What famous fishing locale did The New York Times once describe thusly: “A better fishing ground cannot be found than off this bold, desolate promontory...Within a rifle shot of the lighthouse…is to be caught almost every fish that swims in the Northern Atlantic”? None other than Montauk, New York, the easternmost spot on Long Island, otherwise known as “The End.”
What makes that article noteworthy isn’t so much its claim—few would argue that this hamlet within East Hampton isn’t an unrivaled angling destination—it’s the fact that it was published nearly 120 years ago, on August 25, 1889, to be exact. Which serves as proof that Montauk is one destination that’s spoken to both anglers and tourists alike for many, many years.
That’s not to say that much hasn’t changed since that story first appeared. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d describe the area as “desolate,” particularly during the summer months when tourists pour in via the Long Island Rail Road, the Hampton Jitney, and the many ferries that run from places like Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, and New London, Connecticut. In fact, Montauk is now a thriving seaside town, replete with more than 25 marinas, six state parks, and many multimillion-dollar homes. But, beneath that increasingly Hamptons-esque flash—the advent of which is much maligned by regulars who’ve long cherished the area’s laid-back appeal—lies a rich history that begs to be explored.
Montauk was first settled by the Montaukett, a tribe of Native Americans who lived in present-day Long Island for more than 4,000 years. They were the area’s original watermen, trapping fish with woven nets and harvesting oysters, mussels, and clams. (Though the meat was certainly valuable, the shells were particularly coveted. They were turned into beads or “wampum” and used as currency.) In 1614, the first known European to set foot on Montauk arrived—Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, for whom Block Island is named. However, it was not until 1639 that the first non-Native American actually settled in the area. The man in question was Lord Gardiner who moved from Connecticut to land granted by King Charles I. He befriended the Montaukett and their chief, Wyandanch, and lived out the remainder of his life on Gardiner’s Island, which lies between Long Island’s North and South Forks.
Though much of Montauk’s notoriety comes from its deep-seated connection to commercial and recreational fishing, it is just as notable for its connection to cattle of all things, which first appeared in the area in the 1680’s. Many of us associate ranching with the American West, but that notion should be tweaked: The Deep Hollow Ranch, which still operates to this day, bills itself as the “birthplace of the American cowboy.” It’s a fair claim given that it was established in the 1740’s, making it the oldest cattle ranch in the United States.
Deep Hollow sits just a few miles from another of the area’s historic sites, the Montauk Point Lighthouse. Commissioned in 1792 by Congress (under President George Washington), it features a 110-foot tower and was built on a spot that’d been used by the Navy to light signal fires during the Revolutionary war. It is the oldest lighthouse in New York State and the fourth-oldest active one in the United States. However, these days, the landmark is facing some problems: Though it originally stood some 300 feet from the edge of the bluffs, it is now less than 100 feet from them, a fact that recently prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to call for the construction of an 800-plus-foot rock revetment at the toe of the bluffs, to prevent further erosion. It’s an idea that’s been hotly contested, particularly by the Surfrider Foundation, an organization of some 50,000 surfers with the stated aim of “protect[ing] the world’s oceans and beaches.” The foundation has argued that the revetment would hurt beaches farther west, rendering them incapable of being adequately replenished by sand. Surfrider has proposed that the lighthouse be moved inland, an idea that the Historical Society (which owns the lighthouse) objects to, citing the structure’s fragility. According to some reports, the issue will soon be settled: The recent sale of the land at the base of the lighthouse to the Town of East Hampton means that the revetment project will likely forge ahead. (The title transfer allows the town to skirt a state law that had been an obstacle to the revetment in the past.)
Those looking to visit Montauk have many more options available to them, too, from hiking through Camp Hero, a 415-acre park that served as a defense during WWII, to stopping by Culloden Point and gazing out on the spot where the slaves who commandeered the Amistad first came to shore. There’s ample history here at the end, all of it just begging to be explored. And when that’s done? You could certainly do worse than spend an afternoon or two fishing in the waters that are home to New York’s largest commercial and recreational fleets. Because whether your tastes run to fly fishing or surfcasting, what The Times said all those years ago still holds true: Montauk is one of the richest angling destinations around.
Montauk Chamber of CommerceMontauk Chamber
Montauk LighthouseMontauk Lighthouse
Deep Hollow RanchDeep Hollow Ranchl
Reelin' in the Records
Trivia time: Do you know who inspired the character Quint in the movie Jaws? According to Montauk lore, it was the late Frank Mundus, a local fishing legend who claimed, “I was the pioneer of sportfishing for sharks.” In 1986 he and another charter captain, Donnie Braddick, caught a 3,427-pound great white shark off of Montauk. To date, it is still listed as the largest fish ever caught on rod and reel (though ultimately, it was not recognized as a world record by the International Game Fish Association). Mundus passed away in September 2008
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.