, Newburyport, MA

September 11, 2013

Our view: Rattling bones on Plum Island

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Over the years, Plum Island has certainly given this region a full plate of odd, interesting and memorable stories. Its constant contact with the sea and its ceaselessly changing nature has given us a place where the forces of nature play out in dramatic and often unpredictable ways.

One of those odd stories played out earlier this month, a story that adds yet another dimension to the island’s lore. It’s a story that also has an unsolved element to it, which we hope will someday soon be resolved. Perhaps a Daily News reader, or someone you know, has the answer.

In April 1879, a handful of gentlemen walking along the beach found some large bones sticking out of an eroding dune. The bones were elephant-like in size and appearance, clearly an ancient mastodon or woolly mammoth. Their condition was very poor due to their age, and it appears likely that they were placed into storage or donated to a museum.

Where they are is a mystery. It’s a tidbit of the island’s past that had been totally forgotten here. But it was resurrected recently by a strange turn of events on another Plum Island.

The other Plum Island is off the eastern tip of New York’s Long Island. For decades it’s been owned by the government and used as a research lab for animal diseases. The government is shuttering the facility and selling the island to private developers. It’s a move that has evoked much controversy, and our local bones unwittingly played a role in it.

A Long Island newspaper published a clip about the bones in 1879. The old clip was discovered by one of the groups opposing the island’s sale and redevelopment. The group assumed the bones must have been found on the New York Plum Island. Seems like a reasonable assumption.

For a short time this summer, the mammoth bones issue became quite a controversy on Long Island. It threatened to slow down, or at least complicate, the sale of the island.

But then a Long Island-based historical society stepped into the fray and noted the description of where the bones were found on the island didn’t match the known history of New York’s Plum Island. It was a case of mistaken identity.

Indeed, the Long Island paper had simply republished, word-for-word, an article that had been published in the Newburyport Herald two months earlier.

And so Long Island’s mystery has now become our mystery. Where are these bones now?

The Daily News has been checking with local museums, local historians and institutions in the region, but thus far there is no sign of these bones. Their discovery would be a nice bookend to the saga of the two Plum Islands, and they would make a fine addition to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge’s museum, as they were found in what is now the refuge’s property. They would tell us yet another fascinating tale about Plum Island.

Hopefully, the mystery of the bones can be solved.