So what’s Plum Island really like? One reporter’s inside tour

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Plum Island’s antiquated Building 257 was the original site of experiments conducted on animal diseases.
Plum Island’s antiquated Building 257 was the original site of experiments conducted on animal diseases. (Credit: Julie Lane)

Past and present

If the decaying building is an ugly sign of Plum Island’s past, riding around the grounds today gives evidence of a lush and lovely campus that was once a British fort during the Revolutionary War. Troops from the North Fork were dispatched to try to force the British out, but their efforts failed and they retreated.

It represents not only the first battle on land here, but the first amphibious landing and retreat of the Revolution by American troops, according to Bob Allen, another guide who once worked on Plum Island. Mr. Allen, the great-grandson of a lighthouse keeper, conducts tours of lighthouses for the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation that sponsored our recent trip.

During World War II, the site was called Fort Terry and housed United States Army troops. Old barracks now are in dilapidated condition, but it’s not difficult to imagine young soldiers marching on the parade ground and playing baseball on open fields.

A display from the Southold Historical Society of pictures and artifacts of Fort Terry in its prime is on exhibition on Plum Island. That exhibition will soon be back in Southold and a coffee table book about Fort Terry and Plum Island is about to be published. One curious fact unearthed by the Historical Society’s research: a United States Zeppelin was once housed on the grounds of the island.

What strikes you touring Plum Island is the number of birds and other wildlife. Endangered piping plovers have settled on beaches and are protected from people tramping across them, just as the sparrow-like birds with the high, piping voices are in other communities where they nest and feed.

Deer occasionally swim across to Plum Island, but United States Department of Agriculture sharpshooters take them out, to ensure none are allowed to roam.

The future

By 2002, Congress was already questioning the expense of maintaining Plum Island as a “Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory,” but suggestions about upgrading it to Level 4 were rankling North Fork residents who feared the upgrade would endanger them.

An upgraded lab would mean the introduction of pathogens involving diseases for which there are no known cures.

The legislative debate eventually led to a 2008 decision to close the Animal Disease Center and sell Plum Island.

In 2009, Manhattan, Kansas, located near a number of other facilities the government uses for research, was selected for the new facility, but with the floundering economy, money wasn’t available for construction.

By 2013, with plans still on the books to decommission Plum Island, the Southold Town Board implemented zoning restrictions that would affect any future uses, including the possibility of a developer putting large houses there or Donald Trump developing a golf resort on the island. Shelter Islander Bill

Smith has suggested that Plum Island could be an ideal site for alternative energy.

For the moment, the existing laboratory at Plum Island will continue to function.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo has secured state funding for a year-long biological study of Plum Island by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation set to begin next January. Its purpose is to determine what uses could safely be considered for the island once it is decommissioned.