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The Legends of Lake Ronkonkoma

Ghost princesses and spirits have haunted lake for years.

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. 

Matt Calamia March 24, 2010 at 03:22 PM
Awesome article. Growing up as a kid living in Ronkonkoma, we always heard about the legend of the Princess killing a boy every summer in the lake. It always creeped me out. Great article, I really enjoyed reading it.
Mandi April 06, 2010 at 04:27 PM
Awesome article! My teacher reccomended it to m as I'm writing a paper on urban ledgends. I grew up hearing about the legend of the lake as well, living in the Lake Grove area all of my life.
Shana Braff April 08, 2010 at 01:01 AM
Very interesting and informative read! I am always fascinated when learning about myths and the paranormal. When my grandfather was a young man he went swimming in Lake Ronkonkoma and almost drowned, but I guess he wasn't Princess Ronkonkoma's type because he managed to live to tell the tale.
Rafael Alex Aguilar July 31, 2011 at 04:47 PM
DAM DUDE DROWING YESTURDAY HE SAID HE WAS PULLED BY THE LEG O.O HEARED BOUT THE MYTH YESTURDAY I GO TO THE LAKE EVERY WEEKEND AND AM FROM HEMPSTEAD THE LAKE BEEN WERE I RELAX AND STUFF
Melinda Safrany April 21, 2012 at 03:56 PM
My mom's coworker almost drowned this month (april 2012) and was airlifted to a hospital...kayak sunk ...scary stuff! Seems true!
jackie H.M June 23, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Wow time to find a new local spot to chill with the kids we were there 2 days ago and the same last year...to true too scary too too sad so many lives lost and they were only tryin to have fun
karen hier July 02, 2012 at 04:49 PM
lived here all my life. know about legend .. seems very hard for some people to ebelived , i know i do .. have seen MANY males being taken by her in that lake!
Odeescaredbitch July 26, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Damn I'm going there this Saturday Tho 28 2012 of jully does she pull down women 2????? I'm odee scared doe mann
Pazi Steklo July 26, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I wrote a song about the legend: Once upon a time not so long ago From a lake called Ronkonkoma Lived an Indian princess so fair and young She fell in love with a captain's son The chief was so upset by this news of course So he banned the girl from seeing him again She cried and cried all through the night And a message she would send to him Meet me at Lake Ronkonkoma Meet me by the old canoe We'll go for a ride In the pale moonlight Just you and me I'll see you at midnight So they got into the canoe on the lake And sailed right into the moonlight The boat tipped over and the princess drowned Her body was never found The chief placed a curse on the lake Claiming one male's life every year And as the years go quickly passed The legend is crystal clear Meet me at Lake Ronkonkoma Meet me by the old canoe We'll go for a ride In the pale moonlight Just you and me I'll see you at midnight
Lisa Marie Cunningham March 28, 2013 at 06:13 AM
I am upset that everyone forgets about the women who die as well in the lake. My mom died in the lake at 24 years old and I was two years old. I learned to swim in the lake shortly thereafter and it has affected my whole life. Do yous think anyone wanted to be my friend with the "Lake's Curse" hanging over my head? Hell No!! Nobody who grew up around the lake wants to talk about it or be associated with the legend and nobody has EVER told the real deal or investigated the occurances due to being scared of dying of the so-called curse themselves and when asked questions about the lake you see the people withdraw and not really want to answer. From what I have seen lately Lake Ronkonkoma the town has died because of the lake and maybe it's for the better. When you feed a superstition it only gets bigger and more dangerous so what are people to do but stay away. I always go to the lake to talk and commune with my mother as well as the Indian Princess and all she might be looking for is respect and the love she was denied, same as myself. So people can yous try and throw a flower to the women and girls who didn't make it out for what ever reason and for the men and boys, paper hearts with the words I LOVE YOU so they ALL know we miss them and they have never been forgotten. Thank you from Lisa, the daughter of Carol who died in the lake in 1971.
susan October 31, 2013 at 04:18 PM
I am sorry Lisa ...that even this many years later the drowning of women in the lake are disregarded. I grew up across the street from your mom in Smithtown and can sadly recall the tragedy of that day. We cried and even then said: "the lake took her first woman". If it was true we didn't know. But if this many years have passed and the loss of your mom is still dismissed, I wonder how many other females were lost and disregarded to keep an old legend alive. I just watched a TV show on History 2 channel and they told the story again...leaving out Carole. I told my daughter that the show /legend was a bunch of horse hocky, because I PERSONALLY knew the women who died there in the early 1970's. I Googled her name and this article came up. ( your post). I live in Southold now and continue to share your Moms story whenever Lake Ronks legend is discussed. Please continue to hold your head high. You carry no shame here. Gossip is a sad thing, meaningless except to those who are left in it's dust. <3 Susan Strumpfler Lawlor
Gary Asbell January 20, 2014 at 01:01 PM
It's a shame that Lake Ronkonkoma has forgotten about the Lake. It's polluted and a mud puddle to many in office. A lot of money could be made for the local community if they would clean it up and make it a true attraction for the summer time again. I grew up on Long Island and have many great memories from the past of going there for skating in the winter as well as swimming there in the summer. Now it's a forgotten eye sore. Wake up and make the Lake a great place to go again. Let's clean it up and make it enjoyable again.

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