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.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fishing in Pelham Bay During the Early 1890s

It was shades of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."  Internationally-acclaimed American actor William J. "Billy" Florence was in a small boat off the Pelham shores in October, 1890.  He was with John "Jack" Elliot who operated "Elliot's" hotel and bar at the Pelham Bridge near the settlement of Bartow.  The two men were fishing on a boat anchored in waters not far from Pelham Bridge.

Billy Florence hooked a monster.  He set the hook and the fight began.  Almost immediately the giant fish broke the surface and made a run directly at the small boat.  Neither man could believe it.  It was a giant striped bass that weighed at least thirty-five pounds.  Elliot looked at Florence and shouted "It's the old grandfather!  How many feet of line have you?"

"Six hundred" replied Billy Florence.  Jack Elliot immediately took out his knife and cut the anchor rope, setting the boat free to drift with the fish as the brutal battle began.  The monster striped bass pulled the little boat every which way as the fish struggled to escape.  

The bass tugged the little boat more than a mile into Long Island Sound.  The two men fought the monster for two hours before finally landing it in the boat, their second big striped bass of the day!  They then brought the monster "back in triumph" to Elliot's near Bartow.  According to one account:

"Talk about a barbecue!  It was nothing compared to this fish feast.  Events at [Bartow] are dated from the time they served two big bass swimming in champagne."

Billy Florence was merely one of hundreds and hundreds of the rich and famous who fished the waters of Pelham and enjoyed the resorts around Pelham Bridge and City Island during the 19th century.  Indeed, the infamous politician William M. "Boss" Tweed hosted clambakes on Pelham shores and enjoyed the waters of Eastchester and Pelham Bays before being jailed for corruption.  Even the Sheriff who jailed Boss Tweed enjoyed fishing and dining at the resorts in Pelham.   

Today's Historic Pelham article paints a picture of what it was like to fish the waters of Pelham and to enjoy its resorts in 1893, shortly before New York City annexed Pelham Bay Park, City Island, Hunter's Island, and other islands off the shores of the Town.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Pelham was a destination resort not only for wealthy New Yorkers, but also for blue collar workers and the middle class who lived in New York City and the surrounding region.  There were a host of hotels and resorts near Pelham Bridge and on City Island.  The waters of Eastchester Bay, Pelham Bay, and Long Island Sound teemed with game fish including striped bass, bluefish, snappers, weakfish, sea bass, flounders, and many, many others.

By the early 1890s, two local entrepreneurs had made names for themselves by serving fishermen of the region.  Indeed, it was said at the time that each day the fish of Long Island Sound reported each morning to these two men before locating in local waters for the day.  The two men were John "Jack" Elliot of Elliot's at Pelham Bridge and Fred Wesselmann who operated Wesselmann's at the foot of Main Street on City Island.  Both men rented boats, rods, and equipment.  Both also sold bait and tackle.  Both knew all there was to know about fishing the waters of Long Island Sound in the region.

I have written before about William John Elliott (known variously as John, Johnny, and Jack) who operated the Pelham Bridge Hotel known as "Elliott's" during the 1890s.  See, e.g.:

Fri., Jul. 29, 2016:  Shooting Death at the Grand View Hotel at Pelham Bridge in 1892.

Tue., Aug. 02, 2016:  More Research Regarding the 19th Century Grand View Hotel at Pelham Bridge.

Wed., May 17, 2017:  More on the History of the Pelham Bridge Hotel that Burned Down on October 28, 1882 (Noting that "in the years after the actual Pelham Bridge Hotel burned, the Grand View Hotel managed by William John Elliott frequently was referenced as the 'Pelham Bridge Hotel.'").

By 1893, Elliott's (occasionally spelled as Elliot's) had become the focus of anglers from throughout the region.  There the cream of society rubbed elbows with the common man, all enjoying the hospitality of the proprietor before or after a lovely day of fishing.  In one account published in 1893, a reporter breathlessly described the notables he saw when he visited Elliott's for a day of fishing in the waters off Pelham:

"At that table over in the corner are Superintendent Newell, of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and Ed Wilbur, the general manager.  They have been fishing, and are now dining upon their catch, a striped bass and two weakfish.  Near by sits Congressman Raines, of Rochester; Harry Childs, Harry Purdy of the Metropole; Assistant District Attorney McIntyre and William F. Howe of Howe & Hummel.  Down below in the anchored small boats are the rest, and a half mile away, lying in the cove like a swan resting in flight, sits the white steam yacht of Mr. Arthur Claflin, o H. B. Claflin & Co."

Each Sunday, it seems, was the big Sunday for fishing.  Trains coming from New Rochelle and beyond joined trains coming from New York City to dump sportsmen -- and, according to one account, a few sportswomen -- at Bartow Station.  There the rickety horse-drawn trolley cars took those who wished to City Island.  Those who headed to Elliott's at Pelham Bridge had to walk from Bartow Station along Shore Road to get there.  

An article about fishing off the shores of Pelham published in the New York Herald on October 8, 1893 provided not only descriptions of what it was like to fish near Pelham at the time, but also included a rare depiction of Elliott's hotel at Pelham Bridge.  The text of the article is transcribed in its entirety below, with all images that were published with the article also included below.

Some of the sportsmen who fished in the area in 1893 reportedly had "not missed a Sunday in the fishing season for thirty years."  Others arrived on Saturday night and fished through the night and the entire following day until the last train on Sunday night departed and then went "to work on Monday morning as though nothing had happened."  

Each Sunday, small boats crowded the waters off the shores filled with fishermen.  The shores and bridges also were lined with fishermen trying their luck as well.  Some, according to the New York Herald, had some of the best fishing tackle then available with outfits that cost "hundreds" of dollars.  Meanwhile, others used homemade rods and hand lines and caught many fish as well.

The New York Herald article describing fishing off the shores of the Town of Pelham in 1893, quoted in full below, makes fascinating reading for students of Pelham history.  It is well worth a read.

*          *          *          *          *

All Manner of Men Who Make Sunday Pilgrimages to City Island and Bartow for Sport.
The Rocks Where Tweed Held Clambakes When He Was the King of New York Politics.

THERE are no vacant seats on the Sunday morning trains which leave the Harlem depot for points along the Sound.  Sunday is fisherman's day, and the mechanic who works six days at the lathe, if he loves to angle, goes to Bartow or City Island, does the hardest and healthiest work of the week and returns at night to his city home refreshed and with more or less fish.  He doesn't mingle with autocrats of the rod and reel -- men whose outfits cost hundreds of dollars and would scorn any kind of a reel but a German silver four time multiplier.

He rubs shoulders with other mechanics and clerks who come to this fishing ground of the people with curious homemade rods, hand lines and rods that are not rods at all -- simply poles.  They all come with the fishing fever burning deep within them.  Their conversations are brimming over with bait, tackle and wonderful catches.  They are honest fishermen, with nothing against them except their motto, which is to pull a fish out of the water quickly -- any way -- get him at all hazards, even if you have to hit him with a club.

1893, Third Section, p. 9, cols. 4-5.  NOTE:  Click on
Image to Enlarge.


There are men going up to City Island and Bartow to-day who have not missed a Sunday in the fishing season for thirty years; there are men who have been known to go up on Saturday night and fish right through until the last train on Sunday night and then go to work on Monday morning as though nothing had happened.

Why do they go?

Because I believe there is born in every human being a love for nature.  Because in twenty-five minutes they are under green trees, walking past apple orchards, along shady roads, where the breezes of the sea sweep softly.  They are away from the interminable rows of stone and piles of bricks; from stuffy rooms and pavements radiating with heat.  Isn't that reason enough?


The fishing fleet of these waters is divided into two sections.  There is one at Bartow and another at City Island.  When they speak of Bartow they say 'Over the bridge to Elliot's.'  Over the bridge is an even six mile drive along the picturesque Westchester road from the Harlem River.

It is Pelham Park, one of the most beautiful places of land in the State.  It is a city park and is patrolled by mounted Park police.  It is to Bartow the big men come and mingle with the others -- lawyers, bankers, politicians and men whose names are up near the top in the city's roster.  They ignore the trains.  They drive up to this place.

Take a glimpse at the great porch of Elliot's looking Soundward, and you will be surprised.

At that table over in the corner are Superintendent Newell, of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and Ed Wilbur, the general manager.  They have been fishing, and are now dining upon their catch, a striped bass and two weakfish.

Near by sits Congressman Raines, of Rochester; Harry Childs, Harry Purdy of the Metropole; Assistant District Attorney McIntyre and William F. Howe of Howe & Hummel.  Down below in the anchored small boats are the rest, and a half mile away, lying in the cove like a swan resting in flight, sits the white steam yacht of Mr. Arthur Claflin, o H. B. Claflin & Co.  Some day this property of the city will be made easy of access, and then -- then places further away will be the losers and the people will crowd to the city's banquet of beautiful surroundings, fresh air, pure water and wild flowers.


Tweed came here when he was in the heyday of his power and glory, and he brought his henchmen with him.  Upon the wave washed rocks they had their clambakes and talked of things which it might be interesting to know of now.

Later ex-sheriff William C. Conner, the man who had Tweed in his keeping after the great politician had been found out, was wont to drive along the Westchester road behind his matchless team of bays with coachman in front and tiger behind.  He never went further than 'across the bridge to Elliot's.'  He and his friends stirred up the dead ashes of the Tweed crowd which the indulgent wind had left on the rocks, builded [sic] new fires over the heaps of moist clams and began where Tweed left off.

Both men -- the dishonest and the honest -- are dead and gone.  But others of the old days still come, bake clams on the rocks, tell stories well worth space in any book and then go cityward [sic] to take up the battle of finance or politics.  Sheriff Conner's bays have taken his place and are following in the footsteps of the father.  Frank handles the ribbons over a fine horse; George makes his pilgrimage with rod and reel.  So it goes.

If rocks could talk, if the waters would only give up secrets, if the air would receive impressions which could be returned, what intensely interesting reading the open book of the past would make!

1893, Third Section, p. 9, cols. 4-5.  NOTE:  Click on
Image to Enlarge.


The fishing!  Under that iron bridge which leads to Elliot's the waters of the sound rush in with the flood and out with the ebb as if they were always trying to catch up.  In this cove the weakfish come and the striped bass -- the gentleman king of the salt water.

Around those rocks which are the foundations of the bridge lurk the sharp blackfish, who run like rats for rocky coverts the moment the hook is felt.  A few inches below the surface of the incoming tide are the young bluefish -- snappers, locally -- twisting and turning and rushing, more voracious by far than their parents, biting at anything.  But they are sharp and they can fight, and you have to know a thing or two before you can get a two-pounder into your boat.  They are the acrobats of the sea -- the ground a lofty tumblers.

It was here that Tom Murrey, caterer now for the Congressional restaurant in Washington and fishing mate of Mayor Gilroy, ex-Sheriff Flack and the late Billy Florence, used to come.  It was here he 'struck' a thirty-five pound striped bass, October three years ago.  Jack Elliot was in the boat with him at the time.

The bass broke water coming toward the boat.  

'It's the old grandfather!' yelled Jack.  'How many feet of line have you?'

'Six hundred.'

Jack took out his knife and cut the anchor rope. 

It was a two hours' fight and was ended out in the Sound, a mile away.  They brought the monster back in triumph.

Talk about a barbecue!  It was nothing compared to this fish feast.  Events at Barton [sic] are dated from the time they served two big bass swimming in champagne.

Oct. 8, 1893, Third Section, p. 9, cols. 4-5.  NOTE:  Click on
Image to Enlarge.

Meanwhile the fellows with the home made rods and hand lines are fishing away for dear life over at City Island.  

With the flavor of this last story you can drive over there -- going directly through Pelham Park.  

A few warning notices -- stereotyped ones of the Park Commissioners -- are stuck up here and there.  But everything is so free, apparently, and wild, that no one thinks of abusing Mother Nature's hospitality.  The route from the one place to the other lies past beautiful forests of giant chestnuts and oaks, a quaint little brick church, which looks as if it might have been cut from the frame of an Italian painting, and past fields yellow with golden rod, with dashes of color here and there.

There are horse cars from the depot to City Island, cars pulled by one horse, which run on a rocky pair of tracks and give one a slight touch of mal de mer.  You go past woodland nooks with dusky recesses, and ponds bordered with bull frogs, blinking their eyes out in placid contentment, until you reach the settlement -- the grocery store, the shoe shop and the agent's office.  A wooden bridge, about three hundred feet long, connects the island with the mainland.

You are among the fishermen -- men who will sit in a boat all day with nothing to eat or drink but a bottle of beer and a sandwich.  The bridge is lined with them.  The water, looked at generally, is a polka dot figure of boats.

Here are blackfish, flounders, a few bass and that favorite of the New England coast, the tom-cod.  Twenty boats and all let.  It is a good Sunday this, although the fish are not running large.

At the foot of Main street, on the island proper, is Fred Wesselmann's.  They say he was anchored in a boat somewhere around Bartow before there ever was such a thing as City Island, but no one believes he is quite as old as that.  But he knows a thing or two besides selling bait and renting boats.  

'Weakfish?' he reiterates in response to a customer's query.  'Very slow.  See that big rock over there, about half a mile out!  Well, anchor there and use soft crabs.'

Tom Murrey once said that the fish in the sound used to come up every morning and report to Jack Elliot and Fred Wesselmann before locating for the day.

Out here on the west shore the boats are full; lines are radiating into the water from every conceivable angle.  And they are all kinds of lines, too, from the linen line, which cost from seventy-five cents to $1, to the cotton twine, which is sold by the ball.

They are all -- the goods ones, I mean -- looking for striped bass, and they fish for his kingship with remarkable persistency [sic].


The day is about done.  The tide is running out like a boy who is afraid of a whipping.  The fishermen are coming in and weighing their catches.  They never go back from here empty handed.  A few of the more economical ones set out on the long trudge to the depot, but it is a beautiful road and it doesn't seem long to them.  The others crowd into the cars.  They all meet at the depot -- a jolly, sun scorched crowd.  A few women are sprinkled about among the men, with their arms full of golden rod.  Everybody is good natured.  There is no drunkenness.

The train coming around the upper curve from New Rochelle shrieks out a hoarse warning to a few who have wandered on the track.  There is a general scrambling and picking up of baskets, a gathering together of rods and nets and other paraphernalia.  Then comes a rush for seats in the cars; the gong rings.  Vale, City Island and Bartow -- until next Sunday.

1893, Third Section, p. 9, cols. 4-5.  NOTE:  Click on
Image to Enlarge.


Along the Sound the fall fishing is just beginning.  The bass, sea and striped, are running up slowly.  The blackfish, averaging about three-quarters of a pound, are numerous, and the flounders run small.  In the Sound proper, outside of the coves, there are plenty of weakfish, and bass can be picked up in a morning's fishing without much trouble if the right kind of bait and tackle is used.  The spring fishing was poor; the midsummer is a poor time to put a line in the water.  What fishermen are praying for now is cool weather.  That will bring the bass along lively.  September and October are considered the best months in the year for fishing along the Sound.  It is always fair in the coves of Pelham Bay on the incoming tide.  Outside, around the rocks, where the water runs swiftest, or in channels, the bass lie in wait for prey.  The acrobatic snappers are larger, too, out in the free water.

Within the past few years City Island has been pretty well built up.  Modern houses are set in between the old fashioned houses, and the swell trap of the city man gives all the dust to the seasoned fishermen plodding along the road.

It is an island of boats.  They are in evidence from the swelling cat to the humble dingey [sic] with the flat bottom and the snub nose -- the kind of which it has been said they were built by the mile and cut off in lengths to suit.  It is almost safe to say there is not a human being on the island who does not either own a boat or have an interest in one."

Source:  FISHERMEN OF PELHAM BAY, N.Y. Herald, Oct. 8, 1893, Third Section, p. 9, cols. 4-5.

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.

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