Nature Notes: Rattlesnake Creek

Little Northwest Creek
The Old Sag Harbor Road once crossed a bridge over a narrowed portion of Little Northwest Creek. Post ends visible in the water may be the remains of the span. David E. Rattray Photos

    Another beautiful Sunday. The three of us were out to discover something, if not for posterity, at least for our own diaries. These days one almost has to leave the earth and go into space to find something new and big, but local discoveries and rediscoveries are still to be made. So instead of setting out to find the source of the Nile, a feat that had already been accomplished more than 150 years ago, we chose the rediscovery of Rattlesnake Creek, the source of Little Northwest Creek in Sag Harbor.
    Then, too, while hunting down Rattlesnake Creek, why not ferret out the remains of the old bridge across Little Northwest Creek, from when the road linking Sag Harbor and East Hampton crossed the creek and there was no Route 114? Timothy Dwight, the second president of Yale University, had crossed that bridge in 1804 during his trip around Long Island all the way to Montauk Point with a side trip to Gardiner’s Island. Such adventure was recounted in one of his 163 letters covering his travels through the Northeast and Middle Atlantic coast during Yale’s summer vacation periods from 1796 to 1817. All of these letters were in a multi-volume work posthumously titled “Travels in New-England and New-York” in 1821 to 1822.
    Like Thomas Jefferson, who also traveled to Long Island early on, Timothy was one of those curious doctors of divinity who was interested in everything — Native Americans, fauna and flora, farming, fishing, and the like. He was a keen observer and a copious note-taker.
    The three of us would try to follow in a few of his footsteps, but we left our notebooks and iPads behind. We would rely on our memories, not on hard copy or photographs.
    Little Northwest Creek is the dividing line between Barcelona, née Rousell’s Neck, in northwestern East Hampton and the Village of Sag Harbor. It and the surrounding uplands are owned by the State of New York and managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation, as the bulk of Barcelona is now. The redoubtable Ben Heller had tried to develop it along with the Grace Estate to the east in the 1980s, but fell short and settled for several million dollars, a tidy sum in those days.
    While working for East Hampton in the mid-1980s I had ribboned the edge of the three or four miles of wetlands associated with Little Northwest Creek and Northwest Creek Trapping around Barcelona from west to east, Route 114 to Swamp Road. On the east side of Little Northwest Creek I had noticed a “bump” with small trees standing on it jutting out into the creek, but thought nothing of it. Ten years later, Jean Held, a Sag Harbor historian and naturalist, informed me that the bump was the landing for the Old Sag Harbor Road where it reached Rousell’s Neck then turned south in the direction of East Hampton. I had forgotten just where I had seen that bump, but the three of us took a chance and walked due west from “golf course road,” keeping to the south wooded edge of the Sag Harbor Golf Course and trying to disturb the Sunday golfers as little as possible.
    Then we entered the woods on the west side of the course, walked through small oaks and tupelos for about 100 yards and, voila, arrived at the bump. It was about 8 feet wide and 20 feet long and extended about 15 feet out from the edge of the wetlands that impinged on the north and south sides. It had some small oaks and tupelos, none more than 50 years old I guessed, and only one more than 12 inches in diameter. We had re-found the eastern part of the bridge access. It was midtide, and when we looked into the murky creek water only three feet deep or so, we could make out two rows of eroded posts (cedar? locust?), south and north, fording the creek, reaching to the Sag Harbor side now covered by hardwoods.
    Having satisfied ourselves that we had indeed been standing on the very spot where Timothy Dwight and his driver had crossed over by horse and buggy more than 200 years ago, we went on to find the source of Rattlesnake Creek.
    This time we went to the west side of Northwest Creek behind the Barcelona Motel, headed north from the golf course road, and made our way to the junction where the phragmites-infested wetland edge turned easterly. That was the outlet for the creek we were looking for. Two hundred more yards through dangleberry and bayberry shrubs and under very tall pitch and white pines, we came to a break in the phragmites and the opening that I visit once a year when the cardinal flowers and other wetland plants are blooming just out of the reach of the invasive reeds and where the creek is clear and fresh.
    Knotty red maples and tupelos reached up toward the sky. It was clear and soft going underneath. Timothy Dwight may have seen one when he passed by, as he wrote about snakes, as well, but the timber rattlesnakes after which the creek had been named were long gone. Nine-spine sticklebacks, a species that is circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere, travel up the creek from Little Northwest Creek to breed here, but there were none to be seen on this day. The two to three-foot-high stalks of the cardinal flowers were not to be seen, either; it was late in the season. We stopped a few hundred feet from Route 114, on the east side of the Jewish Cemetery, where one arm of the creek takes issue.
    We walked back to our vehicles, content that we had visited the two historical sites that had been our goal and with the knowledge that if you are of modest means, you do not have to go into space or visit Antarctica to get a good sense of the world and its evolution. You can dig up a lot in your own backyard.
Today, the woods on what is now called Barcelona Neck contain a mix of young and ancient trees, some, like this toppled giant, live on as smaller suckers rising from a single trunk.

The woodland and surrounding marshes now home to the Sag Harbor Golf Course were once known as Rousell’s Neck, which was depicted in an 1918 atlas as owned by W.T. Diefendorf.  



There is so much to appreciate right in our own backyards. Thank you for sharing your experience. I traveled the path you followed many times with an old time local who is now gone. He had fascinating knowledge of the area including the rum runners and the Indians.