Suffolk Closeup: The urge to merge by bridges

Before this year is out, allow me to tell the story of the climax in 1966, 50 years ago, of the effort by then Suffolk County Executive H. Lee Dennison to have bridges built from Shelter Island’s north shore to East Marion on the North Fork and from Shelter Island’s south shore to North Haven on the South Fork.

As Shelter Island Town Supervisor Evans K. Griffing said at the time: “If Dennison wants to rape Suffolk County, we want him to leave Shelter Island alone.”

Having bridges constructed on both sides of the Island — served for centuries by ferries — was not Mr. Dennison’s only bridge scheme. Two years earlier he advanced a plan for a bridge from New Suffolk to Cow Neck in Southampton Town or, as an alternative, from Cedar Beach Point on the North Fork running along Jessups Neck and to Noyac in Southampton Town.

I had just begun as a journalist in Suffolk County at this time and got to know Mr. Dennison well. He was put forward by the Suffolk Democratic Party as a reformer to run for the new office of county executive in 1960.

The “Suffolk Scandals” of the 1950s had hit the long omnipotent Suffolk GOP hard — a series of special state prosecutors gained convictions of Suffolk Republican figures — and the political door had opened for Mr. Dennison.

In his dozen years as county executive, I found him to be scrupulously, indeed refreshingly, honest, but did he love bridges and roads! And airports, too. He proposed having an airport in each of Suffolk’s 10 towns.

You see, Mr. Dennison was an engineer. Originally from upstate Hornell, he came to Suffolk in 1927 to work in its highway department. However, after he wrote a report four years later saying that Suffolk County government was so mired in partisan politics that it meant “doing nothing to encourage adequate county planning,” he was fired.

He retreated to running a private engineering practice in Port Jefferson until the Suffolk Democratic Party asked him to run for county executive.

Mr. Dennison was a dedicated engineer, even though he attended, but never received a degree in engineering from the University of Michigan and Alfred University. I recall him happily telling me a story about his being on an Army C-47 transport plane on the way to Alaska during World War II with an Army general mapping out, on pieces of two-by-four wood, a plan for a military base to be constructed there.

But the idea of Island bridges should not be attributed only to Mr. Dennison’s engineering zeal. They were first advanced in 1931 by the members of the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors (the county’s governing body until the Suffolk Legislature was created in 1970). A $5 million bond plan was proposed to finance them. And in 1937 the scheme was again hot. The push this time was to have bridges ready for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, nearly 100 miles away in Queens. But a bid for state fiscal support stalled in the State Senate and the scheme died.

Then came Lee Dennison, who’s Island bridges plan was stopped by the Suffolk Board of Supervisors in 1966. Part of what killed it was a 1931 plan that provided for a county super highway across Shelter Island making a connection between the bridges. But Riverhead Town Supervisor Robert Vojvoda introduced a resolution 30 years later eliminating the proposed highway from the county road system. His resolution passed unanimously. And without this new highway, the plan for the bridges was regarded as dead.

Key to all this was Island Supervisor Griffing. The board (I’m the only journalist still around who covered it) was composed of his fellow town supervisors from each of Suffolk’s towns. He was its chairman from 1962 to 1964 and was terrific in that position. He declared that “98 percent of our residents feel the same way I do. We just don’t want any part of it.”

As the Long Island Advance of Patchogue reported in its January 27, 1966 issue — headlined “Griffing Nixes Dennison’s Bridge” — “Mr. Dennison, later in his office, expressed his disappointment, but refused to admit defeat. ‘I’ll continue to seek approval for a north-south bridge, perhaps with other routes, possibly avoiding Shelter Island completely,’ he said. Mr. Dennison said he might revive his plan of two years ago for a bridge from New Suffolk in Southold Town to Cow Neck east of North Sea in Southampton Town, or still another proposal of a bridge from Cedar Beach Point in Southold directly across to Jessups Neck, west of Noyac in Southampton Town. Mr. Dennison, noting that Jessups Neck was a wildlife preserve, said the highway bridge would have to run adjacent to this spit of land.”

I was musing about this history last week with Al Krupski, the Suffolk County legislator whose district includes Southold and Riverhead Town. At 56 years of age, he wasn’t aware of these bridge schemes.

“I didn’t know!” exclaimed Mr. Krupski, a fourth-generation Cutchogue farmer committed to environmental preservation. With such construction, he said, the East End could have been on its way to being “like Queens.”

Asked whether he has found county officials from western Suffolk largely insensitive to the East End, Mr. Krupski said those with whom he interacts “do appreciate” the East End. “Many tell me they want to retire here because it is so quiet,” he said. “I think they do understand what we have out here and how it has to be protected.”

That means no bridges.

grossman_karl150The author is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.