The Revolutionary War defined the beginnings of an independent United States but it was a struggle of historic proportions both on land and on sea. Throughout the colonies, battles were fought and lives were lost. Long Island, New York, is home to numerous sites central to the fight for independence. The Battle of Brooklyn, the attack on Fort Slongo and the Culper Spy Ring are all examples of how Long Island affected the war.
The fight for independence on Long Island extended to its surrounding waters.
Text and Photography by Michael Salvarezza and Christopher Weaver (Eco-Photo Explorers)
In early July 1780, a French fleet of 13 frigates and 7 “ships-of-the-line” were successfully put into the harbor at Newport, Rhode Island. Ships that were equipped to fight in the line of battle were referred to as “Ships-of-the-line”. This was an attempt to assist the patriot army in their battle with the British by supplying ships, artillery and 6000 troops.
By September 1780, 14 British warships, including the HMS Culloden, arrived on Long Island to provide reinforcements to a small fleet in Gardiner’s Bay and by October the HMS Culloden was stationed in Gardiner’s Bay. The Culloden, along with three other vessels, were instructed to patrol the area between Montauk Pt. and the Nantucket Shoals, and to defend against any French ships trying to enter this area. Essentially, they formed a blockade.
On January 20, 1781, word was received that the French were preparing to leave Newport and were going to run through the blockade. The HMS Culloden, and two other vessels set sail from Block Island Sound in pursuit of the French vessels.
On January 23, a strong winter storm rose up and the ships became lost and disoriented in the severe weather and blinding snow. The HMS Culloden eventually came to rest in 15 feet of water just off shore at a place called Will’s Point, now named Culloden Point, in Fort Pond Bay, just west of Montauk Point.
The remains of this historic shipwreck have been lying in the shifting sands of Fort Pond Bay for over 200 years, often completely buried, and sometimes with just a few timbers exposed to indicate the wreck site. Divers who wish to dive the wreck find that, although shallow, it is a difficult wreck to locate. Despite this, the wreck of the HMS Culloden remains one of Long Island’s premier dive targets.
Over the years, a number of artifacts from the wreck have been professionally recovered and are displayed at the East End Maritime Museum. A large canon, copper sheathing and a section of the sailing ships’ rudder are all preserved and offered for view to the public. The HMS Culloden is a genuine part of local maritime history.
Recognizing that the wreck of the HMS Culloden is of interest to local divers, the Long Island Divers Association (LIDA) championed a successful effort many years ago to secure diver shoreline access to the site and also arranged for the construction of a staircase to the site along a steep bluff. Without the staircase, a dangerous rappel was required of determined divers wishing to dive the wreck.
Sadly, this staircase was destroyed with subsequent hurricanes and winter storms. Diver access to the site effectively was washed away with it.
Now, efforts by LIDA to regain diver access to the wreck of the Culloden have culminated in an announcement that the town of East Hampton will rebuild the staircase. In fact, LIDA has been in contact with the Town of East Hampton in 2017 and 2018 advocating for the rebuilding of the stairway down to the beach where the old shipwreck can be accessed. The construction of the stairway is now out to bid for the work to be completed for the summer season of 2019.
“Recent efforts of the Long Island Divers Association have resulted in divers regaining the entry points for diving previously lost at the HMS Culloden in Montauk and Secret Beach in Greenport”, says Barry Lipsky, President of LIDA. “In addition, saving the Ponquogue Bridge from demolition and, instead, helping to secure nearly two million dollars of improvements to the bridge is a huge success for the entire Long Island dive community.”
Divers on Long Island continue to enjoy the underwater wonders of the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay and Fort Pond Bay. Shoreline access to the water for divers, however, is becoming more and more difficult to find as a maze of permits, private property and legal restrictions conspire to keep divers out of the water. LIDA exists to advocate for diver rights, including access to dive sites such as the HMS Culloden, a true example of American history that belongs to all of us.