An aerial view of Lake Ronkonkoma, a glacial kettle hole,
surrounded by significant residential communities in the year 2000.
Long Island's largest freshwater lake was created by a retreating glacier. Over the years
it has been the subject of many legends. One had it that the lake was bottomless, another that there
were secret underwater connections to Long Island Sound or Great South Bay.
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Ronkonkoma's Original Residents
The Indians considered the waters of Lake Ronkonkoma sacred. Four of the thirteen tribes on Long Island shared
its shoreline. These tribes were the Setaukets, the Nissequogues, the Secatogs and the Unkechaugs.
Evidence of when the first Indians visited the lake is sketchy, but the activity of the Indians in the Ronkonkoma
area is perhaps best evidenced by the vast collection of arrowheads and other stone weapons that have been
gathered within the radius of a few miles of the lake. Many of the present legends about the lake derive from
these local Indian tribes, The Secatogs, Unkechaugs, Setaukets, and Nissequogues, who utilized the shores of
the lake. It is thought that the name Ronkonkoma, which in the Algonquin language means boundary fishing place,
was chosen as a logical name by the Indians for this body of water.
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The early settlers of Long Island were mostly people of English descent who had come from Massachusetts
in the 1600s. Growth was generally slow in the lake area. They were in no hurry to leave the safety of
the Long Island Sound where they had access to boats to carry them away in case of danger. A 1795 survey reported five houses north of the lake and none to the south.
In 1834, a Coastal Survey Map gave evidence of fewer than a dozen houses scattered around the lake.
In 1655, the Setaukets Tribe was the first to sell its land to the white man. The price was 10 coats,
12 hoes, 12 hatchets, 50 muves (broad awks for drilling wampum), 100 needles, 6 kettles, 10 fathoms of
wampum, 7 parcels of powder, a pair of stockings (for a child), 10 pounds of lead, and a dozen knives. The
Indians retained the right to hunt, fish, and in some instances, live on the land. It is doubtful that the
Indians really understood the meaning of the sale since they had no concept of individual ownership of land
as practiced by white men. Before the white man eventually settled in the lake area, however, many Indians
had died of small pox and other diseases brought overseas by the settlers.
Each settler contributed part of the purchase price and received shares in proportion to the amount
contributed. These purchases from the Indians were not legally recognized and it was necessary to obtain
patents from the king confirming the titles and set boundaries. Patents were granted to William Nicholl
(Islip), Richard Bull Smith (Smithtown), Richard Woodhull and several others for Brookhaven.
Islip, Smithtown, and Brookhaven formed separate townships with the right to purchase land beginning at
the shoreline of Lake Ronkonkoma. This precluded the possibility of ever having a single community with
the lake as its natural center.
The patents were drawn up in England and did not always follow exactly the lines agreed to by the settlers.
This led to boundary disputes between the townships in later years. Roughly speaking, the land abutting
the rim of Lake Ronkonkoma in the Brookhaven section originally belonged to the Setauket and Unkechaug
Tribes, in Smithtown, the Nissequogues, and in Islip, the Secatogs.
The name Ronkonkoma, which was spelled many different ways, was not used excepting in reference to the
lake itself, although in the Smithtown records we find the land around Spectacle Pond called the Ronconkomy
Plains and other parcels of land mentioned as being in the vicinity of Ronkonkomy Pond.
Records are incomplete since early settlers used family burial plots, but we do know that people lived
on the Smithtown side of the lake in the 1740s.
Regarding early Smithtown history, descendants of the Richard (Bull) Smith family of founding fame, found
their way to the shores of lake Ronkonkoma, One Smithtown reference mentions a sale of property in 1734 to
Thomas Biggs by Capt. E. Smith, "lying on the north side of Rongconcoma pond not coming within four road of
ye said pond" (66 feet).
Smithtown founder Richard Smith's original holdings included the headwaters of
the Nissequogue River east to a ``freshwater pond called Raconkamuck, which translates as
"the boundary fishing place" in the Algonquian language. What is now known as Lake Ronkonkoma
served as a boundary between lands occupied by four Indian communities: Nissequogues, Setaukets,
Secatogues and Unkechaugs. It is now owned by the Town of Islip under the terms of the Nichols
Patent, while land around it is controlled by three governments - Smithtown, Islip and Brookhaven.
That's because different Indian communities gave separate deeds to the land under their control.
1907 - Hawkins Ave at Portion Road looking North.
identified the building as the original Agnew & Taylor building. One hundred years ago,
this main intersection in town was pretty much uninhabited.
The Smithtown side of the lake was settled by the 1740s, but it was not until the
late 1890s that the area gained widespread public attention. That's when boarding houses and hotels
were erected to accommodate a growing number of tourists drawn by claims that the lake's waters had
special healing powers. By the 1920s, beach pavilions had sprung up. The Long Island Rail Road, which
was completed to nearby Lakeland in 1842 (the depot was moved to Ronkonkoma in 1883), helped transform
what had been a sleepy farming hamlet.
Ronkonkoma Free Library early 1900's
From 1908 to 1910, auto races on William K. Vanderbilt II's 48-mile Long Island Motor Parkway
drew international attention. The two-lane concrete speedway stretched from Queens to Vanderbilt's Petit
Trianon Hotel on the Islip side of the lake. The hotel was fashioned after an 18th-Century building at the
Palace of Versailles in France. It was the site of swank parties enjoyed by Long Island's elite after their
drive through the countryside.
Many theatrical people were attracted by the beauty of the lake. One of the most
prominent was Broadway actress Maude Adams, famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan during the Victorian
era. In 1898 she bought a farm called Sandy Garth and additional property totaling 700 acres which later
became known as The Cenacle, one of the Island's most prominent farms. Sachem High School and Samoset
Junior High School were built on part of the land, which was sold to the school district after her death in 1953.
Burning Crosses: The Ku Klux Klan held meetings in Lake Ronkonkoma in the 1920s. Local Klan members focused
more on Catholics and Jews than blacks, and burned crosses on the lawns of enemies. The Klan died out by
the mid-1930s in that area.
The Long Island Railroad
The main line of the Long Island Railroad was built as far as Islip by 1842. In 1844, it was extended to
Yaphank and two years later to Greenport. Before the turn of the century, it was to cause an enormous
change in the character of Lake Ronkonkoma. From being a sleepy little farming community, Lake Ronkonkoma
was destined to become a well-known and fashionable summer resort by the 1900s.
The impact of the railroad was not immediate as the original station was located in a farmhouse in Lakeland.
A mere trickle of people came to the lake area for a number of years. A majority of those who came settled
close to the station in Lakeland and built modest homes there. A large group moved southward and settles
the village of Bohemia. Later, a Hungarian settlement developed in Lakeland.
In 1885, the railroad station was moved to its present site at Ronkonkoma. Maude Adams, the famous actress
who lived there, paid for the landscaping and beautification of the station. Many elm trees, lovely lawns,
and hedges were planted there making the entrance to the town impressive for those people arriving by train.
Newton's Garage early 20th Century
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Lake Ronkonkoma became known as a summer resort in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were a few boarding
houses in town. One of the better-known hotels on the lake was the Lake Front Hotel. This was where many guests
stayed and social events for the summer visitors took place. The Lake Front Hotel situated on twenty-four
acres of land on the lakeshore was open from May 1st and January 1st each year.
Most of the original settlers and local residents chose to live away from the lakefront. The land one half
mile or so beyond the lake was flatter and better suited for farming. Little by little, the lakefront
developed into a fashionable haven for the wealthier people who had summer estates there. Lake Ronkonkoma
became a summer resort for the wealthy and famous from New York City.
When the ice was safe, the young people arranged skating parties on the shore where skaters could warm
their hands and feet. A favorite game on the ice was Crack the Whip.
A Resort Town Changes with Time
Mail Carrier with dog, circa 1932
The perimeter of the lake itself began to change from residential to commercial. As the lake front become
less and less exclusive, some of the people sold their homes and moved away. George Raynor, whose family
had lived at the lake since the 1840s, bought an estate in 1921. This became the well-known Raynor Beach.
Raynor, whose property was being used for picnics by people who drove out from the city, built a small
pavilion and some bathhouses on the beach. Up on the hill, a large building was converted into a restaurant
where hot meals were served. The Beach catered to a high-class transient trade.
Lake Ronkonkoma adjusted to a two-season pattern, as resort towns must do. The economy of the town depended
on a good season, and the lake itself become a great natural resource that brought work and money to Lake
Ronkonkoma residents. At the end of each season, Lake Ronkonkoma returned to the normalcy of a small town
with familiar faces being seen everywhere.
Lake Ronkonkoma had been accustomed to having large numbers of people in town, but previously these people
had gone away at the end of the summer. But when the people of the city came to stay, the town of Ronkonkoma
lost its intimacy.
Agnew & Taylor, circa 1927.
End of the Pavilions
The people of Lake Ronkonkoma responded spontaneously to the attack on Pearl Harbor. All those who could
enlisted in some branch of the service. The townspeople had neither the heart nor the time to think about
tourist trade as they rushed to fill the ranks of the army of men and women needed to help build the war machine.
People in town had not anticipated the changes that were to come about and had expected that after the War
the lake would once more be a big attraction. The beaches stayed open, and although there were visitors,
it became evident after a while that the momentum had slowed down. World War II with its total war effort
and gas rationing had signaled the beginning of the end of an era of pavilions and crowds of summer visitors.
In the 1950s, the original owners began to sell their beaches to others. Many of the pavilions, which were
left unattended, burned down. On October 4, 1962, Brookhaven Town purchased land for the first town-owned
beach on the lake.
The unattended sections of beaches began to deteriorate. Rubbish, tin cans and bottles lined the shores in
many places. Since the shoreline lay in between three townships, there was no central control. People were
becoming alarmed, and a Tri-Town Committee for the Preservation of Lake Ronkonkoma was formed. The committee
agreed that the three towns would treat the pollution problem as a single problem affecting all.
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Myths and Legends of Lake Ronkonkoma
INDIAN PRAYER TO THE SACRED LAKE
Oh, sacred lake with shape of skull
And known as Sachems Pond
I will not eat your fish that swim
And break forbidden bond.
They are not really fish for food
Superior beings all
Oh, sacred lake protect me from
The evil demon call.
Author and Artist: Lois J. Watt
Lake Ronkonkoma has been called a place of haunting mystery. Indians and white men alike wondered about its
source of pure fresh water and its unexplained tendency to rise and fall periodically with no apparent
relationship to the local rainfall. At times, when the corn was standing parched in the fields, the lake
would continue to rise. At other times of excessive rainfall, the level of the lake would fall.
Indian legends about the lake have a number of variations and different endings. However, a recurrent theme
runs through all of them telling about someone who had been thwarted in a love affair and killed him/herself
in the lake. His/her body was later found in a different body of water.
Another legend, known as the Birdsall Legend, is about a beautiful Indian princess who fell in love with a
settler named Hugh Birdsall. Birdsall lived in a log hut on the Connetquot River. The princess was not
permitted to see or marry Hugh and for seven years she sent messages to him on bits of bark that floated
underground from the lake to his hut. After seven years of waiting, she paddled out to the middle of the
lake in her canoe. The next day the canoe carrying her dead body floated down the Connetquot River to
her lover. He leaped into the canoe and together they were swept out to sea. The lake is said to weep for
her every seven years.
Perhaps the most popular legend of Lake Ronkonkoma involves the tale of the Indian Princess whose
unrequited love has dominated the myths of the lake since the 1600s. Specific details of the legend
vary, but all versions have served as a facilitator of a handful of additional stories regarding the
lake, including its fabled bottomless depths and mysterious healing powers.
The legend refers to a beautiful Indian girl, Ronkonkoma, whose father belonged to the Setauket Sachem
tribe. According to historians, the Sachems were one of four tribes bordering the lake in the mid 1600s,
a time that witnessed the increased presence of settlers to Long Island.
Ronkonkoma supposedly fell in love with a settler named Hugh Birdsall, who worked as a woodcutter and
lived in a log cabin on the banks of nearby Connetquot River. On moonlit nights, Ronkonkoma would steal
away into the forest and make her way to Birdsall where she would watch him from the cover of the trees.
As legend goes, Birdsall was unaware of her presence until one summer night when the moon was full, and he,
unable to sleep, he paced back and forth in front of his cabin. It was then that Ronkonkoma, clad in
colored glass beads, caught the light of the full moon and revealed her presence. Birdsall fell in love
with Ronkonkoma immediately. Her father, however, forbade the marriage and refused his daughter to see
her lover ever again.
For seven long years, the two lovers continued their affair, sustaining their love on the messages they
were able to get to one another. Everyday, the princess would paddle her canoe to the middle of the lake
and gently float a patch of birch bark, safely embedding a note of longing. Everyday, for seven years,
Birdsall would wait at the edge of the water for the piece of bark he knew would eventually surface.
In the last month of the seventh year, however, Ronkonkoma, bursting with the pain of her solitude, sent
a cryptic message to her lover, saying only that she would join him in the morn. As dawn broke, the
woodcutter, waiting faithfully by the riverside, say a canoe suddenly rise from the depths of the river
and come rushing toward him as if guided by a magical hand. Inside was his princess, nestled amidst
boughs of pine, with a knife piercing her heart. Without uttering a word, the heartbroken Birdsall leaped
into the canoe and cradled her lifeless form as the two were carried out to sea to a life beyond the grave.
Legend courtesy of:
The Curse of Lake Ronkonkoma by Michael Ebert
While the tales of the young Indian and Birdsall end with their respective deaths, the legends of the princess
endure. There have been several reports that Birdsall was indeed real, and that despite the claims, he did
not join his princess in the afterlife, instead choosing to return to England where he eventually married.
Other accounts involved the princess revisiting the lake, walking on water and taking the life of a man
annually in search of her forbidden love. Her ghost is said to dwell in the depths of the lake, and some
say each year, the princess drags down a least one young man to be her lover in death. This thought is
considered the basis for the curse that at lease one person shall drown in the waters of the lake each year.
While locals will confirm that drowning incidents are frequent at the lake, it is difficult to conclude
whether or not deaths occur annually as the legend portends. Still, certain locals and historians will
claim that almost every year for 200 years someone has drowned in Lake Ronkonkoma . . . almost always a male.
Additionally, various County Police officials insist that at least one person drowns in Lake Ronkonkoma
each year. The most disturbing certainty is that police and locals alike can only recall a handful of women
having drowned in the lake.
Maiden in the Lake
A legend tells the story of
A pretty Indian maid
Who loved a handsome pale-faced lad
But marriage was forbade.
Her father chose another mate
A fine strong Indian brave.
The Indian girl could not comply
And so her life she gave.
The lake of sparkling water.
Where rests the Indian daughter.
In summertime the Indian girl
Would call out from the lake
To lure below pale-faced lad
She vowed that she would take.
And so the legend ends of Indian
Maid with lonely wail
Who lingers in the murky depths
But calls in no avail.
The lake of sparkling water.
Where rests the Indian daughter.
Author: Lois J. Watt
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The Bottomless Lake Theory
During their inhabitation of the region surrounding Lake Ronkonkoma, the Indians were known
to be mystified and fearful of its waters. Situated near the geographic center of Long Island,
the lake is completely surrounded by hills making it impossible for it to have an outlet
overland, nor are there any ample visible inlets for supply.
Many natives thought the lake to be bottomless, as bodies would often drown and disappear
into it depths. There were stories of people drowning only to have their bodies be found in
distant waterways, furthering their beliefs of the bottomless theory. Many Indians also thought
that the lake was connected with the Great South Bay at a place called Pattersquash, which
translated means little round place.
The bottomless tales continued after white men settled in the area during the 1700s and 1800s.
One particular story describes men dropping as much as 1,000 feet of heavily weighted fishing
line into the deep holes in the southwestern section of the lake and failing to reach bottom.
Another account tells of a wagon that disappeared into one of the holes and was later found in
the Great South Bay, prompting many to believe that the lake contained secret underwater connections
to other bodies of water.
The origin of the lake and outlet remained a mystery for three centuries. In 1875, three men,
Elais Lewis, Jr., James Baylis, Esq. and Captain Nat Dickerson, visited the lake with the sole purpose
of measuring the depth. The men reported making 27 soundings and found the deepest portion of the lake
to be 72 feet near the southwestern corner. At no time did they find the lake to be bottomless. However,
they did find the lake floor to become shallower and more uniform in depth towards its northern part.
Deep-sea sounding methods found the deepest part of the lake to be about seventy feet. According
to the New York State Conservation Department, this depth was considered most extraordinary however,
as Ronkonkoma is only about sixty feet above sea level.
The bottomless theories were resurrected in the early 1900s when a diving platform was constructed
at the right edge of the deep hole in the lake. An occasional drowning would occur when swimmers
walked out from the beach and stepped into the hole, so ropes were later erected to warn swimmers.
In the 1930s, the rumors again reemerged when the body of a Connecticut bootlegger, who was murdered
and dumped into the Long Island Sound, surfaced along the banks of the lake with his hat, his wallet,
and his flask.
Some locals also spoke of other oddities at the lake, including a powerful whirlpool in the center
of the water. Under the impression that Lake Ronkonkoma was very cold, Dr. Fredrick Mather,
superintendent of the New York Fish Commission, stocked the lake with bass, trout, and other cold-water
fish. A dozen feet below the surface he found a temperature of sixty degrees, which was ten to twelve
degrees warmer than the surface temperature.
In search of additional sources of water supply, the City of Brooklyn made an official survey of Lake
Ronkonkoma and other various brooks and ponds on Long Island in the early 1900s. Using the most
sophisticated Navy equipment of the time, Hall Fullerton found that depth of the lake was about
92 feet, at its deepest point. This section was the source of the water supply of the lake. The
survey also noted that fresh water was pouring in at such a pace that the sounding apparatus was sent
whirling around at a lively rate. Click here
to see a depth map of the lake.
Years later, the United States Government sent a man named A.C. Veatch to perform a survey on the
underground water resources of Long Island. This project determined that Lake Ronkonkoma is essentially
a natural well that taps the underground water table. Moreover, this particular water table is said to
cover an area of 20 square miles. Veatch also concluded that the inland basin of Lake Ronkonkoma was just
north of the topographical catchments area of the nearby Connetquot streams and that the ground was
Veatch theorized that Lake Ronkonkoma was formed during the glacial periods by an iceberg that bore
the well and, when it melted, left the depression that filled with water from the underground water
table. This accounts for the water always being fresh. It would be virtually impossible to drain
Lake Ronkonkoma no matter what methods were attempted.
According to a 1986 study, the groundwater flow system beneath Long Island is separated by a divide
that extends across the approximate center of the island in an east-west direction. Lake Ronkonkoma
is about two miles south of this point. The water recharging north of the divide flows in a northerly
direction towards the Long Island Sound, while water recharging south of the divide generally flows in
the southerly direction carrying groundwater to the lake and towards the Great South Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
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The Future of Lake Ronkonkoma - Pollution Prevention
In 1986 the Municipalities seriously considered the effects of development in the Lake Ronkonkoma area
and made recommendations to retain high quality water levels and excellent recreational opportunities.
The 191 page report can be seen by
downloading. The report contains many
different maps of Lake Ronkonkoma and the Watershed Area.
Between 1986 and 2006, additional development created additional challenges and needs. The Suffolk
County Lake Ronkonkoma Advisory Committee met in 2006 with newly elected officials, representatives
from all the municipalities, and also interested citizens from many community groups. Members of the
Ronkonkoma Chamber of Commerce have acted as advisors to this group for many years.
An updated Clean Lake Study is due out shortly and should make recommendations for continued improvements
and ways to maintain the area for the future.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, LakeRonkonkoma.org began an Annual Lake Clean up event on the
Sunday before Memorial Day weekend. Over the years, they were joined by hundreds of community volunteers,
local businesses, with support from the municipalities. Continued awareness that it takes thought and
consideration to keep Lake Ronkonkoma beautiful, and with help from the entire community, the area should
continue to improve.
In 2006, the firm of Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis was hired to update the Lake Ronkonkoma Clean Lake Study,
in an effort to continue the revitalization process. Their preliminary report, as given to the Lake Advisory
Committee on August 30, 2006, is available to