Dan Rattiner's Stories

Osprey Tower: People Think It Was Built for Morse Code Communications. They Be Wrong

Standing 300 feet tall in Napeague, the Mackay Tower can be seen for miles.

People who come out to the Hamptons for the first time often ask about the 300-foot-tall steel tower that looms over the landscape in Napeague. It is, by far, the tallest structure in the Hamptons and can be seen for miles.

Legend has it that this was a radio tower built just after World War I for contacting ships at sea. Communications in those early years was by Morse code, sent out by a key operator tapping out a series of dots and dashes. This is only legend, however. The true story is that this tower was built by Colonel Abraham Mackay Tower in 2011, just eight years ago, as a place where giant ospreys, the big birds of eastern Long Island, could build their nests and be safe from the hustle-bustle of busy traffic on the street below.

In honor of the colonel, this massive steel tower was named for him and is known as the Mackay Tower to this day.

Colonel Tower is in jail now. But the story of how he came to build this is a fascinating one. Mackay was a longtime officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, the military organization created a hundred years ago and charged with building bridges and roads during wartime for our troops. When no major war takes place—and there has not been one since Vietnam—the funding for this branch of the military is used to build things such as dams and oceanfront breakwaters that help fend off flooding and other catastrophes resulting from rising waters in the civilian communities around the country. Colonel Tower held the purse strings for the northeast division of the Army Corps of Engineers. He’s the one who doled out the money to restore the Westhampton Dunes beach and the Montauk Oceanfront sandbag project.

In his spare time, however, Colonel Tower was an amateur ornithologist with a particular interest in great soaring ospreys, whose wingspans sometimes exceeded five and a half feet.

Over the years, many towns and villages have allowed their highway departments to build platforms atop roadside telephone poles in remote areas for osprey to find. The birds find these sturdy structures rising 20 feet on which osprey families—ospreys typically mate for life—could construct nests out of branches and twigs to raise their young.

I am sure you have seen these platforms and nests in your travels out here. Nothing compares to watching a mama or papa osprey fly up to a platform with a wriggling fish in their claws to feed their young.

Trouble was that most of these platforms, built during the Great Depression as WPA projects, were a success early on but by the turn of the 21st century were becoming less and less attractive to the ospreys. The trouble was all the noisy comings and goings on the streets below. Ospreys like peace and quiet. Only half the platforms are now inhabited.

It was in 2008 that Colonel Tower, from inside his military office at the Westhampton National Guard Airport, began to think of how he might help the ospreys fight descending down into the endangered species list. And so it was at that time that he drew up a plan to build a 300-foot-tall steel tower where the ospreys—and he expected hundreds of couples—would feel comfortable enough to relocate their nests.

At this particular time, the Army Corps of Engineers was fully funded with $40 million to build a sandbag seawall and beach along the mile-long Montauk oceanfront where the townspeople made their downtown. The town, without the seawall, had narrowly avoided being flooded by the ocean during a huge storm in 2006.

The $40 million would be spent in two stages. The first stage, known as Phase One, would involve bulldozing out the existing low sand dunes and replacing those sand dunes with a 10-foot-high seawall of sandbags covered with a light dusting of sand. This project cost $8 million and by 2015 was completed. Phase two would require $32 million and would result in the creation of a huge thousand-ton barrier of heavy sand to totally cover the sandbags, thus completing the job.

In this interval between Phase One and Phase Two, Colonel Tower misappropriated the $32 million in the Army Corps of Engineers account and caused it to be spent on building his 300-foot-tall Mackay Tower into which he expected that dozens of ospreys would nest. Construction crews labored for six months to complete the job. The salaries for the workers building the lower portion were high, as expected. But for the upper reaches of the structure, pay had been negotiated at triple overtime.

Nevertheless, Colonel Tower told his superiors that his maiden aunt had died and left him $32 million, so he could build his osprey tower. But it was a lie. When investigators came to look at the books, they realized that the money used to build the tower came from the Army Corps. That is why Colonel Tower is in jail today.

As for finding the money to finish the Montauk beachfront project, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have failed to provide it. There has been filibustering and squabbling and a few Congressmen got punched in the nose, but nothing further has been done. President Trump has not issued a special executive order, either. Thus, the Montauk beachfront project remains half done, actually less than a quarter done, and, as it has turned out, only a few ospreys have turned out to be brave enough to fly high enough to reach the first platform way up there where nests could be built. As a result, the tower has failed in its purpose and the Army Corps of Engineers has moved on to concentrate on other projects around the country. Fact is, nobody knows when the funding for Montauk will be replenished, if ever.

At the present time, efforts in Montauk are underway to raise $10,000 in order to build a bronze historic marker in front of the tower applauding Tower for the work he did, misguided as it was.

Feel free to take photos of the tower. There’s even a gravel area where you can stand to take a selfie with the osprey tower rising up behind you, if you don’t mind occasional drippings of osprey guano.

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