Here to return to
THE FISH AND THE FISHERMEN
ONE of the few breaks in the mighty wall of the Palisades is Alpine Gorge, directly across the river from Yonkers. Here a road makes a steep zigzag up to the summit of the cliff. By the shore are a few scattered dwellings, all small, and some of them merely one-room shacks that serve as shelters for the fishermen during the spring run of the shad. The vicinity was especially charming at the time of my visit, when the new leafage was bedecking the rocky slope with its tender green, and the wild apple trees were here and there blushing full of bloom, and an occasional dogwood with its scattering of big white blossoms like a fragment of a snowstorm, brightened the woodland.
Among the dwellings at Alpine Gorge I observed particularly a little white-washed cabin with a bunch of big willows in front of it reaching out over the water and shadowing a slender wharf that had a rowboat fastened at the end. The house looked quite idyllic at a short remove, but in the near view its shabbiness was decidedly too apparent. The family living in it included numerous children, several of whom attended school on the upland. The schoolhouse was a long distance away by the road, but the children had discovered short cuts that enabled them to get there in about twenty minutes. The woman of the house seemed to think that the environment of their home was on the whole rather agreeable. “But it’s pretty bad here in the middle of winter,” she acknowledged, “and it is too hot sometimes in summer. Usually, though, on the hot days there’s a breeze, we’re so near the water, and we have the shade of the rocks in the afternoon.”
Under a clump of bushes was a hen-coop with a brood of young chickens running about near it, and I asked if the wild creatures that inhabited the untamed surroundings did not make havoc with the poultry.
“No,” she responded, “they don’t bother us much, and I think it’s because we don’t offer to harm them. If we went to shooting ‘em, they’d come and carry off our chickens just out of revenge. We have foxes and skunks and mink and rabbits along here, and every year a pair of eagles builds a nest up on one of the crags. I see the eagles every morning and night as they go and come. We ought to have twelve chickens; but the dog ate two of the eggs. That’s why he’s tied up.”
The oldest dwelling in the group by the shore is a colonial house of humble type in which Cornwallis is reputed to have stopped at one time. Immediately behind it is the abrupt slope of shattered fragments that in the course of ages have broken from the cliff towering over all the scene. The disintegration still goes on, and within a few rods of the old house is a forty-ton bowlder that rolled down a few years ago from near the top of the cliff. “It was in the month of April,” explained a local resident, “and about seven in the evening. There must have been ice in the cracks of the cliff, and the heat that day made the ice expand and loosened a great mass of rock. You’d have thought from the noise that the whole mountain was coming down. The only person in the house was a woman, and she was a lucky bird, for she was so scared she didn’t dare stir. If she’d run out, some of the stones would most likely have hit her. That big one just missed the house and a smaller one jammed half-way through the kitchen wall and is there yet. Look up at the cliff and notice all those yaller places. Pieces have dropped away there in recent years and the weather hasn’t had time to turn the surface gray. Spring is the time when most of ‘em loosen. Let a stranger come and camp by the shore at that season, and he hears the rocks dropping all night. It makes him nervous. He gets up in the morning and looks at the cliff and says, ‘I guess I’ll get out of here.’”
Shad fishermen starting out with their net
The man whom I have quoted was mending a shad net hung over some low poles. “The shad ain’t running very good this year,” he said. “This river is getting played out for shad fishing; but I seen the time when fishing here at Alpine was quite a business, and all the men around made a living at it. Now they only put in a few weeks while the shad run lasts, and then they work out. We can’t make enough to earn our salt. I had an uncle who used to clear a thousand or two thousand dollars every year shad fishing. He had eight men working for him. They’d get a boat load at every haul those days — get so many they d be tired of handling ‘em. The fish were sold for four or five dollars a hundred, but the fishermen then did much better at that price than we do selling for from twenty-five to seventy-five cents apiece. I don’t know what has happened to the shad. Probably the sewers that discharge into the river from the towns and cities are a good deal to blame; for shad are clean water fish, you know, and can’t live in foul water. Then there’s the carp that have been brought from Germany and put into the Hudson. They’re always nosing around the bottom, and I understand that they eat the shad’s eggs. Those carp have increased very fast, and they grow to be big fish, too. One was ketched here last year that weighed twenty-eight pounds. But they have a coarse, rank flesh, and a good many people won’t eat ‘em.”
The fishermen along shore are on the lookout for the first arrival of shad as soon as the chill of the ice is out of the river. A few days of warm south wind, in the early part of April, suffice to start them on their migration from the sea up the river, while a cold north wind will as quickly send them back. The appearance of the vanguard of the unnumbered host of migrating shad is promptly heralded by the newspapers, and the tidings are telegraphed from one end of the Hudson to the other. When the fish go up the river they are in prime condition; but when they return a few weeks later, after spawning, they are poor and thin.
The demand for shad has grown with the increase of population and improved facilities for shipping them to a distance. Not many years ago statistics showed that in the thirty-five hundred nets in use on the Hudson over a million shad were caught. It is no wonder that the supply tends to fail when the river is fished so energetically. Possibly, too, besides deterrents that have been mentioned, the constant dumping of ashes and cinders by the steamers has prevented the development of those forms of life on which the fish are dependent for food.
The shad formerly ran up to Baker’s Falls, about fifty miles above the Troy dam, the building of which has curtailed the migration that much. In those days the farmers came from distant points and camped at the Falls to catch fish for salting down.
The ordinary drift net used for shad fishing in the Hudson, is fully a half-mile long and thirty feet wide, and is made of linen twine. Years ago the fish were taken mainly by seines hauled by a large number of men. One end of the seine was made fast at the shore and the rest was piled in the back end of the boat and gradually dropped overboard, while the rowers in their course made a long loop out into the river and returned to the shore. But now all the deeper part of the river is fished with the delicate gill-nets, that drift to and fro with the tide, and are managed by two men in a boat. The net is practically invisible to the shad in the obscure river current. It hangs suspended perpendicularly in the water, kept in position by weights at the bottom and by buoys at the top which are attached by cords twelve or fifteen feet long to allow the net to sink out of the reach of the keels of passing vessels. The net stretches nearly across the river. It is thrown out on the ebb tide and drifts down, and then back on the flood tide, and the fish are snared behind the gills in their endeavor to pass through the meshes.
At Alpine they used set nets that as a rule were twenty feet wide and six hundred feet long. Slender oak poles from forty-five to sixty feet in length are driven into the river bottoms at regular intervals, extending in a long row athwart the current. The net is fastened to the down-stream side of these poles at the beginning of each flood tide, and taken in when the flow turns in the other direction. “The ebb tide would sweep it right out flat on the water,” said my fisherman friend, “if we didn’t take it in, and it would be all torn to pieces by the driftwood. So we go out every six hours, day and night. There’s plenty of work and not much sleep, and I lose weight during the shad run to beat the band. We don’t get any chance for napping during the day, because then all our time that isn’t taken up by other jobs has to be spent in mending the nets. Sometimes the shad make breaks, or a big sturgeon goes through, or the meshes catch on slivers of the poles. Besides, the river is solid full of klinkers that the nets get afoul of. Worst of all, one of the sloops or other river vessels may cut ‘em in two, and perhaps carries away quite a piece that we never get again. My nets are cut that way on an average once a week. Some boats are very accommodating about avoiding our nets, but a good many cap’ns don’t care. It doesn’t do to say anything to ‘em. If you do they tell you they’ll give you a better dose next time by going broadside over you. Well, you can’t blame ‘em much. There’s so many nets they get sick and tired of steering round ‘em. With the best of care a net is only good for two seasons. I like a new net. When a shad strikes that he’s there.
“It’s hard work, this fishing business, and more or less dangerous. Still, I never heard tell of a fisherman getting drownded yet. In fact, the only native of this place who’s been drownded within my remembrance was a boy who lived in that next house above here. He was eight years old and out in a boat alone. The fishermen’s children do take awful chances — little bits of chaps that ain’t fit to go in a boat at all.
“We picked a feller up last summer who was drownded right off this dock. He had a pillow-tick full of stones tied around his waist. The man was well off, but he was a great inventor of patents, and that made him go crazy.
“Another recent drowning occurred a little below here. Two fellers took a permit to camp and they’d no sooner got their tent pitched than they went out in a boat and one of ‘em jumped into the water to bathe. But he couldn’t swim and the other feller didn’t know an oar from a shovel, and as he couldn’t manage the boat to be of any help, the chap in the water drowned.
“The river is a great place for accidents, and some of ‘em are very curious. Near Clinton Point there’s a conical shaped rock that rises high up just a little back from the water. Once a young man and a young woman were on the rock, and some of their friends who were not far behind, called to them not to get too near the edge. The young couple made some joking answer and a moment later they disappeared from sight. Their friends ran to see what had happened and looked down the steep side of the precipice. No one was in sight except three or four boatmen on the shore of the river. The people up above shouted and told the boatmen of the sudden vanishing of the young couple, but the boatmen hadn’t seen nor heard anything unusual. They all joined in the search, but they found no trace of the missing ones, and their disappearance has been a mystery ever since.
“A queer thing of a different sort had to do with the river right here. It was in Civil War time. I was somewhere on earth but too small to remember much, and I’m telling you what my father told me. The river was frozen over solid for forty days, and a man started a beer saloon right in the middle of the stream. It was quite a thing to go out to his hut and have a drink. The proprietor stayed there till his stove melted through the ice.”
In the fall an occasional fisherman makes a business of catching striped bass; and herring, perch, white fish and young blue fish are caught to a varying extent. Carp are the only fish that seem to be increasing. Sturgeon, the giants of the river fish tribe, are becoming rare. They are monsters of uncouth appearance, with curious horny projections along the sides, and they spend much of the time rooting and feeding in the mud at the bottom of the river. Ordinarily they are caught in a strong gill-net. The flesh is coarse, yet not unpalatable if properly cooked.
Albany, in particular, used to be famous for its sturgeon, and was sometimes in derision called “Sturgeonville,” while the fish itself was known as “Albany beef.” A single sturgeon sometimes attains a weight of nearly five hundred pounds, and a length of eight feet. In the old days the price of a sturgeon was as low as a jackknife, and they were then caught in large quantities for their oil. This oil was used for the same purposes as sperm whale oil, and was considered especially good for cuts and burns.
The Indians found the bays and shallows of the river prolific breeding places for oysters, and to some of the tribes the bivalves are reputed to have been a chief source of sustenance. This plentiful and cheap oyster supply was likewise a great boon to the poorer people of New York in the early years, but the oyster industry in the Hudson has long been decadent. Little fleets of boats, whose occupants were wielding the long ungainly poles that served to bring up the oysters from the river bed, were formerly often seen; but they are yearly becoming less.
One of my fishermen acquaintances at Alpine rowed me across the river to Yonkers when he carried over his day’s catch of shad. There were only a dozen or so and they did not half fill the basket into which he had thrown them. “It’s not much like the old days,” he said, “when I’ve known ‘em to take eight hundred shad at a single lift of the net.”
Not the least of Yonker’s claims to interest is its name. This originated back in the time of the Dutch domination. The first person to acquire the manor that included this territory was a man of comparative youth, and his little settlement was popularly known as the “Colony of the Jonkheer’s,” the final word being equivalent to the “Young Lord’s.” It came into his possession in 1652, but he shortly afterward returned to Holland. About three decades later it passed into the hands of Frederick Philipse, who, with his other lands, was lord of a domain that would put to shame the patrimony of many a prince. Presently he married a wealthy widow and was the richest man in the Colonies. His dwelling was at Tarrytown, though a manor-house in which his descendants lived was built at Yonkers.
In the Revolution while two British frigates were at anchor just off shore, some Americans rowed out of the creek that flowed through the village towing a large tender filled with combustibles. They intended to place is alongside of the frigates as a fire-ship, but the English sailors kept it off by means of spars, and a heavy fire of grape and canister compelled the patriots to withdraw and seek shelter.
In 1813, what would now include all the central portion of the city was sold at auction for $56,000. On the entire estate of 320 acres there were then less than a dozen houses. For three decades more Yonkers continued to be an insignificant hamlet, and at the end of that time the gray old manor-house, a church, a few indifferent dwellings and a single sloop at a small wharf comprised the whole borough. But as soon as the operation of the Hudson River Railroad began there was a lively demand for property in the locality and the subsequent growth of the place has been rapid. Among the eminent people who have made it their home was Samuel J. Tilden, a candidate for the presidency in the contested election which was finally decided in favor of Hayes. Here he spent the declining years of his busy and influential life at “Graystone,” as he called his granite-walled mansion. The grounds around it are especially noteworthy for the magnificent trees that grow in almost forest-like profusion along the avenues of approach and on the slopes that descend to the river.