Fishtown and the Shad Fisheries
by Rich Remer
Fishtown’s name, according to popular understanding of the origins of neighborhood names in Philadelphia, is supposed to derive from a visit paid by Charles Dickens to the nei ghborhood in March, 1842. The Philadelphia Inquirer claimed Dickensian roots for the name back in 1978, in an article entitled, “Naming City’s Neighborhoods: A Dickens of a Task.” However, no such visit to Fishtown appears in Dickens’s journals, memoirs or notebooks, and in fact, the most likely explanation of the neighborhood’s name was the simple fact that for generations it was the center of the great shad fisheries of the Delaware River estuary.
The American shad is the largest member of the herring family of anadromous fish, meaning those species that, as adults, return to spawn in the river of their birth. In 1811, naturalist Alexander Wilson, who must have appreciated the American fish, gave it the highly descriptive Latin name Alosa sapidissima, which translates to “tastiest shad” in English. Among fisherman and gourmets, American shad was popularly called, “the poor man’s salmon” in recognition of both its abundance and superb flavor. Shad was once the second most popular fish in the United States, after cod.
Although the American shad ranges from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, its prime breeding ground was the Delaware River estuary. After 3 to 5 years maturing in the Atlantic Ocean, shad returned (like salmon) to the freshwater, usually arriving, depending to some extent on the temperature of the water, anywhere from late April to early June. The magnitude of the spawning runs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century shad schools in America was legendary. In the spring of 1778, for instance, the rich shad runs in the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge probably saved the lives of many Continental soldiers, men who had been reduced to eating boiled boots over the long winter.
Little was recorded about the shad runs and fishing practices of the earliest years. Most of what we know about early shad fishing survived in oral traditions or indirectly in other sources. The Lenape Indians made shad one of the major foods of their summer diet, aligning their summer settlements to coincide with “shad wallows,” places along the river where tributaries emptying into the river created the turbulence the shad needed for successful fertilization. The Lenape wove netting from tall sedge grasses and used brush nets to herd fish schools into weirs, where they could easily be speared.
The early Dutch and Swedish settlers along the Delaware adopted these Lenape methods, setting up the earliest organized shad fisheries in Salem County, New Jersey. During the colonial period, the Schuylkill River emerged as the richest shad fishing ground in the region, particularly in the area around Manayunk. But the construction of dams at Shawmont and Reading in 1818 and at Fairmount Dam in 1820–21, and the failure of the Schuylkill Navigation Company to provide the planned fishways for migrating shad effectively ended the Schuylkill spawning runs.
While denying millions of returning fish access to their spawning river, people along the Philadelphia rivers also began to use gill nets to increase their harvest. Developed in the early 1800s, gill nets allow fishermen to fish farther away from shore, not needing to trap quantities of fish against bends in the shoreline. The shore fisheries had been subject to sale, lease, and property regulations, providing some controls on how many fish were caught each season. But the availability of gill nets and the opportunity to fish in the middle of the river threw shad fishing open to all, encouraging a free-for-all harvest. It couldn’t last forever, but while it did last, Delaware River shad fishing supported a thriving, prosperous, and tightly knit neighborhood along the shoreline.
Like other commercial fishermen in nineteenth-century America, the Kensington “shadders” tended to cling together, intermarry, and live in the same neighborhood, often for generations. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the families of Fishtown had gradually bought or leased the shore fisheries of the lower Delaware River estuary and by mid-century they controlled the catch. Marketing the shad was a separate operation, handled by the fish merchants of the Dock Street Marker or elsewhere whom they chose to dispose of their catch.
The industrialist Charles H. Cramp, himself the descendant of one of these old fishing families, described the experience in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, March 7, 1909. Cramp explained,
The term Fishtown was first applied to a corner of the triangle of Old Kensington between Cherry [Berks] Street and Gunner’s Run [Aramingo Avenue] and from both sides of Old Point Road [Richmond Street] to the river, where the shore fishermen lived. These were generally the proprietors of large shad fisheries in the Delaware, and used large nets employed in extensive spaces away from the channel where large numbers of shad were feeding.
An earlier memoir from 1850 adds detail to Cramp’s account.
The first settlers of Fishtown were the Bakers, Bakeovens (or Bakoven as the name was originally), Bennets, Collars, Cramps, Faunces, Potes, Tees, and Tuttles. These families intermarried and there is not a long-time resident here that is not of the posterity of one of the above. Speak to one of the other or one of these inhabitants concerning any of the other folks, he will give their family history. Those born or residing in this jurisdiction are very proud of their Fishtown and will not tolerate any other portion of Kensington as belonging to it. They are a clannish set but good-natured.
The men are nearly all fishermen, plying their vocation on the Delaware River and neighboring creeks. Each had his ‘gillen [gillling] skiff’ or sloop which when in port was moored to the docks adjacent to the Kensington Water Works [foot of Otis Street, now Susquehanna Avenue], with a ‘live-box’ afloat astern, nearly filled with ‘catties’. . . The docks were a veritable fishmarket with numerous skiffs and catboats. Purchasers would come to the wharf and make their purchases, the ‘catties’ and eels being skinned in their presence thus guaranteeing fresh fish.
Their dwellings were mostly built of wood, with a large yard, containing a garden, the fences freshly whitewashed, and the walls of their kitchens bedecked with tinware . . . In nearly every square, there resided a ‘smoker’ whose business it was to smoke the shad or herring brought to him by the fishermen, to be stored for winter use.
The spring of the year was always a busy times for the fisherfolks, for during the winter the seines and nets were repaired, and the toms (buoys fastened to an end of a seine or net) painted. Now the buddies banded together to fish for shad in common, for it requires some brawn to row a gilling skiff and pay-out or haul in the seine with fish; nor was there much comfort connected therewith when fishing offshore, standing in water up to the hips in the months of April and May.
The state legislatures of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware tried to regulate fishery affairs but never with much success. Pennsylvania’s attention always seemed to be focused on the Susquehanna River, leaving affairs on the Delaware to New Jersey by default. The Minutes of the Commissioners of the New Jersey Fisheries echo with repeated complaints about offenders from Pennsylvania who defied the Jersey wardens and their regulations, boasting that no Jersey law could prevent their activities on the Delaware.
In the 5th Annual Report (1875) of the Commissioners of New Jersey, it was noted, “to Pennsylvania, it is especially important that the fishing interest of the River Delaware should be fostered and protected, since all the valuable shore fisheries on both sides of the river from Trenton Falls to Delaware Bay, save one, are owned or fished by her citizens, chiefly of Kensington.” Indeed by 1875, the approximately 30 fisheries in that 100-mile stretch were controlled directly or indirectly by five major fishery families of the neighborhood: the Bennetts, Cramps, Faunces, Gossers, and Rices. Despite improved state legislation and regulation, and a massive program of artificial propagation of shad stock in the late 1800s, the shad fishery eventually collapsed under the combined pressures of overfishing, pollution and environmental degradation. Many of the fishermen who were left found work, at least for a time, in Kensingtons’ shipyards. After peaking in the early 1900s, the Delaware River shad fishery has now dwindled to one operating commercial establishment, the Lewis Fishery of Lambertville, New Jersey, and Fishtown’s glorious shad seasons are forever gone.
Rudolph J. Walther, Happenings in Ye Olde Philadelphia 1680–1900 (Philadelphia: Walther Print house, 1925), pp. 147–149.
This article first appeared in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s “Pennsylvania Legacies, Volume 2, Number 2, November 2002.”