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Plum Island's early history -- myths and all -- told in new book

Environmentalists want the wildlife on Plus Island protected.

Environmentalists want the wildlife on Plus Island protected. The lighthouse is seen here in 2005. Credit: AP / Bill Davis

There are plenty of myths about Plum Island, but the island's real early history, which includes roles in conflicts from Colonial times through World War II, has at times been just as mysterious.

That history is chronicled in a new book by the Southold Historical Society, "A World Unto Itself," which also debunks some of the myths about secret research and genetically mutated animals.

If they are familiar with it at all, most Long Islanders know the island off the tip of the North Fork as the home of the federal animal disease laboratory used as the setting for Nelson DeMille's 1997 bestseller, "Plum Island," about secret anthrax research taking place there.


'Myths and . . . nonsense'

"It's a subject that everybody wants to know about," historical society director and co-author Geoffrey K. Fleming said. And "all the information out there was supposition, myths and simply nonsense. We have a whole section on the myths, from it being a place where Captain Kidd buried treasure to the story about the mammoth, which was not this Plum Island but the Plum Island in Massachusetts."

The idea for the book came from co-author Ruth Ann Bramson, a retired university professor who splits her time between Boston and East Marion, regularly passing Plum Island on the ferry. She tried to compile a history of the island but found very little written before the Plum Island Animal Disease Center opened in the 1950s.

With the collaboration of a third co-author, Amy Kasuga Folk, collections manager at the Southold, Oysterponds and Suffolk historical societies, the book became a reality after 2 1/2 years of work.

American Indians used the island for fishing, hunting and growing corn. Adriaen Block, a Dutch navigator, first charted it in 1614 and its name is believed to come from once-abundant beach plum bushes. After the Montaukett tribe sold the land to an Englishman in 1659 for a coat and a few tools, it was owned for 250 years by families who used it for farming and raising livestock.


A British navy staging area

"One of the things that was really interesting was the island's involvement in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812," Fleming said. "In both conflicts it was a staging area for the British navy."

The federal government purchased 3 acres on the western edge of the island in 1826 to build a lighthouse. The 35-foot stone tower became fully operational in 1827. When it began to deteriorate, the government built the current Victorian Gothic Revival structure in 1869. The lighthouse was replaced by an automated beacon in 1978.

Between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, Plum Island served as a summer vacation site for the wealthy. Abram Hewitt, a former mayor of New York City, acquired almost the entire island with plans to make it a resort. But the Spanish-American War was looming and in 1897 the government established Fort Terry to bolster coastal defenses.

One of the most interesting and least known aspects of Plum Island was the case of Army Maj. Benjamin M. Koehler, who was posted at the fort. In 1914, he was accused of sexually harassing more than a dozen men.

Although none of the allegations made against Koehler by 16 witnesses were ever proven, he was found guilty and dismissed. The case led to a 1916 revision in the military code of conduct that specifically banned sodomy. "But its long-term repercussions persisted into the 21st century in the form of the controversial military policy colloquially known as 'Don't ask, don't tell,' " the book says.


Biological research

In 1948, the government announced that the property was surplus and would be sold. But in 1952, the Army decided it still needed the site for research on chemical, biological and radiological warfare, while the Department of Agriculture wanted the island for a foot and mouth disease laboratory. The joint lab began operations in September 1956.

While there has been a series of research breakthroughs over the years, the lab facilities were becoming obsolete, so in the fall of 1999 the Department of Agriculture proposed upgrading and expanding the lab into a biosafety level 4 facility to handle more dangerous diseases. When local opposition stymied that plan, the government began the process of closing the lab, selling the island to the highest bidder and moving research to a new facility in Kansas.

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