Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, September 22, 2014

New York City Sport Fishermen Travel the Horse Railroad in 1886 to Fish in Pelham

There is a quaint account of New York City sporting fishermen traveling the Branch Line and riding the "horse railroad" from Bartow Station in the Town of Pelham to City Island to fish in 1889.  City Island, Pelham Bay, Eastchester Bay and surrounding waters were fabulous fishing waters at the time.  Sporting fishermen from New York City flocked to the area to fish from Pelham Bridge, from City Island Bridge, from the mainland and from boats that they rented to prowl the waters of the area.  

In the early spring of 1889, the blackfish had begun biting at Pelham Bay.  Reports indicate that "eager fishermen" flocked to the area and that Pelham Bay's docks and boats were "crowded with eager fishermen."  

Many of those fishermen arrived by the Branch Line at Bartow Station where they were met by the horse-drawn railroad cars of the tiny little horse railroad that met all the trains and ran from Bartow Station to City Island.  On Sunday mornings when the fish were biting, a special "fishermen's train" left the Harlem River station in Mott Haven at 7:00 a.m., "packed to the doors" with New York City anglers trying to get to City Island.  When the fishermen's train stopped at Bartow Station, the anglers climbed over each other and raced to climb aboard the tiny horse railroad cars for the remainder of the trip.  Slow-footed anglers were left as pedestrians to walk from the station to City Island.  Those who were fleeter of foot stuffed the horse railroad cars with fishermen seated and standing inside, holding on to the outsides of the cars and clambering even on the tops of the cars.  Quite tellingly, often those who walked got quite a head start on those who rode the horse-drawn cars because the horses needed a "good deal of persuasion" to pull their heavy loads up a hill along the way.

A lovely account of one such day appeared in the May 20, 1889 issue of The New York Herald.  The account sheds interesting light on what it was like to ride inside the horse railroad cars on one such occasion.  The account is quoted in its entirety below, followed by a citation to its source.

Fisherman Carrying Pole and Fish Basket on Pelham Bridge in 1884.
Source:  Detail from Engraving - "PELHAM PARK, NEW YORK. --
No. 1442, 1884, pp. 514 & 521.  The Iron Arches of the Bridge Are
Visible in the Distance on the Right Edge of the Image.


The special fishermen's train on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad that leaves Harlem River station up in Mott Haven every Sunday morning at seven o'clock was packed to the doors of its six passenger coaches  with city anglers yesterday.

A rumor had floated around the fishermen's resorts in town for nearly a week that the blackfish had begun biting at Pelham Bay, and thither the anglers were bound.  Every man of them carried a jointed rod and fish basket, and two young men in a party from the Eighth ward had banjos, on which they picked an accompaniment to 'Where Did You Get That Hat?' all the way to Bartow station.  At Bartow the entire rolling stock of the Bartow and City Island Railway -- five sea-green bobtail horse cars -- awaited the visitors.  Those of the fishermen who were fleetest of foot got seats and the rest stood inside, stood outside, clambered upon the roofs of the cars or walked.  The pedestrians got quite a start of the others, as it took a good deal of persuasion to urge the motive power of the rural railway's rolling stock up the little hill near the station.


At Secor's boathouse, half way to City Island, a few of the fishermen got boats and many dropped off at Phil Flynn's or Stringham's City Island Bridge, or at Pell & May's, Paul Sell's or Walther's.  The rest went on to the point of City Island which juts out into Long Island Sound and fished off the docks.

Along about nine o'clock the steamer Pennsylvania, from pier 27 East River, foot of Dover street, came up with another contingent of city fishermen, and by ten o'clock there was not a rowboat to be hired, so the anglers who arrived on the noon train from Harlem River station fished off the bridge.  

The lucky ones were those who pulled away out to the Chimney Sweep's rock, where the blackfish were caught almost as fast as hooks could be baited.  Another good place was the Hog's Back.  Rat Island and Hart's Island furnished fair sport, and some large ones were taken at the Twin Islands, the Four Rocks and Hight's Point.  The anglers who went to the grounds off Rodman's Point caught nothing but eels and frostfish [i.e., generally a deepwater fish that is long, slender and silver and resembles a longer and skinnier barracuda], and there were a few striped bass of small size taken in Eastchester Creek, near Pelham Bridge.  

Tom's Reef Rock, out pretty well into the Sound is generally a good spot, but yesterday the wind blew from the northeast and the old fishermen blamed the wind for their lack of luck at this place.  There was a strong set to the flood tide when the fishermen hoisted anchor and pulled for the boathouses, and there were many blistered palms and lame backs as well as bronzed faces among the tired men who again packed the little sea-green cars for Bartow.


It was notice that the methods of the car drivers on this little country railway differ materially from those of their city bretheren.  There was a bell indicator in each car for ringing up fares, but after the first dozen were rung up the driver got tired of pulling the strap.  The driver on my car said he 'couldn't bother with it.'  He also smoked a very large and very cheap cigar as he handled the ribbons and manipulated the brake, and from time to time he stopped the sea-green chariot to exchange gibes with with some of his acquaintances who happened to be passing.  Once he entertained the passengers in the inside, by a Greco-Roman wrestling match with a friend who boarded the front platform, while the horse ambled gently along with the reins tied around the brake handle.

On the 5:37 train from Bartow in the afternoon, which brought home most of the fishermen, baskets were opened and catches were compared.  There were more eels than any other kind of fish in the baskets, and they were little fellows, averaging less than half a pound each in weight.  After the eels the frostfish and bergalls [i.e., a cunner, conner or chogset, a small fish common along the northeast coast that reaches about 2 pounds in size] were most numerous (these were small, too), and then came the blackfish, most of them wighing over a pound and some running as high as two pounds or over.  The striped bass were and not one of them weighted much over a pound.  The flounders, which were so plenty a week or two ago in these waters, have entirely disappeared.

White and red sand worms and little, hard 'rock' clams were the baits used.  The largest catch of blackfish (fifteen) was made by a man who brought up from the city his own bait.  He wouldn't tell what it was, but the knowing ones said the secretive gentleman fished with fiddler crabs."

Source:  SOME LUCK AT BLACKFISH, N.Y. Herald, May 20, 1889, 2d Edition, p. 8, col. 6.

Detail of 1893 Map Showing Fishing Waters Near City Island.
Source: "Towns of Westchester and Pelham, (with) Villages of
Westchester and Unionport, (with) Village of Pelhamville" in Atlas
of Westchester County, New York. Prepared Under the Direction
of Joseph R. Bien, E.M., Civil and Topographical Engineer from
Original Surveys and Official Records, p. 3 (NY, NY: Julius Bien
& Company, 1893).

Pelham Bay and City Island Horse Railroad Car, Circa 1910.
Source:  Image Captured from eBay Auction.

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