A World Unto Itself
The Remarkable History of Plum Island, New York
Few islands are as little known or as misunderstood as Plum Island, New York. Now, for the first time, the history of Plum Island has been collected and made available. This book is intended to let Plum Island tell its own story and reveal the many previously undocumented realities and personalities that have combined to define it — and the forces now at work toward directing its future.
Islands are by nature mystical, mysterious and mutable. So it seems fitting that Plum Island, about a mile beyond the eastern tip of Long Island’s North Fork, is shaped like a question mark. But, this island is unique. Historically, ecologically and scientifically, it is unlike any island anywhere in the world.
About the Book
After the Montaukett tribe sold Plum Island, it was owned for 250 years by a handful of families who had the instincts and cleverness to persevere through both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In the late 1800s, its remoteness made Plum Island popular as an escape from hectic city life, while men with money planned to develop the island as a resort. Instead, the Spanish-American War sparked concern about U.S. coastal defenses and the Island was transformed into Fort Terry, a heavily armed military installation.
For the 60-plus years since the Army’s departure, research conducted at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has generated numerous breakthroughs in the diagnosis and prevention of animal diseases worldwide. But for many in the 21st century, Plum Island — heavily patrolled and off-limits to virtually everyone — remains shrouded in secrecy and is viewed with anything from skepticism to apprehension about what really goes on there.
For the first time, A World Unto Itself: The Remarkable History of Plum Island, New York, reveals the long hidden history of this unique island. Richly illustrated and annotated, this book is a must for anyone interested in the history of one of the most mysterious and fascinating islands on earth.
RUTH ANN BRAMSON
is a retired university professor who splits her time between Boston, Massachusetts and East Marion, New York. Regularly passing Plum Island by ferry, she developed a curiosity about the island and began researching and lecturing about its history. Bramson has authored many academic articles and book chapters and is co-author of the award winning publication, Charles Henry Miller, N.A.: Painter of Long Island.
GEOFFREY K. FLEMING
is the Director of the Southold Historical Society and serves on several regional boards, including the Long Island Museum Association and the Brecknock Hall Foundation. He specializes in the art and history of Long Island and is the author of several books, catalogs, and articles, including the award winning
A Shared Aesthetic: Artists of Long Island’s North Fork and Ever Eastward: Alfred H. Cosden and his Estate at Southold.
AMY KASUGA FOLK
is the collections manager for the Southold Historical Society, the Oysterponds Historical Society and the Suffolk County Historical Society. A veteran of the museum world, she has worked with a number of Long Island institutions, including the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. She is the co-author of the award-winning book Munnawhatteaug: The Last Days of the Menhaden Industry on Eastern Long Island.
In chronicling more than four centuries of history, its authors sought to dispel decades’ worth of myths and conspiracy theories that have been perpetuated about the 1.3-square-mile island.
Michael White, Editor
The Suffolk Times newspaper
“Plum Island is an enigma, both unique and uniquely misunderstood for hundreds of years of human use and habitation. Though it’s about the same size of New York City’s Central Park, in A World Unto Itself, authors Bramson, Fleming and Folk and prove that the island’s contributions to American history far exceed that acreage. The book’s wealth of content explores everything from Plum Island’s unique biodiversity and pristine ecology to its intriguing role in United States military history.
Exploring its well-known episodes, including the roles it played as home to the government’s Animal Disease Center laboratory and an important lighthouse, the book also provides a memorable cast of characters involved in the island’s real estate and coastal defense initiatives. The product of exhaustive research materials and photographic/illustration materials, A World Unto Itself is an outstanding contribution to Long Island regional history.”
Joshua Ruff, Chief Curator
The Long Island Museum, Stony Brook, NY
“What an enormous personal satisfaction to finally see an honest, well-researched publication on, what I consider, a fascinating little U.S. island. My most heart-felt thanks and appreciation to the authors for their detailed and absorbing story of Plum Island. I have been providing a short presentation on the history of Plum Island for over 15 years at Foreign Animal Disease courses around the globe and I am happily amazed at the depth of information provided; much of it new to me. This book clearly supports the premise that: per square foot, Plum Island’s historic service to the US, makes it the most patriotic little island in the nation.”
Dr. Peter J. Fernández, USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, International Services, Regional Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean
“Although described as a world unto itself, Plum Island does in fact take part in many of the notable historical developments of North America and the larger Atlantic World. Shifting spheres of influence among the colonial European and Native American powers, tangled land ownership claims among private and public entities, self-aggrandizing real estate schemes of robber barons, heated debates over environmental pressures and responsible land use, public uneasiness over Big Science as represented by the Animal Disease Laboratory, not to mention America’s military ventures from the Revolution to the War on Terror—all make their appearance on the island’s little 840-acre stage. Still, the authors devote much attention to the decidedly local and idiosyncratic legacy of Plum Island’s history, while proving that the place is indeed a world apart.
Colorful lighthouse keepers, legends of buried pirate treasures, headless Swedish ghosts, and the like give the book a breadth beyond the formal history of the island, as evidenced by the appearance within a handful of pages from each other of Hannibal Lecter and Donald Trump, who seem to hold widely divergent judgments on Plum Island’s potential for personal and professional development.”
Philip Blocklyn, Executive Director
Oyster Bay Historical Society, Oyster Bay, NY
“Surrounded by rumors and mysteries, Plum Island has been a subject of fascination since the mid-twentieth century because of its Animal Disease Center. A World Unto Itself is the definitive history of this small island located one and one-half miles east of Orient Point off the North Fork of Long Island. Beginning with its geological origins and the colonial era with land claims and ownership, the authors chronologically and topically trace the history of the island as a miniature America. Indeed, the history of Plum Island has intersected with events in American and Long Island history. During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, British ships anchored off Plum Island as a staging location and their crews plundered crops and livestock. In the nineteenth century, island owners and residents farmed and grazed their animals, the lighthouse keepers welcomed visitors, sportsmen fished and hunted, and smuggling and numerous shipwrecks occurred in nearby waters—reflecting in microcosm the history of the rest of Long Island. One chapter focuses on the two nearby tiny Gull islands, whose lighthouse keeper’s detailed journal provides revealing detail on his work.
The army established Fort Terry on the island in 1898 and stationed troops there until after World War II. Three chapters relate the island’s military history. When the government was to decommission the base in the early 1950s, competing proposals included Suffolk County acquiring the island for a park or reselling it for development.The federal government’s plans for an Animal Disease Center focusing on hoof-and-mouth disease initially met with considerable local opposition. Scientists at the facility have conducted research for more than sixty years, resulting in important discoveries and contributions. The government currently plans to close the Plum Island Animal Research Center despite local protests and to transfer its work to a new facility in Kansas.
Well-written and lavishly illustrated, A World Unto Itself is the definitive history of Plum Island. The authors apparently have located virtually every reference to Plum Island in official records, histories, newspapers, manuscripts, and other sources, all of which are thoroughly documented in 46 pages of notes. Useful appendices provide additional data, ranging from brief accounts of myths and legends to listings of buildings, houses, shipwrecks, and lighthouse keepers. The authors have plumbed the depths of their wide-ranging sources to provide an interesting story of this small island which has been a witness to so much history. I commend the Southold Historical Society for publishing this important book—a fine addition to its extensive and exemplary publications.”
Natalie A. Naylor, Professor Emerita
“This work could really be subtitled “the unknown history of Plum Island.” Everyone knows that Plum Island was where the U. S. government worked on animal disease control such as hoof and mouth disease – right? When driving on the north shore to the end of Long Island there was that mysterious “Off Limits” area nestled in between the Orient Point ferry dock and the State park. That’s all we knew about Plum Island, but were we wrong!
As stated in the book “Few publicly owned islands are as little known or as misunderstood as Plum Island.” This book draws the reader into a comprehensive, carefully woven history starting with its geological formation right up through current times. Yes, the Animal Disease Center is covered, but so much more is explored – shipwrecks, lighthouses and their keepers, the Island’s military and maritime roles, forts, especially the history of Fort Terry. Much like a fisherman casting his net and drawing all the resources from the surrounding area that he can, so does this history.
It appears that no stone was left unturned in search of that elusive bit of history. Extensive research is revealed through well documented land transactions, and resident’s accounts. It explores the lives of its residents, but also those of its visitors. Maps, artwork, engravings, and photographs all add to making this book into something far removed from the usual dull, dry local history some might expect. Of special value are all the detailed appendices, providing the reader with details about all the different buildings at one time or another located at Fort Terry, or the type of armament it once housed. Interested in a listing of the shipwrecks or lighthouse keepers? It too is detailed here.
All in all a very readable and enjoyable book – not to mention the reader will come away knowing that Plum Island has a lot of history to share!”
Former Director of Museums Services for Nassau County, NY
“It is wonderful to have this well-researched book in our library. It fills one of the gaps in our Local History Collection with thoroughness and clarity.”
Poppy Johnson, Assistant Director and Reference Librarian, Floyd Memorial Library, Greenport, NY 11944
“The authors have superbly and flawlessly researched this fascinating book on Plum Island that focuses on and documents the previously undocumented history, geography, botany, and inhabitants of mystical and mysterious Plum Island – truly “a world unto itself.” It is a remarkable story dating back hundreds of years which they have revealed.
Having been born and brought up on the North Fork of Long Island, I, like most natives, had been very unfamiliar with Plum Island. I knew it primarily as the site of the government’s high security U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Center that has operated there since the 1950s. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the island and see more than the 1869 lighthouse which is visible from the ferry to New London. This book, prodigiously researched and supported with a broad selection of old and recent photographs, opens the “Pandora’s Box” that has been Plum Island for all to see and removes the mystery and mythology heretofore affiliated with it.
Ruth Ann Bramson, Geoffrey Fleming and Amy Folk are to be complimented and thanked for having produced a book of enormous importance. It is superbly written and should be read by everyone interested in local Long Island history as well as American history in general.”
James F. Grathwohl, Chairman,
Southold Town (N.Y.) Landmarks Preservation Commission
“Meticulously researched and including maps, illustrations and photographs from many eras, this volume creates a complete history of Plum Island rather than the inaccurate perception often attached to the name. The authors have recounted the various uses to which this island has been put from the colonial era to the present and documented the stories of the families who lived, farmed, and grew there before the name sparked only paranoid fantasies of government conspiracies in the public imagination.
The decades marked by those who undertook national service unrelated to scientific research, demonstrated by the island’s military history have their stories, inglorious and infamous, as well as, mundane, recounted here. Homes, lighthouses, armaments, ships and people are listed in extensive appendices that also provide references on shipwreck casualties and myths about the island. If you are interested in learning about Plum Island’s complete history rather than merely its most recent iteration as the focus of both well-founded and unreasonable fears and controversy, this is the book to read.”
Sharon A. Pullen, Archivist
Office of the County Clerk, Suffolk County, NY
"This book will radically alter the current public perception of Plum Island. Until this work Plum Island had been shrouded under the cloud of isolation as a place solely known for the study of infectious diseases. This new research brings to the story and history of Plum Island a new perspective. The tales of Plum Island capture the favorites of American lore: maritime war blockades, pirates, rum running, ship wrecks, manor houses, and myths! The scholarship and research by these authors make for a triple threat of investigation, information, and revelation. I can't wait to invite Ruth Ann Bramson, Geoffrey Fleming and Amy Kasuga Folk to a Book & Bottle event here at SCHS to do a signing and talk."
Kathryn M. Curran, Executive Director
Suffolk County Historical Society, Riverhead, NY
“An exceptional history that is as encyclopedic as it is riveting. The trio of Bramson, Fleming and Folk have successfully created a work that will engage both casual readers and scholars of the Long Island Sound region.”
Pierce Rafferty, Director,
Henry L. Ferguson Museum, Fishers Island, NY