Paradise Found

Robin Strong’s “Montauk,” part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, serves as a fascinating witness to what has come before.
Carl Fisher, the king of Montauk development, in 1925. He bought more than 9,000 acres of the place, but not all of his dreams came to fruition. Southern Florida Historical Association Collection

Robin Strong
Arcadia, $21.99

Robin Strong, the Montauk Library’s tireless archivist, could not have picked a better time to compile the photographic history of Montauk just published. Why? Because word has it Montauk has been “discovered.”

As we know, “to discover” is a relative verb, often, and myopically, applied to the European settlers who bullied their way onto this continent only a few hundred years ago. It’s the nature of human existence to look forward rather than backward, and it seems that once a place in one’s own time is discovered, that which came before tends to evaporate from memory. It’s only due to our stewards of the past that we maintain some semblance of perspective.

Ms. Strong’s “Montauk,” part of the Images of America series published by Arcadia Publishing, serves as a fascinating witness to what has come before. Montauk’s Indian history is outside the scope of this book. It’s primarily a photographic history after all. The library’s archive houses our pre-colonial history, as does the Montauk Historical Society’s Lighthouse Museum.

Montauk has been discovered many times: by the Algonquians thousands of years ago in search of high ground, by English cattlemen in the mid-1600s, by the military from then until the end of the Cold War, by Big Apple swells, by the Long Island Rail Road, by Carl Fisher, the man who would have turned Montauk into the Miami Beach of the North if the Great Depression had not saved us. It’s been discovered by waves of fishermen, artists, surfers, and latterly by new, swollen waves of summer visitors.

It’s safe to say that Ms. Strong’s collection of photos, memorabilia, and in-depth research into Montauk’s history has been, and continues to be, a labor of love. The book’s dedication reads: “In memory of my great-great grandfather Capt. James G. Scott, keeper of the Montauk Lighthouse from 1885 to 1910, and to my great-grandmother Emily Scott Strong.”

William Wallace Tooker took the first photograph we see, in 1883. There’s a post-and-rail fence and gate in the foreground. Beyond it, Montauk’s treeless pastureland stretches east. Inhabited by Montauk’s proprietors, or caretakers, First House, the first — and about the only — house cattlemen came to after driving their herds across Napeague from Amagansett and East Hampton for a summer of grazing in the 17th and 18th centuries, can be made out too.

I love this photograph. Except in a few places, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that Montauk was almost entirely covered by maritime grasses until well into the 20th century. When I first arrived here in the early 1960s, most all of the land on the east side of East Lake Drive was a rolling hillside blanketed by tall grass. You can still get a feel for this if you walk up behind Third House at Montauk County Park and look east.

Fortunately, it was not development alone that has changed Montauk’s natural state. It was Nature, herself, and the fact that gone are the annual grass burnings that used to eliminate the growth of brush, and eventually trees.

The fact is, due to the dashing of Fisher’s best-laid plans, and the forward-looking attention of conservation-minded officials and citizens, over 70 percent of Montauk remains protected parkland, now forested, but protected.

Ms. Strong’s book gives Fisher his due, of course. The man had taste, and the early photographs of the Tudor-style houses, Montauk Community Church, Montauk Manor, Playhouse, Yacht Club, and Montauk Harbor, which he created by opening landlocked Lake Montauk to Block Island Sound in 1927, depict the scale of the man’s vision.

This review cannot possibly touch on every aspect of “Montauk.” A picture is worth a thousand words, after all, but speaking of words, the captions that Ms. Strong provides are substantive, a great guide to those with little knowledge of our history.

I love the photos of the old Montauk Village on Fort Pond Bay, long gone due to the ’38 Hurricane and its takeover by the Navy during World War II. We visit Alma Baker’s Luncheonette in 1922, Jake Wells’s grocery store, the Long Island Rail Road terminus, the rail siding that stuck out into the bay to take on fish bound for the city. The Perry B. Duryea and Son lobster dock on the east side of the bay is the only remnant of the old village left.

Readers can use Ms. Strong’s book as a tour guide too. Not everything has disappeared. Trail’s End restaurant used to be located in the old village. Now you can find it downtown on Edgemere Road, where it was moved after being booted by the Navy.

Same with the East Deck Motel at Ditch Plain, whose cabins were also moved from the old village. It’s impossible to miss the Tudor homes, the Fisher buildings (Montauk’s original theater) on Main Street, with the Montauk Tavern (now the Shagwong) across the street, and, of course, the Tower condo, built to serve as Fisher’s administration headquarters. Look east up on the hill east of Ditch Plain. You can see the Association Houses designed by Charles McKim and Stanford White in the 1880s.

A lot is gone, of course, except in photos carefully culled by Ms. Strong. The Lighthouse when it had nearly 300 feet of bluff between it and the sea, photos of Camp Wikoff where 30,000 troops, including Col. Theodore Roosevelt, convalesced following the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War, photos of Camp Hero and its massive artillery positions during World War II, dirigible hangars on Fort Pond during World War I, and Montauk’s great old estates.

The book pays tribute to Montauk’s fishing history, both commercial and recreational. There are shots of “Fishangri-la,” a dock and marina on Fort Pond Bay where countless numbers of sportfishermen departed after running across the tracks from the Fishermen’s Special cars for a day on the water. Ms. Strong’s caption informed me that it was none other than Milton Berle who coined the marina’s name.

I also learned that it was Kay Topping, wife of the Yankees owner Dan Topping, who caught the first giant bluefin tuna, 587 pounds, to be brought into Montauk after being angled using rod and reel. The year was 1949.

Capt. Frank Mundus, Montauk’s “Monster” shark fisherman, is in the book aboard his Cricket II charter boat, and Frank Tuma’s Tackle Shop — the book is stuffed with photos that take us back in time, before Montauk was “discovered.”

Robin Strong’s “Montauk” belongs on the bookshelves and coffee tables of all local residents, and those of visitors who want to carry a bit of Montauk’s magic back home.

Robin Strong will give an illustrated talk about “Montauk” on May 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Montauk Library.