The Mast-Head: Changing Times and Table

Time was, Promised Land, facing northwest on the shore of Gardiner’s Bay, was a port of some importance

    Sharp-eyed readers of a nautical sort may notice a small but significant change in this week’s newspaper. For what I think may be a first, the tide table, which usully appears in the sports section, no longer gives the times of the daily highs and lows at Promised Land. Instead, it lists the ups and downs for the Three Mile Harbor entrance.

    Our decision to do this reflects two things. The first is that government tide tables are easily available for Three Mile Harbor, and the second is that no one much knows where Promised Land is anymore.

    Time was, Promised Land, facing northwest on the shore of Gardiner’s Bay, was a port of some importance. The Smith Meal company ran a menhaden processing plant there, and the Edwards Brothers brought fish to their dock. A railroad spur off the L.I.R.R. main line once crossed what is now part of Napeague State Park to reach the area.

    Seasonal workers, most from the South, traveled there each year to work on the menhaden boats — bunker steamers in the local vernacular — or in the steaming, hulking factory. When the plant was in full operation, it was hard to miss. The overwhelming smell of thousands of pounds of menhaden being steamed down for their oil and fish byproducts was something one might never forget. Employment there meant money, good money, the story goes, making it a “promised land.”

    Our house, about a half-mile to the west along the Gardiner’s Bay shore, was the nearest to the fish factory, as we called it, until well after it closed in 1968. It was the last of a number of smaller fish-rendering plants that had operated in the area; remnants can be found along the eastern, interior shore of Napeague Harbor and on Hick’s Island.

    According to “The South Fork,” my father’s, Everett Rattray’s, book, the owners of the Hick’s Island factory ran a two-mile-long water pipe from a pump house at Fresh Pond, Montauk. Fresh water was essential to the steam-run operations. When I was out at Napeague recently I noticed what I suspected was a piece of the old pipe now exposed by the shifting sands.

    With the fish factories all but gone, so too is the sense of what was once promising about Promised Land. Boaters do not end up there very much now, except for occasional drifts for fluke or if blown over from the Devon Yacht Club. People who work or play on the waters here are far more likely to be familiar with Three Mile Harbor, and so the change to our tide chart.

    Promised Land remains a place name, however, at least for us locals, and if you really want to know what the tide will be doing there, you can just subtract about a half hour for an approximate time.