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The Mast-Head: Tempting the Devil

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 15:43

Searching through old East Hampton Stars this week, I discovered that our first mention of Hither Woods came in 1892. This was when Frank Sherman Benson, who at the time owned nearly all of the Montauk peninsula, was thinking about a new road that would run along the ocean. But that is, temporarily speaking, late news.

Before Hither Hills, or Woods, was so named, it was called Nominicks, which was an English transliteration of the Montaukett place name for the high ground east of Napeague.

Nominicks was the eastern boundary of 17th-century East Hampton, described in a land title drafted for the governors of the New Haven and Connecticut Colonies. Montauk itself would be wrested from the Montauketts over more than a century of so-called purchases beginning in 1655.

Robert Moses created Hither Hills State Park in 1924, along with Montauk Point State Park. Additional land was preserved at intervals, including in today’s 777-acre Lee Koppelman Nature Preserve, which was acquired by the Nature Conservancy in 1998 as an aquifer recharge area. Suffolk County bought the site from the Nature Conservancy the following year; it was the county’s first major groundwater protection purchase.

Mr. Koppelman was Suffolk’s profoundly influential first planning director. Writing about him last year, Karl Grossman recalled him as incorruptible and steadfast about land preservation. “Back then, he would note, no land in Suffolk had been preserved by the county as open space other than Smith Point Park. And, he said, if action wasn’t taken developers would be ‘paving over’ — as he put it — all of Suffolk County,” Mr. Grossman said.

In this context, one might wonder how Mr. Koppelman, if he were alive today, would regard East Hampton Town Hall’s idea for putting a sewage treatment plant in Hither Woods. I suspect he would not look kindly on the idea.

Somewhere in the woods east of Napeague there was a rock — or perhaps three — with what were said to be the Devil’s footprints. Stories vary, but the version I heard as a child was that an evil spirit was tricked by a Montaukett man and, becoming enraged, leapt from the ground, landing in Connecticut. The place where his right foot had been was seared into the rock.

Many centuries later, the granite rock was unearthed and ended up in the collection of the Long Island Historical Society in Brooklyn. After about 100 years in storage, the rock came back to Montauk, where it is apparently still in the collection of the historical society.

Considering this and all the other stories of Hither Woods, it seems to me that town officials should tread very carefully when it comes to using the land as a dumping ground of the most repellent variety.

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