A Newspaper Chronicle

Reprinted from: Bully! Colonel Theodore Roosevelt

The Rough Riders & Camp Wikoff Montuak, N.Y. (1898)

Where A Great Army Rests From Its Toil

(Brooklyn Daily Eagle) Montauk, August 16 – Balm and silence: they are the recuperative quantities in the camp at Montauk Point. It is the same sea surging against its bluffs that washes the shore at Santiago, yet in the South it makes the air hot and heavy and holds the germs of fever, while here it so cools and refreshes the wind that it puts life in every man that breathes it. In a few days a host of battle worn men will be at rest in the best camp that has been created by this government. Not all will have been in the fights of Cuba and Porto Rico, it is true, but some of them will be none the better for that, because they have been lying on the edges of the fever laden swamps of Florida, they have been cooped in the dusty woods and drinking the fouled water of Chickamauga, they have been breathing the malaria that hovers over the hot meadows of Dunn Loring. Already a few thousand of them are under canvas, and it is a pleasure to go among them and see the look of satisfaction and content they wear after their hard experiences in the tropic chapparal. They have been sleeping in the open, they have been feeding on hard tack and bacon, they have been marched and kept on guard, they have been under a blistering sun, they have been waiting in the trenches with nerves at an exhausting tension while the bullets and bombs of the enemy whizzed and whirred over their heads, they have lain sick and crippled and have longed vainly for the care that is given to any drunkard or vagrant when he is picked from the gutters of a great city. Is it any wonder that when they reach their camp of clean white tents at Montauk Point their nostrils widen to drink in the fragrant air, and they are content to lie on the turf and look into the great white fleets of vapor that float overhead and soak in the sunshine and feel that an end has come to all pains, all privations, all anxieties, all neglects?

Everybody says who visits Montauk Point – at least, he says it, as soon as he is away from the smudge and racket of the railroad terminus – "What air they get out there!" Of course they do. Montauk is a mere spit of land running out into the Atlantic deeps, and the wind has to wriggle itself out of shape to get to the end of it without crossing open sea and being cooled. Moreover, it differs from the beaches of the south side of Long Island in that it is high and breezy. The wind seems to be always blowing, and it comes with a tang of the salt in it, yet strangely and deliciously blended with a wholesome country smell. Everything larger than a bush has been blown off from the earth. There is not a tree on the hills. From the great rolling waves of earth you look out over miles of sea. You have the transports in view as they come up from the southwest, you follow their smoke as they turn the point where the lighthouse lifts against the sky, and presently they come into sight again on the north side; then the tired, dusty and ragged men file off upon the pier and their battle days are over....

Until the railroad was carried to within seven or eight miles of the end of the island this great tract was as lonely as a Nebraska plain. Between Amagansett and the lighthouse there were for years but three permanent habitations, and they were known as the First House, Second House and Third House. The Second and Third Houses are near the camp and have approached the enforced dignity of taverns.

What kind of place is Montauk Point?...It is surprising how much vastness you can get into a little space. The human eye and the human mind are small and can hold only about so much of bigness anyway, and so long as they are filled the sense of largeness is gained, whether it be with the nightly vision of the universe or a stretch of prairie. Montauk Point is not so thumping big, geographically, yet its wilderness and seeming bleakness appear to have no end to them, and when you are off by yourself looking away from the camps, the heave and swing of the land are impressive. If you go out there, against the wishes of the general and the doctors, don’t stay out late. If you do, may Providence be merciful to you. What holes you will be embogged in, what ponds you will have to swim, what ditches you will trip over, what manner of object you will be when you get somewhere next morning, I shudder to think...But in the sunshine Montauk Point is a different place. It is open and bright and breezy. Moles, rats, field mice and frogs scuttle through the grass; king birds whistle, song sparrows are calling to their mates, locusts are skipping about herbage in myriads. Though is seems at first glance as if there were nothing but grass, a glance beside the way discovers a profusion of wild flowers. In the little rain ponds, choked as they are with smart weed, there is a clear space, where the water lily blooms and sends abroad its fragrance. The bay plank, lover of sea air and solace of freshly shaven chins, abounds. In camp spots the great pink flowers of the mallow open and elsewhere you find wild roses, ferns, yarrow, self heal, pink and yellow thistles, primrose, vervain, queen’s lace, daisy, clover, milkweed, golden rod, the little orchid known as ladies’ tresses, everlasting, sea pink, snap dragons, hawkweed, dandelion, pickerel weed and cranberries – lots of cranberries that will be ripe in a fortnight, so the soldiers can spread them on their turkeys. You can find a few blueberries and blackberries, also.....

Deep as the silence is, if your ear is open you will hear the enormous breathing of the sea, no matter where you are. Nowhere is there a more vehement and splendid surf than that which beats against the southern shore. Go down there and you find troopers from Kansas and Illinois, who never saw this sight before, staring by the hour at the tumbling water masses. The beach is smooth and sandy, though it has a deepish pitch, and after a still wind, there is an ugly undertow; but it is safe up to your armpits and you can ride in the breakers and be rolled around as if you were of no account whatever. A bath in the surf is simply gorgeous. Those who can swim are in the water every day and the fever is soaking out of their muscles and the rheumatism leaving their bones. What odd wreckage you find just above the tide line! Where does it all come from Here timbers, pizzerinctum bottles, clothespins, electric light bulbs, barrels, shark eggs, coal, chairs, caps, mattresses, life preservers, potatoes, grass, nails, dead animals, fragrant fish, whale bones, sturgeon plates, butternuts, beetles, baskets, wash boilers, straw, corks, cartridges, hard tack with "Remember the Maine" stamped on it, pieces of wood riddled by the teredo, cans, trees, crabs, sluice boxes, canvas, rope, cough syrup, nets, a sign "No Trespassing," potato bugs, scrubbing brushes, shoes, cigar boxes and time tables. This is no fancy. I saw them all.

Another thing about this beach is the singing sand, though that is not so rare as people think. Probably any clear quartz sand will give out a noise under the same circumstances. Walk on the dry beach just above the tide line, yet not where the sand is loose, and drag the heels of your shoes through it. You will hear through the roar of the surf a creaking note, as the myriad particles slide upon each other. Or, if you kneel and brush it briskly with your hand, scraping about half an inch of it over the surface, you will hear it better, a "whee-ool" that is not much like singing, to tell the truth.

The most striking and picturesque think about Montauk Point is the line of bluffs that rise above the southern beach. Until you have walked along the edge of them you have not seen the peculiar beauty of this place. They pitch so steeply toward the sea that they are vertical in places, and if they were of the usual sand, such as you find in other parts of the island, they would fall away in long, easy slopes; but there is a good deal of clay in them, and they are stained with iron, too, which seems to act as a cement...

It is in this wide viewing land of clear skies...of genial, not oppressive sunshine, of soft, life giving air and of flowers and sand, that 23,000 men of the United States Army will come to rest....

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