For local teens growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Montauk was once a playground of abandoned and decaying buildings and facilities left wide open to explore.
The formerly graceful Montauk Playhouse was, at the time, a blighted place, perfect for taking edgy photos during daylight hours or climbing the stage rafters and drinking beer in the dead of night. (Another favorite, accessible only by small holes in the earth above the bluffs, was the network of underground World War II bunkers and tunnels beneath Montauk Point. The structures were a history lesson as well as terrifying rite of passage for the truly brave.) Meanwhile, the Concrete Cottage, also a vestige of WWII, served as a landmark for a key local surf break. But most notorious of them all was the sprawling former Army base and, later, Montauk Air Force Station, known as Camp Hero.
Built in 1942 and steeped in legend, the now defunct Camp Hero is home to the towering SAGE radar tower (with a 120-foot, 70-ton “dish”) and numerous outbuildings, bunkers and gun emplacements. For years the 278-acre site stood crumbling, smothered in overgrowth and completely off-limits (legally) before it was finally opened to the public as a state park in 2002 (though it was actually deeded as such in 1984).
Perhaps it was this early veil of secrecy that earned the base a reputation for much more than housing soldiers and protecting Montauk’s vulnerable shores. Since the 1980s, conspiracies have circulated alleging that experiments in psychological warfare, teleportation and time travel occurred there and, some believe, continue at the site today.
For years, a handful of these conspiracy theorists held furtive meetings about their beliefs and explored the abandoned base, gathering evidence. Then, in 1992, Preston Nichols and Peter Moon published The Montauk Project, their now classic book chronicling a laundry list of sinister tales, including claims that Nichols himself was technical director for the project—which he alleges discovering after accessing repressed memories.
A number of others have come forward claiming to be both victims and perpetrators of the Montauk conspiracy, most notably the late Al Bielak, who said he worked on teleporting a battleship in the original Philadelphia Experiment before coming to Montauk, and Stewart Swerdlow, who claims he survived genetic experiments at Camp Hero, leaving him with psychic powers.
Of course, as the Montauk Project conspiracy gained momentum and exposure, increasingly bizarre stories were added spanning all manner of sci-fi plot. Today there are hundreds of accounts, including child abductions and torture, extraterrestrial beings, inter-dimensional travel, Nazi scientists, UFOs, reptilian beings, a sasquatch-like beast and much more.
One of the most widely held beliefs is that the base sits atop a large underground facility that still operates, running a variety of top-secret experiments and clandestine military programs. While it seems wildly fantastical, the claims were given a little more credence in 1984 when Camp Hero’s deed was handed over to the state as parkland—the paperwork notes explicitly that the state owns everything on the surface of the base, but the government retained ownership of everything below the surface. What, exactly, is down there?
The answer could be as simple as buried munitions or toxic blooms, but there are a number of manholes (or what appear to be manholes) around Camp Hero and theories abound about where they lead. It is these small, compelling details that keep the questions about the base alive, even for those who are skeptical of the more far-flung tales Nichols and others have told.
Whatever went on at Camp Hero, or didn’t, or is still going on today, the decommissioned base remains a looming reminder of a bygone time and the Montauk that existed long before throngs of vacationers dotted her shores and development spread to every unprotected corner.
Those who have explored the base beyond its sanitized grounds share mixed reports, but all who ascend the rusty, dank, behemoth of a radar tower, avoiding nesting birds and bats, and climbing its rickety ladder up and out the roof hatch have marveled at what is easily the finest view on Long Island—crashing waves, humbling bluffs, lonely lighthouse and all.