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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Was a City Island Hotel Keeper Among the First to Learn of the Great Oyster Bed Discovered in 1859?

The discovery was monumental.  It was compared to the discovery of gold that led to the famous goldmines of Pike's Peak in the west.  It led to a mad rush of people from Rhode Island to Connecticut hoping to get rich quick in the waters between City Island and Huntington, Long Island.  The mad rush has been described as one that rivaled "the Oklahoma Land Run thirty years later when an estimated 50,000 people lined up at high noon on April 22, 1889 competing for their piece of the available two million acres of Federal lands."  

The discovery involved a massive bed of ancient oysters in the waters of Huntington Bay.  It was described in the press as "AN INEXHAUSTIBLE PLACER OF BIVALVES."  The oystermen of City Island were among the first to "mine" the placer.  The oyster bed was so massive and valuable that, tradition says, its discovery and harvesting in 1859 played a role in a massive and violent "oyster war" between the region's oystermen ten years later in 1869.  

There is no doubt that the discovery of the massive oyster bed was a monumental discovery that, eventually, made many oystermen wealthy including City Island oystermen.  Only a few months after word of the discovery leaked out, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported:

"about three-quarters of a million dollars' worth of oysters [NOTE:  Roughly $29,164,000 in 2016 dollars] have been taken without any visible difference in the seemingly inexhaustible beds.  The oysters are nearly all above medium size, and many are very large -- fully up to those often exhibited in oyster saloon windows.  The flavor is equal to any oyster before planting, and they only want a few weeks with fresh water to be equal, if not superior, to any sold in the market."

There are, however, a number of different and competing accounts detailing how the giant oyster bed was discovered.  Today's posting to the Historic Pelham blog details two newly-discovered accounts contained in the same article published in 1859 describing how the bed was discovered.

I have written before about the discovery of the "Great Oyster Bed" in Long Island Sound in 1859.  See, e.g.:  

Thu., Mar. 25, 2010:  Discovery of "The Great Oyster Bed" in Long Island Sound in 1859.

Thu., Mar. 18, 2010: 1859 Town of Huntington Record Reflecting Dispute with City Island Oystermen.

Fri., Jul. 27, 2007:  Possible Origins of the Oyster Feud Between City Islanders and Huntington, Long Island

Thu., Jul. 26, 2007:  Pelham's City Island Oystermen Feud with Long Islanders in 1869.

The account transcribed today claims that a well-known City Islander learned of the existence and location of the giant oyster bed in a most unusual way about a year earlier and kept the secret while he quietly harvested oysters to his heart's content.  In 1859, five fishermen from Darien, Connecticut accidentally stumbled onto the bed and agreed to keep it secret.  Unlike the City Islander, however, they could not keep the secret and the mad rush began.

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in 1858, a steam engine propeller ship sank near Eaton's Neck near Huntington Bay.  In connection with salvage efforts, the owners of the ship hired a diver to inspect the wreck below and report on the results.  When the diver reached the floor of the Sound where the wreck had settled, he found himself and the wreck on an immense "foundation" of live oysters.  He returned to the surface and reported what he had discovered to Charles McClennon of City Island.

Charles McClennon was a well-known proprietor of an important hotel on City Island who later operated The Minnieford Shore House, an early hotel and service establishment located at the steam boat landing on City Island where it could conveniently serve excursionists and visitors from New York City and the surrounding region.  (McClennon was not an oysterman himself.  However, he was known to engage in efforts to collect oysters for his restaurant business so he would not have to pay what he considered to be high prices charged by local oystermen.  See Mon., Dec. 01, 2014:  Jury Finds City Island Oystermen Guilty of Stealing Oysters from Planted Bed in 1878.  

According to the account, McClennon "kept the information to himself for some time, while availing himself of the knowledge" for about a year.  Then, about a year later in September 1859, five fishermen from Darien, Connecticut were fishing near Eaton's Neck.  They found themselves drifting too far from shore and tossed an oyster dredge into the water as a temporary anchor.  When ready to weigh anchor, they began to pull up the dredge only to discover it was heavy -- laden with about two bushels of large oysters.  They repeated the process and filled the dredge again.  They had discovered McClennon's "Great Oyster Bed" and understood its value.  The five men agreed to keep the secret.

Unlike McClennon, however, the five fishermen could not resist telling their fishing tale.  Soon word of the discovery leaked.  Within mere days, oystermen flooded into the area and newspapers along the northeastern seaboard were reporting the discovery.  The "Great Oyster Rush" of 1859 had begun.  Soon, the supposedly "inexhaustible" supply of oysters was exhausted and City Islander hotelier Charles McClennon had to find a new source of oysters. . . . . 

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Transcribed below is the text of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle article asserting that Charles McClennon availed himself of oysters in the Great Oyster Bed in Huntington Bay beginning about a year before its existence became generally known.  The text is followed by a citation and link to its source.

"A GREAT OYSTER DISCOVERY. -- AN INEXHAUSTIBLE PLACER OF BIVALVES ON LONG ISLAND SHORE. -- A discovery almost equal in importance to the Pike's Peak gold mines, has been made in Huntington Bay, L.I., of an immense bed of oysters, at least, five miles long, and capable of furnishing an inexhaustible supply of the much relished bivalves, which have shared the distinguished consideration of Governor Wise.  The people of Northport, and of Fire Island, being severely addicted to oyster dredging, have in former times waged terrible war on each other, for encroaching on their respective territories.  The Fire Islanders, with a commendable desire to be independent of their neighbors for a better supply of oysters, planted seed-beds, and were duly rewarded by a plentiful crop.  But it seems that bivalves, like bipeds, are of an emigrating turn, and starting with a favorable tide, they floated off to 'Long Island's sea girt shore,' into Huntington Bay, and west of Eaton's Neck Reef they found an oyster paradise, a fine cobble stone bottom, and sheltered from the rude elements.  Here the pilgrim fathers of the tribe, the bearded ancestors of the new-formed colony, settled and prospered, increased, multiplied and replenished the waters. -- Like Rasselas, in his happy valley, shut out from the envious world, generation after generation were born to blush unseen, until the bed expanded to proportions quite gigantic, and the 'natives' grew in size and vigor, to rival the offspring of the Virginia femdum.  But in the course of human events, or oyster events, the bed was discovered.  America had its Columbus, the principle of gravitation couldn't escape Newton, and Meriam has unveiled the Aurora Borealis.  About a year ago, a propeller, unable to keep itself above water, selected Eaton's Neck as an eligible point to sink at.  The owners of the propeller sent a diver down after it to see how things stood.  The diver found himself on a foundation of oysters, and when he came to the surface again, reported the fact.  He told Charles McClennon, proprietor of the City Island Hotel, who kept the information to himself for some time, while availing himself of the knowledge, but at last the secret came out.  About two weeks since, five fishermen from Darien, Conn., while fishing off Eaton's Neck, finding themselves drifting out too far, dropped overboard their oyster dredge for an anchor.  When they undertook to weigh anchor, they found it weighed more than expected, and required an expenditure of muscular effort to get it on board.  To their astonishment, they found they had caught about two bushels of large oysters.  They tried again, and weighed anchor once more, with a similar result.  The five lucky men tried tried to keep the secret but couldn't.  It leaked out, and now everybody knows that oysters are in abundance, inlimitable oysters, are to be found in Huntington Bay.  People from Long Island, Connecticut, New York, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey, and other adjacent territories, who can command a scow, and an oyster dredge, are flocking to the bay, and come home laden with the spoils.  It is computed that already about three-quarters of a million dollars' worthy of oysters have been taken without any visible difference in the seemingly inexhaustible beds.  The oysters are nearly all above medium size, and many are very large -- fully up to those often exhibited in oyster saloon windows.  The flavor is equal to any oyster before planting, and they only want a few weeks with fresh water to be equal, if not superior, to any sold in the market."

Source:  A GREAT OYSTER DISCOVERY -- AN INEXHAUSTIBLE PLACER OF BIVALVES ON LONG ISLAND SHORE, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 1, 1859, p. 2, col. 2 (NOTE:  Paid subscription required to access via link).  

Oystermen Dredging in Long Island Sound in 1883.
Source: Harpers Weekly, Aug. 18, 1883.  NOTE:
Click on Image to Enlarge.

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The oystering industry was, for decades, a critically-important economic activity in the Town of Pelham.  Many residents of City Island made their living from the industry or ran businesses that catered to the oystermen.  Accordingly, I have written about Pelham oystering on many, many occasions.  See, e.g.:

Wed., Jun. 24, 2015:  The 1895 Oyster War Involving City Island Oystermen - Part I.

Thu., Jun. 25, 2015:  The 1895 Oyster War Involving City Island Oystermen - Part II.

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