Is myth always just fanciful lore? Is there ever any sinister force that anchors legend to reality and brings tales of creepy death and vanishings from fantasy into reality? By all accounts there may just be such a place. Located on New York’s Long Island there is a lake that has long been saturated with legends of myth, mayhem, and death. Yet in this case it seems that old legends die hard, and may very well be quite alive, and this has become a place deeply rooted in modern strange phenomena, the paranormal, and the unexplained. Here upon these waters we have a case of a seemingly malevolent lake that has been for centuries deemed to be cursed, feared by the locals, and a mysterious body of water firmly rooted in the realm of the bizarre even in modern times, with its share of enigmas swirling about its depths. This is a place where legend and spooky accounts twist together over the course of history to weave a tapestry of dark tales and the odd. Welcome to New York’s cursed lake.
Situated in Suffolk County, New York, and with a circumference of around 2 miles (3.2 km), Lake Ronkonkoma is Long Island’s largest freshwater lake, and has a long, strange history in the region. The area was once the marker of the boundary between four of the thirteen Native tribes of Long Island: the Nissequogues, Setaukets, Secatogues and Unkechaugs, and all of which had their fair share of legends about the lake. These waters were considered to be sacred and full of spirits both benign and malevolent, and the lake was steeped in a variety of spooky legends concerning these spirits. Indeed, it was these spirits that were blamed for regularly dragging people under to their dooms and which caused many of the local tribes to fear the lake.
One of the most notorious legends of the Natives of the area is that of the mysterious “Lady of the Lake.” The tale revolves around the plight of a young, beautiful Native princess who fell in love with an English woodcutter named Hugh Birdsall. The story typically goes that her father would not allow her to be with the white settler and forbade them from ever meeting, so they resorted to writing letters to each other on pieces of bark, which they would row to the center of the lake and deftly float across to their lover. They are said to have continued this covert correspondence for 7 years, until one day when the princess could not bear being away from her true love and rowed out into the lake one final time to stab herself to death. In some versions of the story, Birdall rushes out to embrace his dying lover and they are swept out to sea.
Since then, the local tribes claim that every year the princess lures a young man out into the murky depths of the lake and drowns him, which is said to be mostly out of profound loneliness and desire to find a new lover rather than any malicious or evil intent. Indeed, the Natives have long believed that only men drown in the lake due to this spirit and her quest to find a male companion. Another Native legend was that Lake Ronkonkoma is bottomless, and that bodies that go missing here are dragged down into these never-ending depths to forever remain lost. In some other cases it was said that the lake would swallow victims only to mysteriously regurgitate their corpses in waterways far from the lake itself.
In the mid-1600s, white settlers began to trickle into the region, and the town of Smithtown was established in the 1740s. At the time, the area was sparsely populated, but this would change in the late 1800s, when the lake became a popular summer resort for the rich and famous from New York City. The area saw a great amount of development throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as hotels, beach pavilions, guesthouses, opulent summer residences, and stores sprung up to take advantage of the influx of wealthy tourists, and the previously rural farming area was transformed into more of a fashionable commercial district for the rich.
Construction of the Long Island Rail Road and later the impressive, 48-mile Long Island Motor Parkway further helped to increase the number of people pouring into the area. Claims that the water of the lake had miraculous healing powers also contributed to its popularity, and one entrepreneurial Brooklyn business man even took to bottling and selling this water and calling it “Lake Juice.” These amazing claims produced a variety of ads promoting the area as a health resort that could cure all manner of diseases. By all accounts, people were pouring into the Lake Ronkonkoma region in great numbers during the travel season.
This rampant development and relentless inpouring of visitors continued until the 1950s, when people started to sell their summer homes and move away in the wake of World War II. The once bustling beach resort became somewhat of a feral ghost town, with abandoned beach pavilions surrendering to weeds, elements, and disrepair, and unused, empty summer homes were burned down or left to rot. In many places, various debris and garbage that had been left behind lined the shore, and it was not until 1962 that some semblance of life was breathed back into the area, when Brookhaven Town turned the beach area into a town-owned beach, yet some of the derelict ruins of the old resort buildings can be seen even today.
Interestingly, throughout settlement of the area and throughout this rise and fall of the resort, indeed even into the present, there has long been talk that the lake has many inexplicable mysteries, some directly related to the Native American lore surrounding it. One such persisting notion is that the lake is bottomless just as local tribes have always claimed. Since white settlers first arrived, the stories of the bottomless nature of the lake became widespread, and it was often claimed that fishermen would drop weighted fishing lines up to 1,000 feet down into the depths without reaching the bottom. In the 1900s, a diving platform was erected in the lake and it was said that some people dove in to never surface, their bodies never found.
It was also believed that the lake was connected to the Great South Bay and other waterways through underwater passages and caverns, and in one case a wagon which had sunk in the lake allegedly ended up floating around out in the bay. Rumors of these secret passageways to various bodies of water were further bolstered with the tale of the corpse of a murdered bootlegger, whose body was dumped into Long Island Bay in the 1930s only to turn up bobbing about in Lake Ronkonkoma. Other bodies of drowning victims have reportedly shown up in Great South Bay, the Long Island Sound, the East River, and sometimes even in other states. This all ties in to the old Indian stories about the lake’s ability to transport victims to other places quite nicely. These passageways are also supposedly the cause of mysterious whirlpools that are said to suddenly appear out on the lake, and which sometimes drag in unfortunate victims.
The problem with the bottomless claims is that Lake Ronkonkoma has been measured as being around 65 feet (20 m), with some depressions found that go down to around 100 feet (30 m), which is deep, but far from bottomless. As for the claims of underwater tunnels, although it is unknown if such passages actually exist here or not, the lake does lie near an extensive groundwater flow system that is separated by a divide through the center of Long Island, with water flowing south to Long Island Sound and north to the Great South Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps the lake is connected somehow to this flow system, which would explain the dislocated bodies and talk of underground river tunnels. The whirlpools could possibly be caused by the rather swift inflow of water from an underground well that has been found to connect the lake to the underground water table, or have something to do with the dramatic, 10 to 12 degree temperature difference found here between the surface and 12 feet under.
Another mystery that has long perplexed both the Natives and white settlers alike is the odd fact that Lake Ronkonkoma’s water levels tend to rise and fall significantly with no relationship to the amount of rainfall. Indeed, it was said that the lake would rise even as fields were parched, or conversely fall even during heavy rain. Over 7 years in the early 1900s it was found that the rainfall on Long Island was an unusually low 52 inches, yet the water level of the lake rose 7 feet. Natives claim this to be the work of Manitos, the Great Spirit of the Lake, but it is unknown just what causes this particular phenomenon, although it is thought to perhaps have something to do with the lake’s connection to the underground water table.
More sinister than these strange stories is the persistent idea that, just as Native lore says, the lake is cursed by the Lady of the Lake, who drowns unsuspecting victims. This pervasive rumor is fueled by claims that Lake Ronkonkoma has more drownings than usual and that the vast majority of these are young males between the ages of 18 and 38. There are even claims that there is one such drowning victim every year, just as the Lady of the Lake legend states, and that it is always a young male. One former lifeguard by the name of Dr. David S. Igneri worked at Lake Ronkonkoma for 32 summers and claimed that during that time there were at least 30 drownings at the lake, with all of them being young men. Igneri also claims that in 1965 he had a bizarre, vivid dream that foretold the drowning of a 15-year old boy on the 4th of July amid a fireworks display, and sure enough an epileptic 15-year-old boy died on the lake on that day exactly as he had envisioned it in the dream.
Adding to the spooky quality of such tales is that some men who have reportedly almost drowned in the lake also have said that during their ordeal they felt as though they were being pulled under or that they could even feel icy fingers clutching at them. Others have reported being drawn towards the center of the lake, as if caught in a current or being pulled along by some unseen force. Then there are claims that although many men have drowned here, there have supposedly been only a handful of women who have died on the lake.
While of course there are those who would like to think that this can all be attributed to the purported curse of the lake, the more likely explanation is that on a lake with many tourists, often with drinking involved, there will inevitably be drownings, and many of those being the most careless are going to perhaps be more likely to be young men. Additionally the surprisingly cold water here and low visibility could compound the problem. It would be easy to take these tragic deaths and warp them to fit old Native legends and tales of ghosts and curses.
Nevertheless, there is enough strangeness and persistent stories of curses on Lake Ronkonkoma that it has caught the attention of several paranormal investigation groups, who have studied the lake trying to find out if there is anything to the tales. One such local group calling itself the Long Island Paranormal Investigators has spent a considerable amount of time studying Lake Ronkonkoma using a wide array of sophisticated, fancy sounding equipment such as “Electro-Magnetic Field meters,” motion sensors, and Geiger counters. While the group has measured higher than normal EMF fields at the lake, they have so far not found anything to strongly suggest there is anything particularly strange going on here. Even the group’s cofounder, Robert Levine, has said on the issue of mysterious deaths on the lake:
You must remember that the lake is larger and deeper than many people realize. That combined with alcohol can spell out a disaster waiting to happen for some people.
A more recent rumor to emerge from Lake Ronkonkoma is that there are schools of piranhas prowling its depths. These claims have been fueled by stories of fishermen catching the vicious fish and bathers complaining of being bit by something while swimming. There are even preserved specimens of piranhas that have been allegedly caught in the lake. While the idea of piranhas being found far from their native habitat is not in and of itself too far-fetched, as this has happened in other lakes and rivers due to released pets, Lake Ronkonkoma is thought to be too cold to be a suitable habitat for the tropical fish and evidence of their presence here is inconclusive at best. The fish people have reported seeing are most likely the sturdier pacu, which looks very much like a piranha but is not dangerous, and bites reported by swimmers are thought to be more likely from pike, which are found in Lake Ronkonkoma and are known to bite on occasion, or turtles. Still, stubborn rumors of piranhas in the lake persist.
Another legend of Lake Ronkonkoma is that it was once connected to the sea through an inlet and that pirates would come here to hide the treasure which they had looted from their victims or to execute their prisoners. Stories persist that the bottom of the lake and its many caves and depressions hold a large amount of this treasure that has never been found, as well as skeletons of the pirates’ victims, which have been claimed to have been found from time to time. However, there is no evidence at all that the lake was ever used by pirates, that it was ever attached to the sea, or that skeletons have ever been found in the lake, and it all remains merely a compelling rumor.
Sinister history, ghosts, mysterious vanishings, voracious fish, roving man-eating whirlpools, lost pirate treasure, skeletons littering the depths, Long Island’s cursed Lake Ronkonkoma has it all. Do any of these eerie legends have a grain of truth to them, or is this all pure legend and spooky folklore given life by those who would see the mysteries kept alive? This is a place that has managed to carry over myths and lore into supposedly real-life enigmas. Is it truth or just tall tales? Whatever the answer may be, it certainly all might make one think twice before taking a dip in New York’s cursed lake.