The myths and legends surrounding Lake Ronkonkoma would be easy to dismiss as silly superstition were it not for the eerie reality: For many decades, someone drowned in Lake Ronkonkoma almost every year.
Lake Ronkonkoma is Long Island's biggest and deepest lake. For some time, Indians thought the lake was bottomless because people who had drowned there would often just disappear, their bodies never recovered. However, even though this myth persists, the lake is certainly not bottomless; it measures about 70 feet at its deepest point.
The most prevalent legend is about Princess Ronkonkoma, an Indian princess who died at the lake in the mid-1600s. One version of the story is that she was walking across the ice one winter when she met and fell in love with an English woodcutter named Hugh Birdsall, who lived across the lake. However, her father—chief of the Setauket tribe—forbade their relationship. So every day for 7 years, she would write letters on pieces of bark, row to the middle of the lake, and float the letters across the lake to Hugh. Then, after all those years of being kept apart from her love, she rowed to the middle of the lake and stabbed herself to death.
There are variations on this particular story, such as that the princess drowned herself after learning about her lover's death, and that her body washed up in Connecticut (which ties into the idea that the lake is bottomless, and that there are underground channels to other lakes). While there's no proof the princess ever existed, Hugh Birdsall was a real person who eventually moved back to England and got married there.
In any case, the story goes that she claims a boy's life every year either to avenge her lover's death, or to try to find herself a soulmate in death. And the statistics back up this "curse": of all the recorded drownings on this lake, the vast majority have been young males.
Dr. David S. Igneri was the head lifeguard at Lake Ronkonkoma for 32 summers, and says there were at least 30 deaths during that time, all males. On the program Weird U.S., which aired on the History Channel in 2005, Igneri explains that one of the biggest challenges was that visibility in the lake is nonexistent after about the first 10 feet; if anyone submerges lower than that, no one will be able to rescue the person because the lake becomes enveloped in total blackness.
In 1965, Igneri had a recurring nightmare about trying to complete a rescue. He dove deep into the lake and panicked because he lost his orientation. When he got to the surface, he heard fireworks. Although Igneri was not previously interested in the paranormal, he believed this dream was a warning that someone was going to drown on the Fourth of July. He warned his staff of 11 lifeguards—and sure enough, late that afternoon, an epileptic 15-year-old boy had a seizure and went down in the water. The lifeguards dove for 45 minutes and did everything they could, but could not find the boy. As Igneri swam back to the surface after his last dive, fireworks went off.
The Long Island Paranormal Investigators take a particular interest in Lake Ronkonkoma as well, partly because their group is based in Ronkonkoma. They've been investigating urban legends, homes and businesses for signs of paranormal activity for seven years, using a host of instruments that include Geiger counters, thermometers, cameras, motion sensors, wind meters, voltage meters, and ion counters. Their ongoing investigations at Lake Ronkonkoma have been inconclusive.
"We use Electro-Magnetic Field meters because current theories indicate that a spirit manifesting will either give off an electrical field higher than what is the normal reading, or that a spirit may use the current electrical field in order manifest itself, which would alter the reading," says the group's cofounder, Robert Levine. "While at the lake, we have observed higher EMF fields than what we would have expected to encounter; however, we remain unsure if this was caused by buried or nearby electrical power lines, nearby homes or businesses, or something else."
Levine isn't convinced that there's a curse here, despite the drownings. "You must remember that the lake is larger and deeper than many people realize. That combined with alcohol can spell out a disaster waiting to happen for some people."
Another person who agrees with Robert is author Michael R. Ebert, who must be the foremost authority on the legends of Lake Ronkonkoma. He published the spiral-bound book "The Curse of Lake Ronkonkoma" in 2002, and it is available at the Sachem, Connetquot and Smithtown libraries.
The first time he remembers hearing about the lake's "curse" was when he attended Ronkonkoma Junior High School in the early 1990s and one of his classmates drowned in the lake.
"If I remember correctly, he and some friends were supposedly drinking beer on a rowboat and were horsing around when he fell in and was unable to swim to shore due to his bulky winter clothes."
After Ebert's college graduation, he searched for more information about the lake's legends in local history books, but found little—which convinced him to write his own book. He spent about six months visiting libraries and the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society to research articles, maps and geographical studies dating back to the early 1900s.
In addition to the stories about Princess Ronkonkoma and the bottomless lake, Ebert also found several other mysteries, such as the way the lake rises and falls with no relation to local rainfall. "The Indians believed it to be the work of Manitos, the great spirit of the lake," he says. "One study showed that over 7 years in the early 1900s, the rainfall on Long Island was below the usual average by about 52 inches, yet the lake rose 7 feet."
Then there were the rumors of "healing properties" of the lake, supposedly started by a Brooklyn businessman who wanted to capitalize on the lake's appeal as a local tourist attraction in the 1900s. "The guy even reportedly sold 'lake juice' in small vials, and I found an old ad promoting the lake as a health resort that cured diseases," says Ebert.
So whether you believe the lake will heal what ails you, or that a vengeful princess spirit is out there waiting to drown you, there's no denying that Lake Ronkonkoma is one of Long Island's most whispered-about points of interest.