By Jake Mooney
Guns, Germs and Real Estate
My first glimpses of Plum Island, like most people’s, were from afar. I grew up in Wading River, amid cabbage fields and subdivisions, and when we made the 40-minute drive out to the tip of the North Fork, usually on the way to somewhere else, the island had a way of peeking into view.
As a kid in the ’80s, the ospreys’ nests and oyster beds that lined the route to the Cross-Sound Ferry terminal in Orient didn’t have much allure to me. I didn’t know then how precious the pockets of nature, and the moments of quiet, would come to feel as the undeveloped parts of Eastern Long Island got smaller and smaller. The fresh golf courses and the build-to-suit signs didn’t yet feel ominous.
What never failed to transfix, though, was Plum Island. On school field trips to Boston or Mystic Seaport, we’d crowd up against the ferry railing and squint through the fog of Plum Gut toward the low beige buildings with smokestacks and ventilation pipes lining their roofs. Our knowledge of the island, and the gaps in it, added up to fascination. We knew it was a lab; we knew they experimented on animals; we knew there were diseases there that were best separated from the mainland by a cold, choppy body of water. And when “The Silence of the Lambs” came out when I was 14, we knew it was a place even Hannibal Lecter wouldn’t want to live.
“Anthrax Island,” the cannibal doctor called it, and he wasn’t alone. Real events there – a power outage, multiple disease leaks and an early history of weapons research – mingled in the popular imagination with the Montauk Monster and the stuff of campfire stories.
“Look at that place,” wrestler/governor Jesse Ventura intoned years later, bobbing in a boat offshore for his conspiracy-theory TV show. “It’s a toxic ticking time-bomb for an outbreak of cataclysmic proportions.”
How, then, could I pass up a visit?
It would have been unthinkable decades ago, but Plum Island today, under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, is open for tours. They don’t make it easy – there are background checks and restrictions, and forms to sign with warnings not to visit farms, zoos, stockyards, “various menageries,” or pet stores for days afterward. But by the time I showed my ID to a security guard in Orient and boarded the morning boat to the island on a clear day last spring, I had been preceded by Cub Scout troops, bird-watchers and volunteer firemen.
I was there as a magazine reporter, a species that the island’s government minders now found surprisingly welcome, in large part because of Plum Island’s uncertain future. With plans to move the lab to Kansas and sell the island weaving through the branches of the federal government, Plum Island was now more than just the site of a secretive animal disease lab – it was real estate. I had an escort from Homeland Security, whose name I had to promise not to print, and two more from the General Services Administration, the branch of government that sells off excess property.
After processing on the island we loaded into a van and rode, past the vine-covered remains of Fort Terry and through a weedy former parade ground, to the East End’s quietest beach. The fort, dating to the Spanish-American War, once housed hundreds of soldiers but was declared surplus after World War II. Now, by the island’s southeastern shore, there were a volleyball court and a horseshoe pit used mostly on the lab’s family day, and a lifeguard chair that lay on its side. Except for scraps of driftwood, a spider crab shell, and a stray thermos and Wiffle Ball washed up from points west, the long stretch of white sand was pristine. And with good reason: Besides environmental protection specialists who pick up trash regularly, security guards on foot patrol do what they can to tidy up.
Cool water lapped at the beach, and crickets chirped in the field nearby. The view to the south, across Gardiners Bay, took in the broad sweep of the Hamptons. To the east was Block Island, and wide open ocean.