Montauk 1915: When the Village Was on the Arc of Fort Pond Bay

If you drive out through the Hamptons today heading toward the Montauk Point Lighthouse you will pass through small villages that were built during the 17th century. They are about six miles apart, one from the other, and as you enter each one, you will see a sign. Southampton Founded 1640. Bridgehampton Founded 1644. East Hampton Founded 1648. Amagansett Founded 1672.

Twelve miles past Amagansett, you will come upon the thriving village of Montauk. Montauk, as we know it today, was founded in 1926. By 1926, all the other villages were more than 250 years old. New York City was a thriving metropolis of 6 million. Towns and villages were sprinkled all along Long Island, and of course, the Montauk Highway—paved by that time—ran out east toward the Lighthouse, but where downtown Montauk is today had not a building on it. It was a one-mile-long flat straightaway of grass and dunes, not much different from the long, lonely stretch that comes before it after leaving Amagansett, and not much different than the further stretch six miles out to the Montauk Point Lighthouse.

And yet, at that time, there already was a thriving village of Montauk. Flyers in aircraft soaring over could look down at it, not on the ocean but on the arc of Fort Pond Bay. It consisted of about a hundred small wooden buildings on two long streets parallel to the bay, one just by it and one farther back from it. About 300 people lived there. There was a school, a restaurant, a bar, a post office, a telephone exchange, a little store, about 50 tiny homes, a pier with 30 fishing boats and two ice and lobster houses—Tuthill’s and Duryea’s. There was no way out to it by car except by driving down a one-mile-long series of dirt tracks that veered off to the northeast from the Montauk Highway down near where “Lunch” is in Napeague. There was no sign to tell you what was down that track. Indeed, for many years, long after this little village was gone, this series of dirt tracks, running through Hither Woods to Fort Pond Bay, were called, collectively “the rumrunner roads.”

The wooden shacks composing this village had all been built around 1895 by people who did not own this land. They were squatters on this arc of the bay on land owned by the Long Island Rail Road. The railroad did not stop this village from being built. In fact, they encouraged it. Probably it was because money changed hands between these people and the railroad. The people were commercial fishermen and their families. And they brought in tons of fish from the sea to that single pier and paid for the railroad trains nearby to transport their daily haul of fish to the thriving markets in New York City.

Indeed, the railroad’s Montauk station, its last stop, was just a hundred yards inland of that pier. The railroad had built a station there. A stationmaster lived in it. But hardly anyone ever came out to Montauk. The railroad to Montauk had been built a few years earlier for a project that never came to fruition. The owners of the railroad thought Fort Pond Bay could be a deep-water port to rival the Port of New York. They built the big pier. They had the tracks spread out into five sets of parallel tracks at the very end. This was supposed to be a very big deal. But nobody came. Now, the stationmaster thought, here were these fishermen with their fish in ice in wooden boxes to haul away. How did they get here?

These fishermen were not even Americans. They were Canadians. They were out of port towns in Nova Scotia, a long way from home, and they had full holds of fish to bring to market. And here, along the arc of this bay, was this nearly abandoned railroad station in the middle of nowhere. There was even a long pier. They’d tie up and meet the stationmaster there. Yes, the tracks led 110 miles straight into Manhattan.

Thus was Montauk Village born, rickety, illegal and remarkable. By the turn of the 20th century it was a thriving community. Then, in 1918, another and even more prosperous business came to this town. In their wildest dreams, the Canadian fishermen could not have figured this.

In that year, the government passed the Volstead Act, to carry out the amendment to the Constitution that banned the production, transport and sale (but not consumption) of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Montauk fishermen didn’t care much. But gangsters soon arrived driving large enclosed trucks down that dirt road. The first day they were there, they waited in the woods with their trucks until the early afternoon, when the fishermen would bring their boats in. School let out. The women were beginning to cook dinner for the fishermen. They would be going out again at 4 a.m. the next morning.

But when the fishermen tied up and walked down the pier, the gangsters approached them with a proposition. Freighters just off Montauk beyond the three-mile limit were loaded with crates of liquor. You fellas have boats. Want to make $50 for a night’s work? That was enough money to make a fisherman’s head spin in those years. Bring in the contraband. We’ll have men here to help load the stuff into the trucks. You’ll be rich.

By 1925, that activity had been going on for over five years. There are many stories about rum-running from those days, about revenuers in their government boats chasing and firing shots at the fishermen when they came upon them at night. But that’s for another time. This story is about this humble fishermen’s town. What happened to it? It’s not there today.

In 1925, a wealthy American developer came out to Montauk from New York City. His name was Carl Fisher, and he did not know there was a Montauk Village until he saw it. He was given a brief tour of Montauk. The whole peninsula, from Napeague to the Lighthouse, was 12,500 acres. He could buy it if he wanted, and he could afford it. Carl Fisher was 50 years old at this time.

He’d been born in Indianapolis in modest circumstances. He ran a bicycle shop as a teenager. When he turned 20, he got interested in motorcars—they were a new thing. He was a daredevil driver who held the land speed record for a while. One day, he bought a patent that made him a millionaire. It was a method of sealing car headlights. The whole nation wanted them. He got rich. He built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There is a big statue of him gracing the entrance of the Speedway there today. Now a rich man, but only 38 years old, he bought a desolate vacant island filled with mangoes and alligators off Miami and transformed it into a thriving winter beach resort—Miami Beach.

By 1925, he was looking for a location to build a summer resort. This was perfect. Beaches, riding trails, dunes, a hilltop for a big hotel, a lighthouse. “Miami in the winter, Montauk in the Summer” is how he thought to promote it. So he bought Montauk, all of it except for the railroad land, the station, the tracks and the little illegal village on the arc of the bay next to it. The railroad wouldn’t sell. They’d profit from whatever Fisher built. Fisher thought, well, so be it.

Between 1926 and 1929, Fisher “made the dirt fly,” as writers described his efforts at the time. He laid out all the roads for downtown Montauk where it is today, the circle, the seven-story office building (he had the penthouse), many of the stores, the two churches, a beach club and boardwalk on the ocean, the Montauk Manor, a golf course with a race track running around it, an enclosed glass tennis court building, a polo field. One day he dynamited a channel between Lake Montauk and the bay. Now there was a very safe harbor from bad weather for fishing boats. Fisher built the Montauk Yacht Club, and big millionaire yachts soon tied up there.

When my dad moved my mother and us kids out to Montauk in 1956, I found local fishermen in town who had grown up in that rickety fishing village years before and were happy to talk about old Montauk by the railroad station.

In 1929, the Crash occurred and the Fisher project went into bankruptcy, from which it never recovered. In 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed, Prohibition came to an end and the gangsters stopped coming to Montauk. It put a dent in commerce. But there was still fishing. In 1938, the Great Hurricane swept through, causing the bay to flood into the village. Many of the fishing boats and tiny houses were destroyed. The residents who remained now felt unsafe there. The village was only a step or two up from its beach and bay. About half of the remaining fishermen moved their boats to docks in Lake Montauk—thus founding the present day Montauk Harbor fishing village.

And in 1942, the battered little village suffered its demise. World War II had started. The Navy bought all the land along the bay from the railroad and in one week bulldozed down nearly all the houses that remained so they could build a big concrete torpedo testing station. The torpedoes would be built in factories in Queens, brought out on the train, taken out unarmed for testing in Fort Pond and, if they passed muster, sent off to war.

After World War II ended, in 1945, the Navy shut down the torpedo testing station. Its many cinderblock buildings were just left there. So was the pier. Then a very unusual business opened at the foot of the pier.

Two years after the end of the war, several enterprising men leased out the abandoned main torpedo testing station building by the pier, built a bar in it, a restaurant, a fishing supply store and a sport-fishing-boat ticket booth, calling the whole thing “Fishangri–La.” It was named after a joke.

During the war in the Pacific, the Marines had captured Japanese-held islands to be near the Japanese mainland, but none were close enough for bombers to attack Tokyo. One day, suddenly, bombers did. The attack caused little damage, but where had these bombers come from? Turned out the Navy had secretly launched four of these big bombers from an aircraft carrier near to Japan, but the president, announcing the attack to the world, said the bombers had come from a base on the island of “Shangri-La.” There is no Shangri-La.

Now here was Fishangri–La.

Fishermen from Brooklyn, Queens and western Long Island would get up at 3 a.m., grab their fishing tackle, drive to the railroad station near to them, board a train and, after having coffee and donuts onboard (along with other, alcoholic beverages), arrive at the Montauk station as a glimmer of dawn began to light the eastern sky. They’d grab their gear, run across the rows of empty railroad tracks, get their tickets in Fishangri–La and race out onto the pier to grab their spots on the railings of one of about a dozen fishing boats that the Montauk fishermen still tied up here. Off they’d go for the day. Arriving back at 3 p.m., they’d spend time at Fishangri–La, drink some more, tell fishing stories, and when their fish finished getting iced, send most to the city and take a few fish home with them.

In 1951, one of these fishing boats, the Pelican, overloaded with eager fishermen, capsized off the Montauk Point Lighthouse. Over 50 people died. After a Coast Guard investigation, new national safety rules were put into place to prevent such a thing happening again. Meanwhile, Fishangri–La closed its doors and all the fishing boats abandoned Fort Pond Bay and went to Lake Montauk. They are there today.

A few of the old, tiny houses from the old fishing village remain. You’ll see one or two on Navy Road at the western end of where the village was. You’ll see one or two just northeast of the condominium complex, Rough Riders Landing, built on the site of the old, abandoned torpedo testing station in the 1980s. Several others are on Tuthill Road, just past where Duryea’s is today—also originally from that era.

A beautiful model of Old Montauk, about eight feet long, is in a large, brightly lit glass case at the East Hampton Town Marine Museum on Bluff Road in Amagansett. It was built in the 1990s, through the efforts of old timers who remembered the days they grew up in that community fondly. Many old photographs of that long ago village are on display at the Marine Museum, too. It is surely worth a visit.

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