GUESTWORDS: Cutting Bonac Creek

By Arnold Leo
The Y-shaped entrance channel to Accabonac Creek in Springs was the result of a 1959 dredging project's unplanned diversion. Durell Godfrey

   Howard Miller, from an old family in Springs, was elected the first president of the East Hampton Baymen’s Association in March 1960. His involvement in community life did not begin with this election, however.
    By the mid-1950s, many local people had recognized that the building boom after World War II was not an unmixed blessing. In July of 1955, a civic group calling itself the East Hampton Inland Waterways Association was formed, with Miller as vice president. It sought betterment of the town’s harbors and creeks, The East Hampton Star reported, expressly for the purpose of the “preservation and increase of East Hampton’s only free natural resource, the shellfish industry.” That was Miller’s way of talking, but the group also announced it would seek “dredging of inlets . . . reclamation of land, and the increase of boating.”
    Miller supported improving the channels of the town’s waterways by dredging, but he did not favor “reclamation of land” (that is, the filling of wetlands to create marketable real estate), and he strongly believed that too much “boating” caused pollution. But he knew that taking hard and fast stands on issues could make enemies. Among real estate dealers in town, some certainly favored filling in wetlands to make home sites (with canals for private docking). Among the Inland Waterways Association’s early members, though, there were marina owners for whom building lots of private docking in the town’s harbors was not an idea to be supported.
    The Inland Waterways Association took its time getting organized — about three years, in fact — but finally, on April 14, 1958, the group held a public meeting at Ashawagh Hall in Springs, overlooking Pussy’s Pond. Although The Star of April 10 carries on the front page separate announcements for three different club meetings and a piano recital at Guild Hall, no mention is made of the Inland Waterways’ public meeting. (There was still about a year to go before Jeannette Edwards Rattray, who was quite attuned to the social life of the town, would turn over editorship of The Star to her son Everett, who was an early environmentalist.) The group nevertheless collected $1 in dues from 102 people and compiled a membership list of 95 names, including at least 20 baymen.
    The minutes, neatly typed by the group’s secretary, Joseph Dreesen, state that Steve Palmer, a marina owner, asked the town supervisor, Richard Gilmartin (who was in attendance along with other members of the town board), “if there couldn’t be a way of setting up a program such as Southampton has for taking care of the waterways.” But the group’s real focus was on Accabonac Harbor, which one man said was “in very bad need of having the channel opened.”
    This had been a concern of small-boat owners for some time, and the president of the Inland Waterways Association, William Daub, thereupon appointed a six-man committee, including Howard Miller, to work with the town board to that end. The result was that eight months later Supervisor Gilmartin was able to invite the public to his office to examine “large aerial photos, with transparent overlays showing several possible plans” for the future of Accabonac Harbor, The Star reported. The plans were the work of a private consulting engineer named H. Lee Dennison.
    Dennison had begun work as an engineer in 1927 for Suffolk County and must have been among those who watched in amazement during the late 1920s and early 1930s as Robert Moses’s grand scheme for parks and parkways on Long Island became a reality. That was engineering on a truly monumental scale. In 1951, after writing a scathing report on the planning operations of the Republican-controlled county government, Dennison was fired and entered private business.
    Dennison’s plans for Bonac Creek, The Star reported, “went beyond the mere dredging and stabilization of an inlet.” In fact, they included establishing four town parks with marina areas, extensive private marina facilities at the southern end of the creek, digging a system of canals in the wetlands to create home sites that would have private docking, and dredging two permanent channels to the bay — one at or near the existing inlet and one in the northern part of the harbor.
    Cutting these two inlets would, of course, leave many small summer houses stranded on a new man-made island. So the plan called for construction of “a causeway with a wooden trestle bridge” across the creek, connecting the mainland to the new island. In other words, a causeway would be built starting from Fireplace Road and crossing the wetlands to connect with a bridge that would span the open waters of the harbor. It was reasoned that such a causeway and bridge “would be safer in northeast storms than a bridge across one of the inlets.”
    To its credit, the town board announced a month later that the plan “was too ambitious for the present.” In a Star article titled “Town Scales Down Bonac Creek Plan,” Supervisor Gilmar­tin was reported to say: “For the present, we think that a stabilized channel, with enough dredging inside the creek for a small anchorage, would be enough. . . . There are some doubts about the effect on shellfish of large-scale dredging and two inlets.”
    The town trustees, who had met with the town board to discuss the proposals, believed “the immediate need was for better water circulation inside the creek,” and this could be provided simply by deepening and stabilizing a channel, which would also facilitate boat traffic.
    Miller and Daub continued to work with the town on the project and were instrumental in convincing everyone that a new channel should be dredged somewhat north of the existing one, which should be left to fill in naturally with drifting sand.
    It was necessary to obtain permission to dredge not only from the town but also from the county, state, and federal governments, but somehow the town felt empowered to cut a preliminary shallow channel through the beach at the new site before the federal permit was obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers. The town began work on May 8, 1959, using a bulldozer and a crane equipped with a scoop. The new channel, which was to run 2,300 feet from the bay straight into the harbor, with a width of 100 feet and a depth at low tide of 12 feet, did finally receive the Army Corps permit on July 6, and a month later the long-awaited county dredge Shinnecock appeared on the scene to finish the job.
    The site of the new inlet had been selected in a belief that a centrally located channel, cut westward deep into the interior of the harbor, would improve tidal circulation in all areas, including the northern portion. However, the great dredge, which pumped bottom sand through pipes to places on nearby beach that the town wished to enlarge, ran into trouble. “Hardpan Forces Bonac Dredge Change,” The Star announced on Aug. 20, reporting that town and county officials had “decided to run the channel south . . . rather than continue straight west through the rock and gravel bed, which was forcing the dredge crew to tear down their pump as often as 30 times a day. . . . The dredge will also cut a channel to the north of the new entrance, to fill out their quota of work at Accabonac.”
    And so the new channel assumed a sort of drunken Y shape, which exists to this day.
    The work took about three weeks, the Shinnecock departed for a project in Lake Montauk, and the town board made application to the Army Engineers for permission to close the old inlet. Rather than wait for nature to take its course, it was decided to fill in the old channel so that roadway could be constructed over it in order to reach the beach next to the new inlet. This new tip of land is still called Louse Point, although the original point was over 1,200 feet to the south, now buried under sand fill.
    The point of land on the other side of the new channel, once 1,200 feet longer than it is now and called Cape Gardiner, somehow lost its original name and today the tip of the shortened peninsula is almost always referred to as Gerard Point, since it is at the end of Gerard Drive.
    This time the town waited for the Army Corps permit, and the old inlet was finally closed by East Hampton Town Highway Department bulldozers on Feb. 16, 1960. Two days later, on the night of Feb. 18, with high tide three feet above normal, winds 40 to 60 miles an hour beat against the new barrier. In Miller’s notes is an entry from that night: “The causeway across [old] Accabonac channel was severely put to a test. The sea washed across the causeway [which] was fortified with tree stumps, and it held.”
    Miller, who two weeks later was elected president of the Baymen’s Association, was a strong advocate of the Accabonac project. It was an engineering solution that would benefit everyone, and if it had cost taxpayers something to get it, he reasoned, it would be nearly maintenance-free in the future. Closing the old channel, he believed, would “help keep the new channel open” because now all tidal currents would go through the new inlet, and he figured that this “flow of the tides through the new entrance should keep it scoured.”
    The problem was that nature did not want the channel in its new location; she wanted it in its original site, shallow as that was. Prevailing tidal currents strive constantly to this day to plug up the new inlet. As a result, the town must fairly often go through the lengthy process of application to arrange for the county dredge to remove the shifting sands that continually fill in the channel. In between visits from the Shinnecock, the town sends the Highway Department to scoop out whatever sand can be reached from the shore by a crane with a swinging bucket, a nearly annual event.
    But Miller never knew this; he became ill and passed away in August 1962.

    Arnold Leo, recently elected secretary of the East Hampton Baymen's Association for the 34th year, lives in Springs and has worked as a book editor, bayman, and caretaker. He was the town's fisheries consultant from 2007 through 2010.