Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Torben Jenk and Rich Remer, 2006. Compiled for the presentation “They’re In The River—Shad Tales” at the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center for the Second Annual Shad Watch, April 20, 2006.

First recorded mentions of shad fishing along the Delaware River in Gloucester and Salem counties, NJ. "Fenwick purchased a title when he came there he found a colony of Swedes...deed boundaries mention Dutch fisheries, was called Bouton, one was called the Fintown tract...Penn bought the estate of Fenwick...some of quitrents paid in shad."

"Shads are excellent fish and of the Bigness of our Carp: They are so plentiful, that Captain Smyth's Overseer at the Skulkil, drew 600 and odd at one Draught; 300 is no wonder; 100 familiarly. They are excellent Pickled or Smokt'd, as well as boyld fresh; they are caught by nets only."—William Penn.

Dalbow (Dalbo, Dahlbo?—many spellings of this Swedish name) fishery along Raccoon Creek. Dalbow fishermen still fishing in 1890.

Arguments and fights develop between fishermen up the Schuylkill river and the fishermen erecting weirs near the Perkiomen Creek / Valley Forge because few shad are getting past those weirs.

Mentions of shad for sale in Pennsylvania Gazette, often with Kensington byline

Richard Holcombe starts a shad fishery in the Delaware River on a small island off Lambertville, NJ. In 1881 William Lewis took it over and in 1896 the Lewis Fishery caught 10,000 shad. In 1949, they caught three. In 1953 and 1956 the catch was zero. In 1991, the catch was one roe shad and one buck shad. The Lewis Fishery continues in 2006 as the only commercial shad fishery along the Delaware using seine nets, run by William Lewis’s son, Fred, and his grandson, Steve Meserve, now hauling about 500 shad per year.

First U.S. Supreme Court case covers the jurisdiction of the shad fisheries between New Jersey & Pennsylvania, decides to respect the boundaries running down the middle of the Delaware River. Arguments continue about the line of the arc boundary of the State of Delaware into the river.

Gillnets outlawed for twenty years to reduce over-harvesting of shad.

Alexander Wilson, noted American ornithologist, classifies shad as Alosa Sappadissima—“shad most savory.”

Schuylkill Navigation Company builds the Shawmont and Reading dams closing the upper Schuylkill to shad migration.

Fairmount Dam built to power the Fairmount Water Works blocks the Schuylkill River to migrating fish.

Gas works built on the Lower Schuylkill, their heavy pollution is considered to cause the end of shad migration up the Schuylkill.

Gillnets allowed. Fishtown fishermen expand to the New Jersey side of the Delaware.

U.S., PA & NJ Fish & Game Commissions organized in part to regulate shad fishing. PA took responsibility for the Susquehanna River believing it to be a better shad fishery. NJ took responsibility for the Delaware River in part because most of the successful shad spawning grounds were on the east side (more unspoiled tributaries, less deforestation and lower water temperatures). Complaints arise against Kensington and Fishtown fishermen who ignore the regulating authorities in NJ by rowing away. These fisherman believe they have ancestral fishing rights along the Delaware River.

Shad fry successfully transplanted to the Pacific coast by Seth Green and thrive today from Alaska to Southern California. By 1925, the drop in shad populations in eastern rivers had become so drastic that two million pounds of Seth Green’s transplanted Alosa Sapadissima were being shipped east annually from California and sold as “fresh Atlantic shad.”

Thomas Eakins photographs shad fishermen at work and paints Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware and Mending the Net. In a case before the Gloucester County Circuit Court, Fitzgerald vs Faunce, mention is made of who controls the Delaware River fisheries - all five are Fishtown fishing families (Bennett, Cramp, Faunce, Gosser and Rice). Other noted 19th-cenury Fishtown fishing families include Baker, Bakeoven, Beideman, Collar, Hill, Hoffman, Moode, Pote and Scheetz. Note they are all of German descent and share a long history of intermarrying and are “all related.” A current phone book shows many of the ancestral names still living in Kensington and Fishtown.

Commercial fishermen are taking four million shad annually from the Delaware River, weighing about 16 million pounds, or one-third of the total shad catch on the Atlantic Coast.
First fishery propagation station (hatchery) established at Torresdale. The structures survive at the Baxter Water Plant and are used today to teach Philadelphia kids how to fish.

Annual Delaware River shad catch drops to three million pounds.

Last million pound haul of shad from the Delaware River.

Polluted, oxygen-starved waters off Philadelphia block fish migrations. Without shad to fish, many Fishtown fishermen join the other major industry along the Delaware waterfront in Kensington, shipbuilding, working for Cramp, Neafie & Levy or related suppliers. Cramp employs 15,000 during WWII.

“In August, 1955, came two hurricanes so close together that their eyes were almost like double yolks. Called Connie & Diane, they attacked and flooded eastern America... Exponentially gaining momentum on the way downstream, the waters plucked millions of pumpkins off the floodplains and spewed them like birdshot far into the Atlantic. When these same waters reached the filth and deep sludges of the pollution barrier at Philadelphia, they scoured them like a blown nose... The spring shad run came back significantly in 1960, and by 1962 the river was laced with anglers.”—John McPhee.

Juvenile (fry) shad are stocked in the Schuylkill by the PA Fish & Boat Commission. All hatchery-released fry are tagged for later study to see if stocking efforts are successful. The goal is for a spring run of 300,000-850,000 American shad supporting some 60,000-170,000 angler trips each and every year.

Ninety-one American Shad are counted swimming through the Fairmount Dam fish ladder, the highest number since recording began in 1979. A sample of 24 adult shad were collected at the Fairmount Dam and all had the fish tags, indicating that they originated from the hatchery. A total of 6,438 fish are counted swimming through the Fairmount Dam fish ladder, including twenty-two species, the most plentiful being 1,807 quillback and 1,816 channel catfish. Ten dams on the Schuylkill River once blocked shad migrations. Four will have fishways installed or improved including Fairmount (mile 9), Flat Rock (mile 15), Norristown (mile 21) and Black Rock (mile 37). Three dams are now or will be breached including Plymouth (mile 18), Vincent (mile 42) and Felix (mile 79). The three other dams will remain in place as part of de-silting projects upstream including Kernsville, Auburn, and Tamaqua.

Starting in March, members of the Delaware River Sports Fishermen’s Association report catching shad from Trenton to Easton. On April 4, 2006, the Lewis Fishery in Lambertville reported catching their first shad this season, one roe and five buck shad were hauled in.
Sightings of American and Hickory shad have been reported in the Schuylkill River.