Airport For Sale: In the Midst of All the Talk at East Hampton, Montauk Is on the Market

The news that the Montauk Airport is for sale and, if sold, might result in a housing project—six single family lots—is really a shock. I mean, an airport is an airport. No? I guess not.
Airports only get to stay as airports if a municipality owns them and preserves the land for that purpose. Montauk is part of East Hampton Town and East Hampton Town does own an airport—but it’s in East Hampton. Certainly in recent years there have been efforts made by certain citizens to have East Hampton Airport closed. The certain citizens are those who bought land and built houses close to the airport after the airport got there in 1957. But it’s hard to argue that once you get there, knowing what was there, you should have priority to shut down that perfectly legal activity. There is also the fact that the East Hampton Airport is a much-needed public facility. There would be dramatic consequences involving the economy, safety, medical emergencies and commerce if it were not there.
The same is true in Montauk. Indeed, you could sure argue that if the Montauk Airport did close, it would increase the burden in East Hampton. Perhaps the owners of the Montauk Airport, putting it up for sale for a very high price—it’s listed at $18 million—are just hoping the Town buys it to prevent it from closing. Such strategies on the part of developers and land owners have been known to take place. It’s worth considering. On the other hand, I’m told that a group of aircraft owners and fliers are mustering together to make a bid for it, although they say it would not make sense at the amount being asked.
The Montauk Airport was the brainchild of Perry B. Duryea Jr., the son of a State Senator who built and owned Perry Duryea & Son Wholesale Seafood of Montauk on Fort Pond Bay near the train station in that town. Perry Jr. was born in 1922 and until his passing in 2006 was a wealthy and powerful figure in both Montauk and the state legislature for nearly a quarter century. He was the Minority Leader or Speaker of the Assembly for 12 years, and with State law being what it is, ruled the State government with about the same power that Speaker Sheldon Silver does today. Perry ran for governor in 1978, but lost to the incumbent at that time, Hugh Carey. He was a handsome, beloved figure in Montauk during his time.
In 1957, Perry got the idea that Montauk should have an airport. Twenty years earlier, when the Great Hurricane of ’38 had come through, he was in East Hampton Village and found himself unable to get home across the Napeague Stretch. Incredibly, the hurricane had caused the ocean to rise up and completely wash across that peninsula, destroying everything in its path, burying both the Montauk Highway and the railroad tracks in ten feet of water and isolating all of Montauk into an island. Attempts to contact anyone in Montauk from East Hampton resulted in failure after that storm came through. The telephone lines were down. With no electricity, the telegraph lines weren’t even working.
In East Hampton and Southampton, he found, homes and stores were gone, trees downed, a reported 700 total people dead as a result of the hurricane. What was going on in Montauk? How was his family? What about the business? There was no way to know.
It was three days later that Perry, accompanied by others, were able to make their way out through the debris of Napeague to Montauk in four-wheel-drive vehicles. They found the lobster business badly damaged, the little town of Montauk spread out on the arc of Fort Pond Bay completely destroyed (only a few buildings still stand today on Navy Road) and, amazingly, everyone still alive.
That experience, looked back upon in 1957, convinced Perry that there needed to be an airport in Montauk. He envisioned it as a commercial development, with a hotel and restaurant and resort as well as an airport terminal and runway. But he also saw it as a means to get to desperate people in extraordinary circumstances. You could fly in food and supplies if a hurricane like that came again. There was little doubt he was right about that.
The airport opened as a single runway—it’s just one runway today—and the airport terminal was built, and across the road on Lake Montauk a motel (called the Sky and Sea Portel)  and a restaurant (called the Flying Fish)opened, but the place never became any major resort. It did, however, become an important point of entry for Montauk, and many people in private planes came. It was and is an important gateway for this thriving resort town. Of course, the office closes in the wintertime, though you can still, on your own, use the runway.
Personally, I endured an incident at the airport that came pretty close to leading to my demise. It happened when I was in college. It is something I will never, ever forget.
The year was 1963 and I was away at school at Harvard studying Architecture. Although at school, I still lived at home with my parents—my dad owned White’s Drug Store and our house was up by the Montauk Downs Golf Course—and I was a bit homesick being away at school and was looking forward to coming home for Christmas vacation. I had arranged to be home on a Thursday—I would take the train from Boston to New London, take a cab to the airport at New London and then take a charter flight to Montauk, where my mom would pick me up. Our house was on the other side of Lake Montauk. It would be just a ten minute drive to get all the way around.
A terrible snowstorm with bitter cold winds was predicted for Wednesday night and all day Thursday, however. So I decided to come a day early—and surprise my family. They’d be so happy to see me a day early.
You know, I can tell you for a fact considering what happened that as my parents sometimes told me, kids of college age are generally lacking in brains when it comes to common sense.
What happened was that I woke up Wednesday morning and the snowstorm was already moving in. The temperature was below zero. But, everything considered, I thought to go ahead anyway because things were only going to get worse. So I left.
Arriving at New London around noon, a cabbie took me to New London Airport where a pilot, not much older than I, said that he could get us through, no problem. There’d be maybe a few bumps, but he was sure we’d be fine. We loaded up my suitcases in the cargo bay and took off in this small Cessna single engine plane.
Indeed, he had been correct about his assessment that he could make the trip. He hugged close just over the waves, so we could see our way, and when Montauk showed up just 15 minutes later—this is a 22 mile trip over water—he made an awkward wing wiggling but very successful landing. We got out happily, high fived each other, he took out the suitcase, I wished him the best in getting back home and he taxied down the runway.
It was at that moment that my adult brain suddenly told me something important. I had of course not called my parents. I was going to surprise them. But now, it was below zero, there were snowdrifts, blizzard conditions and I was wearing only a light jacket. Also, there was nobody there but me. The airport was completely closed! I thought all this, a grip of terror came over me and I thought—I have to stop that plane!! And I looked up, and there he was, just clearing the dunes at the end of the runway and disappearing into the snowflakes.
Leaving my suitcases on the runway, I simply ran to the little airport terminal for shelter, only to find it padlocked. I then ran to the payphone just outside it and found it frozen solid. This had been a huge mistake.
What were my options? I could stay here and die. I could walk the six miles around the lake to my house. Or, or what? The restaurant was shut tight. The motel was shut tight. But then it came to me. Both these facilities faced out onto the Lake, and the lake was frozen solid. On the other side, the Montauk Coast Guard Station would have to be open. And, though I could not see it through the storm, it would have to be right across the lake. All I’d have to do is walk, or preferably, run across the ice.
So that’s what I did. Banging on the front door of the Station, shivering uncontrollably, I was let in to a warm living room with a blazing fire and numerous people in uniform. They sat me in a comfortable chair by the fire, wrapped me in blankets, brought me a hot chocolate and then, after I recovered, led me to a telephone where I could call my parents.
“Surprise!” I said.

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