By John Macone
---- — A long-forgotten discovery of ancient bones on Plum Island has swirled into a controversy that is spurring environmentalists to action, threatening to disrupt a major redevelopment proposal and drawing reams of media attention.
If the story doesn’t sound familiar to local Plum Islanders, there’s a good reason: It’s a case of mistaken identity gone badly amok.
The controversy is playing out on another Plum Island, located off New York’s Long Island. But our local Plum Island, and its mysterious stash of bones, has become an unwitting player in the controversy. It’s a strange tale that involves a yellowed 1879 newspaper clipping, a woolly mammoth, an intense dispute between the federal government and environmentalists, and a small historical society that managed to shine a light on the truth.
“This has really taken on a life of its own,” said Geoffrey Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society on Long Island, N.Y.
That other Plum Island — a 3-mile-long, pork-chop shaped piece of land located near the outermost tip of Long Island — has been owned by the U.S. government for about a century. For the past 60 years it has been home to an animal disease research center. In 2008, Congress voted to close the center and relocate it to Kansas and sell the island to a private developer.
The island sale has sparked enormous reaction, and that’s where the 1879 newspaper clipping and our local Plum Island fit into the story.
In anticipation of the sale to a private developer, the federal government has been conducting an extensive report on the island, studying whether the years of animal testing has left behind contamination.
According to The Southampton Press, the leader of a group opposed to the island’s sale came across a July 1879 news item from the long-since shuttered newspaper The Long Islander. It reported on the discovery of a woolly mammoth-like skull and bones on “Plum Island.” Mammoths, close relatives of elephants, went extinct about 10,000 years ago.
The environmental organization, called Group for the East End, thought the clip referred to the New York island and sent the clip to the government agency that was conducting the report. When it received only a short mention in the final document, the group sent it to the New York media. It became a sensation.
New York media outlets such as Newsday picked up the story, and the bones became bones of contention for the opposition. The Group for the East End called upon the government to conduct archaeological fieldwork to discover more about the bones and other ancient remains that might be on the island. Paleontologists speculated on the possibility of valuable prehistoric finds on the island, based on the bones story.
“It was really big, because it was picked up by a lot of environmental groups that were opposing the sale,” said Fleming. “They latched onto this story.”
But Fleming said his suspicions were aroused from the outset.
“As soon as I saw it in the paper I knew it was wrong,” he said.
The clue was a reference to the bones being discovered near a lifesaving station. Fleming and the historical society had been conducting extensive research on Plum Island for a book the society plans to publish, and the research showed there wasn’t a lifesaving station on the island in 1879.
“It couldn’t possibly be the same Plum Island,” he said.
But Fleming learned there was a Plum Island that had a lifesaving station in 1879 — our local Plum Island. Fleming made his information known to the local media, and the Southampton Press published stories this week casting doubt on the origin of the bones.
There was still one piece of the puzzle missing. The clip that started the controversy had only been found in the Long Islander newspaper. This week, The Daily News of Newburyport sought to find local evidence to confirm Fleming’s contention.
Newburyport Public Library archives volunteer Nick Chandler quickly unearthed the missing piece of the puzzle. The original story was published in April 1879 by the Newburyport Herald, a daily newspaper that served the city at the time. The news item gives a full report of the discovery of the skull in the sand dunes of our local Plum Island. The Long Islander republished it two months later, almost word for word.
The Herald reported, “on Sunday some gentlemen observed protruding from the sand a large bone. Tools were procured, and, on digging, their labors were rewarded by the discovery of a skeleton. The skull was between two and three feet wide, and they uncovered a length of backbone of over seven feet ... They describe the skull in form as like that of an elephant, and the leg bone as of enormous solidity when it belonged to the animal buried there. From the condition of the bones they must have been covered for ages, as they were ready to crumble.”
Fleming said it was common in those days for newspapers to republish material gathered from other newspapers. Research by Chandler indicated the Newburyport Herald item had been republished in at least two newspapers besides the Long Islander.
Contacted yesterday, Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, said the woolly mammoth issue is still playing out on Long Island, but he acknowledged it was good to know that the question of its origin was answered.
“I’m fine with that,” he said, adding that the woolly mammoth issue was just one of several issues that his group has focused on.
“It (the woolly mammoth) did pique people’s interest a little bit more here,” he said. “We just thought it was a cool thing.”
While the New York Plum Island controversy may be settled, it’s now spurred two conundrums for our Plum Island: Exactly where were the bones found, and what happened to them?
The Herald story reports that the bones were found at “an elevation of sand, formerly known as ‘Brothers’ Beach,’ 150 feet long and 50 feet high, one of the largest sand hills on the island. Latterly the wind has blown it away, so that the sand dune has lowered to a height of but a few feet.”
The Daily News contacted several local historians, as well as the Historical Society of Old Newbury, Custom House Museum, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and Historic New England. None of them had heard of “Brothers’ Beach.” Nor does it appear on historic maps. It’s possible that the name — which by 1879 was already fading from memory — has disappeared entirely from the known record.
Jerry Klima, a Plum Island summer resident who has amassed and studied numerous island maps, said it’s possible that Brothers’ Beach is a location that was known during a period immediately after the Civil War when it was common for families and friends to congregate on the island in the fall to have picnics. Plum Island has a number of locations whose names have faded from use, such as Knobb’s Beach, Bar Island and Shad Point.
Another clue in the Herald story gives a better indication of where the skeleton was found, “near the life saving station” on Plum Island. At the time, there was only one such station, located on a sand bluff known as High Sandy. It’s located just inside the wildlife refuge, between parking lots 1 and 2. Within a few years of the mammoth bones’ discovery, the lifesaving station itself was moved from High Sandy to a spot closer to the mouth of the Merrimack River.
The mystery of what became of the mammoth bones may be harder to discover. Local museums and the refuge had not heard of the discovery. The Daily News contacted Harvard University, which amassed an enormous collection of prehistoric bones during the 19th century and meticulously recorded where and when they were found. Archivists are searching to discover whether the bones are at Harvard.
Finding the bones would be the final chapter in the mystery.
“You’ve got to find those bones!” Fleming said.