Thursday, September 22, 2011

Our Neighbor just to the East and a little North

Off of Orient Point on the eastern tip of Long Island is a stretch of water called Plum Gut.  It is a channel between the eastern end of Long Island Sound where it meets up with the Atlantic Ocean and Peconic Bay. There is a tough tidal pull through there and it gets plenty rough - but it is where the fish are and a trip to "the Gut" in a late summer evening with a full moon is something to remember.  On the map, so you are oriented,  this stretch of water is on the left side.  The Island is the famous or infamous Plum Island.
Every morning a ferry boat leaves Orient Point full of Plum Island workers and docks near that little man made bay. From there you walk off the dock and onto a waiting bus for the short ride to the main facility (upper left part of the island overlooking the Gut).  It is really the only part of the island still in use. The roads and other distinguishable features are from days and decades gone by when it was at first Fort Terry and then, the chemical warfare facility after the second world war.  The east end of the island (right side of the picture) is the business end of Fort Terry as it was were the great anti-naval howitzers and cannons were located. The howitzers have long since disappeared but their remains and mountings are still there.  They are the round white spots on the spine of the island are perhaps best pictured as "pits" maybe 50 yards in diameter and several stories deep.  Tunnels and roads connect them.

Why this remembrances today?  This isn't the date in history when the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor and we launched the Spanish American War. 113 years ago.  "Remember the Maine - to Hell with Spain" was the real slogan of which we remember only the first part.  Fort Terry got green lighted because we were assuming that the Spanish Fleet was going to sail into Long Island Sound up to the East River and level New York so these fortifications were built.
We think about this place today because there was the snippet in the news of it being sold to real estate speculators or made into a park.  Those rumors pop up every now and then.  Some of us are glad we are old and won't see resolution in our lifetime.
Howitzers are huge weapons of war.  Where cannons have long barrels, howitzers are short and squat and are meant to shoot shells up high and rain down on the enemy targets. They were ideal for knocking out ships of the time as all the armor on a ship was in the sides so if shot directly at it the shells would kinda bounce off. Howitzers shot  high, arcing shots, that came down nearly vertically (in comparison) and went through the decks like a bomb from a bomber. Fort Terry had these and they shot shells about the size of Volkswagen bugs (slight exaggeration).  When Fort Terry was good to go, it could land a shell with precision anywhere in about 20 miles of the place and certain parts of the south shore of Long Island along the deserted parts are marked with huge potholes - 50 feet across to this day - that evidence the "let's get it right" gunnery practice. Unless a ship was carrying howitzers that could come "down" at a target, being in one of these holes was about the safest place on earth in case trouble broke out.
So that is Fort Terry on Plum Island, set in motion to some extent by the sinking of the Maine a long time ago.  Obviously many locals have spent some time there and got a "cook's tour" on a number of occasions, each of which was fascinating. With Homeland Security the way it is, if you wash ashore while fishing in the Gut the fellas with guns will surround you before you hit the beach.  It will be unpleasant to say the least.
Such a little island. An outpost if you will.  It didn't chose its fate. My hunch is that it just wanted to be an island, pristine, gorgeous and out of the way.

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