History of Plum Island

Oct. 30, 1963


History of Plum Island

By Thomas R. Bayles

History of Plum Island

            Plum Island lies across Plum Gut, about a mile east of Orient Point, and is part of Southold Town.  This island contains some 800 acres and is about three miles in length.  The island was purchased of the Indians by Samuel Wylles of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1659 for “on barrel of buscuit, one hundred muxes,” (small brad awls, used by the Indians to make holes in shells for wampum) and a few fish hooks.  A patent was issued for the island by Gov. Andros in 1659.  A light house was erected on the west end of the island in 1827 and refitted in 1856, and stood on a hill that gave the light an elevation of 63 feet above the water.  It had a revolving light, flashing every 30 seconds, visible for 12 miles.

            According to an article in the Brooklyn Times for July 10, 1909, there were a number of farm houses on Plum Island in the early days, but the soil was not very fertile, and the cleared lands were used for the most part for grazing flocks of sheep during the open months.  Fishermen and campers squatted there and great colonies of terns raised their young along the shore until the United States government decided to fortify the eastern entrances to the Long Island Sound.  Plum Island was chosen, together with Big Gull Island and Fishers Island, as the sites for forts and barracks.

            Fort Terry was built on the island and it was a stop for the streamers running between Greenport and New London.  The Naval Marine Corps of the eastern states camped at Fort Terry during the Summer months, while the big warships in Gardiner’s Bay discharged thunderous rounds of fire that jarred window.

            At the southwest end of the island the government built a dock for use when northeast storms made it dangerous to use the pier at Fort Terry.

            The following paragraphs are from the Brooklyn Times.

            “With a fleet of war vessels in the bay, the white tents of the Naval Reserve dotting the rising ground, the sound of bugles and the discharge of small arms and the boom of big guns, with flags flying from the forts and warships, the scene is quite different from that of two decades ago, when only the wash of the tide and the screaming of the brooding gulls were heard in Summer, and in Winter the ice floes groaned as thy tumbled over each other, sometimes 30 feet high, at the narrow Plum Gut inlet.

            “The colony of terns has disappeared and there are only a few bluefish gulls still, raising their young in the beach grasses along Gardiner’s Island, but at Gull Island, where the birds nests were so numerous, that one could not land without walking on eggs or their young, the gulls have all been driven away.  Fort Micha has been built here, and to the east the strip of rock marking Little Gull Island, the Gull Island Lighthouse rears its lofty tower.  Across the race in Fisher’s Island, where the artillery men of Fort Wright are stationed.  There a new hospital is being built by the government.  Over on Gardiner’s Island Point a futile effort was made to mount big guns.  Many thousands of dollars were spent on trying to build a stable foundation of concrete, but the shifting sands undermined the work and the fortification finally was abandoned.  It is a favorite excursion of many to this old fort, and there is a good landing pier on the bay side.”

            So, while men has been busy changing the chain of islands that stretch between Long island and the mainland of New England, nature has wrought greater changes.  Who may doubt the stories handed down the Plum Island was originally a part of Long Island, which the sea had separated from the mainland of Orient.  The story goes that the original settlers of Orient passes across to Plum Island at low tide on stepping stones, and now there is a mile wide channel where the tide rushes through equaled only by the swirling waters of Hell Gate. 

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