Lake Ronkonkoma isn’t only the largest lake on Long Island – it’s also considered by many residents to be a place of haunting mystery going back to the days of the Native Americans.
Some stories depict the murky waters as being bottomless or having secret underground connections to nearby waterways, while others describe it as having mystical healing powers or an uncanny tendency to rise and fall in cyclical patterns. Perhaps the most popular myths concern an Indian princess who died in the lake and returns annually to claim the life of a young male.
While the mile-wide lake might seem like an innocent place, keep these stories in mind the next time you walk along its shore.
A Lady of the Lake legend
This legend of the Lady of the Lake involves a beautiful Indian princess whose unfulfilled love caused her to take her own life and subsequently return to haunt the waters.
The story begins when the girl, whose father belonged to the Setauket Sachem tribe, fell in love with a white settler's son named Hugh Birdsall. Although the girl's chieftain father forbade the marriage, the pair's affection continued for seven years, the legend says, with the girl floating patches of birch bark containing notes of longing to Birdsall. During the last month of the seventh year, however, the pain of unfulfilled love led her to pierce her own heart while floating in a canoe, which Birdsall found one day in place of the bark. After her demise, the Indians invoked thoughts that the girl's spirit actually haunted the lake and even caused whirlpools, waves and moaning sounds. Other accounts involve her ghost dwelling in the lake's depths and dragging down one young man annually in search of her forbidden love. Although there have been a few deaths in its waters since 2000, research indicates the drowning victims are overwhelmingly male.
IN THE PHOTO: The lovesick princess is commemorated in A wall mural on the side of the Lakeside Deli at 408 Rosevale Ave. in Rokonkoma. The photo is from Feb. 10, 2015.
The bottomless theory
The Indians were known to be mystified by Lake Ronkonkoma since they did not know its origin. The body of water is known as a kettle lake, carved by retreating glaciers more than 17,000 years ago. Many natives thought it was bottomless as bodies would often drown and disappear into its depths. Other accounts had bodies or objects reappear in the Connetquot River or Great South Bay, prompting many to believe the lake contained underwater connections. One story describes men as dropping up to 1,000 feet of heavily weighted fishing line into a deep hole in the lake's southwestern section and failing to reach bottom. The bottomless theories were resurrected in the early 1900s when a diving platform was constructed at the edge of a hole in the lake that drops to 95 feet. An occasional drowning would occur when swimmers walked out from the beach and stepped into the hole. Eventually the area was roped off to warn bathers. Lake surveys performed in the 20th century confirmed the hole is a natural well that taps the underground water table. Groundwater flow into the lake occurs when the pressure in the upper portion of the groundwater system is greater than the lake's water level. The photo is from May 26, 2010.
The mysterious rise and fall
Those living in the area have always been intrigued by the lake's tendency to rise and fall periodically with no apparent relationship to rainfall. The most ferocious evidence of the lake's mysterious rise and fall occurred in 1891 when, stories say, the lake suddenly rose to a point where it completely engulfed beaches, boathouses and pavilions with no appreciable precipitation on Long Island. The Indians believed the rise and fall to be the work of the great spirit of the lake. Legend says the Indians knew the god was particularly displeased whenever anyone drowned in the lake, and they believed he would make the water rise until it would overflow and cover the entire island. Tales of the lake's rise and fall did not end with the Indians, as settlers also witnessed it, with some reports saying the lake was generally believed to rise in intervals of 9 to 13 feet every seven years. This caused the mystery to be linked to the Lady of the Lake, with legend saying that the lake wept and overflowed for the two lovers in seven-year cycles -- the length of time their relationship.
Mystical healing powers
During the late 1800s, Lake Ronkonkoma began to gain widespread attention after claims that its waters possessed extraordinary and unparalleled therapeutic qualities. Myths of the lake's supernatural abilities to heal an array of medical conditions cultivated a sense of faith among believers that helped transform the lake region into a veritable health resort as well as a lucrative tourist spot. Legend says that a Brooklyn businessman constructed a shop near the lake's shore and sold small vials containing "lake juice," a blend of waters from the deepest part of the lake combined with a special secret formula of herbs and berries gathered from the lake's surrounding greenery. A range of advertisements appeared in newspapers and specific sicknesses known to be treated included chronic asthma, bronchitis, malaria, rheumatism, and nervous and digestive system disorders. The scheme is said to have unraveled when the product was improperly sealed, turned brown and bitter, and made people ill.