“What is this thing you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children; beasts, birds, fish and all men.” – Massasoit Ousamequin, Sachem of the Wampanoag.
Stephen Taukus Pharaoh, more famously known as Stephen Talkhouse, often walked the 50 miles round-trip from Montauk to Sag Harbor and East Hampton in a day. Back then, in the 1800s, he would have traveled through woods and farms, and on the seashore, and not seen a soul for miles. His tribe, the Montauketts, still hunted, fished and farmed as they had done for centuries, and the English settlers, who had arrived in the 1600s, did much the same. Montauk was a quiet place that became known in the 19th and 20th centuries as a destination for sport fishing and surfing, and not much else—until all that changed. Now, it’s just as popular as the rest of the South Fork, and the real estate market reflects that.
Montauk has been bought and sold a few times over the centuries, but at the first real estate
transaction, no money changed hands.
The Montauketts were skilled producers of wampum, made from clam and conch shells, highly prized as currency by Native Americans throughout the Northeast. They were involved in a never-ending war over wampum with the Pequots from Connecticut, and in 1661, in fear of an attack, they took refuge for two years in the town of East Hampton. East Hampton was founded in 1649 as a base of commerce and government for the settlers. In gratitude for refuge, the tribe gave the townspeople part of the peninsula known as Hither Woods.
In the next two hundred years, after many deeds and broken promises, Montauk was carved up by the Proprietors, a group of private citizens from East Hampton who used it as grazing land for sheep and cattle. In 1879, the Proprietors decided to sell it all at public auction on the steps of the Brooklyn Federal courthouse. Arthur Benson, the founder of the Brooklyn Gas Company and the developer of the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn, bought the entire peninsula for $151,000. He then forced the remaining members of the Montaukett tribe to leave their ancestral lands.
Benson had big plans for Montauk, but they never came to pass. He did build several houses, called the Association Houses, for his wealthy friends. These beautiful houses, designed by McKim, Meade & White, still stand today. He also brought the railroad into Montauk, aided by the head of the railroad, Austin Corbin Jr., a personal friend. Corbin and Benson aimed to develop Montauk into a duty-free, international seaport connecting Europe to New York City, but these plans came to an end when Benson died in 1890, and Corbin was thrown from a horse-drawn carriage and killed in 1896.
In 1905, Montauk was still mostly uninhabited, as this map from that time shows. Benson's heirs had it on the market, but it didn’t sell until 1925, this time to a real estate investor. Carl Fisher was a quintessentially brash and showy American promoter, known for developing racetracks and railroads, and his latest, biggest investment was a mangrove swamp in Florida that became Miami Beach. In Montauk's empty expanse, he saw the promise of a paradise modeled after an English country summer resort. With $2.5 million of his estimated $100 million fortune, he bought most of Montauk, 9,800 acres, and started spending millions more on infrastructure. But events, including the stock market crash of 1929, put an end to his dreams, too.
Meanwhile, back in 1924, a different type of transaction took place. Robert Moses, “master builder” of New York City and Long Island, created and led many public authorities, held 12 titles including Chairman of the Long Island State Parks Commission. Knowing that Fisher planned to buy Montauk, Moses used the power of eminent domain to condemn two massive pieces of land to create Hither Hills and Montauk Point State Parks, which became the first two state parks on the East End of Long Island. Most of the 1,755 acres of Hither Hills remains wild today. Montauk Point began as a 187-acre parcel, but in the 1960's and ‘70's, more land was purchased to enlarge the park to 850 acres.
Development finally came to Montauk. It began in earnest in the late 1950's, but sales prices were modest, catering to working families from New York City and Long Island. Today, those prices have skyrocketed to a median of $987,500, and most of Montauk’s developable open land, about 30% of the total acreage, is now gone.
This year Carl Fisher's house has been put on the market for $10.5 million. On 7.6 acres on Foxboro Road, the 12,087 square-foot house includes 11 bedrooms, 10 baths, and 2 half baths. “It’s a piece of Montauk history,” said Paul Brennan, the listing agent with Douglas Elliman. In less than 100 years, Carl Fisher's house costs about four times as much as Carl Fisher paid for most of Montauk in 1925!