By Seth Rolbein
Once upon a time there was a writer named Joseph Mitchell.
Mitchell came to New York City from a small town in swamp country North Carolina in 1929, 22 years old. He worked as a reporter for a handful of big-city papers for eight years, then landed at The New Yorker magazine, where he wrote groundbreaking long-form stories that helped define that publication, earning him a legendary reputation that lingers to this day among people who care about journalism.
Mitchell loved to hang on the waterfront and wrote amazing, detailed renditions of fishermen and fishing. Places we no longer associate with their watery origins – Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island — all were commercial fishing hubs akin to our fishing community.
So visiting Joseph Mitchell’s writing is a great way to appreciate the historic context in which our fleet still works.
Here’s one moment from a long piece called “The Bottom of the Harbor,” published 71 years ago in The New Yorker, 1951. Other Mitchell moments are about personalities, they’re amazing and maybe we’ll find a way to offer you one or two of those going forward. This one gives a great general sense of what was going on along the New York City waterfront nearly a century ago, and what fisheries meant to the Big Apple that some (like Mark Kurlansky) say should have been called the Big Oyster.
If a lot of this sounds familiar, even modern, that would make sense:
The fish and shellfish in the harbor and in the ocean just outside provide all or part of a living for about 1500 men who call themselves baymen. They work out of bays and inlets and inlets within inlets along the coasts of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens.
Some baymen clam on the public beds. Some baymen set eelpots. Some baymen set pound nets, or fish traps. Pound nets are strung from labyrinths of stakes in shoal areas, out of the way of the harbor traffic. Last year, during the shad summer herring and mossbunker migrations, 41 of them were set off the Staten Island coast, between Midland Beach and Great Kills, in an old oyster-bedding area.
Some baymen go out in draggers, or small trawlers, of which there are two fleets in the harbor. One fleet has 16 boats, and ties up at two shaky piers on Plumb Beach Channel, an inlet just east of Sheepshead Bay on the Brooklyn coast. The other has nine boats, and ties up alongside the quay on the west branch of Mill Basin, a three-branched inlet in the bulrush marshes in the Flatlands neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The majority of the men in both fleets are Italian-Americans, a few of whom in their youth fished out of the Sicilian ports of Palermo and Castellammare del Golfo. Some of them tack saints’ pictures and miraculous medals and scapular medals and little evil-eye amulets on the walls of their pilothouses. The amulets are in the shape of hunchbacks, goat horns, fists with two fingers upraised, and opened scissors; they come from stores on Mulberry Street and are made of plastic.
The harbor draggers range from 30 to 50 feet and carry two to five men. According to the weather and the season, they drag their baglike nets in the Lower Bay or in a fishing ground called the Mud Hole, which lies south of Scotland and Ambrose lightships and is about 15 miles long and five to 10 miles wide. The Mud Hole is the upper part of the Old Hudson River Canyon, which was the bed of the river 20,000 years ago, when the river flowed 125 miles past what is now Sandy Hook before it reached the ocean. The draggers catch lower-depth and bottom feeders, chiefly whiting, butterfish, ling, cod, porgy, fluke and flounder. They go out around 4 am and return around 4 pm, and their catches are picked up by trucks and taken to Fulton Market.
Some baymen set lines of lobster pots. In days gone by, there was a bountiful stock of lobsters in the harbor. Between 1915 and 1920, owing to pollution and overfishing and the bootlegging of berries, which are egg-carrying lobsters, and shorts and crickets, which are undersized lobsters, the stock began dwindling at a rapid rate.
As late as 1920, 45 lobstermen were still working the Upper Bay, the Narrows, and the Lower Bay. They ran out of seven inlets in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and their buoys dipped and danced all the way from the State of Liberty to the Hook. Every year in the 1920s, a few of them either dropped out for good or bought bigger boats and forsook the bays and started setting pots out beyond the three-mile limit, in the harbor approaches.
By 1930, only one lobsterman of any importance, Sandy Cuthbert, of Prince’s Bay, continued to work the bays. In the fall of that year, at the close of the season, Mr. Cuthbert took up his pots – he had 250 – and stacked them on the bank of Lemon Creek, an inlet of Prince’s Bay, and went into the rowboat-rental and fish bait business. His pots are still there, rotting; generations of morning-glory and wild-hop vines are raveled in their slats and hold them together.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the lobsters began coming back, and divers say that now there are quite a few nests in the Upper Bay and many nests in the Lower Bay. However, they are still too scarce and scattered to be profitable. Sometimes, while repairing cables or pipelines on the bottom in part of the Lower Bay where the water is clear and the visibility is good, divers turn over rocks and pieces of waterlogged driftwood and lobsters scuttle out and the divers pick them up and put them in the tool sacks hooked to their belts.
At present, there are nine lobster boats working out of the harbor – six out of Plumb Beach; two out of Ulmer Park, on the Gravesend Bay; and one out of Coney Island Creek. They are of the sea-skiff type. They range from 26 to 28 feet, they are equipped with gasoline engines that are strong enough for much bigger boats, and, except for canvas spray hoods, they are open to the weather.
The men on these boats are Scandinavians and Italians. They set the pots in a section of the Mud Hole southeast of Ambrose Lightship where the water in most places is over 100 feet deep. They use the trawl method, in which the pots are hung at intervals from thick, tarred lines half a mile long; as a rule, 35 pots are hung from each line. The lines are buoyed at both ends with bundles of old, discarded ferryboat life preservers, which the lobstermen buy from a ship chandler in Fulton Market, who buys them from the Department of Marine and Aviation. Once a day, the lines are lifted, and each pot is pulled up and emptied of lobsters and chewed-up bait and stray crabs and fish, and rebaited with three or four dead mossbunkers (editor’s note: what we’d call menhaden). The coastwise and South American shipping lanes cross the lobster grounds in the Mud Hole, and every now and then a ship plows into a line and tears it loose from its buoys. Dump scows with rubbish from the city sometimes unload on the grounds and foul the lines and bury the pots.
Mud Hole lobsters are as good as Maine lobsters; they can’t be told apart. Some are sold to knowledgeable Brooklyn housewives who drive down to the piers in the middle of the afternoon, when the boats come in, and take their pick, but more are sold to Brooklyn restaurants. A boat working seven lines, which is the average, often comes in with around 250 pounds.
From “The Bottom of the Harbor,” published as a New Yorker magazine piece in 1951, included in a collection of Joseph Mitchell stories called “Up in the Old Hotel” published by Pantheon Books in 1992.