Oystering

By Cliff McCarthy, 2015

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine oystering off the New Jersey coast and Staten Island as a lucrative industry, but it once was.  Early colonists learned of the “vast oyster banks” from the Indians and exploited this resource for winter sustenance.  Laws were passed as early as 1715 and 1737 to protect the oyster beds, but they declined, anyway.  In the early 1800’s, the practice of “seeding” the oyster beds was begun.  With “seeds” brought up from Chesapeake Bay, oyster plantations extended for miles along the coast, making this a viable industry.

Oystering

By the middle of the century, oysters had become Staten Island’s most important commodity. In 1853, the industry employed about 3000 men and their families. Twenty years later, it was employing between 10,000 and 17,000 people and was garnering $40 million annually, creating “oyster millionaires.” Princes Bay Oysters from Staten Island were world renown, as were Blue Points from Long Island.

In an unpublished manuscript available at the Tottenville Branch of the New York Public Library, Benjamin F. Joline wrote in 1950:

Marketing began in September, as soon as cool weather set in, and continued until about the first of December. New York City absorbed the entire crop. A fleet of sloops made one or two trips weekly and it is estimated that as many as 200,000 bushels were taken from Prince’s Bay in a single season. By the middle of the [19th] century, hundreds of men were directly and indirectly employed in the oyster business with many more in related occupations, and the ‘Prince’s Bays’ enjoyed top billing. As time went on there came a change in the quality and flavor of this famous brand. Sewage from growing cities and industrial plants on the tideways slowly contaminated the waters and, before the end of the century, the once succulent oyster had vanished from Prince’s Bay and a once profitable industry had been lost…

Signs of pollution in the coastal waters were becoming evident as early as the 1880’s.  By the turn of the century the industry was suffering and, after a typhoid fever outbreak was traced to local oysters, the beds off of Staten Island were condemned in 1916, destroying the oyster industry.

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SOURCES

  • “The Oyster Business”, clipping from an unknown newspaper, in author’s possession.
  • Galpin, Virginia M., New Haven’s Oyster Industry, 1638-1987, New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1989.
  • Shepherd, Barnett, Tottenville: The Town the Oyster Built, Preservation League of Staten Island & Tottenville Historical Society, 2010.
  • Smith, Dorothy Valentine, Staten Island: Gateway to New York, Chilton Book Co.: Philadelphia, 1970.
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