Boys Harbor was a world of its own.
It was a country sanctuary for underprivileged children, offering respite from the inner city heat and smog. For more than 52 years, there was fresh air and open woodlands with hiking trails, obstacle courses, and access to Three Mile Harbor for hundreds who passed through its gates into the rustic campgrounds, until its closing in June 2006.
The 57-acre property was purchased by the Town of East Hampton and Suffolk County in 2011 for $7.3 million with the aim that it would be preserved for recreational use by the public, but some ambitious plans were met by community opposition, and others fell by the wayside after buildings on the property were deemed structurally unsound.
The property’s terrain has retained much of its rustic character with high brush and large boulders, but its former mess hall is covered in graffiti and blocked by a fallen oak, and a small wooden paddle boat has a tree growing through its center. Despite its fallen glory, the trails are still utilized.
Now, seven years after its purchase, town officials are floating new plans to raze all but the foundation and fireplace of the campgrounds’ former mess hall to make way for a picnic pavilion with new bathrooms. The town board plans to allocate $27,000 to hire an engineer to get the ball rolling on their vision for the former campgrounds.
“At this point, we are asking our engineer to do plans and specs, so we can put the project out to bid,” Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. The mess hall, which is about 45-feet by 105-feet, will be “deconstructed in a way that will preserve some of the foundation,” then a pavilion will be constructed in its place.
Two thirds of the picnic pavilion will be located under a roof, while the remaining third will be open, Van Scoyoc said.
The town currently has two such picnic facilities — Maidstone and Fresh Pond parks — and they are highly utilized and constantly booked throughout the season, according to Van Scoyoc.
“Part of the attraction is to have a covered area where you can get in out of the weather, out of the sun, and to have bathroom facilities, [which will] make for a great picnic area,” Van Scoyoc said, noting Boys Harbor has been underutilized because while there is parking, the area lacks other amenities.
The town has about $600,000 in funding set aside within the capital budget to complete construction on the renovation project. Van Scoyoc said he expects construction to start this year.
“The concept is an open air pavilion, restoring the original fireplace and to have bathroom facilities in that room as well. It will be 57 acres of open trails with water access,” Van Scoyoc said.
Town officials have also discussed the possibility of constructing an Americans With Disabilities Act accessible path that could also be used by people pushing baby strollers, as well as children with bicycles, according to Van Scoyoc. The trail could be made with stone dust or another impervious surface, he said.
Socialite Anthony “Tony” Drexel Duke founded The Harbor in 1937 as an innovative camp on Jessup’s Neck in Southampton for economically disadvantaged boys from New York City, according to the organization’s website. The camp was vacant while Duke was serving in the US Navy in the early 1940s, but then started up again in 1946 in Westport, CT, before moving on in 1952 to Kingston, NY, where the first group of girls attended.
In 1954, the camp relocated to Three Mile Harbor. The name of the organization was changed to Boys and Girls Harbor in 2001.
Town Councilman Jeff Bragman was a friend of Duke’s and acted as the attorney on the closing of the sale of the campgrounds. He described Duke as an outdoorsy man, using all of his conventions in supporting his lifelong mission of bringing underprivileged youth closer to nature.
“Tony himself was a believer in rugged outdoor activities,” Bragman said. Bragman remembered at least one instance where he visited the campgrounds and saw what he believed to be an osprey nest, but when he inquired, he was informed by Duke that the tall contraption was part of an obstacle course.
“He said, ‘Can you believe they made me do this on my 70th birthday?’” Bragman recalled, laughing about the campers cajoling Duke into navigating the obstacle course. “Just talking about Tony Duke makes me smile.”
Bragman said he would like to see the former campgrounds remain passable with open space and trails, and nixed the idea of paving trails for wheelchair access because he doesn’t believe it would be in keeping with camp’s rustic character.
“We are a rural town. I would like to see the trails remain rural,” he said, noting gravel could be installed instead.
He also noted companies are now altering wheelchairs to make them more adaptable to traverse more rugged terrain.
“I’d like to keep it a rustic experience,” he said.