Play with fire at the Illinois Obscura Society's carnival-themed launch party!
The shore of Plum Island (all photographs by the author unless noted)
Located just off the tip of Long Island's North Fork, New York's Plum Island measures three miles in length, and is only accessible by boat. The island has pristine, sandy beaches, and contains some of area's finest bird habitats. The waters around the island are home to seals and several endangered species of sea turtles. The public, however, is not welcome to visit.
A mariner approaching the island's shore is greeted by large signs announcing "U.S. Property - NO Trespassing." A group of buildings are visible on the northwest side of the island, and for decades rumors have circulated about what the United States government is doing there. The official version is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture operates the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) on the island to protect the country's livestock population from devastating foreign diseases. Despite this seemingly straightforward explanation, conspiracy theories abound about other allegedly sinister activities, ranging from Island of Dr. Moreau-type animal breeding to germ warfare programs.
Skeptics point to strange occurrences in the area around Plum Island as evidence of government experiments run amok there, such as the discovery on a Long Island beach of the carcass of a bizarre-looking beast dubbed the Montauk Monster and the proximity of the island to the town of Lyme, Connecticut — the location of an outbreak of the tick-borne illness known today as Lyme disease.
The government has operated the research center at Plum Island since 1954, and during that time relatively few people outside of the facility's employees and visiting scientists have set foot on the island. Recently, however, the government has softened its secretive stance and begun inviting groups to tour the island, such as local Boy Scout troops, Audubon societies, and other organizations that have an interest in the island and the surrounding environment.
In October of 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the island on behalf of Atlas Obscura as part of a group tour sponsored by Mystic Seaport, a maritime museum located on the Connecticut coast a few miles from the island.
Our group began the trip to Plum Island at a marina in Connecticut, where we caught a ride on the ferry that brings government employees back and forth to work on the island. The weather conditions that day were just short of miserable: grey skies and steady, cold rain. Greeting our group was the PIADC's personable public affairs officer, who provided an outline of the day's activities, as well as a list of dos and don'ts while on the island.
Security on Plum Island is extremely tight, and all visitors must be screened prior to the visit by the Department of Homeland Security. As a reminder of the fact that Plum Island is a secure government facility, we were accompanied throughout our visit by armed security guards. The public affairs officer explained that while photography is permitted in certain areas, we were not to take pictures of the security guards, their vehicles, or the ferry landing area. We could bring some fruit with us as a snack, but if we didn't eat it while on the island, we couldn't take it home. Also, while we could visit the administrative building and some of the older historic structures on the island, the animal testing labs were not part of the tour.