Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Recalling when oyster boats ruled Delaware Bay

Clyde Phillips, who was a waterman and his father was a waterman, in the area of Bivalve, NJ, shares stories about what it was like in the heyday of the oyster trade in South Jersey
Michael Bryant/Inquirer photographer.

Jacqueline R. Urgo writes for

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.

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