It started as a sandy strip of land that the Shinnecocks would carry their canoes across, and is now a nearly mile-long stretch of water that can accommodate thousands of boats a year, linking two of the most commercially important bodies of water on the East End.It took decades of planning and labor, and cost thousands of dollars to construct, but when the Shinnecock Canal was finished in 1892, it not only opened up travel between the Shinnecock and Great Peconic bays, it also opened the door for the Hamptons to become the tourist destination it is today.
On Tuesday, the 121-year-old waterway was honored with a historic marker—a blue-and-yellow sign recognizing it as the state’s oldest and, to date, only salt water canal—obtained by the Southampton Town Clerk’s Historic Division. But the canal’s history runs much deeper than the roadside plaque suggests.
“It’s very important that people not only know about the canal, but know that it has been here for many years,” Hampton Bays Historical and Preservation Society President Brenda Berntson said at the plaque unveiling. “Hopefully, people will be paying attention and learn more about the natural resources and how important the canal is.”
The marker, which sits on the east side of the canal and next to the Montauk Highway bridge, was paid for with a $1,500 grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which has funded more than 100 such markers at qualifying locations throughout the state.
The first mention of a canal connecting the two bays came in 1652, 12 years after the settlement of the town, but a formal effort wasn’t put in place until 1828, when the New York State Legislature incorporated the Long Island Canal Company to tackle the project, according to a report complied by Southampton Town Historian Zach Studenroth. That effort was derailed and reconvened two decades later when the Long Island Canal and Navigation Company was hired to do the work. Still, for reasons unclear, the project did not break ground until 1884.
Problems with the 4,700-foot-long, 40-foot-wide canal didn’t end there as tide waters washed out the original canal walls and the project went over budget by about $10,000, Ms. Berntson wrote in an email. The final cost of the project totaled about $98,000, the equivalent of more than $2.3 million today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, once the canal was completed the positive impacts were felt almost immediately, Mr. Studenroth said, not just providing a means of transportation, but also replenishing the Shinnecock Bay, which previously was landlocked and, therefore, stagnant. “It was also designed to reclaim the waning fish, clam and oyster industries in Shinnecock Bay,” he said.
“That, in turn, not only did the fishing industry good, but in the 1880s and 90s, it gets into the idea of the area being a summer resort because that was all part of the scene,” Mr. Studenroth added, “People were coming out to enjoy the waters, to go fishing and hunting. That really coincided with the boom in tourism in the area.”
In 1919 locks were installed to compensate for the 3 foot difference in depth between the two bays. Originally, the canal was dug to a depth of 4.5 feet and now varies between 10 and 20 feet.
Before the canal’s construction, members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation would walk their canoes from one bay to another across the sandy isthmus between the two bodies of water, a tradition that would inspire the name Canoe Place Road for the street that still runs along the western side of the canal to this day.
Elizabeth Thunder Bird Haile, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and vice president of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum, said the marker, which makes mention of the site’s use as a Native American portage but does mention the Shinnecocks by name, is a good start to recognizing the shared history between the tribe and the town’s settlers.
“This was the beginning of the recognition of the native people, the Shinnecock,” Ms. Haile said. “It’s not two separate histories, it’s one history.”