still there, of course (now also a lobster house with an attendant outdoor café.)
Along the paved road between Duryea’s and what is now the condominium called Rough Riders Landing (built on some remains of the village), you will see two or three tiny homes on cinder blocks behind some fencing and hedges. Those were homes moved off from the fishing village. But that is it.
On the other hand, there is an entire diorama of the Montauk Fishing Village as it was around 1920, built and on display on a large table at the East Hampton Marine Museum on Bluff Road in Amagansett. It was built, in miniature, by a team led by Springs artist Ralph Carpentier in 1968 after that man and others conducted dozens of interviews with former residents of the village to discuss things such as whether this house was green or red or whatever.
To build this model took years of painstaking effort. It is a great accomplishment. You owe it to yourself to go see it.
I said, early on in this article, that there were lessons to be learned from what happened to the Montauk Fishing Village in 1938. I think you know what these lessons are. But I think what with insurance policies, help from government agencies and declarations of state disaster areas, a lot of homes will be rebuilt right in the teeth of what can happen again.
Let us hope for the best.