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Sixty-Something: Gardiner’s Island - The Mysterious Private Island Of East Hampton

T.J. Clemente

There is debate whether the Fort, built in 1904, was named for Daniel Tyler or President John Tyler. (Photo: TJ Clemente)

I have spent the last 17 years infatuated with all things Gardiner's Island. I see it every time I sail in Gardiner's Bay, which is quite often. It is the most unknown part of East Hampton Town. There are lores, mysteries and history all about the island that is 6 miles long, 3 miles wide that has 27 miles of coastline and is owned by one person, Alexandra Creel Goelet. She was awarded sole ownership after the death of Robert David Lion Gardiner.

When I sail close to its shores, I conjure up all sorts of thoughts. Having covered many things Hamptons for the last 17 years - for both printed papers and websites, I have written about this island perhaps 100 times. I believe my first assignment about Gardiner's Island was back in 2004, when I wrote a very boring article about Ms. Goelet's offer to place a conservation easement on the island in exchange for a promise from the Town of East Hampton not to rezone the land, change its assessment or attempt to acquire it by condemnation; and how then Ms. Goelet and East Hampton Town agreed upon the easement through 2025. Back then, 2025 seemed a million years away, but that agreement is coming up for renegotiation and now the island is reportedly worth well over $100,000,000.

When I sail along the northwest part of Gardiner's Island, either towards Montauk, the Gull Island Lighthouse or the Block Island Sound, like everyone else I stare at the landmark now called the ruins, the ruins of Fort Tyler! There is debate whether the Fort, built in 1904, was named for Daniel Tyler or President John Tyler. Army documents state $500,000 was appropriated at the start of the Spanish-American War to secure "East Coast" defenses by building a fort there. Over time, the shifting sands of the point it's located on caused problems for the fort and it was abandoned in the late 1920s. Then, in 1938, the island (the fort is an island at high tide) was declared a National Bird Refuge by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and transferred to the Agriculture Department. However, during World War II, Fort Tyler was used for target practice and was reduced to its present state where it is popularly called "The Ruins." I have taken hundreds of photos because I just can't help but look at it over and over again - as I make sure I sail by as close as is safe, because they say there are very dangerous unspent live munitions left over around it. Fascinating to know between 1854 and 1894 there was a Gardiner's Island Lighthouse there!

Gardiner's Island. (Photo: TJ Clemente)

Then there is the pure history of the island. How the founder, in 1639, was awarded the island by the Native Americans after negotiating a peace between warring Native Americans. How the "British Crown" legitimized his ownership. Perhaps the most famous is of the pirate Captain Kidd and of him burying his treasure on the island in June 1699, having stopped there while sailing to Boston to answer to charges of illegal piracy against the crown.

When I sail to Louse Point, I always see the big white windmill, the farmhouse, and the main house, of course not the original historic home, that was lost in a fire. What I remember most when I look at the island is not theories of folks walking and driving trucks across a frozen Gardiner's Bay from Springs Fireplace to the island, nor the fact that both Prince Phillip and Prince Charles paid a visit to tour the Bostwick's Oak Forest on the island, then called the undisturbed oak forest in the world. What I remember is the very first year I owned a sailboat, back in 2003 on the Thursday before Labor Day, I tried to sail/motor around the whole island starting by going northwest. I thought I had done it successfully as I was all but through the Cartwright Island Shoals, until boom the boat was stuck and listing badly in less than a foot-deep of water. I was stranded there for eight hours and was rescued by not one, but two sea tow boats. I have never attempted that route ever since. I once swam to the shore on the beach of Bostwick Bay. I was 61-years-old, but felt like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn for the only ten minutes I stood on Gardiner's Island. Someday I am going to figure out how to get a tour.

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