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When oyster boats ruled Delaware Bay and Port Norris was N.J.’s wealthiest town

The Bayshore Center at Bivalve invites the community to storytelling sessions to share memories, anecdotes and recollections about life along New Jersey's Delaware Bay shore.

BIVALVE, N.J. -- When they look out over the languid Maurice River these days, Joan Riggin Harper and Clyde Phillips can still see the regatta of sorts that used to appear each Sunday afternoon, when hundreds of wooden boats would be under sail, racing out of the mouth of the river to get to oyster beds in the Delaware Bay to begin the work week of harvesting the shellfish.

"It was a beautiful sight ... all those boats and sails on the river.  I don't even have to close my eyes to still see it," said Harper, 93, of Upper Deerfield, as she stood on the docks of what is now the Bayshore Center at Bivalve. The site was once the center of a thriving maritime industry in which her family played a key role in the early 1900s.

"We'd hop in the car and go to Gandy's Beach and wait to see Dad's boat pass by Ship John Light. We didn't care about seeing any other boat, though, we just wanted to see Dad's pretty bugeye go by," said Harper, recalling her childhood along the bay shore in Cumberland County in the 1920s and 1930s, during the heyday of New Jersey's once-lucrative oyster industry.

"It was an amazing thing to see," agreed Phillips, 83, of Mauricetown. "New Jersey boats had four corner sails, and they looked pretty under sail."

"I always say that around here, people were defined by their boats, and many boats were defined by their people," he said.

For more than two hours, they talked of people and things that are long gone -- eccentric teachers they had in school, a factory that produced rope made of salt hay harvested from the surrounding marshland, how boats got their sometimes unusual names, the thriving grocery stores and small shops that sold ladies' finery and men's haberdashery in Port Norris.

The memories came in fragments for the pair, who are among a cadre of lifelong residents invited by the Bayshore Center to share in storytelling sessions, held at least twice a year. The sessions -- members of the public are invited to participate -- help the museum record oral histories about the people and places that created a unique maritime culture in the region, according to Rachel Dolhanczyk, a spokeswoman for the museum.

And while the streets of this tiny fishing village and neighboring Port Norris and Mauricetown -- where most of the oyster boat captains and their crews lived -- were then paved in crushed clam shells, for a time they may as well have been paved in gold.

So lucrative was the oyster industry in Cumberland County -- and there were so many millionaires per square mile cashing in on the shellfish -- that Port Norris was the wealthiest municipality per capita in the state and was among the top ones in the country during the early 20th century. Now, Port Norris is among the poorest towns in the most impoverished county in New Jersey.

Remnants of that heyday survive in the unique collection of 19th century buildings -- many paint-chipped and boarded up -- that line Port Norris's once-thriving Main Street, boasting ornate details like the carved gingerbread porches and woodwork facades found in Cape May.

The oyster industry flourished -- producing more than a million bushels a year -- until the 1950s, when a blight caused by a parasitic protozoan known as MSX killed off most of the shellfish beds.

Science and shellfish management have helped New Jersey's oyster harvest recover slowly over the ensuing decades, to what is now a kind of boutique fishery that supplies about 72,000 bushels of oysters annually.

"You can just learn so much more about a history and a culture by listening to the stories of the people who were there, who remember it," Dolhanczyk said. "And that's why it's so important for us to preserve this valuable resource through our recordings. These are memories and recollections about a time and a place that you won't find in a history book."

In a recent session, Harper, Phillips, and members of the audience of about a dozen people exchanged recollections about the way things once were in what is now a rural, windswept corner of New Jersey where ramshackle, used-to-be-type buildings seem to be more plentiful than people.

Dolhanczyk wanted participants to share stories specifically about the boats and the "characters" that lived and worked in the region.

A previous session brought out more than three dozen people to talk about the rum-running that went on in the area during Prohibition.

Phillips said he recalled that as a child -- even after Prohibition had been repealed -- there were as many as 52 speakeasies in homes and businesses in the immediate area.

"This was a dry area; there weren't any restaurants and bars, and a lot of people didn't have cars like they do now to drive to places where they could get liquor," Phillips said. "So all these little speakeasies and drinking clubs were all around. Once cars became a regular thing and everybody had one, the speakeasies all dried up."

Mark Allen, 63, of Cape May, who came to the center's recent storytelling session to hear Phillips and Harper speak, shared his own family history with the crowd when he talked of how his matriarchal great-great-grandmother -- whose name he has not been able to ascertain -- was said to have come ashore along the Maurice River in a shipwreck in the late 1800s inside a hogshead. Hogsheads were large wooden casks used to transport goods on ships.

Allen said the story goes that she had refused to marry a man in Ireland to whom she had been betrothed, and was secretly stowed inside the hogshead by her friends with enough food and water to make the journey across the sea to America. But the ship was wrecked in a storm on Delaware Bay, and its cargo and survivors were strewn along the shore of the Maurice River, where a scavenger -- who would become Allen's great-great-grandfather -- rescued the young maiden and eventually married her.

"There are so many stories that when you hear them, they bring other stories full circle for people who have deep connections to this area," said Allen. "I think it's important that people learn about these stories, these connections, so they can have a better understanding of the important history of this part of New Jersey."

Dolhanczyk said the Bayshore Center plans to have another storytelling session in a few months. In the meantime, the nonprofit organization that works to inspire the public to preserve the history and culture of New Jersey's so-called Bayshore region operates its museum and folklife center and its restored 1928 oyster schooner, the A.J. Meerwald, the state's official tall ship.

More information about the Bayshore Center at Bilvalve may be obtained at or by calling 856-785-2060.