For many modern day Long Islanders and city residents, the name Ronkonkoma represents a train line. Of course, for those who live in Ronkonkoma, Lake Ronkonkoma or any of the surrounding towns, the name Ronkonkoma represents their home, their workplaces or their neighbor’s home. However, many years ago during the first half of the 1900s, the name Ronkonkoma or more specifically Lake Ronkonkoma represented a vacation spot, a summer house or bungalow. Those who lived in the boroughs of New York City often referred to Long Island as “the county.” Even up until the 1960s, many city residents continued to call the Island “the country.” That all changed in the 1970s as the great urban migration from the cities to the suburbs dwarfed the initial migration that began during the post-World War II days that started with the move to places like Levittown.
The history of Lake Ronkonkoma reaches further back beyond the days of summer bungalows in the 1940s and 50s. Of course, it we extend beyond the social history of Lake Ronkonkoma into the origins of the Lake formation itself, the history of the Lake goes back thousands of years. The environmental history of Long Island is fascinating. The formation of Lake Ronkonkoma stands at the center of that history. Land formations, hills, roads, etc were all obviously fueled by the impact of glaciers. Lake Ronkonkoma was indeed created by the impact of a monstrous glacier. The porous banks of the Lake help utilize Lake Ronkonkoma as a true indicator of Long Island’s water table. This connection has played a role in some of the myths and mysteries surrounding the Lake.[i]
Lake Ronkonkoma History: Part I
There is much debate over the origins of the name Lake Ronkonkoma. There is a belief among many that the word Ronkonkoma was derived from an Algonquian Indian name meaning “boundary fishing place,” or “wild goose place.” [ii] The original name may have been “Rangankomack,” or “Ronkahonkomack.” However, there is also the argument from Native Language societies that it may have been something completely different. [iii] There is currently an extended study of the Algonquian Language at Stony Brook University if anyone is interested in further research.[iv]
Currently three different town governments including Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown have controlling interest in the land surrounding Lake Ronkonkoma, although Lake Ronkonkoma itself is controlled by the Town of Islip, The reasons behind not one town having control over the lands surrounding Lake Ronkonkoma goes back to the multiple land claims of the areas surrounding Lake Ronkonkoma by four Native American tribes including the Unkechaugs, Nissequogues, Setaukets and the Secatogues. These four tribes sold the rights to their land separately to different colonists.[v]
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Lake had become a popular tourist area. At the time there were not many permanent residents living in the surrounding areas at Lake Ronkonkoma. However, all that changed because of two men named Vanderbilt and Ford. Only twenty six years old at the time, but also heir to a very wealthy family, William K. Vanderbilt began organizing the Vanderbilt Cup Races as a way to compete with the successful European Car Races. His goal was to inspire American ingenuity in car manufacturing to match and even surpass European automobile manufacturing.[vi]
The Vanderbilt Cup Race ran from 1901 to 1910. They were one of the most spectacular sporting events in the country, let alone just the New York area. Hundreds of thousands of fans came out to watch the races which proved to be dangerous at times. Because of the danger of the races William K. Vanderbilt set out to build a road that would head east on Long Island called Motor Parkway. Motor Parkway was built in various stages, but it eventually ended at Lake Ronkonkoma. At the end of Motor Parkway, a beautiful Hotel was built called the Petit Triannon.
The Hotel opened in 1911. With such a beautiful Hotel nestled on the banks of an incredibly beautiful Lake in a very secluded area, the Hotel and Lake Ronkonkoma became a destination for New York’s elite. If you were one of the lucky ones who vacationed at Peteit Trianion in the 1910s, an order of Filet Mignon on the menu would have cost you one dollar. A filet of sole was 50 cents while the menus most expensive item, a Long Island Roast Duckling would have set you back a whopping $2.25. [vii] Over time, Lake Ronkonkoma because a destination resort for more than just the rich and famous. As roadways were built and cars became mass produced and more affordable, families and camps would flock to Lake Ronkonkoma for getaways during the summer months.
Lake Ronkonkoma History: Part II
When I first moved from the Bronx to Long Island n 1974, we moved into a Nesconset house. The Lake was only about a half mile away as Nesconset is one of the towns that borders the Lake Ronkonkoma area. My father who had grown up in Manhattan and lived there during the 30s 40s and 50s would tell so many stories of how city kids belonged to camps that would go out to Lake Ronkonkoma during the summers. It was a different world then. My father’s stories about Lake Ronkonkoma were a common one for all those city kids and families that visited Lake Ronkonkoma for summer retreats in the early to mid-twentieth century. It was a little surreal for many of those city kids who grew up to be working class people who always viewed Lake Ronkonkoma as a summer resort to actually be moving there to live.
Lake Ronkonkoma in the 70s and 80s was a far different place than it had been in the first half of the twentieth century. Smithtown Blvd, which becomes Portion Road east of Gibbs Ponds Road and Rosevale Ave had very few stores and shopping centers in the early 1970s. That would change very rapidly as mini shopping centers lined with pizzerias, Chinese restaurants, pharmacies and mini supermarkets like the Hand Pantry would sprout up very quickly over a ten year period in the 1970s. And of course, no story about Lake Ronkonkoma would be compete without a mention of Little Vincent’s Pizzeria.
Situated right on Portion Road about two hundred feet east of Rosevale Avenue, Little Vincent’s Pizzeria developed the reputation of being the best Pizzeria on Long Island. Vincent Monaco opened Little Vincent’s in 1971.[viii] So many of us who had moved out to the Island in the early seventies from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens grew up on great pizza. It was a godsend that a place like Little Vincent’s would open just as everyone was arriving on the Island to start new lives raising children in a safer environment.
At Little Vincent’s it was all about the slices. There were no fancy dancy slices with all these exotic toppings pizzerias not put on their slices. No, at Little Vincent’s it was just about a great slice of cheese pizza or an amazing meatball parmigiana hero. You would sit in the place and stare at all the pictures hung on the wall. Pictures filled with Vincent posing with celebrities. Interestingly, those pictures are still hung up on the wall in 2020, although they look a little more yellow now. During the blizzard of 1978, I remember walking all the way up Gibbs Pond Road to go to Little Vincent’s to get pizza. They were open and we were there. One of the legends of Lake Ronkonkoma will always be Little Vincent’s.
Lake Ronkonkoma was an area bordered by various townships. Within those townships were other legendary stores and places that were frequented all the time like Little Vincent’s. Just north of the Lake was the great Record Stop. A privately own record store that not only was a local favorite but a destination for all serious record collectors looking to get rare albums and tapes. It was a fun place that eventually closed down in the 2000s only to be reopened recently in the Patchogue area. The Ronkonkoma area was also home to two cinemas There was the Jerry Lewis Cinema Movie theater which was a very small one screen theater and changed name multiple times. It eventually became an OTB. Now it’s a Panera. That cinema was located on Portion Road between Ronkonkoma Ave and Hawkins Ave. And of course, located directly across from Record Stop in the Aid Auto shopping center was the adult movie theater in an age before the VHS video tape was invented.
North on Hawkins Avenue heading towards Lake Grove was the Bohack Supermarket. Bohack’s would eventually turn into an A & P (I worked there) in the late 70s and last until the late 90s when it became a CVS. Simply depressing. Of course, if one continued to head north on Hawkins Avenue they would wind up at the crossroads of Middle Country Road in which the legendary Good Steer Restaruant lay at their right and the Smith Have Mall toward the left. It was an area rapidly developing in the 1970s all around Lake Ronkonkoma that no one who had visited the area in the first half of the twentieth century could ever had imagined. Not even Robert Moses.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Lake Ronkonkoma was not a place where teens went swimming anymore like the ones who vacationed there in the first half of the century. In the 70s and 80s, Lake Ronkonkoma was a place for young couples to go parking. All along Lake Shore Road north of the 7-11 were spots where cars would park at night hidden under the trees. What went on there we won’t get into, but it was a place to go, a place to park. All those spots have now been cleared and fenced off.
Lake Ronkonkoma Myths
One cannot divulge into the history of Lake Ronkonkoma without at least mentioning some of the myths and mysteries surrounding the Lake. One of the longest running mysteries surrounding Lake Ronkonkoma was that of its depth. Many people believed, going all the way back to the Native Americas that Lake Ronkonkoma was a bottomless body of water. The problem was the Native Americans didn’t have twentieth century technology. Neither did the colonists. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Government sent geologist Arthur Clifford Veatch to explore the depths of Lake Ronkonkoma and the mysterious disappearances of people who drowned whose bodies were never discovered in the Lake. Arthur Clifford Veatch discovered that the Lake was connected to Long Island’s underground water supply via a deep well formed by glaciers thousands of years earlier.[ix] The connection to the well explained how bodies and anything else could disappear from the Lake without a trace. This in essence solved the bottomless theory, or at least for some.
One of the other great myths that have defined Lake Ronkonkoma history is that of the story of The “Lady Of The Lake.” As the majority of deaths due to drowning in Lake Ronkonkoma have been mostly male, the story is defined by the heartbreak of unfilled love. The tale is that of a young Indian Princess from the Setauket Sachem Tribe who fell in love with a colonist named Huge Birdsall. Apparently, things weren’t going to well between Huge and the Indian Princess. Legend has it that she committed suicide stabbing herself in the heart while rowing in a canoe on Lake Ronkonkoma. Her spirit would then haunt Lake Ronkonkoma for the rest of time. In commemoration of her broken heart, she would drown one poor male a year in revenge for Huge’s ignorance, or something like that.[x]
Lake Ronkonkoma Measurements:
Putting history, memories and myths aside for a second, let’s take a look at some real data concerning Lake Ronkonkoma. New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation measures Lake Ronkonkoma as taking up 243 acres. Lake Ronkonkoma’s average depth is fifteen feet, although there are spots within the Lake that measure at least sixty five feet deep. The shoreline length runs for 2.3 miles. Lake Ronkonkoma is situated at an elevation at fifty five feet above sea level. The Lake is located in the town of Islip.[xi]
Lake Ronkonkoma Fishing:
As in any freshwater lake, pond or any body of water, there is marine life living below the surface. I wouldn’t be the first one to get out my fishing pole and go fishing in Lake Ronkonkoma but if one feels the need to do so they will find Brown Bullhead, Yellow and White Perch, Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, and various other specious of fish that Lake Ronkonkoma naturally produces. Lake Ronkonkoma has also been stocked by the DEC with Walleye. There is much activity at Lake Ronkonkoma as far as fishing goes. However, as a sport it’s fine as long as you through whatever you catch back in. The DEC has a site that cover all the bodies of water in the New York area and there are multiple advisories against eating any fish caught in most of the ponds and lakes in the New York Metropolitan area. The advisories are even more specific towards Woman under the age of 50 and children under the age on 15.[xii]
Lake Ronkonkoma History: Final Thoughts
Lake Ronkonkoma history is a story defined by generations of people. From the Native Americans through the colonists, robber barons and the wealthy, mid twentieth century vacationers, and the eventual great migration form the city to a new life in the suburbs, the Lake has stood center to it all and given meaning to people’s lives in many different ways. In 2020, there are town parks surrounding the area where people go to walk and enjoy the view from inside the perimeters. From Portion Road, millions drive by it every year without probably even noticing it. Nonetheless, it’s been there for probably close to twenty thousand years give or take a few thousand. It will be there for many more, right next to the 7-11.
[i] Eisenstadt, P. E. (2005). The encyclopedia of New York State/ editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss ; foreword by Carole F. Huxley. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. p.503
[ii] Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society. Accessed March 22, 2020. http://www.lakerhs.org/our town.htm#settlers.
[iii] “The Name Ronkonkoma.” Mailbag: The Name Ronkonkoma. Accessed March 22, 2020. http://www.native-languages.org/mailbag/ronkonkoma.htm.
[iv] “Algonquian Language Revitalization Project: Department of Linguistics.” Home. Accessed March 22, 2020. https://linguistics.stonybrook.edu/outreach/Algonquian.
[v] Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society
[vi] “Vanderbilt Cup Races.” Vanderbilt Cup Races – About Us. Accessed March 22, 2020. http://www.vanderbiltcupraces.com/about.
[vii] “Vanderbilt Cup Races.” Vanderbilt Cup Races – Blog – The 1914 Menu from Petit Trianon on the Motor Parkway in Lake Ronkonkoma, L.I. Accessed March 22, 2020. http://www.vanderbiltcupraces.com/blog/article/the_1914_petit_trianon_menu#.
[viii] Mannino, Kaitlynn. “A Slice of History at Little Vincent’s.” Newsday. Newsday, November 5, 2014. https://www.newsday.com/long-island/towns/little-vincent-s-a-slice-of-history-in-lake-ronkonkoma-1.2810588.
[ix] Veatch, A.C., Charles Sumner Slichter, Isaiah Bowman, W.O. Crosby, and R.E. Horton. “Underground Water Resources of Long Island, New York.” Professional Paper, January 1, 1994. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/pp44.
[x] Ebert, Michael. “Is It Haunted? Secrets of Lake Ronkonkoma.” Newsday. Newsday, January 17, 2019. https://www.newsday.com/lifestyle/recreation/secrets-of-lake-ronkonkoma-1.11455894.
[xi] “Lake Ronkonkoma.” Lake Ronkonkoma – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/24173.html.
[xii] “Department of Health.” Long Island Region Fish Advisories. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/outdoors/fish/health_advisories/regional/long_island.htm#marine.
I’m retired now and living in Southwest Florida but I was born and raised in Lake Ronkonkoma. I still have family living on Long Island so I still visit a few times a year.
Every time I go, I’m amazed at the changes. It is said that “you can’t go home again”. I think that is true. The farms (peaches, potatoes, ducks, etc) are all gone – replaced by housing developments , wineries and strip shopping centers. Your lovely article brought back many wonderful memories of my youth and I just wanted to say thank you.