• Dan Rattiner

Dodging a pandemic

There’s been a lot in the news about the last Pandemic that raged through this planet. The Spanish Flu hit the civilized world in 1917 and many died before it was over.

Little mentioned is an earlier medical situation that threatened to grow into a pandemic in 1898. Montauk played a key role in the effort to thwart it. And where the government botched the later one in 1917, this earlier one was successfully snuffed out before it could get going.

In 1898, the United States fought a war with Spain and defeated them. The Philippines was taken. Cuba was taken. In both cases, American forces threw out the ruling Spanish dictators and set the people of those places on the road toward freedom.

A big problem loomed in the hills of Cuba, however. The American army, a force of more than 30,000 men, had swept the Spanish army back into the port town of Santiago where the Spanish General was to eventually turn over his sword and surrender.

But while the Spanish held out in Santiago, most of the American army awaited the final outcome in the hills overlooking that city, not in triumph, but in terrible trouble. An alarming number of them had become sick with tropical diseases – malaria, yellow fever and smallpox.

Soon after the surrender, the troops would have to be transported home. Parades and celebrations awaited them in the towns and cities of America – this was America’s first foray onto the international stage -- and therein lay a problem.

President McKinley was informed that if these men were to be immediately discharged from the army, a disastrous epidemic of tropical diseases would sweep the nation.

The President made a cruel but necessary decision. The entire American army was to be first transported to some uninhabited place in the American landscape where the men could either recover or die – there were no medicines to cure these diseases then – after which the survivors could be sent on their way to the celebrations and parades.

Montauk, New York, fit the bill perfectly. Two years earlier, a wealthy railroad baron had laid trackage from New York City to Fort Pond Bay in Montauk in the belief that a freighter port could be constructed there. Freight from abroad could reach New York City by rail almost a day faster than by ship. At that time, the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn often was so shallow at low tide that freighters had to wait, sometimes as much as twelve hours, for high tide, before they could sail through.

The Port at Montauk failed, however. And so by 1898 the trackage was just a fast way to nowhere.

Ten thousand new white tents soon were erected in neat little rows throughout Montauk’s barren landscape in July. Larger tents were built to serve as hospitals for the doctors, nurses and volunteers who came to help. In mid-August, the troop ships arrived one by one at the large pier that stuck out into Fort Pond Bay in Montauk. And the men walked off, or got carried off on stretchers, or got assisted stumbling off by fellow soldiers holding them up.

Teddy Roosevelt, who had created and commanded the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba to send the Spanish running, was among them, and a national hero. And he had not gotten sick.

From the railing of his troop ship, he spoke down to the newspaper reporters who were standing on the dock to say he was in bully health and was ashamed to be so when so many other soldiers were so sick below decks.

Roosevelt was assigned a tent among those of his Roughriders near where Ditch Plains is today. President McKinley visited Roosevelt there. Photos of the two together were distributed to the press.

The Army, officially to the outside world, was declared in Montauk to practice “maneuvers.” In the end, almost all of them, because of the sunshine that shone down, the ocean salt sea breezes that swept through the hills and grasslands of Montauk during that summer and the care they got in those lying in hospital tents, recovered. Only a few dozen died here.

In mid-September, the Army officially mustered out the soldiers in Montauk and gave them free passage home.

About twenty years ago, Suffolk County, then the owner of Montauk’s Third House and the several hundred acres surrounding it, decided to rename that property the Teddy Roosevelt County Park, since Montauk was the location of the start of his rise to the Presidency.

But ten years later, the County dropped that name and rebranded the ranch Montauk County Park.

People objected. Teddy had been here. He was part of the town’s history. But the County said because Roosevelt was only in Montauk as part of a military isolation program designed to avert an epidemic or pandemic, it wasn’t reason enough to honor him with a park.

So Montauk County Park remains its name today.

--Dan Rattiner


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