Montauk Life

History

 

FISHING - MONTAUK'S LIFEBLOOD

What coal is to Newscastle, oil is to Texas, computer chips are to Silicon Valley, fish are to Montauk. This community surrounded by water has from it's very inception tied it's financial wellbeing to fishing. It sustains us, supports us, and most importantly, has moulded the community and it's residents. Montauk is fishing, just as New York is Wall Street, and Washington is politics. Salt water runs through the veins of this community, and has since the very earliest times.

INDIANS AND EARLY FISHING

The Indians who first settled settled here depended on the sea for their every need - food, money, even their spiritual life was intertwined with the waters that surrounded them. The bays, lakes and open waters were bountiful beyond their dreams, teaming with every variety of fish and shellfish. Archeological finds have shown that the earliest fishing was done in the many fresh water ponds and lakes - Oyster Pond, Fort Pond, Big Reed Pond and Lake Montauk. The Indians traped fish along their calm shores with primitive basket nets made of woven reeds. Oysters, clams and mussels were harvested much as they are today, with simple tongs and rakes draged along the shallow bottoms. Clams in particular were especially valuable, not only for their meat, but for their shells. These were polished and woven onto elaborate leather belts - wampum belts, the basic currency of Indian trade. Montauk was such an enoromous source of wampum that the Montauk Indians became one of the most influencial tribes of the New England area. Unfortunately their wealth aroused the envy of some of their more numerous, and powerful neighbors. The Pequots of Connectitut, a particularly aggressive tribe, preyed on the much smaller in number Montauks, regularly sending raiding parties to harrass and intimitade the Montauks. Slipping silently across Long Island Sound in their war canoes, the Pequots repeatedly battled the Montauks, killing their braves and carrying off hostages to be ransomed. It was their insatiable demand for wampum that drove the Montauks to make their first alliances with the new English settlements of Connecticut in the mid-1640's.

The sachem - or leader - of the Montauks at that time was the legendary Wyandanch, the most revered and powerful of all Montauk sachems. Realiizing his inability to withstand the Pequots he formed a military alliance with the leader of the English settlement in New Saybrook, a charismatic soldier of fortune, Lion Gardiner. Combining their forces they met and annihilated the Pequots at the battle of the Great Swamp in 1642. In gratitute to his new found friend and ally, Wyandanch made Gardiner a full blood brother, and granted him title to the lands that made up the bulk of the present Town of East Hampton. However, Wyandanch retained those lands stretching from the westerly border of the current Hither Hills State Park to Montauk Point. These were the most sacred lands of his tribe, to be held exclusively for their use.

The English who settled East Hampton arrived with their own extensive knowledge of fishing. However, there were a few new tricks they would quickly learn from the native Indians. Principly they involved one of the smallest of local fishes - the bunker - and the very largest of all sea creatures, the whale. The Indians had come to prize the oiley little bunker for it's use as a fertilizer. By planting one fish with each kernel of seed corn in the spring, they were assured of a rich harvast in the Fall. Fields that had been played out through years of farming could be revitilized by spreading a thick cover of ground bunker each planting season. Messy, foul smelling as they were, the humble bunker was essential to succesful farming on the East End.

Whales on the other hand served to satisfy the Indians metaphysical needs. The fins and tails were highly prized for use in religeous ceremonies. So much so that in every treaty between Indians and settlers, it was expressely stated that of any whales washed ashore, the fins and tails belonged to the Montauks. The English were more than agreeable to this, as their use of the giant mammals was confined to the rich oil that could be rendered from their thick blubber. It was so highly valued, that the early community required all able bodies men to help in the butchering and boiling of any whales found on the beach.

However, relying on whales washing ashore for such a highly valuable resource as oil was soon replaced with a determined effort to go after any whales close enough to shore to kill and bring to the beach. Here again, the skill of the native Montauks was indispencible. They had for centuries developed large canoes for cross sound voyages, canoes that were readily adaptable to launching from shore through the surf to chase inshore whales. When the cry "Whale Off" would sound, a crew of ten stought men would bend their backs to push a 25 foot canoe through the breakers, then row her out to meet the whales for the chase. Once close enough, Indian harpooners would raise up their razor tipped lance, and with one mightly heave drive it as deep as they could into the back of the creature. The Nantucket sleigh ride would end with 20 tons of carcass being slowly towed to the boiling try works on the beach.

The early success of shore whaling quickly gave way to longer and longer voyages to find whales. Ultimately Sag Harbor, the largest of the then East End towns became one of the most important whaling ports in the world. Hundreds of Sag Harbor ships prowled the seven seas, on years long cruises, for the ever increasinly valuable sperm oil. Many of the best crews for those ships came from the decendants of those same Montauk Indians who first introduced the English to whaling.

Over the course of the 1700 and 1800's, Montauk remained a completely undeveloped land. Owned by a small group of East Hamptoners known as the Proprieters, who had bought the entire peninsula of Montauk from Wyandanch's heirs in 1656, the length and breath of Montauk was kept uninhabited, used solely as a grazing land for the herds of cattle and sheep sent from East Hampton each summer to fatten on Montauk's open plains. There was no fishing to speak of, save for the few remaining Montauk Indians who continued to subsist here. All that would change, when in 1879 a wealthy New Yorker - Arthur Benson - bought all 32,000 acres of Montauk from the Propriotors. Benson saw much more than a simple cattle ranch, he dreamed of a sportsman's paradise, where a select few could hunt and fish in a nearly pristine land.

Benson built a hunting lodge on the ocean near the Montauk Lighthouse, where he entertained parties of society swells and big shots. Amongst his many guests was a group of railroad executives, one of who was Austin Corbin, Jr., an upwardly mobile young tycoon with an eye for the future. In 1890 Corbin took over the bankrupt Long Island Railroad, turned that company around, and then announced to the world his master plan for his railroad and Montauk. He would extend the railroad to Montauk - it only ran to East Hampton at that time - and build a deep water port there for transatlantic ships to dock! "Montauk Freeport", as he called it, would replace New York harbor as the first landing port on the East Coast. His railroad would then transport all goods and passengers to New York, eliminating the extra sea travel between the two. He bought 5500 acres of land in Montauk, extended the railroad, and on December 18, 1895 the first train arrived at the new railroad station on the shores of Fort Pond Bay.

Unfortunatey for Corbin and his partners, the Montauk port concept never did take off. However, with the railroad in place, fishing finally did! Montauk's access to the richest, deep water fishing grounds on the East Coast had always intrigued commercial fishermen, but the problem of transporting qualtities of fish discouraged any serious attempts to establish fishing here. Until the railroad there was no practical way of shipping fish west, so why bother? Now, the ice was broken, and within a few years of the railroad's arrival, Montauk became the principal fish shipping port on the East End. Trainloads of cod, bunker, sea bass, striped bass and herring left Montauk daily for the ravenous fish markets of Manhattan.

The geographic layout of Montauk at the turn of the century, bares no resemblence to today's village. Outside of a few large homes built on the ocean near Ditch Plains, and the Lighthouse itself, the village of Montauk in the 1890's was entirely concentrated along Fort Pond Bay, near the Railroad station and the current Rough Riders Landings condominiums. There piers jutted out over Fort Pond Bay, warehouses and packing sheds lined the shore, and simple shanties made of rough hewn fish box boards were home to the men and mates of Montauk's small fleet.

The men who lived there were a hardy breed, to say the least. Drawn locally from the North and South forks, and from as far afield as Nova Scotia, they'd arrive in Spring, work through the Fall, only to scatter home for the long, hard winter. The most prominent of the early families was the Tuthill clan from Orient, who certainly prospered as much as any of the early fishing families. They built their own dock, ran their own boats, threw up a fish packing house and an ice house to boot! Today their property is the only commercial facility still in existence on Fort Pond Bay - the Duryea dock and fish house on Tuthill Road. Seems Miss Tuthill took such a liking to young man Duryea, that they just had to tie the knot.

While Montauk grew as a commercial port, it's reputation as a premier sport fishing destination received a tremendous boost in 1901. While fishing under the Montauk Light, a certain Willian Morgan landed one of the largest striped bass then taken on rod and reel. The 76 lb monster made headlines throughout the fishing community, and Montauk quickly became synonomous with trophy fish. Now we had the three ingredients that would grow Montauk into a first class sportfishing retreat - access, product and publicity. As the early 20th century progressed, these factors combined to attract more and more serious sportsmen to Montauk.

At first they hired small smacks and scallop boats from Amagansett and East Hampton harbor to fish Montauk's waters, and as more people discovered our rich off-shore grounds, more and more local captains began hiring out to summer visitors. Gus and Fred Pitts, Harry Conklin, the Tuma and Edwards brothers, along with other commercial fishermen soon realized that a good living could be made by running private charters. They adapted their commercial boats for sportfishing, adding fish towers, extended range tanks, and cockpits with early fighting chairs. Running as far as 50 miles from shore, they developed the techniques most modern sport fishing captains have come to take for granted.

Now, of course they will always be a heated debate between the old timers and today's crowd of captains as to who's better at the age old struggle between fish and man. Old timers scoff at the dizzying array of electronic devices that crowd the flying bridge of today's offshore boats, and the seeming ease with which modern tackle can handle the largest and ornerist of fish. New captains complain how much harder it is to find a decent fish, when there's 50 times as many boats crowding the waters, and 90 years of overfishing the prize specises to content with!

Well, I'm here to tell you that both generations have their arguement. It's true, fishing 50 years ago was technically much more challanging, but the fact was there were more fish of more varieties to catch. After the intense overfishing of the local waters, by both American and foreign boats, some species common to Montauk only 20 or 30 years ago have nearly disappeared. Long lining - inwhich a single boat trails miles of line loaded with thousands of hooks - devastated swordfishing. A swordwish in Montauk now is about as rare as a virgin in Times Square at midnight! Simiarily, 3 - 400' Russian and Japanese factory ships operating off the coast in the '70 and '80's stripped the bottom clean, severaly affecting the feeding grounds of giant tuna. Once it was common for a single captain to land a couple of 5 - 600 lb. giant Blue Fin tuna in a season. In 1977 Capt. Frank Hammer alone brought in 7 giants from 697 to 910 lbs! Today you're luckly if each captain gets one per season.

However, what today's fishermen may lack in quantity of some fish, he certainly makes up for with the quality of fish catching equipment. Lord knows the boats and equipment on board has dramatically changed over the years. Comparing a fully rigged, modern Hattaras to the old skiffs of the 20 and 30's is like comparing a WWI biplane to an F-14. Today's twin screw boats can cruise at 20 plus knots, making even canyon runs common now. Modern electronics home in on the prime fishing spots with accuracies of up to 5 ft, 50 miles from shore! Graphite rods with the biggest Penn reels can tame the fiercist fish God ever created! The captains of the 20's had linen lines and laminated bamboo pools, for crying out loud! Armed only with a compass and their knowledge of the local waters, old timers like Capt. Sam Edwards fished the same spots some of today's hotshots can only reach by plugging numbers into an automatic pilot.

Another decided difference between the old timers and todays breed, is the simple fact that today's captains choose to fish, where most of yesteryear's giants had no choice in the matter. If you were the son of a fisherman, born anytime on the East End before the second world war, it was the only path open to you. Few could, or would, leave the area, go into another line of work, or rebel against their tradition and background. Local fishing families like the Edwards, Lesters, Vorpals, Pitts, Havens carried on generation after generation in the same livelhood. What else could they, or would they do? They were Bonackers - proud decendants of the first fishing families to settle in NorthWest Hartbor, and explore the bays and open waters of the East End. Salt water ran in their blood, and it took old age or early death to pry their hands off the oars.

In that sence it's clear that the real captains of both eras are cut from the same cloth. Dedicated, knowledable, passionate about their sport, and willing to devote the enormous time and effort it always takes to succeed in this chosen craft, the Frank Hammers, Joe McBrides, and Chuck Mallinsons of today's fleet are the direct decedants of old man Tuthill, Edwards, Pitts and Conklin. They may not have been born to it, like the old timers, but they're a worthy successor to their forefathers. They are, as all Bonackers say, finest kind!

Recreational fishing boomed througout the 1920's and 30's.The Fort Pond fishing village grew into a permanent, year-round community, with proper homes, shops, a few restaurants and a rooming house for the ever increasing flow of city slickers looking for a day on the water. Party boats, the 50 - 100' mass fishing boats so common to modern Montauk, began to appear on the new, main dock, filling each morning with the hordes of eager anglers riding the famed Long Island Rail Road's "Fisherman's Special" train. In 1934 alone over 20,000 of them rode the rails to Montauk, in search of the hordes of striped bass, bluefish, cod, pollack, flounder, fluke and sea bass thriving only a few miles off-shore. The growth of the Fort Pond Bay community seemed unstopable - until Carl Fisher hit town in the late 20's.

Carl Fisher was one of the true giants of his time. Inventor, builder, visionary, Fisher was a larger than life figure, who moulded the world in his decidedly big image. His list of accomplishments include the building of the Indianapolis Speedway, the first transcontinental highway, Miami Beach, and his ultimately thwarted but crowning project - Montauk! When Fisher first saw this area, in the early 1920's, it was still virgin territory, with 1000's of acres of open land, just waiting to be developed into the premier resort of the NorthEast. Fishing and the big pleasure boats it attracted, would play a large role in his "Miami Beach of the north".

Fisher bought Montauk - every acre from the Hither Hill State Park to the Montauk Lighthouse. His plans called for every amenity the wealthy sporting crowd required - a grand hotel, oceanfront bathing club, polo fields, 18 hole golf course, gourmet restaurant, air field, and a yacht club worth of the Astors, Vanderbilts and Morgans. Only problem was, where in the world to put it? Fort Pond Bay was an unprotected harbor, subject to violent storms and high tides. Now that might be fine for commercail fishermen, or the occasional weekend angler, but it would never do for the rich and famous Fisher intented to craft Montauk for. Not only that, but how declasse would it have been if some stink pot Bonack dragger crossed lines with Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt's prized yacht? It simply would not do!!

Fisher's solution was big, bold, and changed the face of Montauk for all time. In 1929 he blasted a new channel through the bluffs seperating Fort Pond Bay from what was then called the Great Lake. Renamed Lake Montauk, Fisher now had what he needed, a protected deep water harbor in which to base his yacht club. Dredging 12' deep around the current Star Island allowed boats of over 100' to visit the fledgling Montauk Yacht Club and Restaurant. He quickly attracted the finest sport fishermen from around the world, and many of the local boats that had started on Fort Pond Bay soon followed. Over the years the majority of recreational boats moved to the new harbor, leaving Fort Pond Bay to the commercial boats and party fleet.

It wasn't man as much as nature that finally drove most of the fishing fleet from the unstable shores of Fort Pond Bay. The great Hurricane of 1938 exploded there, with devastating results. Boats, homes, stores, docks, everything in it's way was pulverised, pummelled, driven inland or sunk. The exodus away from Fort Pond Bay to the current downtown and harbor area was completed, when the Navy condemnded the entire shoreline of Fort Pond Bay in 1942 for use as a testing facility area for naval torpedoes. Huge concrete hangers and shops replaced the quaint little homes and shops of the old fishing village, which would exist only in the memories of those old enough to remember a Montauk almost completely different from today.

Once the war ended, a weary populace looked for ways to enjoy the peace and proserity they had so justly earned. Needless to say Montauk was ready. Fisher's dream of a playground only for the rich had passed away with him, and was replaced with a more democratic Montauk in which literally everyman could enjoy himself. Inexpensive hotels and motels sprung up, catering primarily to fishermen - surfcasters, sinker bouncers, off-shore swells, whatever the traffic would bear! Lake Montauk, now open to all developers, sprounted new docks, marinas, facilities of all kinds. primarily geared to the average fisherman. One of the earliest, and certainly most successful enterprises was started by John and Mary Gosman just after the war. Hard to believe today, but that sprawling complex began as a simple fishing station at the head of the inlet.

The 50's and 60's were the glory days of sport fishing in Montauk. Interest in the sport exploded, and Montauk was at the epicenter. Sleek new boats filled newly created slips, the harbor rang with the throaty roar of 100 diesels firing up each dawn, and the waters churned with dozens of crisscrossing wakes. More big marlin, tuna, swordfish and shark were taken then, than any other time in this community's history. The prestigeous Deep Sea Club was founded adjacent the old Montauk Yacht Club by John Olin, and it's 150 slips became home to many of the most illustruos blue water fishermen in the world. It's annual Swordfishing tournaments were considered by many to be the World Series of recreational fishing.

After over a hundred years in the limelight, Montauk still reigns as one of the premier sport fishing capitals of the world. Home to over 25 current world records for everything from flounder to great white shark, it continues to lure sportsmen from around the world. Today a dozen major marinas ring Lake Montauk, offering over 1000 premium slips, along with all the facilities needed to keep a modern boat afloat and fishing. Our world class charter boat fleet now numbers over 100 members of the Montauk Captain's and Boatman's Association, the harbor's professional captain's guild. We send more boats off-shore here than nearly anywhere on the East Coast, and they bring home the fish to prove it every damn day! Our waters still team with more fish, or more varieties, than neartly any other spot on the map. Of course times have changed, fishing is different than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago, but Montauk still thrives as a community surrounded by, and profoundly affected by, fishing. It's in the air we breath, the soil we walk, it's what makes Montauk such a different place from the rest of the East End. We may not be as flashy as some of our brother villages, certainly not as rich, but there's a rough hewn honest quality about Montauk that owes itself to it's heritage as a fishing community. God willing and the fish hold out, it will remain so for as long as a single boat heads out the inlet at dawn, looking for a school of fish.

 


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